Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
The Scheuer Room was packed full for the second of the “Perspectives on the Humanities” lecture, presented by Lawrence Weschler on the topic of “Serenity and Terror in Vermeer, and After.”
Weschler was a staff writer on the New Yorker from 1981-2002. He is a two-time winner of the George Polk Award for Cultural Reporting, and his book “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder” was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.
He opened his talking by reading us his popular 1998 essay “Vermeer in Bosnia,” written while covering the preliminary hearings of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal, specifically the case of Dusko Tadic.
The story begins with Weschler lunching with head judge Antonio Cassese and hearing about the gruesome crimes Cassese has to grapple with every day. A Muslim soccer player in Sarajevo chained to a radiator while Serbs raped and killed his wife and daughters before letting him go commits suicide. A Muslim prisoner forced to emasculate another using only his teeth goes mad. How, Weschler asked, do you keep from going mad yourself?
The answer? Judge Cassese goes to the Mauritshuis to spend time with the Vermeers. Weschler declared himself “struck by the perfect aptness of his impulse… Vermeer’s paintings, almost uniquely in the history of art, radiate serenity, peacefulness, sufficiency, grace.”
It is here that Weschler hits on something new: while Vermeer was painting those images, “all Europe was Bosnia.” Vermeer was born in 1632 while the Thirty Years’ War was still raging; during his lifetime the Netherlands went to war with England three times; at his death, the Dutch were busy fighting the French.
“The pressure of that violence,” declared Weschler, “is what those paintings are all about.” War is everywhere on the edges–on the continental maps being bloodily contested, the roaring lions carved into chairs, soldiers visiting young girls and pregnant women reading letters from the battlefield. But in the midst of this violence, Vermeer is “inventing the very idea of peace.”
Vermeer’s paintings are about “the autonomy, the independent agency, dignity, and self-sufficiency of the Other.” Rather than being mere tropes of Dutch genre painting, as the conventional interpretation used to go, the women in Vermeer’s paintings are unique and autonomous individuals.
“Yugoslavia happened because people had forgotten individuality and returned to ethnic and historical tropes… no wonder Cassese returned to Vermeer for surcease!” Weschler credited Vermeer with the “great moral invention… of seeing the Other as a real person.”
Weschler drew a beautiful analogy between Vermeer’s camera obscura “smoothing chaos into serenity” and The Hague’s legal chambers trying to do precisely the same thing before wrapping up with an image of the war criminal himself, Dusko Tadic, looking up at the camera, caught in a moment of autonomous and graceful self-sufficiency. Dusko Tadic, Weschler reminded us, is a person too.
With the end of the essay, Weschler showed the audience a clip of a BBC documentary based on the same essay, a documentary he called “one of the greatest moments of my career as a journalist.”
He ended the talk with a coda, reminding us that not all art possesses the moral strength of a Vermeer and that, indeed, art is “more frequently self-righteous and nationalistic than humane.”
Vermeer was a brilliant artist helping his audience to work through a difficult time, and one could say the same of Weschler.