Black girl with a pearl earring
This post is about the pastiche I’ve made on Johannes Vermeer’s iconic painting from around 1665 of a Girl With A Pearl Earring. There is both an interesting discussion about how it was – perhaps – painted and a movie inspired by the painting.
And there is a discussion, of course, about who the girl is, or could have been – nobody seems to know. Was it Vermeer’s daughter Maria – who was likely also a gifted painter – was it a maid in the house, a lover?
It is a pastiche – defined by Wikipedia as “a work of visual art, literature, or music that imitates the style or character of the work of one or more other artists. Unlike parody, pastiche celebrates, rather than mocks, the work it imitates.” So it neither reproduces in details, nor satirizes. It’s an inspiration, perhaps an homage and it is, above all, eclectic – using elements known from here and there and putting them together but, simultaneously, offering the viewer something that has references to another work of art. It borrows freely and can be see also as a hodgepodge.
It is a challenge you set yourself. The black woman in this series doesn’t want her name mentioned but was once a student of mine. I too have never done something “staged” like this before.
Placing a black woman where a very pail white girl originally sits is, in and of itself, an attempt to make a point: Yes, it was a European artistic style but it can be “globalised” and it can build bridges. Mona Lisa, Venus – most of the iconic images in Western art – are white. But they don’t have to be. On the famous other hand, I do not want to imitate the element of “exotic beauty” depicted in some more or less “colonialist”-inspired Western artists.
Additionally, Vermeer has painted the girl slightly from above. In my images, the woman’s face is at the same level as the camera. The way we look up or down on the subject of an image can speak volumes about class, gender, values and culture.
Another challenge was to use what was at hand. There were no detailed preparations. A friend who happens to be an art lover thought it would be fun to place her living room at our disposal for the shooting and also had a couple of standard lamps, a lovely big wooden door, mirrors, paintings on the wall, etc. What more could one want? We did all the pictures – some 300 – in one go, a Sunday with the sun pouring in through large windows.
Vermeer’s background is monochrome black, absolutely nothing happening there. No story, no references to a room. And by the way, his original background, it has been revealed by research, was monochrome dark green. So one of the images we did has, afterwards, been given a dark green background – if not monochrome sepia-toned – to convey the same sense of face-only appearance. But in the rest we make use of the environment.
The woman did the makeup the way she wanted it and she provided a simple “turban”-like headscarf and – most importantly – the earring (which perhaps is not a real pearl…). I happened to have a short-type Japanese silk kimono which actually comes quite close to the original in its texture. We borrowed a fine large white napkin to illustrate the Vermeer girl’s white shirt, alternatively that she is a maid with a napkin on her shoulder.
That done, we did various experiments with the place, background, lightning, position and where the eyes would seem to be looking. The Vermeer girl seems to me to be slightly cross-eyed, even if very little. And, most importantly, she does not focus on the painter. She is not in contact with the viewer, more like looking somewhere further away, perhaps day-dreaming.
We could have chosen to imitate that look but I wanted something more intense; I wanted the black girl to be distinctly present and give the impression that she knows that she is being seen. The fact that she looks straight at the viewer offers a more personal relationship, a richer interpretative spectrum which is not unimportant because it is a contemporary image: We may be able to better imagine what she is thinking because she is from our world and our time.
We can anyhow not guess much about what a girl would be thinking in 1665 about her situation. This woman is very expressive in my view and it would be a loss of energy to let her look somewhat emptily at a wall behind me when taking the pictures. So, there you go: She speaks to you but what she expresses is for you to guess, or feel.
A door in a picture is always somewhat enigmatic: is the person going out and why? What is there on the other side? -In this case we can vaguely sense the countours of a lamp and some curtains in a – dark – room but also a ray of light falling on its floor.
Or, is she is about to go out but anyhow turning her head as if asking: Shall I stay? That is at least one way to interpret her facial expression in the images where she is at the door. Hung over a chair to your right is a shirt or waistcoat indicating both that there has been or is another person involved and that the image could be shot in a living room or perhaps a bedroom, the chest under the painting pointing perhaps in the same direction.
Is she about to leave – or to not actually leave – someone in that room? The light is sensually warm and the shape of the knobs of the small chair left of the chest may be seen as suggestive of a male presence in that room. It’s all up to the viewer but, for sure, there is more to this type of photography than meets the eye.
And it was fun to do. So we shot other images too. Please see the series of 7 images here.