Friday, February 25, 2011

Travelogue 385 – February 25
Picnic Parties

I have a free day! Or I should say I have an expensive free day. I've committed to coming into London at least once a week for foundation business. This week, it's been twice. And that during 'half-term', when all the children of England are on leave from school, and train tickets prices nearly double. And since all appointments but one have fallen through for the day, I've spent a good deal of money for a free day in London.

I can't say I mind too much. The price has been paid, and I don't get many free days anymore. I leave Paddington Station by the front door and stand blinking in a neighborhood I've never seen before. I have arrived often enough at Paddington, but have always headed from the train straight to the Tube.

I hadn't quite realized before how close the station was to Hyde Park. I meander around the park for a while. I feel obliged: the sun is making a sincere effort, after all. The park is crowded. I return to the streets by Speaker's Corner (where once again free speech is a dead letter) and Marble Arch, and I veer around busy May Fair.

My evening meeting is in Marylebone, so that's where I head. I've taken the long route from Paddington. And it's fortunate I did because I encounter some old friends at Manchester Square. Some of them I ran into just a few weeks ago in Amsterdam. These are an elite set of friends, I must say. Not just anyone gets to see them. One has to know where they hang out – or to be as lucky as I am.

Rembrandt isn't looking his usual stunning self, but Frans Hals is convivial as ever. His 'Laughing Cavalier' captures some of his finest spirit, the roguish underside of the old, black-clad Dutch imperial soul, captures the sarcasm without which a Nederlander would be a German.

This is the Wallace Collection, a very fine museum in this city of museums, and one I hadn't heard of before. Well worth the visit, though: the booty of five generations of aristocratic collectors lodged in the urban palace they called home, replete with all manner of knick-knacks. There's exquisite eighteenth-century furniture and porcelain, old armour and weapons, sculpture bronze and marble, snuff boxes, and just a few paintings. Beside my Dutch friends, there are lots of Boucher and Watteau, Rubens and Reynolds, Van Dyck and Canaletto.

My loves of the day were Van Dyck and Watteau. Anthony Van Dyck shows up with a half dozen or so tall portraits, my favorite being that of Philippe Le Roy, savvy illegitimate son of some savvy merchant in Antwerp. He's obviously done well for himself, securing his place among the great portraits of the day, scratching the head of his hunting dog and looking generally contented with himself, and well he should, being drawn so well. He's beautiful.

I'll pause before applauding Watteau, just to tip my (brimless) hat to Monsieur Fragonard, who produced 'The Swing', one of the funner pieces of the exhibit, showing two languid gentlemen pushing a lady on a swing in one of those idealized little Rococo woods dotted with classical ruins. The lady condescends to make a kick just above one smiling gentleman, opening a view up her voluminous skirts. Her look is one of scientific detachment and pity, really – his, one of simple rapture.

But on to Jean-Antoine Watteau, our trickster of the day, the originator of the genre that Fragonard has had such fun with. Moving along the museum wall, from one piece of Watteau to another, is to advance through a veritable forgotten decade of parties, debauched aristocrats making merry in dozens of idyllic parks and woods, furnished with the detritus of a thousand years of classical architecture and statuary. There are music men in ruffles, and lounging men and lounging women, sniffing dogs, and all under the shade of fair trees, Midsummer Night's Dream for the Gallic leisure classes, Arcadia by Versailles. And what's funny is how the woods predominate over the diminutive partiers, making the paintings fantastical landscapes as much as anything, studies in mortality as much as studies of revelry. Placing them in bizarre classical theme parks just makes them appear all the more fragile to my mind, whereas I think the point was to glorify humanity a la Mirandola.

There's an interesting set of portraits on one wall, three takes by three of the most prominent British painters of the eighteenth century, all of a young lady nicknamed Perdita. Perdita is one of those British actresses that rose to heights near legend in the centuries after Shakespeare had created roles like … Perdita. It was playing that particular role that she – sadly – caught the eye of the raunchy young Prince of Wales, the future King George IV. The affair made her and destroyed her. These portraits caught her in that all-too-brief shining moment between the two. And the portraits are remarkably consistent, preserving the eyes of brilliant mordancy, the beauty poised at its passing fullest phase.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Death and the Art of Lying
by Jarvis Lawrence Mundi III
Phase One, in Which Doris Gets Her Oats
February 24

You know, Mr. Ishiguro, the question the artist must ask him or herself at all times is, 'When is it ruined?' The 'it' here is undefined, as, of course, most art is. Let's frame it in the broadest sense: when is life ruined? Or, better: when is a human being ruined?

It's odd that one of the previews before the screening of your film would be the new Herzog film that claims to take us to the roots of art, to the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave in southern France, where human kind's earliest paintings are preserved, some 30,000 years-old. Oh, dear old Werner.

Mr. Ishiguro, do you know what the paintings portray? Animals.

It was the last night your film would be showing at Bath's precious 'Little Theatre'. It's been here since I arrived, and I gave you my word I would see it, didn't I? You didn't tell me that you yourself would be introducing the film at this very venue on Sunday night, which will in fact be the last showing.

I had two dubious reasons for wanting to view the film. The first is that I read your novel, the basis for the film. The novel was heart-wrenching, quietly bizarre and affecting. My second reason can be found in the promotional poster, an entrancing shot of Keira Knightley. She is so clearly looking at me every time I walk by, and trying to tell me something. It might be something erotic. More than likely, it's something mournful. It's a sad thought that hasn't occurred to me yet in all these years of morbid thoughts.

The author has produced the film adaptation. The author has claimed his stake in the hieratic line of homo delectus, the creature that lavishes hours on his portrait of water buffalo on submerged stone walls.

I've seen a lot of you lately, Kazuo, among the shreds of newsprint left on cafe tables. You have posed for photographic studies of Zen sensation, chilly celebrity. You render studied spoken-word paragraphs about the wonder of new parenthood. You speak about life. Your countenance, subdued as it is, by artifice, speaks of life.

The animals portrayed are alive. Blood flows through their veins.

There's something amiss in your film rendering, Kazuo. I don't mean to offend, but I read in your meditative news photos a willingness to hear. The actors are great. In fact, in the manner of many art-house films these days, the acting is the show. It's on display, much like certain mixes of gunpowder on the Fourth of July. One might just lose the trail of the story in admiration of the acting. And then, one awakens to the discrepancy between film and book. One remembers how one was moved.

Oh, Kazuo, I'm so tired of death. The old man with the sickle has been standing by for so many years now, I'm weary of him. He has the breath of a decrepit dog, or maybe of decaying autumn leaves lying too long in wait of a late winter. I wake at night and detect that stench. I know he's been warming himself at my feet, reading Dostoevsky, puffing a cold Meerschaum. I recall a dream in which I'm crying hopelessly.

When is it the milk has spoiled, Kazuo? 'Read the date,' he replies. When is a man ruined?

Watching your film, I'm enchanted by Keira. I'm even more enchanted by Carey Mulligan. But all it takes is a moment, like the careless step of the artisan in the marketplace, when he loses control of the fragile silver mirror, and it shatters. We all stand over it, and we privately mourn. Very privately. One moment I'm admiring lovely Carey, and in the next, I see only Leeza.

That's when the tear comes. One tear comes. It demands something of me. It's all good and well to indulge in the abundant talents of actors while safely indoors. But outside, the storm makes its demands.

I have to confess, my dear friend, that in that moment I know you're a fraud. You love beauty too much.

Do you think the artist of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc painted the water buffalo because he thought it was beautiful? Don't be fatuous, Kazuo. We might think his painting is beautiful; that is a very different matter.

I'm so tired of Death. I feel the weariness in my bones, like a debilitating flu. It aches in me. It pulls me down at night with insidious, gentle force. And the old man sucks in a chilly breath in delight when he reads about Ivan Karamazov. 'My, my,' he whispers just below the level of hearing, 'such beauty!' I awaken just then from another dream about Leeza. She is still beautiful.

Do you think that Leeza was beautiful because she loved beauty? That sweet soul? You offend me, friend. You really do. I dream about her. She is still beautiful. And every time I awaken, I must give her back to dust.

Who is the real heir to the artist of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc? Think about that late at night.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Travelogue 383 – February 19
My Space
Part Two

I've learned a few key things about myself living in Bath. I've learned that my average walking speed is between two and three miles per hour. I know that because I pass the bus station every evening on the way home. As I walk beside the ramp for buses, a sign flashes a message at me in red: Slow Down! And it gives me a reading for speed. When I'm cheery, it's three miles per hour; when I'm down it's two. Most times, it alternates between the two as I pass.

And there are the more disappointing things I've learned about myself. I'm staying in the loft room of a rather nice home on the rooftop of Bath, at the top of Beechen Cliff. This is Pey's neighborhood, of course, and one I'm very familiar with, and still infatuated with. I look out one window and see, well, Pey's house. I look out another and I see a panorama of the hills south of Bath. Looking right, I also see the green fields stretching toward Bristol. I am fond of that prospect. One day a few weeks ago, I set out to run to Bristol, and I passed among those very hills and fields. The run itself was something of a disaster; it did wonders for my now infamous injuries. And I wasn't even able to finish the entire course, only reaching the outskirts of downtown Bristol before I stopped at the sight of a supermarket, into which I staggered, insulting and shoving aside a pregnant woman who stood in front of the juices. A pint of orange juice dispatched, I grumpily boarded a local bus to the train station.

Anyway, my house in owned by Becky, and occupied by her and her two pre-teens. One day, I'm stalled in the middle of changing for my daily run when I get a phone call, and simultaneously there's a knock on my bedroom door. I vaguely say, 'Yeah?' and the door begins to swing inward. It's the boy of the family inviting me downstairs for lunch. But I don't know who is coming in, so I retreat, mid-sentence on the phone, behind the corner by my bed. The boy takes no clues and follows me, staring at my bare chest. 'Right. No, thanks there, James,' I reply politely, standing in the dark corner of my room, feeling only silly embarrassment.

One imagines there must be a submerged and, hopefully, an adequately repressed thrill in occurrences like this, (at least if 'one' is a post-Lolita urban Westerner). But I'm here to report, there is no joy in standing nearly naked before a pre-teen. What's left of the artist in me is disappointed. What's a good bohemian without indecent, illicit, thrills?

More disappointments: I'm learning again that I'm horrible at accents, and this is really one of the great tragedies of my life. I have always loved the company of those who can do accents. They have my permission to indulge in accents all night with me, and I'll delight like an idiot the whole time. After a few days in Bath, my internal voice speaks in a Bath accent. It's a very fun one. In any case, I am incapable of translating that voice into the external world. My attempts are embarrassing. What makes it all the worse is the teasing I receive at the hands of said pre-teens. They would naturally find the American accent amusing. When I try to mimic theirs, I just get laughs.

I'm learning that I don't mind the rain so much. I have made a great point in the past of my general opposition to the concept and experience of rain. I have taken care to differentiate between rain and snow, as a good Minnesotan should. Dry precipitation is quite acceptable in my book. For best effect, don't start the storm until it's well under freezing. The only exception to my rule about snow is if I have to drive. But I have equally strong objections to the concept and experience of driving, so that by rights falls under a different subtitle. (And driving in Great Britain merits another entire diatribe.)

But rain in England is simply … appropriate, isn't it? I prepped myself psychologically while in sunny Ethiopia. I know northern Europe far too well. What's more, while I was still a runner – oh, those glorious days … only last week – while I was a runner, I found clouds and drizzle pleasant. 'Clouds and drizzle' just about covers it. That's ninety percent of the weather here. I harbor entirely different emotions for a gentle drizzle than I do for rain. It's meditative; it's melancholy. It doesn't ruin your clothes. It doesn't ruin your hairstyle. The latter is all the more important now that I can't afford a visit to the barber.

I wake in the mornings. I assess the day's variation on clouds and drizzle. I watch the impacts of the precipitation on the skylight, against the weak and grey northern light of the sky. If I can count the raindrops, it's nice enough to go out. And that's most of the time. The air outside is fragrant of lush growth and mold, fresh with the rain.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Travelogue 382 – February 18
My Space
Part One

It's Friday night, and I've allowed myself to work too late. The consequences are unique to England. I should back up and set the scene. I'm just about two weeks into a working vacation in Bath, England. I'm renting a bedroom up the hill in Pey's lovely neighborhood on top of the steep hill above and south of town center.

I keep the work going. Work never stops, no matter what the locale. In Bath, my day is divided into three shifts, Sunday to Saturday. The morning shift is all about Ethiopia. I walk down the hill and enter the precincts of lovely, centuries-old Bath stone, looking for my work station. I spend loads of time in front of the netbook. And then my second shift begins. That entails the first of many hikes back up the intimidating hill, back home. After some tidying up of the morning's work, I'm off to train. I'm training for the Bath Half, March 6. I'm only achieving mixed results at best with that work, dealing as I am with a host of old-man maladies and injuries.

The third shift is generally writing. That has to happen in a pub. The English pub is a wonderfully inspiring work space. It follows a nearly invariable pattern, in its d├ęcor and in its hours. Since I'm fond of early evenings and early bedtimes, I like to get right to work after training, ordering my first pint by five. The earlier the better. There are practical reasons for that. The after-work crowd comes in soon afterward. And on a Friday night, the crowd is unruly.

I'm working ar Molloy's tonight. At six, the boys enter. They start in with me right away. The lads are not from Bath; their accents are broad and hard to follow. One of them seems to want to tell me about how fit he and his mates are. Another is very curious whether I'm up to business or to porn. 'Are you a businessman, are you?' No, I'm …. Another one seems to want to know about my digestion, or possibly my bum. All of it is delivered in a rapid-fire, drug-accelerated patois that I only partially understand.

Glenn takes a special interest in me, and the boys have a good laugh while he chats me up. He could be from a movie, possibly from a cartoon, he's so street-Brit skinhead. He's small and wiry, and looks perennially ready for a brawl. His eyes are piercing and mocking He wants to know who I am, where I'm from, and what I'm doing. Magically, the only thing I have to do in order to avoid a thrashing is to talk with him.

See, Glenn is from Swindon, a larger and more working class city not far from Bath to the east, on the way to London. In Bath, he says, leaning into me in his muscular and confidential manner, the people don't reply when you say hello. They're just blank, he says. 'It doesn't cost much, does it? Just to say hello? Some people, it makes their day, doesn't it? Just a friendly hello.' I cannot disagree. I ask about Swindon folk. He informs me they are 'skatty'. 'You know, they come out with the most random comments. 'They might say, “Good morning, ma'am. How are you this morning, and could you please tell me how are your sausages are getting on?” You know, something like that.'

Glenn and I are quickly mates. The blokes wander off, bored with teasing Glenn, who takes no notice. He's having a good chat with his new mate, Dan. (That's me.) There are so many things he wants to tell me about. He wants to tell me about raves. He tells me about the biggest of them all in Stratford-on-Avon. He fishes for the phone in his deep trouser pockets. The screensaver on the phone is photo of a young lady with a very fine figure and unblemished skin. She's showing lots of that skin, her legs spread. Glenn starts scrolling through photo files until he finds several videos, informing me as he does about the size and craziness of this rave. The video is less than crazy. There are people meandering among tents. 'You like bass and drums?' He demands, and he shows me the drum and bass tent. There are bobbing heads and a stage far off. 'Wow,' I say.

Glenn wants to tell me about doing the bungee jump at the rave, all 'pilled up'. His accent is getting the better of me, and I nod. It seems the line for the bungee event is a long one, and he combats his boredom with another set of pills, borrowing a bottle of water from his neighbor in line. (This last detail involves a story of its own, several minutes long, that slides right by me. Glenn weaves in the seat next to me, continually swinging back toward me, nearly butting heads and never letting his gaze waver.) 'Can you see it, mate? Bungee jumping on pills (on pi-ws)? How crazy is that?' I never find out what the pills were, and I wouldn't be shocked to find out that he never knew himself.

The lads have moved on. The boy who is 'fit' comes back. 'How are we doing, laddies?' It occurs to Glenn that this is his time to exit. He rises, and he makes several attempts at an exit, returning with vital observations. And then Glenn is gone. I could work, but my computer is packed away. I'm done for the day.

And that's the challenge of working in English pubs. The people are very friendly. On one of my first nights in Bath, I'm working at the Bear, a local pub up on the hill. Suddenly it's quiz night. People are flooding in. Tables are reserved. Richard invites me to join his group. Richard is another chatty bloke. He, his mate, his girfriend, and I form a quiz team. I tell them about Ethiopia. They tell me about their business – selling sex toys via the internet. I'm sure they're yanking my chain, but they earnestly insist. Richard backs it up by naming a sex shop in Minneapolis that he had heard about in … trade magazines (?), a place he remembers because it is owned by 'serious lesbians'.

For the record, our team does fairly well. There are six rounds, and my biggest contribution is during the round about dictators. Go figure. We lose it in the last round, the subject of which is British soap operas. It's worth losing to see the pub denizens creasing brows and slapping knees over who was so-and-so's fourth wife, the one who subsequently rose from the dead to exact vengeance.

Oh, fortitude, lend me fortitude, my Muse, as I try to craft a brief life and a brief book in old Bath Spa, so unresponsive to the hellos of Swindon lads but so overflowing with brotherly feelings for the writer from bloody America.

My readers will be relieved, it occurs to me, that I was able to catch the match between Arsenal and Barcelona the night before last, against all odds … but that's a tale for next time, innit? Cheers.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Travelogue 381 – February 3
Some Miles

My second day in Amsterdam is gorgeous! Even before I left Ethiopia, I resigned myself to clouds and cold for the whole of my European sojourn, but here it is, my second day in the gloomy north, and the sun is proudly shining. The sky is boldly blue. I rise from bed astonished and fortified by abundant daylight. It's exactly what I needed on a day set aside for loads of work and many miles training for the half marathon. The sun gives me strength.

Living at the HEM Hotel gives me access to two of the largest of Amsterdam's city parks, the Vondelpark and Rembrantspark. I set out in the afternoon, after a morning of work in the cafe on my netbook, after my breakfast of egg and bagel has digested. I throw on the battered running shoes that double as walking shoes on this trip, shoes breaking through in the toes and with arches that gave up the ghost long ago. I set out from the HEM, chasing the geese along the first canal, crossing over on the concrete bridge and heading north until the canal takes a ninety-degree turn. Carrying on in that direction, I eventually reach the Vondelpark.

The Vondelpark was opened in the mid-nineteenth century, one of those grand city parks so much the rage in the flush of the industrial age. It is reminiscent of New York's Central Park in its narrow shape, acting as a sort of bridge among some of the city's most traveled districts. I run the park's length along one side of the connected ponds in the middle of the park, running all the way to the garish casino that stands opposite the park's grand entrance at the first of the centrum's canals. And I run back again along the other side of the ponds, exiting the park toward the north.

I feel my way along the streets north of my neighborhood, guided by the google map in my head, eventually finding the Rembrandtpark, another sizable rectangle of meadows and paths squeezed among the dense blocks of Amsterdam. This park is more modern, dating only to the middle of the last century, partaking of the bleakness of post-industrialism, feeling more like a place of our times, 'urban' in the ugly way of our belated age. Poor old Rembrandtpark can't help that it was assigned some more down-and-out districts of the city to serve. It spans a few miles of the north-south axis of the city, vs. Vondelpark's posh east-west section of the town. By the time the park reaches its northern terminus, all pretense has been dropped. Precious city park acreage is devoted to a drive-through KFC. I jog by the scarce locals, the hookers, and the punks … twice. In order to get my mileage, I have the run the circuit of Rembrantpark two times, and then go back and circle Vondelpark one and a half times.

The next day, I'm sore and tired. The sky seems just as used up. Ignominious clouds have crept back. The HEM locks me out of my room while I'm out for coffee. The elevators don't work, so I walk up and down to the third floor three times trying each new key they give me, until finally a cleaning woman lectures me about check-out time and unlocks my door with Teutonic authority. I'm kicked out forthwith, and have to wander the dim streets until my evening flight.

Since I have the time, I figure out the bus route from Oud Zuid to Schiphol – that's the 197 for anyone interested – and then stare into some canals, stare into some coffees, stare into my computer screen. I'm tempted to check out another museum, but find I just don't have the energy.

Evening inches forward. It's been coming on since the first glow among the clouds. As the light fails, I find my bus stop. Amsterdam recedes into the night, strange rows of high rises removed from the centrum like corporate colonies. Half the people disembarking from the Schiphol bus are fast food and hotel and baggage employees, sulking teens and tired ghetto moms. Airports: where the jaded and the bone-weary meet to exchange soiled bank notes. Airports: monumental fluorescent-lit halls where the sleepless wander – the closest thing to a zombie movie you'll find in the real world.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Travelogue 380 – February 2
The Neighborhood

I've adopted a neighborhood again. That's what I do. In Rome, it's Colli Albani. In Addis, it's Shiro Meda and Amist Kilo – the north side. There's no compelling logic to my choices. They're often led haphazardly by the first contact, the proximity of my first hotel or a friend's place.

Neighborhoods suit me. Neighborhoods are how people live. My patience for historic / touristic town centers is wearing thin. I like the day to day. And mundane doesn't mean uninteresting. People live with history. History lives through people. 'Regular' districts of major cities can offer some surprising discoveries.

My neighborhood in Amsterdam straddles Slotervaart and Oud Zuid, as near as I can tell. There are always fine distinctions among neighborhood names that a non-native won't catch. My home base is the HEM Hotel, a rather nondescript place dropped in a small bit of nowhere. On the next block is a school named 'St. Jan de Doper'. Only Amsterdam would honor a Saint John the Doper with a primary school. Price is the only thing to recommend this hotel. One can almost always find a cheap room here online. But the place loves its rules, and it makes up for low room rates with the innumerable charges for extras. Breakfast is about $20. Early check-in costs ten euros per hour. Late check-out costs twenty euros per hour. Etc.

It takes only a block or two's stroll to discover the virtues of the HEM's location. Two blocks north is the #2 tram, which runs frequently and reaches the centrum in 10-15 minutes. Walk two blocks east to the canal, taking note of the enormous white geese, noisy but harmless. Cross the canal and walk a few more blocks to the next canal. Then turn left and walk up to the main road, the street that hosts the tram. What you'll notice, besides the geese, are the pleasant brick residential buildings, the scores of people on their bicycles, the peacefulness, and the many little shops and pubs along the sidewalks and bike paths.

On the tram street, across the canal, you'll find my breakfast place, the 'Bagels and Beans'. Everything there is good, coffee, sandwiches, and yes, bagels. Having crossed that second canal, you'll find that the eastward walk becomes by degrees more fun, more posh. It's a few miles until you reach the centrum, and frankly the centrum is where things get seedy again. Stick to Oud Zuid, I say. North of the tram road are loads of little shops and eateries, and several of the larger city parks. My favorite meals this time are at the Gent aan de Schinkel. Gent is 'on the Schinkel', another canal. To make the name most fun, you have to pronounce Schinkel properly, making your 'ch' rise from the throat in a deep 'h' sound. Dinner on the Schinkel is heavenly, lamb with apricot and hazelnut, venison with lentils, complemented best by a few pints of LaChouffe. I'm very happy walking back to the hotel, stopping at the used book store where the elderly proprietress recognizes me. She turns on the light in the back room, where she keeps the shelves of English language books. It's interesting to see which authors pop up in different international locales. In Amsterdam, it would seem that among the most popular authors in English are Graham Greene (true everywhere,) Jerzy Kosinski (!), Len Deighton, and Virginia Woolf. Okay.

I arrived in Amsterdam at 7am. The HEM kindly offered to let me check in at 11am, for an early charge of only thirty euros. I declined, shouldered my pack, and headed for the tram. The sun still hadn't risen, and it wasn't easy to tell even when it did because of the thick fog. The day was never more than dim, and the wind was sharp and cold. It was a good day for a museum.

I haven't been to the Rijksmuseum for many years. For half the price of checking in to the HEM early, I bought the privilege of a few hours with the Dutch artists of the Golden Age. There was Frans Hals, happy-go-lucky portraitist with the light touch and loose hand, fond of painting debauching bourgeoisie. There was Rembrandt, early and late, profoundly sensitive to the emotion in a face, as demonstrated in his famous portrait of Jan Six, and profoundly attuned to the power of light, and to the power of one daub of paint, in an eye, on a button. I took in the famous 'Night Watch', his repackaging of the tradition of group portraits of the Dutch militia, refreshing it with action and depth. It blows the mind to think that a later generation would slice off pieces from either end in order to make it fit on their chosen wall.

But the piece that captured my heart was one by my perennial favorite, Vermeer. The piece is the called 'The Milkmaid'. She is in the kitchen, pouring milk from a pitcher into a bowl. On the table are a basket of bread and another pitcher. She stands before a window. Hanging on the wall is a wicker basket. Behind her on the tile floor is a little charcoal stove. Along the bottom of the wall, you see typical Dutch blue tile. Simple.

So what is it about Mr. Vermeer? I can't really say, in any final and all-encompassing way. But I can say he has a vibrant shade of blue that's all his own. I can say that there are details that jump out at you as amazingly sharp and convincing: the basket, the bread, the stove and the floor it stands on. Even the plain wall behind her is almost bizarrely convincing, including nail holes, chinks, and indentations, including the irregularities in the plaster, including the uneven impact of light and shadow on its surface. But a good painting isn't just about verisimilitude. It's a painting. The face is an impression of a face, a beautiful impression. If Mr. Vermeer had lived in the time of photography, would he have tried to match the accuracy? I tend to think not. However astonishing the detail in the wicker basket, it's the lovely face that everything else complements.