Friday, 9 May 2014



No object, artifact, or artwork exists in isolation: the changes in history, surrounding context, and its countless interpretations will influence an object’s significance throughout its life. Even if an object itself remains physically stable throughout time, arguably its meaning is fluid and, in some ways, outside of itself -- and outside of its creator.

Verneer's The Astronomer
The Astronomer. Source: Essential Vermeer

Now that this post has kicked off with rather abstract philosophical claims, allow me to explain my thoughts in a concrete way -- many of which have been provoked by my recent readings on Jan Vermeer’s classic painting The Astronomer. Although The Astronomer continues to lead a vibrant and dynamic life since its inception in 1668, at the moment I’m particularly interested in its happenings during the Second World War -- and the interpretations that have followed it since.

It’s no secret that in the 1930s and 40s, the Nazi Party looted thousands of works of art and cultural objects from all over Europe. In order to preserve and retain the world’s masterpieces for the Third Reich, many of these objects were to be displayed in Hitler’s F├╝hrermuseum. (And as we’ve seen in the news recently, the locations and fates of many of these looted artworks are still in question today, and likely will prove to be for a time to come.) Vermeer’s The Astronomer happened to be among Hitler’s favourite paintings. This status not only influenced the handling of this artwork during the war, but also significantly weighs upon its interpretation today.

Hitler reviewing art
Hitler reviewing art. Source:

Although The Astronomer is back in its pre-war home at the Louvre, the shadow of Hitler’s fascination with this artwork weighs upon the scene depicted in the painting. During the paintings tour on a traveling exhibition to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2009, Prof. Linda Schulte-Sasse discussed the painting’s provenance and its effect on museum-goers in an article for Minnesota Public Radio's website. She notes that the media drew attention to the presence of “Hitler’s favorite” painting in the show, instantly making it the key attraction and “making the temptation to imagine Hitler looking at the picture almost irresistible.” Suddenly, the astronomer depicted in the painting may not be reaching toward the globe in an act of scholarship, but rather in an act of ownership.

During the war, of course, the painting was removed from the Louvre -- and spent a good portion of its time in storage buried deep in a salt mine at Altaussee, Austria. In the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and The Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, Robert Edsel artfully recounts the full extent of this and countless other masterpieces in transition from being looted, hidden, and recovered by the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program. (Summer reading alert!) With regard to The Astronomer in particular, Edsel offers a thoughtful interpretation of the subject in question, suggesting the image of “a man wrapped completely in his work, a moment universal and idiosyncratic, momentous and inconsequential” (326). However, Edsel immediately proceeds to counter this interpretation, arguing that “there was no untouched astronomer, no detached craftsman [...] he was still subject to the whims of the world” (326). Even the idealized, dedicated scholar featured in the painting would have to grapple with the demands and events outside of his glowing window.

Verneer's The Astronomer
The Astronomer in the mine at Altaussee. Source: Huffington Post

And so it is with the painting itself. As much as the argument exists that a great work of art can transcend time and context, inevitably it will pass through history and new perspectives will emerge from which to interpret that art. As Prof. Schulte-Sasse discussed, The Astronomer was not immune to its association with Hitler’s gaze, even in a twenty-first century exhibition.

What do you think? Do you argue that an artwork may be interpreted without context -- from the history that it has experienced to how it is arranged on the wall of an exhibition? (How is the context of its hidden history different from its visual context?) Or will there always be some sort of filter through which you interpret art?

1 comment:

  1. What a great story! I believe that an work of art accumulates stories through time and it is inevitable that those stories will travel together with the object through different cultural and social contexts. I think that the social and cultural history of a painting is maybe as important as the artist's style and subject matter themselves, making us aware of the different processes of meaning making. In this case, it is possible that the history of the painting will take precedence to the work of art (when displayed in a museum, visitors might go there to see Hitler's favorite painting rather than Vermeer's artwork.