My wife and I drove to the High Museum to see Vermeer's "Girl With a Pearl Earring," as usual with such blockbuster shows waiting almost to the end, going on the second to last day. On a cool autumn day, we plunged into the controlled lines and packed into the elevator to ride up to the exhibit, laid out in dark, cramped hallways, not as crowded as we feared, but still pretty much so.
Call me an elitist, but I find the museum crowds unpleasant. Of course, I'm one of the pack, and people out to see art should be commended. Yet, I quickly grow irritated at the jostling to get to the front to get a good view of a picture. Such unpleasantness seems prounounced at the High, more so than at museums in New York City or San Francisco.
The crowd was just heavy enough for me to wish I'd gone to the show on a weekday morning. Most people swirled around the Dutch landscapes, still lifes and portraits in the front rooms, so I decided to jump ahead and go straight to the girl. I've seen enough landscapes.
The crowd was fairly sparse at the small painting of the young Dutch girl, not an exact portrait as the movie and the book have it, but a "tronie," a stylized composite of different faces. In all my years of studying art, I'd never heard of the word.
Whatever, the painting lived up to its praise. I loved how the young girl from so long ago, looking as alive as one of the women in attendance, emerged from the deep black background, lustrous and mysterious as deep space. She floated in eternity.
The huge eyes and pale face haunted me, and the colors of her blue Muslim-like head covering, brown jacket, and white scarf appeared both hyper-real and unworldly. The pearl itself almost disappeared. It shone like a delicate egg, a dew drop, a picture of the world in a delicate oval womb.
Back in the air again, we decided to eat outside at the art center's cafe. The food was quite good, and overhearing the cultured conversation of fellow diners, and watching people stroll across Renzo Piano's Florence-like piazza between the High and the symphony and theater, I felt despite all of the contrary evidence that Atlanta could feel like a real city.
Again, I reflected on one of my recurring mysteries: the presence of the past. Vermeer and his contemporaries in the rich capitalist Dutch society of the 17th century created a prototype for our time. They had the camera obscura, but no photographs or film. Portraits for them served a similar function as Facebook does for us. Rather than email, they used pen and paper to write and send letters several times a day.
They had no celebrity culture, but celebrated artists like Vermeer and Rembrandt and probably theater actors, writers, political and business leaders and others. Like us, they lived in a world of familiar things, day by day, going to the same places, meeting the same people, while imperceptibly their world, along with themselves, were dying. So now we were here, seeing the art that gave a slice of their world. Like them, we live through the moments of our lives, experiencing the world, which, as St. Paul reflected, is passing away as we have known it.