Ivan Gaskell: Vermeer's Wager: Speculations on Art History, Theory and Art Museums.

Author:Hertel, Christiane
Position:Book Review

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.O0

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 he 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: Rent 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. 40, 28). (It might be fair to add that, Gaskell's justified "suspicion of linguistic hegemonism" [p. 26] notwithstanding, there are those, for example, Mieke Bal, who have attempted to understand the semiosis precisely of that remainder, both so ineluctably personal and impersonal, individual and infinitely divisible, in Vermeer. (1) But "Vermeerness" is just as much a function of the oeuvre's afterlife in the modern "iconosphere" (p. 16: "the totality of art available to viewers at any given time," Jan Bialostocki), which began with Theophile Thore's essays of 1866 offering the first catalogue raisonne of Vermeer's works and, in the same year, the exhibition of several paintings, some still accepted as Vermeers, in Paris. Furthermore, as Gaskell bluntly puts it, the "larger art world" consists of institutions, interest groups, and individuals, including museums, dealers, auction houses, professors, artists, and collectors, who "are woven together by webs of shared interest and competition, respect and contempt" (p. 12). "Problems" therefore includes a detailed analysis of the recently established, not generally accepted, "Vermeerness" of Saint Praxedis, 1655.

Chapter 2, "Images," is a largely iconographic study of Woman Standing at a Virginal, resulting in the iconological summary of what Gaskell understands as Vermeer's wager. Yet given his earlier emphasis on the linguistically inaccessible aspects of "Vermeerness" important to visual thinkers, it is clear that the difference between Vermeer's thematization of his wager in one painting and his enactment of his wager in this and in other paintings must still be demonstrated in some way. This I take to be the task Gaskell set for himself in chapters 3 through 10, where he returns to two propositions put forth at the beginning. One is that "it is possible to embody systematic abstract ideas that constitute methodical thought in purely visual forms exclusively employing representations of plausible contemporary material reality" (p. 13; "plausible modern domesticity," p. 230). The other is made "on Vermeer's part: that we apprehend complex pictorial abstraction purely visually by means of the operation on the heart or soul directly through the eyes, evading language, in the manner of love" (pp. 13, 230). The first proposition is implicitly dealt with throughout the book, whereas the second, obviously "a concept with deep Platonic roots" (p. 13), is presented explicitly as Vermeer's intended meaning in Woman Standing at a Virginal.

Why call it a wager? Here, Gaskell is at his most ironic: "Although to present these propositions as a wager is a dubious proceeding--after all, Pascal's wager is logically flawed--it has a certain rhetorical force" (p. 14). Logic is clearly not Gaskell's primary concern, nor is it Blaise Pascal's in his Pensees fragment no. 233, to which Gaskell refers with his title and a footnote citing a passage from it. Pascal's wager is of the finite of human existence, which is certain, against the infinite of God's existence, which is uncertain: "Reason can decide nothing here." (2) Cunning might: not to wager may mean annihilation of the soul, nothingness; to wager that God exists means losing nothing, but perhaps gaining everything. But the almost Socratic mentor of Pascal's imaginary skeptical interlocutor makes it clear that wagering is neither a choice nor a single action but a journey of sorts, a way of life: "Yes; but yon must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked." (3) Gaskell borrows Pascal's "rhetorical force" for his own Kantian ethics, the inherently qualified freedom to choose good over evil, a freedom discussed in chapter 8 on the ethics of "good use" and "poor use" of the art object by the museum in charge of it. Gaskell addresses the anteriority of the phenomenal world in his discussion of Heidegger's distinction between thing and object in chapter 10 (p. 213). The two strands of rhetorical and philosophical urgency converge in chapter 9, "Therapeutics," which ends with the imperative that "therapeutics ...demands that museum scholarship be action in the world" (p. 209). Vermeer's wager is also Gaskell's wager: what is staked by both is secular or secularized, presented as a Neoplatonic concept of the work of art in that "larger art world" he examines throughout his book.

Embarkment on this wager, however, is rigorously historical and in search of transcendence. It begins with the interpretation of Vermeer's allegory of love in Woman Standing at a Virginal. Crucial to Gaskell's discussion is Cupid's "clean slate" (p. 47), often erroneously taken to be a playing card with a somehow lost number 1 on it, in reference to an emblem by Otto van Veen. Instead, it is the "infinite potential ... of art's power to represent in the hands of Love." The "successful creation and perception of art as a thing of beauty" is defined in Neoplatonic terms as the transcendence of the phenomenal world toward ideal forms (p. 68). But an image--here, Cupid's blank tablet--can only enunciate such transcendence; hence, it seems to be the "infinite divisibility in the visual artefact" that involves the viewer in the wager.

Chapter 3, "Objects," addresses the painting as a material object existing "independently of any viewer, yet it exists meaningfully only in so far as it relates to actual viewers" (p. 76). Woman Standing at a Virginal both supports and undermines the fictional relationship of any given viewer to the depicted woman, a relationship based on an assumed "spatial community" between them. Rather than end up with nothing, Gaskell argues, we are prompted by Cupid's blank tablet to scrutinize our relation to artifice and pictorial fiction. In an essential way, that is, so as to endure, this relation is premised on distance and distinction. Both take Gaskell to the subject of curatorial practice...

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