Absence, presence and Johannes Vermeer

In the early nineties I produced a series of work based on the art of Johannes Vermeer. It started with a piece entitled The Absence of a Vermeer, a play on the phrase often used when describing great art that it has a ‘presence’.  The piece was a three centimeter slice through a reproduction I made of a painting by the Dutch master that hangs in the National Gallery in London.

The Vermeer series progressed in various ways and included a series of three paintings I made of Vermeer rooms, but with figures and furniture removed. The series of work as a whole referred to the nature of reproduction, what exactly we are seeing when we see an image, or an image of an image and how reproduction effect the encounter with the original.

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I was reminded this a couple of weeks ago of all this older work when I came across the news that the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden are busy with the restoration of their Vermeer, a painting entitled Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.This isn’t a normal cleaning up or varnish and grime sort of a restoration though.  They are removing a layer of paint too, paint that has been discovered to have been added after Vermeer’s death by an unknown person.  Underneath the layer of paint is a painting hanging on the wall of the girl’s room.  The painting shows a standing cherub figure with a bow in its right-hand.  I’m very familiar with this particular cherub having painted it myself when making one of my own ‘Vermeer pieces’.

The museum has made the unusual decision to pause in the process of restoration and display the half-finished result.  It is a strange sight and brings with it questions of presence and absence of its own. A familiar image is suddenly, and rather strangely, looking rather over full.  It begs the question as to the motivations of the person or people who made the change to Vermeer’s original.  Did they too feel it to be overcrowded, or were they offended by the nakedness of the cherub painting that is now revealed?