Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hendrick van der Burch

Hendrick van der Burch. Dutch Interior, c. 1660.

Of late I have thought on this painting a truly great deal. As most of you know, much of my recent scholarship has concerned spirituality in Dutch interiors of the 17th Century (one of the finest Centuries in any place). And yet, despite a career in this field that has spanned several decades, largely on this very subject, I had never seen M. van der Burch's pictures! It is pure serendipity that I, after a stroll in the Zoological Gardens of Berlin just this past week, stopped into Gemäldegalerie to see some old friends. (By this I mean their fine Vemeers!)

There, not far from those very Vermeer paintings, I saw this painting hung near the gallery exit — ostensibly to demonstrate the stylistic cues van der Burch clearly borrowed from Vermeer. Much as Vermeer did, van der Burch emphasizes the presence of absence here. Where is the master of this opulent house? His hookah sits smoldering next to his fine ermine coat and limited-edition Rasta Vans. A Dali poster (surely not an original, as the original at this time was owned by Rembrandt, Dali's greatest admirer) hangs above. Yet the picture's focus remains the master's absence. He is gone, like an exhalation from the hookah. Some have interpreted all this rather drearily: The "limited edition" Vans relate to the limit of human life; the time drips away in the Dali poster; the hookah is probably cold. The most nihilistic go on suggest that the painting is a comment on religious doubt.

But as all who know me and my work could predict, I see that reading as quite hollow. I see this painting as suggesting a spiritual longing for return: more likely the master has stepped out for a moment, to the privy or, more likely, to welcome an old friend inside from the cold! And soon, mugs of Swiss Miss in hand, they will return to the sitting room, relight the hookah, and remark not on a facile study of Dali's painting, but instead on the warm muffins they shared with Dali himself just a few mornings ago.