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Ben Johnson: An Artist’s Perspective

Take a tour of the collection with artist Ben Johnson – discover how painters throughout history have constructed architecture and space.

Johannes Vermeer, 'A Young Woman standing at a Virginal', about 1670-2

Ben Johnson: An Artist's Perspective
Johannes Vermeer, 'A Young Woman standing at a Virginal' – 2 mins 32 secs


Ben Johnson: [Johannes] Vermeer is one of my heroes. He’s a man who paints in such a way that I can’t believe he wasn’t familiar with optical equipment. There is no doubt that the resolution of certain details within Vermeer paintings must owe something to the world of the lens.

What I want to do is look at this beautiful painting: this moment of quiet elegance, this moment of intimacy. We have a confined space – the confined space of the canvas – which in itself is intimate. This isn’t heroic in scale; it’s heroic in its ambitions. And this space is animated by light coming through the window.

What are we looking at here? We’re looking at a woman in quiet reflection, a woman staring at the artist... or is she staring at the artist? There’s a theory that Vermeer used a camera obscura. But this was no ordinary camera obscura – no small box – but a room constructed within his own studio where his sitters would come and stand for him. If this is the case, the woman is looking at a blank wall with a small hole in it. And this small hole would allow the image of another room to be captured onto a piece of paper or onto the wall. This is a simple piece of optics: it can be created by just sticking a pin in a blind or in a piece of paper, putting it across a window, blacking out the room... and you will get an inverted image of the outside world. It’s like being inside a camera.

So he [Vermeer] was a man within a camera but that means he’s quite clearly the ultimate voyeur. Everything that he sees is detached. This is what is important to me: that all works of art are the by-product of objectivity and detachment. Passion is there but it is not the wild passion of the archetypal bohemian artist. It is the passion of somebody trying to come to terms with their own time and space and their own being in a chaotic world.

Ben Johnson takes a look at a painting by one of his heroes, Vermeer, and considers the artist's use of the camera obscura.

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