In the Kitchen
Do not bother today with that beautiful museum and its austere angles, its epoxy grey floor. Forego, if you can, the hushed reverence of the white cube. Come instead to a place where a tub of yoghourt sits next to Flash all-purpose cleaner. On top of a microwave there is an orchid plant and a set of Russian dolls. There are tea-towels, a box of paper for recycling, piles of bills. The clutter some might consider unconducive to a serious consideration of art. But let’s try anyway.
Above the bin and in close proximity to both the handle of a brush and a calendar in which no one ever writes engagements, is an unframed A2 print of Het Straatje (The Little Street) by Vermeer. It’s a Golden Age street scene of seventeenth-century Delft. Against a cloudy sky is a red brick house, a street and a passageway. The houses are rendered in meticulous detail, their cracks and peeling paint. The gutter that runs the length of the passageway and along the street is predictably grimy, the brick discoloured. Painted in the same hues as their environment – brown, black, beige – are four people. We cannot see their faces. One is sitting, sewing in a doorway. Another woman down the passageway holds what looks like a broom. The workers frame two younger people, possibly children, a boy and a girl, who play a game on the ground. From the curve of their shoulders, and the unhurried way the people go about their business, I infer a degree of content. But I do not know. Two of the people have their backs to me. They are essentially unknowable. This is an anti-showboat painting where nothing is remarkable. People are placed against a material background that is scuffed. But it is a brilliant painting, presenting ordinary lives defined by place and circumstance. Yet what are ‘ordinary lives’ anyway? The painting allows them their privacy.
Now, if we negotiate the table with its dead sunflowers in a vase and packet of rolling tobacco, its couple of mugs with the dregs of old coffee, we come to a print-out pinned to the wall of R69-26 by Jan Schoonhoven. This piece from 1969 is acrylic paint on cardboard and paper on plywood. It consists of geometric squares that have creases of 8 triangles within them. It is white. The only colour, as such, is the grey of the shadows cast by the edges of the relief. I’ve heard it said on occasion that Protestantism doesn’t have a strong visual culture, but that maybe presumes that visual culture is defined by, say, the baroque, the ornamental, by visual symbol. In Whitewash and the New Aesthetics of the Protestant Reformation, for example, Victoria George challenges the view that the practice of whitewashing churches and their frescoes during the reformation was simply covering up stuff with a cheap lick of paint. There was also beauty in it. Zwingli declared that in Zürich we have churches which are positively luminous; the walls are beautifully white. White, a spartan aesthetic, can be loaded with significance. In writing too, the white is important; the space between the words can be as significant as the words themselves. White as a colour is complex and I like being reminded of that by R69-26.
There is a Dutch tradition of miniature houses. Women of the affluent Dutch merchant class displayed dolls’ houses that could often cost as much as an actual canal house. Full of objects made to scale, they were indexes of wealth – the female counterpart to a man’s collection cabinet full of expensive curios maybe. Have a look at this picture, next to a dentist’s appointment reminder blue-tacked to the wall. Have a look at this photo of the Maurice van Tellingen 3-D piece called Utopia li, Lone Star. In some ways you could say that he belongs loosely to that miniature tradition since what he produces are small, 3-D versions of parts of houses: doors, windows, a washing machine in a kitchen, a window sill and a net curtain. There are rarely ever people. If they are there, it’s no more than a shadowy presence – a shape behind curtains, a misty outline in a shower. Most importantly, the scenes – unlike the opulence indicators of the miniature houses – are resolutely quotidian and quite austere. The aesthetic is as much a house in a ‘70s development on the outskirts of Belfast as it is anything particularly Dutch. My photo of the piece shows a plastic box with bevelled corners, reminiscent of the interior fittings of an aeroplane. In the centre there is a construction of the corner of a room: brown floor, white walls, grey ceiling. There is a small white radiator and above that a window, almost square. The darkness presses against the window, a dense black. Look very carefully and there is a constellation of stars but they are difficult to discern. In some ways it is not unlike the Schoonhoven piece in the way that the whiteness of radiator, wall, window-sill and frames are all diverse, with light and shade being considered in a painterly way. But the overall effect is this: the incredibly, almost perversely mundane, placed in a stripped down and unfamiliar context, has a poetic charge. That radiator, it’s touching. That window sill, it has such poignancy. It’s hard not to supply the stories the piece suggests, stories of shelter and heat, the blackness outside, the small hope of the stars.
There is a shelf above a defunct old Raeburn cooker that we use to store crisps. On the shelf there is an oval plate and a golden inflatable 1 and 8, left over from a birthday. Above this there is a tiny painting in a neo-expressionist style, no bigger than a postcard. It is of a man of indeterminate age, against a background of what? Black trees? The silhouettes of houses? He looks at the viewer, his head cocked to one side. It’s not confrontational but neither is it diffident. The painting is by the artist Johannes van Vugt. In 2014 we had chanced upon an exhibition of his work in a gallery in the Jordaan. The exhibition was called Close to the Edge. It featured mainly children, often isolated. It made a massive impression on us, but we were unable to buy even a catalogue because it was its last day. It is often difficult to assess why certain pieces of art, be they songs, books, or paintings, have such an effect. Quite often the situational element is significant. For whatever reason we both thought about the exhibition even after we had long returned to our own house. I wrote to Johannes van Vugt to ask if he had even a very small painting for sale that I could buy for my husband for Christmas. In reply he said that another person had already contacted him with a very similar request. Of course, it was my husband. And so, we clubbed together to buy a joint present to ourselves in the form of the little picture above the cooker.
But move away from that cooker. Turn round to face the bookshelf. Pinned to the wall with a piece of blue tack is the picture called Mother Lacing Her Bodice beside a Cradle by Peter de Hooch from around 1661. It is one of a number of genre paintings that feature unsentimental, interior scenes of mothers and their children. A woman, with her bodice half-unlaced, has finished feeding her child which lies in a wicker cradle. At her other side is a fairly nonchalant dog. Through a doorway to the right we see another person – a child – in another room, who looks through a further open door that is full of light. This use of doors to open up other vistas within the painting, a technique known as doorkijkje, is fairly common in paintings of the time. At times when it is taken to extremes it can almost approach mise en abyme. But its effect in this painting, as in others, is to suggest complexity. A scene can’t be viewed in neat isolation. It is placed in relation to others, is contingent, is nuanced. The people in the world of the painting, although occupying the same space, are in different rooms. It suggests the physical closeness by the ultimate unknowability of people. This is something I come back to again and again in my writing. But of course, these Dutch painters were doing exactly the same thing, almost 400 years ago.
I remember someone saying that you never really understand the Middle Ages until you’ve been to Chartres Cathedral. I kind of love absolutist, splashy statements like that but I also realize they are ridiculous. Yet we hear them a lot: the novel must do this, the novel must do that. Literary fiction is this, modern art is that. More troublesome are absolutist, essentialist statements regarding nations and art. The Irish as a people with a strong oral tradition are drawn to the short story form. What, en masse? Who exactly constitutes the Irish people? And also, how useful is it ever to think that artists of any kind, with widely differing views and ways of working, have anything in common by virtue of the fact they live or lived in a particular country? That said, in my kitchen in East Belfast there is a lot of Dutch art. This could be because despite my misgivings there is something about certain kinds of Dutch art that is particularly appealing to my own sensibilities. Or it could just be that I happen to be in Amsterdam reasonably frequently.