Bookmarks: Author takes a trip through Vermeer’s works
As a boy, Michael White was consigned to the “slow group” in school. He seemed to have trouble concentrating.
In fact, White — who went on earn a Ph.D. — turned out to be a poet. He had a habit of locking onto objects and focusing on them obsessively, often to the neglect of whatever his teachers wanted him to be doing.
That knack, or flaw, served him well in “Travels in Vermeer,” a memoir of his obsession with the 17th-century Dutch painter.
Back in the spring of 2004, White — a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington — went through a divorce and a nasty custody dispute. Another man might have turned to drink, but White, a 12-step veteran, had no desire to fall off the wagon.
Instead, he took an impulsive trip to Amsterdam and, while walking to see something else in the city’s famed Rijksmuseum, White spotted Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid,” found himself drawn to the canvas and felt “a shiver all the way up and down my spine.”
Visually devouring all the Vermeers at hand, White resolved to view all the known Vermeer paintings in person.
That’s not particularly hard; only 35 Vermeers are known to survive. (His “The Concert” hasn’t been seen since 1990, when thieves disguised as policemen stole the painting, along with several Rembrandts, a Degas and a Manet, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.) Luckily, most are concentrated in a small number of great museums.
And off he went.
Vermeer is the sort of artist who inspires obsessions. Jonathan Jones has written of the painter’s “hypnotic intrigue and psychological fascination.” Tracy Chevalier wrote about the painter — and theorized about the origins of one of his greatest paintings — in her 1999 novel “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” later made into a movie. (Colin Firth played Vermeer; a young Scarlett Johansson played his famous model.)
Some critics have spoken of Vermeer’s almost-photographic realism, but as one art historian told White, the painter often “photoshopped.” In works such as his landscape of his hometown, Delft, he would change subtle details to create a more balanced, artistic image.
Others have claimed he had a total allegiance to physical nature, ignoring the transcendent and symbolic elements that enlivened medieval art. But that’s not quite true, White notes. In “Woman Holding a Balance,” Vermeer placed his lady and her potentially symbolic scale in front of a scarifying painting of the Apocalypse. She might be a Dutch matron, but she’s something more.
White sees a lot, and more remarkably, his prose can make the act of seeing almost as suspenseful as a mystery. What’s going on here? (In the process of the trip, he also wrote an extended poem cycle, published as “Vermeer in Hell.”)
Meanwhile, between trips, White gets on with his life. He joins Match.com and dips his toe back in the dating pool, with mixed results. He plays with his young daughter. Slowly, other details emerge, about his time in the Navy, his coming to Alcoholics Anonymous, his first wife’s untimely death from cancer. On his travels, he gradually allows himself more touristy details and seems to reach out more to other people.
Stylistically, “Travels in Vermeer” is intriguing. White usually writes with an almost Hemingway-esque plainness and straightforwardness, but often the poet breaks out, and he allows himself a spree. (His ex-wife, who comes across extremely nicely in this book, is described as having an “orchidaceous” aroma.
It gradually emerges that, for all his appreciation, White is developing a crush on Vermeer’s women — especially how the paint seems to catch them just as they’re turning their heads in a moment of recognition.
The end of the Vermeer quest brings White some peace and some new knowledge about himself. As another poet, T.S. Eliot, wrote: “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
Ben Steelman writes for The StarNews in Wilmington, N.C.