“Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC open now until January 21, 2018 is a fun and challenging exhibition. Genre paintings are paintings with a familiar dramatic scene. They came to popularity in the Netherlands in the mid-1550’s and they were popular until the 1700’s. In a word, the genre is that there are genres. Genre painters copied each other freely, knowing they wouldn’t be caught. Likewise, genre painters used famous fables, proverbs, and Bible stories. So good artists borrow, great artists steal, but to some extent the repetitions are part of the point.
The Netherlands were a sweet spot for painting. It’s often said the DNA for New York City started in 1600’s Amsterdam – New York was once New Amsterdam, that it was a colony for the Netherlands, but also because of the philosophy of integration and intermixing of different cultures. The Netherlands let into the country the Marrano Sephardic Jews, for example, who were refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. Similar stories of intermixing occur for the Mennonites, Puritans, Rosicrucians, and Jesuit Catholics. The Netherlands also had new income from international trade, including the colonies, which means they had enough money to buy and sell paintings, and employ painters. Finally, a canal system served as a sort of highway predecessor, so paintings, and ideas were moving faster than ever before.
Vermeer was neither the most talented nor the most renowned of the genre painters in his day. This exhibition points out that the most famous of the 1600’s was Gerard ter Borch. Vermeer is the most famous genre painter today, certainly. When people of the 21st Century think of painting, Vermeer is right at the top-of-mind. Picasso, Salvador Dali, Leonardo ad Vinci, Warhol; these artists are slightly transcendent from painting. They escape through a back door and represent the highest hopes of humanity, but also are a whole bunch of fun. When the discerning art critic gets a little too heavy and intense about the genre painters, a Dutch friend might make the joke, “But what was Scarlet Johansson doing in a painting from the 1600’s?” This is a play on one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings, “Girl with a Pearl Earring”.
If discovering genre paintings has been a great love, that's followed by a humble and concentrated marriage because the discerning art critic will fall into genre paintings, perhaps accidentally, and then try to make sense of it afterwards. Kerry James Marshall and Nicole Eisenmen use the rote narratives and language of genre paintings, and if they don’t add more humor than 1600’s Dutch, at least they are speaking to a contemporary audience. It’s euphoria to find Eisenmen’s rich and insightful painting “Coping” for its sheer beauty, but it’s also a joy to find out later Eisenmen’s paintings are in a deep discussion with painters who came before her.
In this exhibition, Vermeer’s “The Lacemaker” shows a young lady in yellow making lace. This painting works psychologically and symbolically. The audience can consider the painting later in the day and realize the act of meticulously and patiently making lace is a craft. It’s a self-reference to some extent, because Vermeer is saying it took a long meticulous patience to paint the painting just like it takes long meticulous time to make lace. But lace is something else: it’s frills for a dress, and dresses are meant to be seen. Thus this is an intimate portrait of someone who is alone, preparing something for a party with a lot of people. The gender of the lacemaker, her age, and what she’s doing – lace – all make a sexual reference. But the viewer might have a rewarding feeling, a better respect for Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis’s movie, The Phantom Thread, which plays with problems of romantic intimacy versus public affection and adoration.
Intimacy and romantic interest are a running joke in another painting, “The Brothel”, which is an example of why genre paintings are sometimes called narrative paintings. It’s fair to say the sexual references here are a bit more explicit. In this painting, a man seduces a woman romantically in the foreground, a man seduces a woman less romantically in the background, and, to the side, two dogs have sex. The painting satirizes love by placing love next to the dogs, but it also tells a story by moving the viewer’s eyes from left to right, that love can start out in a seduction and end up feeling less than ideal. Here, repetition means to cheapen the experiences. Look, says the painter, the love acts in the foreground could just as easily be repeated without love in the background.
A third set of paintings shows how genre painters changed the story of the genres by creating small changes in the scene. A first genre painting shows a woman looking out of the window next to a bird in a cage. The bird is a parrot, which is an exotic and tropical bird, in the Netherlands. The painting itself is in the shape of the bird cage, which means the artist wants us to compare the two, the bird in a cage, and a young woman stuck in her house. This exhibition put two paintings with subtle variations on this theme next to this paintings. In the second painting, a woman feeds a treat to a bird, while a teenage boy comes to greet her from behind. In this case, the boy is metaphorically like the bird, and the metaphoric treat might be some sort of romantic relationship. The bird knows nothing, being an animal, the boy metaphorically knows the “bird treat” as the pleasure of seeing his girlfriend, and the girl – at least from the smirk she wears – has schemes and designs and plans for both.
These first two paintings (girl in a birdcage, girl trying to ensnare the boy) make the third painting in this series that much more rewarding. Here, the third painting’s framing is open, and there is indeed no cage around the bird. The girl offers a treat to the bird with sincere, inquisitive wonder and longing. So the certainty of the first two paintings isn’t there. Anyone who has experienced rejection knows how she feels, trying to get someone to like her are the stakes of the game as well as its limitations and rules. There’s no cage, just freedom, and that can break hearts.
This exhibit has joyful inspired repetition and also some series on the boring side. One might glaze over a bit at the “Gentleman entering a room,” series, regardless of their subtleties, because, really? Gertrude Stein said, “Repetition is insistence,” and that’s fitting here because the genre painters’ paintings have a moral bent, and an insistence in that moral bent. They want to make the world better with the stories they tell in the paintings. There’s a notion of Hegelian negation whereupon opposition and contradiction – repetition – don’t necessarily cancel out each other. This is a rock bottom unity – the unity that there can be agreement. And, if a painting is too confusing, specific, and nuanced to care about -- the subtleties of being human -- maybe that’s a case in point, and Vermeer’s lacemaker stays alone in her room.
I thought of my favorite comedian Bo Burnham while I was looking at these paintings. Burnham wrote a song called, “Repeat Stuff,” about contemporary pop music’s verse-chorus idiocy (Yesterday, the Backstreet Boys singing, “You are my fire,”; today, Justin Bieber singing, “You can love yourself”; next year someone new singing the same old chorus). Burnham’s criticism is edgy and astute, but when he performs comedy it’s also fun and electric. I was shocked to see Burnham entering the exhibition as I was on my way out. He’s tall in person and not so famous yet with the old people at the art show that he had a big crowd around him. I asked him if it was really him, and I told him his stuff is excellent. Burnham was shy and thoughtful like a craftsman about to enter an art show – that lacemaker again – and in the enigmatic and psychologically loaded aftermath of this show, I’m still wondering what Burnham thought. Which of these genre painters were just repeating stuff like idiots? Which of these artists created inspired variations on scenes acted out and lived 1000’s of times before? I’m grateful I got the chance to tell Burnham his art is excellent, because artists, critics, and comedians can be a bit hard on themselves, too.