Vermeer (National Art Gallery): A Little Explanation Never Hurt Nobody!

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The museum exhibit curation was more impressive than that of ones I’ve seen in Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montréal, QC Canada, due to the fact that contexts in which the artworks were conceived, as well as their meanings, were provided. What I found most interesting was that the text accompanying the visuals features little to no explanations regarding the use of deep colors, the use of light and the extravagant and dramatic nature of these artworks. Further, it did not make use of the word “Baroque” to refer to the art movement and technique under which these painters fall. Rather, it utilized the word “genre painting”, highlighting the social significance rather than the artistic significance of these works.

The exhibit curation brought attention to the dominant so themes found in Dutch Genre Painting, showcasing works of Dutch artists, including but not limited to Vermeer, ter Borch, de Hooch, and Maes. Such highlighted themes included the use of music, the representation of women, specifically in unguarded moments, and that of men, as well as the use of animals such as parrots and dogs, the former – a motif for prosperity due to the newly established trade network – and the latter symbolizing loyalty in relationships. As such, through textual aids, the exhibition uncovers the underlying socio-cultural meanings and symbols found in these genre paintings (i.e. painting of scenes from everyday life, of ordinary people in work or recreation, depicted in a generally realistic manner), serving as a mini lens into the 17th Century Dutch Republic.

Despite the exhibit taking on after the Dutch painter’s name, the surprisingly low amount of Vermeer paintings presented in the exhibitions shows that to attract an audience to a museum like the National Art Gallery, curators must succumb to the commercialization of art. In other words, the name of renowned artists is often the most advertised to gain a large number of museum visits. Although the exhibition did not carry the “Girl with A Pearl Earring”, the boutique found at the end of gallery displayed commercialized goods, such as calendars, posters, and notebooks splattered with the painting, for sale. In short, the NGA is benefitting from the name of Vermeer to attract attention to the exhibition and produce financial gain.

As a result, interacting with the art becomes difficult: because there are many people surrounding the painting, and at times, pushing one another, to get a closer look of the work – specifically to admire the loose brush strokes of satin – in the context of a museum, the viewer grows tired of waiting and might skip some paintings; thus, not fully grasping the whole experience of the curated exhibit. While the digital aids provide relief in this aspect, still, appreciating the artworks becomes less powerful. In other words, while the digital aids render the art to be more accessible, quality of the paintings (i.e. to what extent they are appreciated) are comprised as they are captured digitally. Additionally, the exhibition was organized by themes – a gallery for each one (i.e. music, women), and at times, themes were coupled in order to establish relationships between each theme (i.e. “world of men” and “love and courtship”). While art should be open to interpretation, and this type of curating might tamper with one’s interpretation, this curating causes one to appreciate the art more because they are aware of its cultural meaning.

All in all, the exhibition surpasses expectations as it offered an acute perspective of the works by offering textual, material, and digital aids, rendering a wholesome understanding of the paintings and their social significance, not only in 17th Century Netherlands society but also in the context of being represented in the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C.