I always feel funny going to the sea, all dressed in woollies, but they still had snow in early March. It was all a heady rush.
This time, after attending the Berlin Film Festival following three years of COVID, I visited several friends in Europe. Friends my age and older tell me I must visit them while I’m still able to, so I was in carpe diem mode. I visited friends in Berlin, Bayreuth, Oberwalgern—both smaller towns in Germany—and Amsterdam, and each visit was intensely enjoyable.
Addie de Wolf and Joost Zeinstra find Amsterdam “too much,” and have moved to a lovely house on the outskirts, in Duivendrecht, with a splendid garden and a stream at the garden’s edge, with goslings bobbing in it all day. They had most generously made plans to take me out every day. We went to the Introdans’ Bach, with four contemporary dance choreographers choreographing to extracts from the 18th century music composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Next was the Big Treat: the Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, the biggest collection of Vermeers worldwide, specially brought together. Then there was the Amsterdam Klezmer Band concert (East European Jewish folk music), and a superb walk along the Wijk aan Zee, a village on the North Sea coast. I always feel funny going to the sea, all dressed in woollies, but they still had snow in early March. It was all a heady rush.
It is only when I posted on Facebook about going to the Vermeer show, and a number of people responded that they were unable to get tickets as it was sold out, that I realised how lucky I was that Addie had a Museum Pass and just waved me in. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), the 17th century artist from Delft, the Netherlands, did not have a massive body of work, but his 35 known paintings (about 28 are here) are exquisite. It is rare that you can see nearly the entire body of work of a great master at one time: you can see him evolve, notice recurring themes. Vermeer was a master of light, colour, texture and perspective—as was his senior contemporary Rembrandt—and he celebrated mundane, everyday things. What I noticed most of all were the women Vermeer painted. Some of them, of course, looked boldly and directly at the viewer, as in his famous Girl with a Pearl Earring, also a film starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth. One of his most famous paintings is The Milkmaid, of course, with a woman pouring a jug of milk, the light from the window granting luminosity, and honouring an ordinary maid engaged in an everyday action. Many of the women are reading letters or playing musical instruments—including Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (full drama, yellow curtain in the foreground, light from the window creating brightness and shadows, red curtain at the back, room corner to emphasise depth), and later, a similar Woman Reading a Letter, but in close-up, minimum drama, she’s in a blue and yellow dress and looks like she could be pregnant. Almost none of Vermeer’s women look happy: they are sober, melancholic, doing a job or lost in thought, except in one, Officer and Laughing Girl.
It was especially enjoyable to ‘do’ Vermeer with Addie, who is also an artist. When I asked how come Vermeer painted so many women reading letters, she explained that 17th century Netherlands was largely Protestant (as was Vermeer), and they believed you could reach God by reading the Bible, so far more Protestant men—and women—were literate, in order to read the Bible. That’s why they probably had far more literate Protestant women, than in the largely Catholic parts of Europe, who believed you could reach God only via the Church and priests, and so remained relatively illiterate. So fascinating! I also found it weird that most Vermeer tables were covered with carpets, and Addie said it was to cover table legs, which were regarded as being erotic (uff, eye roll!). Kuch bhi!
It was lovely to meet a Spanish woman lawyer and her husband, who travel the world to see Vermeer’s paintings, and were delighted that there were three or four paintings not in this collection, so they could still travel to hunt for those. Such is the passion for art. Jai ho!
Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist.
Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org