Subverting the subverters

Carol Iannone turns the tables on the Met’s curator of European Paintings, Walter Liedtke, who absurdly argues in the Vermeer exhibition text that Vermeer’s Milkmaid and his other abstemious portraits of women are suffused with sexual fantasies. To the contrary, says Iannone, the extremely understated erotic components in The Milkmaid, such as the all-but-invisible image of Cupid on the wall behind the woman, far from being hidden signs of amorous longings, signify Vermeer’s rejection of the rampant sexuality in the work of painters such as Joachim Wtewael.

I would further point out that at the Vermeer exhibit, the Met sneakily tries to associate Vermeer’s serious, hardworking Milkmaid with Wtewael’s lusty Kitchen Scene, by placing a print of the latter (along with Liedtke’s “a cigar is not a cigar” text) next to the former. In Iannone’s view, this represents the exact opposite of Vermeer’s own intent.

But the exhibitors are even more tendentious than already indicated. While there is a print of Kitchen Scene next to The Milkmaid, the real painting of Kitchen Scene is in another room of the exhibit. Evidently they didn’t mount the actual Kitchen Scene next to The Milkmaid because it is a much larger pointing and would have drawn attention away from the exhibit’s featured attraction.

But since the real Kitchen Scene is at the exhibit, why put a print of it next to The Milkmaid at all? Whoever ever heard of a museum putting a print of a painting in the middle of an exhibit in which the actual painting is being shown in another room?

The answer, I believe, is what I said above. The exhibitors wanted to plant in the viewer’s mind subliminal support for their eroticized interpretation of The Milkmaid by placing the flamboyantly sexual Kitchen Scene and its even more suggestive text right next to it. They couldn’t place the painting itself there, because it was too large. So they put a reproduction there instead. Pure ideology governed this unconventional and inappropriate arrangement.

And that was the way it happened with me. I was looking at The Milkmaid, and thinking about it, and the very next painting (or rather print) that I saw was Kitchen Scene, immediately to its right, so that immediately after taking in The Milkmaid and being told that its subject was immersed in sexual fantasies, I was beng instructed by Walter “Sigmund” Liedtke about the riot of supposed phallic and vaginal imagery in Kitchen Scene. It was only later that I realized that the real Kitchen Scene was also in the exhibit, and I went to view it.

And there’s still more. In the entry room of the exhibit, the first thing you see is a large reproduction of The Milkmaid. (A reproduction of the featured painting of an exhibit, as the “logo” of the exhibit, is normal.) On that same wall, there is an enlarged detail from the painting, the Cupid, all by itself, with text explaining what it is. Thus the exhibitors were treating the almost invisible and utterly insignificant (and to me still unrecognizable) Cupid as the most important item in the Milkmaid exhibit, in order to underscore their fashionable leftist message that The Milkmaid is really about sex.

October 13

Kidist Paulos Asrat writes from Canada:

It is a pleasure to read your and your readers’ comments on the Vermeer show at the Met.

When I went to the Met, during a recent visit to New York City, I had just gone through a grueling (my fault) walk through Robert Frank’s black and white photographs called “The Americans.” I found it pessimistic and ultimately nihilistic, but suffered it through the end—I’m amassing points about modern and contemporary art for a full-blown critique some day.

I only just wanted to see The Milkmaid, as a reprieve from the Frank experience (I was also rushing through the Met, with two or three exhibits still to see). So I didn’t read ANY commentaries, didn’t listen to the audio, and just stood in front of the magnificent painting. What a change from Frank!

But, a funny thing occurred, A woman kept looking for “the cupid” and was disrupting people’s views. Some were even grumbling at her, and the guard told her to take it easy. She couldn’t find it for the longest time. Then when she did, she seemed quite angry, insulted it seems at its insignificance (size and otherwise), and just stood there. I just ignored her thinking it was some weird detail mentioned in the painting commentary typical of galleries these days.

I still went to the other paintings, but without reading anything. Seeing The Milkmaid was really a pleasurable experience—and a once in a lifetime—like seeing the Mona Lisa. I’m so glad I went just to see the paintings.

LA replies:

That’s funny. Also, I did what that woman did (but only for a moment), impulsively getting up close to the painting and obstructing other people’e view of it in a search for the “cupid.”

Posted by Lawrence Auster at October 12, 2009 01:21 PM | Send

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