Balancing Act

Horoscopes: on the good days, love them! on bad days, leave them! I fall fickle on either side of the fence on this one: sometimes things seem insanely in-line with what I’ve read in a mag, a rag or a newspaper, while at others the life happenings and the horoscope are completely out of kilter. But there is one astrological aspect I’ve never been able to contest, and that’s my total, utter Libra-ness. This is my sign, and how. Indecisive? I think that’s a Yes! Especially since moving to the States where there are 200 choices of breakfast cereal in one shopping aisle. Gullible? Sure: banoffee and key lime pies are full fruit servings for me. On the up side there are diplomatic and sociable streaks and some have it that as a Libran I am charm personified. I believe them (easily influenceable is another tell-tale trait).

We are about to enter my sign so it’s only right that the Libra emblem (a scales or balance, the only symbol of the zodiac that’s represented by an inanimate object) should enter the fray today. This is Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664) by Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675), a Dutch master who veers from typical Dutch-ness. Sure, his style started in the artistic tradition of his homeland in the 17th century, but a) his choice of subjects, and b) his original vision, make him unclassifiable.

This is just the kind of beautiful, mute scene he specializes in: it’s everyday, intimate and has no ‘story’. She seems removed from us as she stands holding a balance in her hand. The technique – it’s clear – is like none other. It’s not so much the fact the Vermeer is painting from life (nothing unusual there) but his obsession with its accurate translation: the pin-sharp precision and impeccable ‘realness’ comes from his use of a camera obscura, an optical box that can project images of a scene onto a screen.

Then there’s the surface, which from a distance looks molten, silken and creamed onto the canvas… but a closer look lets us see something different: dotted touches of light-colored paint onto what were still just-wet colored layers. This pseudo-pointillism shakes the surface into life and has each object in the picture responding individually to the light. See the strands of pearls and the gold chain glimmering and glowing on the table.

One of the things I often hear said about Vermeer is that he’s a painter of perfect silence. And for me he is. In fact his silence in this scales picture is deafening, radiating: how on earth does he emulate an auditory sensation in a visual scene? In this case the quiet helps us focus on the moral lesson that infiltrates the picture: behind her hangs a painting of the Last Judgement and before her hangs a mirror. Those things, added to the fact she’s watching the weighing scale come to rest, amount to a metaphorical message, about achieving balance in life, temperance and such.

Vermeer rather hammers home the concept with the Last Judgement allusion, but the idea of us eking out equilibrium and bringing balance to our behaviors is as approachable and identifiable as you like. Just make sure that in the middle of all the balancing of bits and pieces and weighing up of pros and cons you hang onto your ability to make decisions. Trust me: the cereal aisle is fun for about a minute, if that.