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On Edward Snow, Breughel and Vermeer, Ganzfeld #3, 2003

Ganzfeld #3, 2003 | Wednesday, Mar 12, 2003

            Back in 1997, Edward Snow, already the author of my favorite book on Vermeer, was on the verge of publishing a new work on Bruegel, and as a staff writer at the New Yorker, I saw this as an opportune moment for a profile.  Professor Snow was gracious enough to host me for several fascinating days at his base in Houston, where he teaches at Rice—and I returned home eager to begin.

            I began, and then, after completing the prelude, I became waylaid—a whole other set of stories--one thing led to another and then another still, and somehow I haven’t yet made it back.  There are almost no excuses.  I remain haunted by this project and fully intend to return to it one of these days—perhaps on the occasion of Snow’s next book.

            In this context, I was rereading the preface to the Breugel book this morning, and was strangely heartened by the fact that when Snow launched out on his own Bruegel project, in 1979, he’d been intending a short essay on a single detail from a solitary painting, the “Children’s Game” panel in Vienna, and he too got waylaid, or rather, overwhelmed: for months and months it was never yet time, and in the end it was eighteen years—eighteen years of continuous gazing on one painting—before he was prepared to say “Enough!” and to set his thoughts to paper. He cites Nietzsche in celebration of “the friends of lento,” who “reduce to despair every sort of man who is ‘in a hurry,’” and he concludes his own acknowledgments by thanking Leo Steinberg, “who counseled  me to wait.”

            So that maybe there is yet hope for this project of mine—I like to think of it as still in gestation.  In the meantime, though, perhaps it won’t hurt to publish this prelude—a sort of prolegemena to the longer project—if for no other reason than that Snow’s luminous work deserves the widest possible audience now, and maybe this can help in some small way.  At any rate, I’m reminded of the old zen aphorism: “When I point my finger at the moon, don’t mistake my finger for the moon.”


The Couple in the Doorway
Prelude to a Profile of Edward Snow

            Consider, as Edward Snow proposes, the couple in the doorway who, as he suggests, are paradigmatic of the entire scene. The scene in question is Peter Bruegel’s marvelously boisterous “Peasant Dance,” images of which you’ve doubltess encountered a thousand times though in all likelihood you’ve never even noticed the couple in question, tiny figures slotted into the middle distance, the most seemingly incidental of afterthoughts in the context of the painting as a whole. Even noticing them at all is paradigmatic of Edward Snow’s entire approach as a critic. The passage in question occurs in his most recent book, Inside Bruegel, a record of eighteen years of passionately intensive looking--of consideration and reconsideration and yet further revision-- lavished upon a single painting of Bruegel’s, though, as it happens, not this one (Snow’s entire discussion of the “Peasant Dance” turns out itself to be a side-tangent, seemingly incidental to his larger purposes in the book).

            Snow takes note of an entire tradition of art historical interpretation which attributes to the sixteenth century Northern master an archly moralizing temper and which sees in this painting, for example, first and foremost, another of the artist’s conventional denunciations of human folly and sinful behavior. Such commentators, Snow notes, “take the building to be a tavern and see the woman as attempting to pull the man into it.”  But, in fact, he argues, if anything the building looks more like a private dwelling than any sort of public gathering place, and “it is impossible to decide whether the woman is trying to pull the man inside or the man is trying to coax her outdoors.  Rather than a loose woman exerting her force on a reluctant customer, she may be a virtuous wife trying to get her husband to come home, or (even more likely?) a potential partner pulling against the man’s efforts to involve her in the dance. Perhaps she merely moves to a different tempo. And the reluctance, if it is hers, could be a sign of either disapproval or inhibition, or perhaps just an attempt to assert her own will in the matter. All we can say for sure,” Snow concludes, “is that there is a relation across a threshold and a resistance of one figure which the other is trying to overcome.”

            The fervent championing of such shimmering ambiguity--the refusal to settle for static and settled readings, especially when they come encrusted in the language of specialized historical or iconographic expertise--is one of the hallmarks of Snow’s approach, and perhaps one that helps account for the fervency with which his writings tend to get dismissed by many in the art historical establishment. It doesn’t help any that Snow is not of that establishment, being a “mere” professor of English Literature (currently at Rice University), otherwise known for his Rilke translations.

            Such was certainly the case, at any rate, with his 1979 monograph, A Study of Vermeer, which I’ve long prized as one of my own favorite art books ever (an estimation in which I’m hardly alone: the back jacket to the 1994 second edition features glowing praise from the likes of Susan Sontag, John Hollander, Richard Howard and Robert Haas). Philip Sutton of the Philadelphia Art Museum, on the other hand, was more representative of orthodox art historical opinion in his Renaissance Quarterly review of the volume’s first edition, which he dismissed as “a silly, arrogant book.” Recoiling from Snow’s searchingly evocative reading of Vermeer’s “Milkmaid,” for instance, Sutton alleged how “Typically the author here trusts his own modern associations and ignores theories (promoted by Grimme and Couprie) linking the milkmaid’s gesture with that of the sixteenth and seventeenth century personification of the virtue Temperentia.” Similarly, Sutton notes how elsewhere, “Snow omits all reference to the quite plausible theory, recently revived by Christie Armstrong, that the ‘Woman Standing’ and the ‘Woman Seated at the Virginal’ are pendants alluding to the traditional choice between sacred and profane love The recognition of such meanings,” Sutton concludes with barely concealed contempt, “requires an acquaintance with seventeenth century imagery.” 

            The reviewer for the Art Bulletin, Madeleine Milner Kahr of the University of Texas, was no less scathing, singling out in particular Snow’s lovingly extended reading of Vermeer’s early masterpiece, the Dresden “Procuress” (which culminates with his contention that “Unlikely as it may at first seem, there lies at the heart of this painting, as if on the other side of moral prejudice and sexual inhibition, what may be the most unsentimental, guilt-free, spiritually satisfying representation of shared erotic experience in all of Western art”) to which she reacts with sputtering exasperation: “This [in] response to a stock Dutch seventeenth century prostitution scene!” Similarly appalled by several of Snow’s other readings, Kahr concludes by insisting that “If the understanding that is sought is to have anything to do with Vermeer, the paintings must not be abstracted from historical reality....  A disregard of such objective constraints tends to lead, in the case of Snow, to the pitfall of generalizing on the basis of the writer’s own emotional predilections.”

            And yet such reviews seemed at least partially off the mark, for Snow was hardly unaware of the standard art-historical literature on Vermeer (his footnotes were veritably festooned with such references)--he just wasn’t buying much of it. Simple lock-and-key allusions to Sacred and Profane Love, or Temperentia, or “stock seventeenth century prostitution scenes” didn’t even begin to address the power of these paintings for Snow. Indeed, he insisted, the roots of that power might lay precisely in the way Vermeer himself had succeeded in wresting himself free of such pinched, constrained, and reductive iconographic traditions, often in fact turning their connotations entirely inside out. Of course Vermeer knew the tradition of drunken girl-servant imagery, and such iconography might even be where the Met’s magnificent “Girl Asleep” originally started out from, but it’s decidedly not where it ended up. Vermeer knew all about the tradition of vain women entranced before their own image in the mirror (or anyway, portrayed as such for the delectation of male viewers), but by the end that’s precisely what “The Girl with a Pearl Necklace” was not about. And as for the Mauritshuis’s “Head of a Young Girl” (“The Girl with a Pearl”)--the subject of an astonishing twenty-page close reading that constitutes the book’s tour-de-force prolog--no historical or iconographic approach could begin to encompass the work’s unrivaled grief-tinged immediacy: “For to look at it is to be implicated in a relationship so urgent that to take an instinctive step backward into aesthetic appreciation would seem in this case a defensive measure, an act of betrayal and bad faith. It is me at whom she gazes, with real, unguarded human emotions, and with an erotic intensity that demands something just as real and human in return.” Before such a gaze, historic and iconographic precedents melt away. The image is in no way about context or precedent or allusion. It is about how you must change your life.

            The implicit critique of historicist or iconographic evasion which underlay much of Snow’s Vermeer volume has been rendered more overt in the new Bruegel book. At one point, for example--this time on yet another tangent not directly related to the painting which presently comes to comprise the book’s main subject--Snow alludes to conventional readings of such late masterpieces as “The Blind Leading the Blind” or the small “Cripples” panel at The Louvre as “emblems of moral corruption.” He quotes one hapless art historian to the effect that “By Bruegel’s day, beggars had long been regarded as cheats and scoundrels who often faked their deformities to attract public charity,” such that “Bruegel’s ‘Cripples’ is therefore less a record of contemporary carnival customs than a timeless image of human deceit.” To which Snow caustically glosses: “In such cases the attempt to situate is a refusal to see....  Of one thing we can be sure: the deformities in Bruegel’s ‘Cripples’ are not faked. No figures could have less to do with deceit, except insofar as they confront us with our own capacity for self-deception in the face of what threatens our complacency.” Eviscerating another compulsively conventionalizing iconographer, this one with a name straight out of Central Casting--Carl Gustav Stridbeck!--Snow wryly notes how “an accumulating critical tradition can make it increasingly difficult to make contact with the object commentary seeks to explain,” for there is “a world of difference between images saturated with meaning and images coded with morality,” and, time and again, “material that claims to situate Bruegel’s images within a conventional moral context strikingly illustrates his distance from it.”

            By contrast, Snow slowly develops an argument for a more phenomenologically or intuitionally grounded approach--one informed by historic, technical, or iconographic knowledge, to be sure, but one equally capable of holding such expertise momentarily in abeyance, even at the risk of falling into anachronistic projection.  Thus he concludes a twelve-page close reading of the “Peasant Dancers” by reviving the central image with which he’d set out: “And so where are we in relation to Bruegel’s image? Across what threshold do we relate? Is it constructed by history or desire? And to what degree can we ever cross over or encompass things in our embrace? The historicist might seek to uphold that threshold and take a stand this side of it: the task would be to defamiliarize the image, to recover it in its otherness....  Crossing over would be out of the question....  The intuitionist, feeling so little distance to begin with and possessed by a desire for connection that feels intrinsic to the viewing self yet also engendered by this image, would seek to get as close as possible, with all the native faculties that allow for empathy. He might suspect at times the folly of the attempt” (“folly” of course being a loaded concept in most conventionalizing, Stridbeckian Bruegel criticism) “...and he will never be sure if he is being met by resistance or being given help across, if he is entering Bruegel’s world or pulling Bruegel’s world over into his. But as long as this painting remains his passion, no one will ever convince him that there are not human constants ‘beneath’ history, upon which history works, to be sure, but which also resist history and persist unchanged. About distances, about thresholds, about the desire for connection, he will want to say after Auden--and with stubborn naïvité--that the old masters were never wrong.”

{to be continued}