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On The National Gallery of Ireland

I'm in Dublin for the first week of the decade, taking the photos for a travel article that my wife is writing. On our first full day in the city, we went looking for the appropriately campy statue to Oscar Wilde, and found ourselves right next to the National Gallery of Ireland. After a few minutes inside its marble-floored rooms, I realised how many paintings that have been familiar to me for years are actually here in Dublin. The first major sight was Caravaggio's "The Taking of Christ":

It's true, but banal, to say that Caravaggio's art is based on extreme chiaroscuro, and startling transitions from light to dark areas. The eye is immediately impressed by the way light on objects is represented: the dazzling light on the centurion's armour, the light on the folds of skin on the furrowed brows of Christ and Judas, the glints on the fingernails and in the corners of eyes. It's the eyes in particular that drew me. The pattern of looking in the painting points towards the philosophical principle, unconscious perhaps but undeniably there, that arises as a result of Caravaggio's supreme mastery of surface. The eyes of each figure are more or less on the same horizontal line, and this combines with the thrust of the armoured arm to create a terrific right-to-left motion. The eyes of the two key people in the story, Judas and Christ, are not clearly visible. Christ is looking down, his eyelids almost closed; and Judas' eyes are obscured by shadow. The effect would be very different if we could see their eyes clearly. Because we cannot, we are forced to look at the shapes made by the figures, the gestures of the arms and hands, the folds made by the draperies, to feel the full force of the story. Simply put, amidst the tumult and hectic movement in the moment at which Christ is apprehended, the two main actors are veiled and withdrawn, as if the betrayal is too awful to look at with eyes wide open.

Then there was this Vermeer:

The first thing you notice about a Vermeer is the appearance of absolute fidelity to reality, to the position of things in space and the close record of light and shadow. The more I looked, the more I started to see that the edges of things are far less sharp than they appear. Photos such as the one I've inserted here give the impression that each shape is painted with razor-sharp drawing. But it seemed to me that Vermeer stopped just short of that, possibly by feathering the edges of every shape with a blending brush. There is thus an odd effect of photographic realism when you step back, but when you go in close, there is a slight blurring at the edges. I thus started to see how this 'realistic' painting is composed of many abstract shapes, with echoes across the entire picture--for example, the floor tile, observed in proper perspective, creates a lozenge shape that is repeated in the angles of the chair to the right, and the curtain on the left. Patterns emerge in the sleeve of the woman writing, created by the motion of a brush going up and down, back and forth, in a slow, confident, hypnotic rhythm, creating the sense of a mind spellbound both by the reality of a thing, and the pleasing pattern that it makes. The same dual sense of observing and losing oneself is there in the patterns of the leaded window, and the rug that hangs over the table, and the painting on the wall behind the two figures. Again, there is a whole phenomenology here, ideas about what constitutes the essential or the contingent attributes of things--but worked out by years of looking at the world, combined with a physical exploration of the tactile possibilities of a hand moving pigment across a surface.


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