When I think about loneliness, the work that comes to mind is The Milkmaid, sometimes called The Kitchen Maid, by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. We are not sure of the exact date of the oil on canvas (46 cm x 41 cm), but it was made during 1657-1658.
I got interested in the details of this painting through one of my guest tutors at Goldsmiths College, University of London, professor-artist Micheal Craig Martin. During tutorials with me on my abstract works, he discussed them with a comparison of a narrative painting by Vermeer. He asked me to look at the extremes and details painted by Vermeer. He meant not the realism of the painting, but the extremes in the detail. He suggested that I take my abstract paintings to their extreme.
The Milkmaid has a sturdy woman with a gesture of pouring milk. In the details, her face, we see an unpleasantness. She has puffy cheeks, and there is a certain sadness painted by the lonely artist. Some parts of the canvas were painted over underlying images — details and images of ceramic tiles, nail and cracks in the white lime painted wall, dry bread, the cane basket, skin tone differences with light and shadow, cloth tints and so on. The flesh of her face and her eyes carry the burden of unseen loneliness and the vagaries of her hard life as painted by the observer in a kitchen. The artist must have experienced his thick loneliness mirrored in his subject and hence takes a long period to transform it brilliantly with the contrast of outside light passing through the framed glass window.
The kitchen here is a place of a working woman, as observed by a complete and sensitive reader of visual meaning. Vermeer created loneliness through simple yet meaningful realism. This must be one of the finest paintings created by Vermeer and the original can be seen at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. I trust Craig Martin’s words, “See the extremity in the day-to-day life in Vermeer’s paintings.” It is a very good example to see maximum darkness in loneliness, just like experiencing light at the infinite.
I would look at loneliness in the context of someone who is a loner, comfortable with one’s own company and in the company of nature. I don’t want to see it as a mournful state. One can befriend loneliness, it can be a comfort zone. If one can be comfortable with one’s own self, then one is comfortable in almost any circumstance.
Several women artists have used it as an advantage, a state of mind allowing the possibility of delving deep inside. There is an acceptance of and even joy of being on one’s own. I do think of Georgia O’Keeffe’s life and works in this context. There is a singular presence of a central image in her work — whether it is a skull of an animal or a lily in a vase or a painting of high buildings of New York. I was always drawn towards the ‘still life’ she painted. It was a deep intrinsic study of an object; that oneness with the materiality of things was quite engaging for me. Over the years, I have come to understand this deep connection she shared with nature.
I am thinking of a work titled Winter Road-I, she painted in 1963. It is a minimal painting with a very simple calligraphic line that depicts the highway she could see for years from her home and studio in Abiquiú in New Mexico. She had moved there after her husband Alfred Stieglitz’s demise. She continued living in New Mexico while extensively travelling internationally in the later part of her life. Her last few years were in Santa Fe, till she died at the age of 98. So, a substantial part of her life was about exploring the terrain in New Mexico, walking or driving around, making beautiful, sublime paintings of the landscape of that region.
Winter Road-I has a philosophical, almost zen-like, quality. The swiping swing of the curve across the surface looks like a musical note — a calligraphic mark. The abstraction of this work comes from acute observation of the view and disciplined practice. It is a slow, deliberated process of seeing and absorbing and then arriving at this shape. It is a lone shape showing a road — a spiritual journey.
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