Vermeer's Wager: Speculations on Art History, Theory and Art Museums / an Entrance for the Eyes: Space and Meaning in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art / Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing

Article excerpt

IVAN GASKELL Vermeer's Wager: Speculations on Art History, Theory and Art Museums London: Reaktion Books, 2000. 270 pp.; 1 color ill., 82 b/w. $27.00

MARTHA HOLLANDER An Entrance for the Eyes: Space and Meaning in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 263 pp.; 10 color ills., 89 b/w. $55.00

BRYAN JAY WOLF Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. 303 pp.; 30 color ills., 55 b/w. $65.00

All three, Gaskell, Hollander, and Wolf, invoke this triangle: looking at Dutch painting-Vermeer-modernity. All three, Gaskell and Wolf explicitly, Hollander implicitly, do this without positioning their projects in post-modernity but rather within what they see as continuing modernity. Their understanding of modernity and their methodological approaches could hardly be more different, yet all three share a remarkably long list of interests-painterly topics and devices, such as self-portraiture and the picture-within-a-picture; the socioeconomic forces of class and gender, market and commodification, and their intersection in the ideology of domesticity; scholarly sources such as Johan van Beverwyck, Samuel van Hoogstraten, Daniel Arasse, and Victor Stoichita; a concern with positional and relational terms, such as private/public, object/subject, the internal/external viewer; large themes including death, violence, love, and solace in and through painting-but, strikingly, only one painting, Jan Vermeer's Woman Asleep at a Table, ca. 1657. Between any two of the three, there is considerably more overlap in discussion of issues (Hollander, Wolf: gendered space, nation building), paintings (Hollander, Wolf: Pieter de Hooch, Gerrit Dou), critical and philosophical sources (Gaskell, Wolf: Rene Descartes, Martin Heidegger, Theodor W. Adorno, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault), visual technology (Gaskell, Wolf: camera obscura, photograph, cinema), and unexpected topics like the Hollywood Western (Gaskell, Wolf) or the bathroom (Gaskell, Hollander). All three, I might add, deal with the question of the secularization of painting, either in or by the 17th century (Hollander, Wolf) or as a legacy (Gaskell). Occasionally, there is also primarily local, interpretative convergence or agreement and, perhaps most fascinating and as local, an implicit dialogue and mutual critique.

Ivan Gaskell emphatically offers his book Vermeer's Wager. Speculations on Art History, Theory and Art Museums as a piece of curatorial scholarship. Yet the impulse to center his project on Vermeer's Woman Standing at a Virginal, about 1672, equally emphatically stems from his personal encounter with this particular painting. His project is twofold: the hermeneutic endeavor of understanding and meeting Vermeer's wager, and the discussion of Vermeer's painting as an "object of visual interest" (p. 24). The Vermeer stands in for all other such objects placed in museums that raise a series of questions-practical, theoretical, economic, ethical-about curatorial responsibility toward these objects, their makers, their public, their art history and its historiography. Throughout this book, Gaskell sustains an immensely productive tension between the personal and the critical. Gaskell's self-implicating, sharply critical assessment of the ethics of the museum inflects his project with a convincing urgency.

Chapter 1, "Problems," addresses "Vermeerness" as something uniquely visual and irreducible to what actually can be adequately understood through linguistic models of interpretation, that is, the iconographic model based on assumptions about painterly representation as reproductive mimesis of reality and the semiotic model based on conventions of semiosis also relying on such assumptions. This irreducibility of the work of art is a function of the "infinite divisibility in the visual artefact-in every visual artefact" (p. 14) and, in the case of "Vermeerness," of "a mystique of simultaneous personal withdrawal and impersonal permeation" believed by some, such as Lawrence Gowing, to be "inversely expressive" (pp. …