Сергей Форкош
Ukrainian Thinker, Doctor of Philosophy, translator
9 minutes for reading

NOTES FROM VIENNA: the image of art in the work of Jan Vermeer

NOTES FROM VIENNA: the image of art in the work of Jan Vermeer
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Jan Vermeer. The Allegory of Painting, (fragment), 1666–1668 / Artwork: huxley.media via Photoshop


Vienna Museum of Art History houses only one painting by Jan Vermeer. Its fate, its content, and even its title are full of mystery. The artist himself did not part with the painting until the end of his life. This masterpiece was once owned by Hitler, and the dispute about the right to the picture ended only in 2011. We are talking about «The Allegory of Painting» (1666-1668).

There are many interpretations of the painting’s content. Every detail of it has been investigated and characterized. It was even discovered a small hole in which the artist placed a needle to draw guiding lines with thread and chalk. An allegory of painting, history, and sometimes an allegory of poetry was seen in the depicted model. The content of the painting was even interpreted as a reaction to political events in the Netherlands at that time.

What interests me in this painting is something else, namely, the act of depicting an image and the embodiment of the symbolic in general. Or, to put it another way, I will try, following the realized images of the painting, to answer the question: how is an image possible? Consequently, I will universalize the artist’s allegory to the level of the metaphysics of the image.




The painting depicts an artist who paints in his studio. The studio is a special space separated from the other rooms by dense drapery. Although exquisitely decorated, the drapery does not allow one to think that anything can be seen through it.

If we imagine that it obscures our view, we will see nothing through it and will have to admire only its quiet pattern. The only way to see what is going on in the workshop is to pull back the drapery.

If it were only slightly covered, we would have to peek at what is behind it, but it is pulled back so that two-thirds of the space is open to us. The artist does not hide himself; he pulls back the veil of what is happening.

We do not see the face of the artist, but we see the face of the model. Looking at the artist, we see the model. The model’s eyes are downcast as if she is inside herself. Perhaps, while posing, she is absorbed by the light. The light that spills out of the window enlivens the model’s face.

This light is not too bright but moderate and calm; it does not force things to flare up, to come out of themselves; no, it is exactly as much as is required for each thing to appear clearly and evenly.

The illuminated objects, playing with each other, flow into the space, thus influencing the unique atmosphere of the workshop. The atmosphere of the workshop is defined both by the flawlessness of the color palette and the harmonious interweaving of the figures on the canvas.

Almost every object is elegantly combined with each other — the table on which an illuminated mask is placed on a black-and-white tiled floor, which enhances the perspective; a slightly bulky copper chandelier hangs in front of a beautifully drawn map of the Netherlands of the XVII century, and the model’s elegant blue dress is subtly combined with the pattern of the descending drapery.

It would seem that all of this should create a sense of tightness and perhaps overload, but this is not the case; on the contrary, each figure, its moderate color, and their relationship to each other form something impeccably elegant. Space flows freely between the figures, which is achieved by the perfect composition. 




But let’s take a closer look. The artist at work… He is oblivious to our presence. He’s absorbed in his work. He’s not turned towards us; he doesn’t even notice us. The viewer, although allowed in, does not mean that he can intervene.

Consequently, the artist is ready to open the curtain of the mystery of what is happening to us as it is happening by itself, without strangers. This is a highly remarkable gesture of the artist. Thanks to this gesture, the gesture of «permission to observe», something significant is revealed.

First of all, the drapery pulled back (rather than its absence) not only reveals but also indicates the «gesture of opening» access. That is, we must keep this in mind. Here, the very theme of the hidden and the open, the secret and the manifest, is already in front of us. On the one hand, we can look, and for this, we have the condition of the drapery being pulled back, but on the other hand, our discretion is not taken into account and does not change anything.

We see that the image can open up via itself, yet in such a way that our vision does not distort what we see. Thus, the mystery itself is revealed before us! Only art can do this! In perception, for example, in physics, the observer must influence the object of observation.

Heisenberg’s principle of the «uncertainty relation» establishes this boundary precisely and indisputably. Image and vision are in another relation to each other — a relation of primordial kinship. The result of this kinship is the possibility of seeing the image directly as it is, which means seeing ourselves unexamined. 




So, I believe that in the case of Vermeer, we are talking about the image of creating an image (or even more — about the image of creating figurative art). So, the scheme of our relation to this image will be as follows: Vermeer’s conceived image, the image embodied by him, and further — his image contains the image of the image’s formation.

Vermeer presents us with the image of the image, but not in the sense of just the conceived image/actualized image, but also at the level of the embodied image, which, in turn, embodies the image of the image’s emergence.

Further: the spectator perceives the image of the image, forming in himself both the image that is in front of him, through the totality of the elements of the picture, and the image that negates itself by showing how it itself arises. So here we are at the event of the image and at its negation. In this way, we can discover its inner workings and its emergence (the mystery itself). We can also say that here, the artist reveals the genesis of image-making.

With this understanding, Vermeer’s painting is a research. It is authentic research because it has as its subject the mystery of what has already been realized. The image is already there, but the question now is: how is it there? It is similar to the philosophical question: the world is already there, but the whole question is how to relate to this «already»?

The artist, like the philosopher, wants to return in order to begin.


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The image of the painting is something definite, something from the objective world is woven into it, but organized in such a way that it refers to something else, to what is behind the painting or before the painting. We see something that is not here. We see faces and objects that are not here.

«We are here» means: we are in this place. We can also say that our «here» is in time and space, we can also note the exact time of our being «here» and fix the geographical coordinates of our «here» location. We are here, and the painting is over there. «Here» and «there» enter into a relationship.

When we ask, «Where?» we get the answer, «There!» But when the thing sought is closer than «there», if it is before our eyes, we say, «Here», here it is». «Don’t look there», we say, «because it is not there, it is here…», da-sein. So «here» and «there» begin to merge. We are here, and the painting is over there, but it is also here.

We are «here» along with the painting. We are here, but the image that the painting depicts is not here, it is there. This is how our «here» acquires another dimension, how our «here» acquires depth. This gesture, the gesture of reference, makes our «here» appear to be «there». The place of our presence has expanded. By letting the image speak, we have gradually fallen out of the flat world of the surface.

In the imagination, we imagine an image and know that it is not real. But in the painting, the image is real, and real only as an image. In consciousness, the image is not real; it is presented as imaginary. In consciousness, its content and mode of being coincide; on the canvas, it is more complicated. The painting is given as a reference, as being not itself.

We know that it is not what it is in the painting. For example, the portrait portrayed and the self portrayed in the picture. But is it possible to depict the self, that is, to level the function of referring to the original, to leave it only as an occasion, leaving only something of the action? That is, is it possible to express not the portrayed but the portrayal itself?

This question inherently contains the following problem: how to go beyond the boundaries of the image? Is it possible to force images to speak out of themselves about themselves? That is to say, is it possible, by means of a particular organization of images, to find through them a meta-state that would shed light on the representability of the image?




Vermeer depicts the work of a painter. He sits on a chair in front of the canvas, occasionally glancing at the model. The painting captures the moment when the artist took his eyes off the model and is just writing a wreath. It is known that in the original, the color of the wreath was different, namely green, but after the restorations, it became blue.

The artist’s hand, in which we see the brush, seems to continue painting, even though the artist’s gaze may not yet have returned to the canvas. Thus, it appears that the artist is both painting and looking at the subject at the same time. The artist sees the whole but embodies this whole gradually, stroke by stroke.

The whole is already in front of him, but the connection with nature is not interrupted because reality offers more nuances than can be transferred to the canvas; reality is redundant in comparison with the canvas. The artist creates an image based on perception.

In perception itself, the model is perceived as a whole, and only then, with alternating changes of attention, do the various details emerge. When depicting the whole, everything happens in reverse, namely: the whole is reconstructed by parts. The process of embodiment of the whole in parts is realized in time. The whole as if awaits its embodiment.

It is clear that the image that awaits realization is outside of time. It is in «Plato’s heaven», which has descended for the artist so that he can realize it on the canvas. In this way, nature itself stands before the artist as something where the image is embodied.

In depicting the model, the artist merely brings to life the image resting in nature. Perception and attention serve this purpose — to revitalize the lurking image. This is how the creator manifests the structure of reality, which appears to be nothing but a play of images that rest, arise, and even rise.

The artist who looks at the model and paints at the same time is in and out of time. He is in the real process of realizing what he has conceived and in the timeless contemplation of the image.




But here we have the first stroke, the beginning of the sketch. The image is still too vague and understandable only to the artist himself. The first stroke or sketch is a net that serves to ground the image. But the stroke itself also has a life of its own.

Besides the fact that it is intended to serve the whole, intended to become what will be overcome by the colors, it is, above all, a real event, a gesture of the hand, and a trace on the canvas. The stroke has already something in itself, it is already there, but because it is not yet defined, therefore it is not yet accessible to unambiguity or consistent interpretation.

The stroke, though applied, is rather still a plurality itself, a sign of the possibility of the image as such. The stroke is already here, but the image is still there. It manifests the boundary between the image lurking in wait and its embodiment. This boundary itself belongs neither to time nor to eternity. This boundary is a mystery.


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