Finally, a room of his own

Apr 6, 2005 at 12:00 am

Dirk Bakker, the Detroit Institute of Arts’ director of photography and an extraordinary artist himself, recently agreed to meet and discuss the paintings of his countryman, Gerard ter Borch, the 17th century Dutch painter whose work is on exhibit through May 22 at the museum.

As we walk into the exhibit, the first thing Bakker notices is the magnificent array of fresh tulips adorning the entrance. Bakker approves. “Someone around here is thinking. Tulips aren’t just a modern Dutch commodity. They symbolize 17th century Dutch economic speculation and cultural development.” Two ladies are snipping and adjusting beautiful, pale, long-stemmed tulips. For this male audience, it’s an apt start for a conversation.

The youthful painting “Horse and Rider” is the first clue that ter Borch is indeed unique. “The eccentric perspective of the rear end of a horse carrying a slumping armored cavalryman is actually startling … The trick of the painting is the glinting patina of the armor. Because of its photo-realism-like effect, the viewer is drawn into the dazzling surface of armor and for a moment overlooks the uncertain, unheroic gravity of the departing soldier.”

The irregular view of the massive horse seems strange and beautiful by any set of artistic conventions. Compared with stereotypical Dutch paintings, it seems out of place and oddly existential. “The horse is more than a conveyance or some metaphorical device,” Bakker says. “It was actually there and is shown in its convincing but simple everyday presence so the painting serves as an act of historical registry.”

After a brief survey of portraits, including a remarkable self-portrait, Bakker muses over bourgeois portraiture and ter Borch’s nuanced depiction of the subject’s psychological presence. “While he paints himself clad in the conventional clothing of portraiture, he’s not hiding behind them, he’s right there in front of you with all of his acute, not necessarily attractive, critical self-consciousness.”

While negotiating how to read the subtleties of portraiture’s conventions, Bakker proceeds to a room of really over-the-top paintings. “The Gallant Conversation” depicts a young woman whose back is toward the viewer. Her floor-length satin dress is ethereal in its dazzling shimmer. A military officer seated to her right talks with her, gesturing some ambiguous sign with his hand. An older woman sits close by, unassumingly and perhaps indifferently.

“In the past this painting was seen as a benign domestic interior with a father talking to his daughter, perhaps lecturing her, while the mother sits quietly nearby. There is no doubt that the extravagant representation of her dress is attractive, and the thing usually talked about, but it is a distraction from what’s really occurring within the painting. … an officer perhaps propositioning a prostitute while the madam of the brothel monitors the deal. Ter Borch loads the painting with ambiguous features that make ‘The Gallant Conversation’ an ambiguous social construction and makes for a much more complex and modern reading of social and psychological circumstance.”

In the next room Bakker points to “The Introduction (An Officer Making His Bow to a Lady),” in which a gentleman officer caresses the crotch of the lady’s fingers. This vulgar sexual reference is no doubt overlooked by most viewers. “Look at how she looks at her hand; it’s a completely real and psychologically layered expression, somewhere between surprised alarm and uncertain delight. In Vermeer’s work, people are props for a kind of classical allegory. But ter Borch paints what he sees and is much more immediate and real for us.”

As you move from painting to painting, the complexity of ter Borch’s psychological perception and commentary, as well as his social observations, become more evident and intriguing. The “dazzling surface effects” of the paintings, like special effects in contemporary films, belie a more complex vision that sustains scrutiny. Bakker says: “These paintings act as a kind of early form of reality reportage. … They contain an incredible record of 17th century Dutch life as well as a universal portrait of man, one in which we can all find ourselves.”

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]