/ Essays / 2005 / No.8: Tom Hunter: Vermeer to no End

Friederun Hardt-FriederichsEssay No.8October, 16 2005

Tom Hunter: Vermeer to no End

British photo artist Tom Hunter is fascinated by the Old Master.

Brieflesendes Mädchen am offenen Fenster
Figure 1:
Brieflesendes Mädchen am offenen Fenster
Johannes Vermeer "van Delft" (1632-1675)
canvas, 83 x 65 cm

With friendly permission of Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden
Photo: Estel/Klut, gallery-number: 1336
Already in the 3rd essay, "Vermeers Echo", I pointed to the far reaching and continuing influence of Vermeer on later artists. It is not surprising that a young socially critical and politically motivated photo artist of our times picks up the themes of the Dutch master of the 17th century in his photo work.
The British Tom Hunter reconstructs Vermeer's painting "Woman Reading at the Window" (figure 1) and titles his work "Woman Reading a Repossession Order" (figure 2). This photo belongs to the series of photos "Unknown Persons" from 1997 which Hunter completed as a final exam (for his MA degree) at the London Royal College of Art. Born in 1965 in Bournemouth, England, and residing in London, Hunter reconstructs the motives of Old Masters and resets them in current environments. He avoids professional models and relies on lay persons whom he photographs in their own cultural social settings.
Woman reading a Possession Order
Figure 2:
Woman reading a Possession Order, 1997
Tom Hunter, born 1965
Photography, 152 x 122 cm

With friendly permission of: White Cube Gallery, London
Jonathan Janson, on the other hand, (figure 3) replaced items of the paintings of Vermeer in his "New Vermeers" with modern day communication means to bring the motif into the presence. Hunter, in contrast, achieves this by using photography, a present day medium of expression. Despite the awareness of possible manipulation of this medium, photography serves as documentation, and communicates realism, authenticity, and immediacy.
Hunter interprets the subject of Vermeer in a different way then Jonathan Janson. Though he uses for his setting the composition, the light, the colors and especially the letter motif as Vermeer did, he includes the illustrated letter's content in the title, and in doing so, he creates social and political importance. By using this element of inclusion Hunter does not give us room to guess the letter content.
Essentially, the subject in the photo is a young woman standing at the window in a sparsely furnished room, while reading an eviction notice for the squatted or illegally occupied apartment. Hunter expands Vermeer's composition with the addition of a baby next to the woman. With that, the critical meaning of the photo increases dramatically. Not only is the young mother threatened by the homelessness but so is the baby.
A comparing view of Vermeer's painting and Hunter's photograph establishes that both of the two depicted women belong to a different social economic setting of their time. Vermeer's woman is shown in an upper middle class setting. A comfortably furnished room with elegant window hangings, carved chair, table rug and a big bowl filled with fruits make this clear. The reading woman is dressed elegantly but modestly. In Hunter's photograph no hint is given of a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle. In contrast, everything hints at poverty. To create this effect of the photo the knowledge of the title is a prerequisite.
To understand Hunter's work it is helpful to know that the photographer got himself intensely acquainted with the political, social questions and the legal situation of the squatter scene in England. He portrayed, in the discussed photo, people in the poor district of Hackney in East London who had occupied empty houses. His modern letter reading girl is named Filepa, a dance therapist. She lived 8 years in the occupied house where she gave birth to her daughter Saskia. Then she received the possession order. As such, the title of the depicted example of an image of a reading woman informs us of the content of the given scene. The authenticity and urgency of this scene which the photographer uses with his chosen medium are heightened with the use of the identity and story of the depicted woman. He does not create fictitious reality with the help of a model but exposes the real facts.
Young Woman Reading Glamour
Figure 3:
Young Woman Reading Glamour, 1999, Jonathan Janson (USA), Oil on canvas; 18 1/2 in. x 19 in.
With friendly permission of Jonathan Janson
Why does Hunter use Vermeer's work as a model? There appears to be a discrepancy between what the viewer sees in the photo and the content of the given title. No fright is expressed in the young mothers face. If it was not for the explicit content of the title one could assume a peaceful setting as depicted in Vermeer's painting. The presence of the baby adds to the peaceful feeling of the setting, one of innocence and hope (instead of the bowl of fruit Vermeer used, Hunter adds the imagery of the baby as the fruit of mankind). The baby's bright red jumpsuit is complimented by the mother's green sweater; its blue baby blanket is in contrast to the pale yellow of the wall.
It seems that Hunter uses this irritating discrepancy to stimulate a political reaction or solution. Indeed, a change might have taken place as a result of his work.
Letters, sometimes, but not always, transport a meaningful message. The medium of the written word still has not lost its significance today. Letters whose content is not decipherable when used in paintings stimulate a special fascination, a not to be satisfied curiosity which the painter purposefully used.
In the discussed situation, the photo artist uses the opposite. Because Hunter communicates the meaning of the photo in the title he satisfies the curiosity of the viewer, but at the same time, hopes to encourage the viewer's participation to stimulate a social and political change.

(translated by Roswitha Lacuesta)

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