Johannes Vermeer died in 1675. In the 1860s, when the French writer Théophile Thoré began publishing essays about Vermeer’s work—
few connoisseurs outside Holland had heard of the artist’s name. Indeed, even in Holland it was possible, during that period, for great works by Vermeer to go completely unrecognized: in 1881, the collector A.A. des Tombe purchased perhaps Vermeer’s most iconic painting, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, for all of 2½ guilders at a small auction in The Hague.
The quotation is from Jonathan Lopez’s engaging The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008). Lopez’s book might inspire another post in the “but is it art” vein: a reflection about the roles in art-making of copying, dialogue with the past, and originality. The point—the reminder—to be made here is an old one: artistic greatness often takes quite a long time to be recognized and, I would add, reputations both come and go. While the limited number of Vermeer paintings available may long make them objects of great value, it is easy enough to imagine museumgoers during some period or periods of time losing interest in the precious and exquisite (and returning, say, to history or religious painting, or to more outspoken political art). At one of the 59E59 theaters in New York, I recently saw the play Bauer, which is about the once famous, now forgotten modernist painter Rudolf Bauer. It was said in the play that the Guggenheim Museum had been built to showcase Bauer’s works, all of which are now consigned to the basement.
I recently also had the opportunity to visit the extraordinary Museu Coleção Berardo in Lisbon. In a very step-by-step fashion it presents perhaps two hundred works from what it considers to be “the most significant artistic movements from the twentieth century to the present day.” (N.B.: In the West.) I was pleased to see quite a few wonderful pieces that I had never seen before. These included pieces by artists that neither I, nor the French art curator who accompanied me, had ever heard of. I was impressed, too, that after spending two afternoons in and around the museum, having seen its Picasso, its noble Morandi, Dalis, Aleksandr Vesnin, Warhols, Christian Boltanski, Nan Goldin, Jenny Holzer (“I am a man. I enter space because it empties me.”) . . . After all this, the work that stood out in my mind was a Donald Judd sculpture, a metal box, simply and carefully crafted, open at the top, with a diagonal plane in the interior. (My thanks to Vanessa Badagliacca for revisiting the museum so as to provide this photograph.)
Will Judd’s work continue to be held in high esteem fifty years hence? Will the fine arts continue to thrive and be demeaned by the usefulness of art works to the very rich—as inflation-proof investment, money-laundering vehicle, tax dodge? Among my interests in a long—voire very long life—would be in watching how human history continues to play itself out.
— Wm. Eaton
William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, will be published by Serving House Books. For more, see Surviving the website.
Click for pdf of A Reminder