“The first man must have seen auguries everywhere. He must have trembled at each step that he took.”—Giorgio de Chirico
Many thanks for another of your wonderful essays. Your dense and challenging but rigorously clear style of writing always makes me slow down as I read, turning each statement over and over, until, by the end of the essay, I find that I am reading at a fraction of my normal speed. This is similar to what happens when one is focusing on the in and out movement of the breath during meditation. Your way of moving in and out of the multifaceted presence of a painting helps me to understand why certain paintings move me much more than others, why certain paintings command my attention and continue to fascinate while others, even though I may pause to take note of their virtues, fade almost immediately after my viewing them. Your way of analyzing by expanding rather than reducing pushes me to see how a great painting achieves its mysterious effects, without making those effects any less mysterious.
In studying the paintings of Hammershoi and Vermeer that you discuss, I could not help trying to relate these perfectly organized domestic interiors to your concept of the “rift.” Most often, you speak of such rifts in the context of a piece of writing, where the rift is a sudden disjunctive opening that yanks the reader from the known to the unknown, from the intended meaning to something that perhaps takes even the author by surprise. As I imagine it, such a rift is the aesthetic equivalent of a wormhole, a twisting of the fabric of time/space, of habit and harmonic chaos, towards ends that can never be fitted comfortably into any three-dimensional schema. Given the quiet familiarity of their subject matter, the two paintings in question would not appear to yawn open in this way. If anything, one might almost say that they were hermetically sealed.
The presence of mirrors in both paintings is, I think, significant. To attempt to come to terms with their complex of meanings is like trying to grasp one’s reflection on the backside of a mirror. Such a reflection both is and is not the person looking at it. Both the person and the reflection are always something more. One can test this by staring at one’s reflection for some extended period of time: the image will become steadily more foreign and unsettling. Most often, we are too busy. A great painting—much like your writing—forces us to slow down, as if it were the first day of creation, as if we had never seen the world before. Yet in the same way that a mirror turns any desire for entrance back upon itself, Vermeer’s “Woman with a Balance” and the Hammershoi interior do not, at first glance, seem to provide us with anything that we might think of as a rift. The relationship between viewer and painting, an asymmetrical one, calls to mind that of the seeker to the Beloved in a Sufi poem: in calling to us, the Beloved makes us aware of the fact of our separation. So too, in these paintings, it is exactly the surface tension that produces the experience of a rift: there is a disproportion between the simplicity of such scenes and the complexity of our response, between the detachment of the artist’s technique and the intensity of our perception, between our ability to categorize the objects at which we look and the mysteriousness of the effect that they produce. These scenes should not so greatly haunt us. As we stare at these paintings, they stare back at us, daring us to step through.
In looking at the light falling at a certain angle through a window, at a vase set just so on a bureau, at a woman’s fingers pinched with a certain degree of muscular tension on a balance or at a hand resting lightly on a table, we are experiencing not only the immediate contents of our vision; no, we are experiencing a great many things at once. Paradoxically, to see and feel and touch and intuit these many things is to simultaneously experience the massive “there-ness” of the object, the person, the gesture, and the scene. If there are, in fact, ten or eleven dimensions, as some physicists argue, it is no doubt a mistake to think of these as being spatially distant. However strange they may be, they may also be as close to us as air is to the surface of our lungs, and we may move through them at every moment—somehow managing to avoid disaster!— without knowing where we go. These widely separated worlds may be as simply but mysteriously entwined as is our image and its reflection in a mirror. As we stare at these paintings by Hammershoi and Vermeer, we might find that we have stepped suddenly from the mirror’s front side to its back.