Malevich and Vermeer

A post in the ongoing series Poetry in the Arts.

Self Portrait in Two Dimensions
by Kasimir Malevich

Suprematist Painting (1916)
by Kasimir Malevich

Het Straatje (The Little Street)
by Jan Vermeer



vermeer_straatje_detail1 vermeer_straatje_detail2

Although I have no bias in favor of abstract paintings over representational ones — or vice versa — it’s in abstract paintings that it’s especially easy to see some of the ideas I’m talking about.

In an abstract painting there’s no question about the balance between looking at the painting versus looking through it at its story. By design, there’s nothing “through the painting.” There’s only the painting itself.

I suspect that Malevich’s self-portrait may portray his head, his left leg, his right arm and hand, and his bellybutton. But if there’s a picture hiding inside his Suprematist Composition (1916) I’m not smart enough to see it.

When I stand in front of a Malevich, he gives me nothing to hold on to except the colors, the shapes, and those minute but eloquent departures from regularity in the geometric pattern.

As I look at it longer, it’s the details of the painting surface that become all important: the smoothness or the nervous roughness of the edges of the shapes, the mottled irregularity of the fill colors, the slight impasto.

(You can see only a few of these things in this computer reproduction — or in a poster. There’s simply no substitute for seeing the real thing.)

Are these details unimportant? No: in order to become aware of them I have to stand and draw feelings out from my insides — I have to let them flow. And I have to reach out for the feelings that the painter might have felt that led him to place them there.

I grow as I struggle alone to be able to meet the painting. I always jokingly think it reprograms me — like the space monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey reprograms the apes in front of it.

To see the painting, I have to commune with another person — to reach out of myself and my preconceptions, to find things that someone else is trying, sincerely but quietly, precisely, to tell me.

One day I spent a few hours in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam looking at the above paintings and the others in their Malevich collection, absorbing.

After that, and after a sandwich and a few beers in a cafe on the Van Baerlestraat, I was pretty psyched out (or flipped out, if you wish) as I walked along the park to the Rijksmuseum, which was being renovated then. Many Vermeers and de Hoochs had been moved from their usual spot and hung in an alcove, with a bench, in the main hall.

I sat for a few more hours, trying to absorb Vermeer’s paintings with the new eyes that Malevich had given me.

In Vermeer’s Het Straatje, look first at the series of large horizontal and vertical white bars depicting the chalk surface on the ground floor of the buildings. Try, for the moment, to ignore the rest of the painting: just look at the white bars as an abstraction — like the geometric shapes in the Malevich.

Next, ignore the whites and everything else and concentrate only on those luscious black rectangles in the windows and doorways. Then notice how stunningly the right doorway is interrupted by the woman’s white clothing, and the left doorway fading into the gray shading at the bottom.

Notice the red shutter on the right, and the way it’s set off by the white outlining it. Ignore, for now, everything except that shutter, the reddish blouse of the woman in the alleyway, and the brownish bench to the left of the left doorway.

Like the Malevich paintings, you need to see the original of the Vermeer in order to appreciate what’s on its surface. As the Rijksmuseum Web site points out, the paint indicating the white chalk has a flaky surface, whereas the blue paint for the shutters is smooth.

Both Malevich and Vermeer illustrate the three criteria I propose:

1. You don’t see the whole painting all at once. You have to look at it several times, restricting your attention to specific aspects: individual colors, particular geometric shapes, geometric versus organic shapes, surface texture, shape boundaries, and so on. After that, all the POV shots you’ve seen with your eyes build into a picture, more comprehensive and deeper, that you see with your mind. Your picture is never final — it’s a current result combining what’s there in the painting with what you’ve seen and lived through in the past.

2. Even though the Vermeer is “pictorial” compared to the “abstract” Malevich, the Vermeer has a surface too — in addition to its picture. The surface of the Vermeer can’t be ignored: it’s what connects you, simultaneously, to the artist and to the scene that’s depicted. The Vermeer is not strictly pictorial: it’s an artistic idealization of our actual perceptions, although in a different way than the Malevich is.

3. I feel emotion from both of these paintings. In the Vermeer, I feel it from the scene and from the painting too.

But, you can judge for yourself.


I admire an art work — a film, painting, sculpture, music, fiction, or poem — that has structure and shows its story. But I love art that has “poetry.”

This series of posts suggests three criteria for poetry:

  • A poem is not an object you passively contemplate or an idea you learn: it’s something that you live through, that you experience.
  • A poem is a made object: it may bring you into a story or admit you to a world, but it also shows you itself and the person who made it.
  • A poem conveys emotion.

Table of Contents for this series: Poetry in the Arts

“Do you know my poetry”
— Johnny Depp as William Blake, in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man

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