I first heard about Lawrence Weschler’s book Vermeer in Bosnia from an NPR interview with the author quite a few years back, in 2004 probably, when the book first came out. There was something about the interview that got me interested, although now it’s been too long for me to say exactly what, and that feeling got reinforced by a couple key mentions on blogs, including Richard’s (I’m pretty sure).
Anyway, it was high time for me to read the book, and I’m glad I did. Weschler is a smart and sensitive writer. The book covers a number of different subjects — its sections are called “A Balkan Triptych,” “Three Polish Survivor Stories,” “Grandfathers and Daughters,” “Three L.A. Pieces,” “Three Portraits of Artists,” and “A Final Vermeer Convergence” — but no matter the subject the essays have a similar seriousness combined with a lightness of touch that make them both thought-provoking and pleasurable to read.
Some of my favorite essays in the collection are about art; as I read I couldn’t help but think that what I really want is to take an art appreciation class from Weschler, or to have him take me on a long, leisurely tour of an art museum. He is an excellent interpreter and also an appreciator, someone who can generate enthusiasm about his subject while also looking at it analytically. I adored his essay on David Hockney’s photocollages, which made me think about photography in ways I hadn’t before and made me want to read more on the subject, even though I’ve never had a particular interest in photography before in my life. (I do, though, have a book by Geoff Dyer on the subject, The Ongoing Moment, which I bought because I love Geoff Dyer, not because I love photography. The lesson for me is that it’s the author not the subject that matters.) In each essay from the “Three Portraits of Artists” section, he describes time he spent with the artist as well as discussing the art itself, so you get a sense of the person who created the work.
But the best essays are in the “Balkan Triptych” section where Weschler looks at connections between art and war. He spent time in The Hague covering the Yugoslavian War Crimes Tribunal, where onlookers and participants spent days listening to particularly nasty stories of atrocities committed by war criminals. He asks one of the jurists how he handles listening at great length to such horrible stories, and the jurist answers by saying that he goes as often he can to see paintings by Vermeer in the Mauritshuits museum. While contemplating what it is that draws this man to Vermeer, Weschler realizes that the Holland Vermeer painted was remarkably like the Bosnia of today:
For, of course, when Vermeer was painting those images which for us have become the very emblem of peacefulness and serenity all Europe was Bosnia (or had only just recently ceased to be): awash in incredibly vicious wars of religious persecution and proto-nationalist formation, wars of an at-that-time unprecedented violence and cruelty …
He realizes that behind the peacefulness of the paintings lies horrible violence, and, in fact, that Vermeer was, in a way, opening up the very possibility of peace in the midst of turbulent times:
I began to realize that, in fact, the pressure of all that violence (remembered, imagined, foreseen) is what those paintings are all about … It’s almost as if Vermeer can be seen, amid the horrors of his age, to have been asserting or inventing the very idea of peace.
The people Vermeer so carefully and realistically captured in his paintings come to stand for the idea that individual beings matter and have value. Art can, in a quiet but powerful way, offer hope in the face of cruelty and senseless violence.
There are two other essays in this section, each one similarly thoughtful and intriguing. Weschler’s writing is something to savor, and I hope I get the chance to read more of it.