I look at paintings the wrong way. Painter friends tell me it's because, like most people, I think in words and subjects. "A painter," these friends say, "looks at a painting and sees planes and masses. You look, and you see subjects, stories."
That is true. What's worse, I often remember a painting as much by what was happening when I saw it as I do by the painting itself.
Let me illustrate.
Finding myself in a foreign city one afternoon, I asked my way to the Museum of Fine Arts and climbed the stairs to look at paintings. I plodded through the galleries unimpressed, until passing through one dim, cavernous doorway, I passed from the 13th-century into the 17th and caught my breath.
There in a painting, a young woman stood, rapt, ordinary looking into a mirror. She seemed an ordinary young woman, in an ordinary room, of an ordinary house, on an ordinary 17th century afternoon in Delft. What was extraordinary about the painting was --
I couldn't say what it was.
The young woman stood in profile, tying a strand of pearls about her neck. A lock cluttered table stood between her and the wall on which the mirror hung. A window in the same wall shed benignant light on the scene. Apart from two or three chairs, that was it. But that wasn't it; there was something more to that painting.
I move closer, looked harder, and tried to listen.
Yes, I know, a painting has no sound. Nevertheless, perhaps because I think in words and phrases, when I look at a painting, I hear voices. I looked at this one and heard, what?
First, a great silence. No sound at all but the sound of light pouring in through the window. The sound of dust settling on the table, the chairs. The sound of shadows moving inexorably across the walls, across the floor, across the body of the young woman standing before the mirror.
I waited. The dust settled. The shadows moved. The light continued to pour in through the window. And then the voice came.
It was a thinking voice, not a speaking one. It came, not in words but in vowel hums. Sounds like Tuuuuuuuuum, Looooooooooon, Ahhhhhhhhhhhh.m Like a mother's crooning. Like pebbles being dropped in a pool.
This then was the young woman's voice. Or was it? The voice didn't seem to be coming from her. Rather, it seemed to be surrounding her, engulfing her like the light through the window. But if the voice wasn't hers, whose was it? There was no one else in the painting, only the girl, the furniture, the light, and the mirror; the rest was bare walls and empty space.
Come to think of it, there was an amazing amount of empty space. Charged space. Quivering with condensed energy.
The light poured in through the window.
The young woman grew more exalted.
Light flashed beside me. My reflection snapped.
I turned to face a young man with a camera.
He asked me to forgive him, but the photograph had been too good to miss. He would call it "Reflection on Vermeer."
We smiled and nodded, then went our separate ways.
The winter night was already upon me. The streets were crowded with people on their ways home from work. I caught a taxi, settled back and let my mind wander. There again, for one vivid moment was the image of the young woman in the left-behind painting. There was I, looking at the painting. I, an image in a silver emulsion. I, on film, I in a camera. I, being carried forward by a stranger, traveling forward, even now, into some dark passage of the night --
I shook myself, counted the fare and handed it over as the taxi pulled to a stop in front of my hotel. My fingers were trembling as I close my purse; my legs felt weak as I climbed from the cab. I started toward the hotel door, but another image occured to me, stopping me on the threshold.
It was an unidentified city, in some unspecified time, where I recognized the stark interior of a photography gallery. Photographs, framed and glasses, hung at careful intervals about the walls. I looked into the one nearest me and caught my breath.
There in a photography, a young woman stood, rapt, looking at a painting.She seemed an ordinary young woman, in an ordinary museum, on an ordinary 20th century afternoon. What was extraordinary was -- how real she seemed. How alive. Almost alive.
Reflection on reflection on reflection.
Pebbles, one by one, in a pool.
I stood in the midst of jostling strangers, outside the revolving door of a chain hotel in a foreign land on a winter night, and I heard the vowel hum of a thinking voice. The voice poured in through the night, engulfing me, surrounding me, like light, like terror, like love.
This is the way I always think of Vermeer's "Young Lady with a Strand of Pearls." But I think in stories and, inevitably, look at paintings the wrong way.