Even the marble was warm to the touch. As I struggled up two long flights of pure marble, white steps without blemish, I thought of poor Cardinal O’Fiaich, come to plead for the hunger strikers, struggling up a similar flight of stairs, as Margaret Thatcher stood at the top, looking down, waiting, watching him struggle but never forfeiting her prestige to come down to the landing and meet him halfway. Marble stairs have that effect on some people.
The Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna ? What was I doing there in this heat?
Looking for Jan Vermeer’s The Studio, after years of reproductions.
But there were obstacles, other paintings hung on the way there. Primarily Wolf Huber (1485 -1553) Erlosungsallegorie, (after 1543,) or The Allegory of Salvation.
It was everything at once. Right there was the same grey snake that swished past the window here last month (a hot day in Suffolk) at the left, hung over its own wooden cross. No trace of the Good or Bad thieves; not essential for this story. The donor of the painting, a Prince Bishop no less, Wolfgang Graf von Salm, was ‘depicted kneeling in the foreground as patron.’ He took up nearly a quarter of the painting and anyone from De Valera’s Ireland would have felt the psychological truth here; priests were more important than the religion they were supposed to be about, or propping up.
However, the really shocking thing, once you had got over that, was the loin-cloth wound round Christ’s nether regions. Usually just a bind of white cloth, this one furled across the painting like sheets hung in a gale. It fluttered and spun, there was almost an entire white cherub flying away from him, like sperm taking shape, a white baby without any need of a female.
The baby’s head, foremost, and its hands, hovered over a castle, where, at the entrance, St Peter was busy healing a lame man. Moses was somewhere, apostles were somewhere. No Mother Mary or Magdalene girlfriend; no puzzled young St John. Only the Prince Bishop and an almost dancing Christ, his ballooning banner, and the gigantic priest, kneeling, looking right at you, dressed in virgin white. God the Father, already an old man in 1543, sat in the sky on a glass world globe, a film director absolute, a TV symbol , a logo so far unused.
The religious rooms filled with writhing bodies, fig leaves falling diplomatically on men and sudden chiffon wisps around the women’s groins. Only cherubs were allowed to have real penises and even they were rationed out, with most of the babes left in strange contortions to solve the modesty problem.
A wonderful sado-masochistic portrait, by Peter Paul Rubens, The Lamentation of Christ, of Mary and St John mourning the dead Christ showed a delectably-torsoed Christ, bruised face, eyes akimbo, lusciously lying in their arms. The young John, loyal as ever, looked embarrassed, a puzzled and sad teenager. Mary, however hard she tried to be like a distraught mother looked, instead, that she could have been John’s girlfriend, as she was apparently younger than her own son.
I had forgotten that special tint of green that is used wherever any part of skin needs moulding towards the shadows. It was everywhere; it was the only proper way out of hot flesh tints; it was Terre Verte.
It was a relief to enter a room of landscapes for a rest, with skies, sailing-boats and trees. Nearby, the still lifes were still eatable after several centuries, the zing of lemon-peel still gave out its acid spurt. the silver also had not tarnished nor the blue and white china or the glass been cracked or broken. Here was Abraham van Beyeren 1620-1696 inviting you to lunch. The raised-crust pie (blackberry? surely not?) had a good slice cut, making your mouth water. Accompanied by white wine or cider; a good midday break for any painter or patron. As these was food not flowers, the usual Dutch ladybird was not present.
And there was Vermeer, as always. And, like INXS, you were there.
After all the centuries, the studio was still quiet, he was still painting, the girl was still not quite sure if she had the right pose. Other things showed up better here – the sharp line of the curtain at the left, its cascade of dark colours. Most of all what came through was the painter’s intent, his concentration. He is just at the beginning of the portrait, the euphoric part, where nothing has gone wrong yet. His dynamic black outfit, black velvet beret and the straggling spaghetti blacks streaming down his back were like sharp stabs of music, breaking (or expressing?) that tension. Filling in all his back with black would have deadened it all into one gigantic silhouette, plonk, black.
People drifted, strode up to it and took photos. If, as native Indians and other sensible tribes believed, in taking someone’s photograph you stole part of their soul, then somehow Jan Vermeer’s soul kept giving and giving and giving. I had come here especially to see him. Love would not be the right word ; it was more specific than that. His black and white floor-tiles zoomed out at us, saying ‘ binnenkomen’ and though even a friend had the same black and white lino tiles in her kitchen, it was not the same. This perspective was perfect, magical.
We could never get in. He would never turn round and the girl would never shift from one foot to the other. The prancing gold chandelier would never be lit. But I was here, eyes filled with tears.
After that the walls of worthy burghers and their apple-cheeked wives, the writhing fleshy allegories, obsessive compulsive disorder flower-paintings and the straitened religious tracts said very little. For all their stated energy, they were more concerned with the onlooker, the patron. There was only Rembrandt to counterbalance him, with his strange mixture of arrogance and humility. Siennas and umbers, the low warmths.
But the space Vermeer gave us stretched further, even as far as into these words written with a Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien pencil, Sunday 21st July 2014.