Friday, November 27, 2009

The New Necklace: Alix Smith's Portrait Photographs, Part II

(1) As preamble it is necessary to reference two previous entries on this journal; "Reception Theory," and Reception Theory Continued. The entries discuss Postmodern Reception Theory, and my own notion that the actual artwork is the toggle switch through which all three currents of reception; artist’s intent, viewer and cultural understanding flow.   Thus, the artwork itself is more important than the artist, culture, or viewer though its existence depends on the presence of all three.*
(2) Take note of the fact that the title above is linked to Paxton's original image at The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


Alix Smith especially likes the quality of light in Johannes Vermeer’s Baroque Dutch paintings, and Vermeer happens to be one of my all time favorites because of his Dutch nationality, passion for light and bright color. He was only moderately successful in his day, and forgotten for nearly two centuries after his death, though today he is considered one of the greatest Dutch painters. He painted many layered (literally and figuratively) formal portraits of middle class Dutch life. His probable use of the camera obscura (a camera box / projector) as an aid to composition provides an extra connection for Alix, I’m sure. A look at Vermeer’s “The Art of Painting” will provide additional evidence of the connection to Ms. Smith’s work.

The Netherlands map on the back wall of “The Art of Painting” has illustrations of the seats of power. Vermeer refers to the fact that the Dutch were the first wealthy middle class society and during the seventeenth century had achieved a maritime colonial power commensurate with Britain, Spain, and France. The map is, however, torn, symbolizing the separation between the Republic in the north, and Hapsburg controlled Flemish provinces to the south. Light flows through the studio from left to right picking out the figure of the girl, Clio muse of history, the artist and other objects.  The girl wears a laurel wreath, symbol of Clio, and carries a trumpet signifying fame.  I often wonder if Vermeer was looking at that brilliantly lit figure of Clio not only because of Dutch pride in accomplishment, but as a reminder to himself of the illusive quality of fame.   He had to know that he was an extremely talented, but under appreciated provincial artist.  The chandelier and marble tiled floor were things that Vermeer would not have been able to afford and would have been found only in the homes of the rich.  Thus they refer to the nation’s wealth and the wealth of the society in which he lived.  Vermeer’s signification continues, but I have demonstrated the connections to signification in Alix Smith’s portrait photography because it symbolizes a contemporary population in which wealth measures success and position in ways similar to the Dutch Republican colonial empire.

To be continued…


Kleiner, Fred S. and Mamiya, Christin J., Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 12th Ed., Florence:  Wadsworth (2005).

Wheelock Jr., Arthur K., “Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting” (Brochure), Exhibitions:  National Gallery of Art, Website,  Viewed 10:30 AM EDT, Wednesday, November 24, 2009.

* See Holly, Michael Ann, Past Looking: Historical Imagination and the Rhetoric of the Image. Cornell University Press, Ithaca (1996).

*   This image is in the public domain.  The painting is located in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

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