This is an exhibition to die for – or even in, like the character in Proust who expires in front of Vermeer’s View of Delft. Proust was once so excited to see a Vermeer show that he collapsed. So take it easy if you get to see this gathering of practically all his masterpieces. I got chest pains merely leafing through the catalogue. This is more than an exhibition, it’s a miracle.
Seeing one painting by Vermeer is like diving into a clear blue lagoon with lemon yellow fish and glistening pearls, but this is ridiculous: 82% of his works are in the Rijksmuseum’s exhibition. As an immersion in a great artist, it outdoes virtual art experiences – for instead of projections, it will surround you with the originals in all their mirror-like splendour.
Vermeer is a camera, a human eye looking at the world with the clarity of the lenses he learned about from scientific pioneers. He has a special place in the modern, camera-addled imagination, for he fabricated the world’s greatest photographs with eye and brush. But he is also like the woman in his The Lacemaker, who doesn’t take her eyes off her detailed work as she melds strands of brilliant colour – threads of flaming red and pearl white.
His way of seeing women liberates the imagination: they are so autonomous, these workers and musicians, so aware of their private thoughts. We can’t resist completing in our heads the tales he catches in midflow: what is the Officer saying to the Laughing Girl, what news does the Maid bring her Mistress?
It was because Vermeer laboured like The Lacemaker to create his rich interiors that he produced so few paintings: only 34 survive, of which 28 are in this exhibition. Perhaps he even anticipated that one day all his glories could be seen together. For he distilled his existence in paintings that link to form a world: his women are in the same few rooms, with a set of related tasks and dilemmas, in the same little city.
Connections, reflections, vibrations between his paintings will shine in this exhibition as never before. It’s the consummation of the modern world’s affair with Vermeer, and he will never look the same again.