BBC Radio 3, March 2011
In this essay I will try to describe the driving influence behind my art, in the work of Johannes Vermeer, who lived in 17th century Holland. This came as a complete surprise to me when I was a young upstart, striving for social justice in a squat in Hackney. While looking for a radical approach to my art, I found a revolutionary artist working in the most traditional of art forms.
I first came across the work of Vermeer in the library at the London College of Printing, where I was doing my photography degree back in 94. I had just finished making ‘The Ghetto’ for my degree show. This is a 3D photographic model of a squatted street in Hackney, that had been home to me and around 100 others, for as long as 10 years. At the time we were trying to save our street from demolition, and ourselves from becoming homeless.
In the making of this work I began taking photographs on a large format camera, which produced 5-inch by 4-inch transparencies. These transparencies changed my whole notion of photography. When I placed them on the light box they became small windows of colour and I was completely transfixed. It was as if I were a peasant from the dark and distant past, transported from the fields of rural England into a cathedral, to be mesmerised by the sunlight pouring through the stained glass windows. Colour and light became key to the way I looked at my neighbourhood, seducing me and drawing me into contemplation of my life, my way of living and the culture that surrounded me. Once these transparencies were installed in the model, which was lit from within, my street became a kind of cathedral, and our neighbourhood its diocese.
When I showed ‘The Ghetto’ to my tutors for the first time it struck a chord and they suggested I look at the work of the golden age of Dutch painting. At school I was not considered capable of O’levels and I left at 15 with just one CSE. I went to work on farms and building sites, for the Forestry Commission and eventually as a tree surgeon in Regents Park. But at this point, aged 29, I was at college – and an incredibly keen student. I went straight to the library to investigate the golden age of Dutch painting. After looking at many books I came across Vermeer and it all clicked into place. I was transfixed again, by his use of light and colour, and taken again into that magical state of meditation. The more I read about this artist, the more intrigued and inspired I became by his life and his art.
I wrote my appraisal of my degree show, quoting the golden age of Dutch painting as an influence on my own approach. The paper was consigned to a cupboard in a squatted house in east London. This could have been the end of a fleeting insight into another artist’s life and work. My life took another turn and I set out on a double-decker bus to Europe, putting on free parties and festivals and revelling in the chaos of techno music and open roads. I had an intense couple of years living on my wits, as part of a travelling convoy, pedalling alternative culture and preaching the doctrines of free parties, no rules or regulations.
But the impulse to create kept calling, beckoning me back to London and the Royal College of Art. In a disused warehouse in Berlin I sold the double decker to ‘2000 Dirty Squatters’, a Welsh punk band. I set off back to London in an overladen estate car and limped into Hackney, returning to my long term squatting neighbourhood and resuming my residency in Ellingfort Road. But soon after my education at the Royal College began, my neighbours and I once again became the recipients of legal notices issued by the High Court of Justice, addressing Persons Unknown from The Mayor and the London Borough of Hackney in order to recover land and premises.
I took this as a challenge to our culture and lifestyle and set out to produce work that might help in our fight with the local authorities. This time the research came before the artistic endeavour, taking me in many directions, looking at different artists and their approaches to social injustice. One of my influences was my tutor at the time, Peter Kennard, who has produced a huge body of work rallying against social injustice and warmongering. What first grabbed my attention was the image Kennard made for a CND campaign in the 1980s, when he took ‘The Hay Wain’ and packed Constable’s iconic image of an English idyll with nuclear warheads. His imagery had a huge impact on me. Art with a social impact, which talked about England, had been a big part of my life from the age of 13 when I first heard this:
The Sex Pistols lyrics tore around my teenage head like a steam train ripping up the rural landscape of my Dorset childhood, smashing through the soft easy vistas of fields and forests and laying down the concrete and graffiti of an urban landscape, I had yet to contemplate. But it took a long time for the popular culture of my youth, to find its voice in the creation of art, that made any sense to me. So when Peter talked about making direct references to Vermeer’s work in my own, I was surprised and doubtful. Could the classical old master have any relevance to my life or that of my subjects, my neighbours in the hole-in-the-wall community where we lived?
However, during my renewed exploration of Vermeer I kept on finding details and ‘facts’, which drew me in deeper to this artist’s work. It is very hard to find more than the barest facts about Vermeer as very little was written in his lifetime, so much of what I read is open to interpretation. But I was struck by the belief of some historians that Vermeer used a camera obscura. Professor Philip Steadman, in his book, “Vermeer’s Camera” argues that Vermeer, “used the camera to study optical images and effects; as an instrument with which to set up and adjust his compositional arrangements of sitters and furniture”. This may or may not be true but there is a relationship with photography, realism in his paintings, which drew me to them. One of the attractions of photography for me is this notion of realism, the belief that the camera never lies. Vermeer gave us a window into a real world but also a world imagined through his art. It is exactly this that attracts me to photography. The images are real, yet created by the person manipulating the camera.
Another element of his work I found fascinating was his relationship to his local world. Vermeer worked in Delft, a modest town in the Netherlands, and within this small community he looks even closer, scrutinizing a few characters, creating a series of intimate scenes of small groups and individuals. His paintings focus upon minute details and illuminate his subjects with such devotion that their status is elevated. When Vermeer was painting, such attention to sitters was only afforded to those who could pay for it: wealthy patrons of the arts such as Royals, Generals and Popes. They used their portraits to display their power and dignity as rulers. I believe Vermeer to be more like Michael Caine who said, “I’m more of a social communist, in that I treat everyone equally.” By giving such attention to ordinary events, places and people these scenes are lifted into the extraordinary.
So for me Vermeer was a painter of the people, a revolutionary artist who, by use of realism and social commentary, elevates ordinary folk to a higher status within their time and forever more. I wanted to present my friends, neighbours, lovers and myself to the world in a similar way. People I knew at this time were expecting me to produce the usual stock of black and white images of the victims of society, squatters and travelers, taking drugs and fighting bailiffs; exotic but alien figures from an unimaginable lifestyle, which could be marveled at but never understood. But instead the images I made took direct reference from Vermeer’s compositions, from his use of light, colour and calm contemplation. From this understanding I composed and rendered my photographic work ‘Woman Reading A Possession Order’, which took as its starting point, Vermeer’s ‘A girl reading a letter at an open window’. Vermeer depicts a quiet moment when a woman reads a letter at an open window bathed in soft northern European sunlight. We’ll never know for sure what is in the letter, but some commentators believe it could be a love letter from her fiancÈ fighting for his country in a war of independence against the oppressive rule of colonial Spain. So the work speaks of the struggle of the ordinary people of Delft and their battles, not by explicitly showing the battlefield or the carnage of war but one woman’s meditation on life and her situation, shown with respect, subtlety and beauty. Likewise my reworking shows a girl reading her eviction order. She is given dignity, light, beauty and space, to tell her own story in her own time. The girl in the photograph is shown in a very intimate moment in her struggle with eviction. But we can all identify with her and her suffering, so this becomes a universal moment.
Although I have not repeated, directly referencing Vermeer, in my work since my series of photographs ‘Persons Unknown’, I always keep his approach at the core of all my work. Whether I’m taking photographs of the residents of condemned tower blocks, shopkeepers or the terminally ill of the local hospice, this way of looking has shaped nearly every photograph I have taken since this time. Like Vermeer I have concentrated on my local area, Hackney, the place I’ve called home now for 25 years. I’ve tried to paint a landscape of my neighbourhood that explores its people, buildings, cultures and life to reveal its dignity and beauty.
My latest project, a film commissioned by the Serpentine Gallery and Age Concern is called ‘A Palace for Us’. It tells the story of ordinary people living their lives in a council estate, from its initial concept as the estate of the future providing ‘homes for heroes’ to the present day. Each subject is presented with warmth and respect and the film celebrates these lives against the background of social degradation. This is not to say that Hackney is special in any sort of hierarchical way, it’s just that any neighbourhood that is studied and highlighted, in the manner of Vermeer, becomes magical and amazing.
Vermeer may have never left letters or great text regarding his reasons and the methodology of his artwork but his paintings stand as a testament, to a profound understanding of the universality that connects us all as human beings to one another by the small details of everyday life. This makes his works timeless and relevant to every generation of artists and viewers. For me he has created a template for artists wanting to show the dignity of the ordinary people involved in their daily lives, lifting the ordinary into the extraordinary. Whether the medium is painting, photography or film the aims stand as a testament to a honourable tradition of equality and social justice, through attention to detail and a rendition of beauty in the ordinary.
My last thought takes me back to Vermeer and the Delft School exhibition at the National Gallery, London of 2001. Up until this point I had only seen reproductions of Vermeer’s paintings in books. I had never felt a compelling desire to see the ‘real thing’ but seeing ‘The Milkmaid’ up close, I was transported to another place. The illusion created by the detail in the gleam of milk pouring from the jug was totally captivating, as if looking at a high gloss fashion photograph in Vogue, and as real as a photograph, where the camera never lies. It was as if the woman was in a soviet social realist poster of the heroic worker; proud, strong and dignified set in an austere humble dwelling. Raquel Laneri writes, “The Milkmaid elevates the drudgery of housework and servitude to virtuous, even heroic, levels.”
That idea remains with me. Lets try to lift the people with our art, whatever the art form and however the people.
Author: Tom Hunter