Scientist honored as Vermeer aficionado

by Yasushi Funatsu

Kyodo

A Japanese molecular biologist with a love of the works of 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer has been recognized by the museum that houses one of his most renowned paintings.

The Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, home to Vermeer’s masterpiece “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” recently named Shinichi Fukuoka, 54, one of 20 aficionados of the artist from around the world.

The scientist currently lives in New York, where he is a visiting professor at Rockefeller University, a leader in biomedical research. A replica of the “Girl,” often called “the Mona Lisa of the North,” adorns the living room of his apartment.

At the invitation of the Mauritshuis, he traveled to The Hague in June to star in a promotional video for the museum, which reopened at the end of that month after two years of renovation and expansion.

The museum honored Fukuoka, a self-proclaimed Vermeer geek, with a touch of playfulness in the film. It shows him relaxing on a sofa in a re-creation of his apartment but featuring the genuine “Girl” painting on the wall.

One might wonder what it is about Vermeer that fascinates the molecular biologist, who is known in Japan for penning such best-sellers as “Seibutsu to Museibutsu no Aida” (“Between the Organic and the Inorganic”) and “Doteki Heiko” (“Dynamic Equilibrium”).

“He doesn’t try to interpret the world but impartially depicts it as is,” Fukuoka said.

The realism depicted by Vermeer’s brush strokes and his scientific attention to detail have produced works of art with photographic qualities. The Dutch painter’s technique appears to resonate with the mind of the scientist, who attempts to objectively unravel the mysteries of life.

Fukuoka postulates that Vermeer’s approach to painting was inspired by Anton van Leeuwenhoek, known as the father of microscopy, who, like the artist, was born in 1632 in the Dutch town of Delft.

While studying in his late 20s in Rockefeller, New York, Fukuoka said he ran across Vermeer paintings at the Frick Collection and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and came away impressed.

Since then, Fukuoka says he has seen all but one of the 37 works attributed to the Dutch painter in collections around the world. “The Concert,” which was stolen in a massive heist from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, is the one he has never seen in person.

Driven by his “geeky” enthusiasm, Fukuoka published a book on the painter — “Vermeer Hikari no Okoku” (“Vermeer: The Realm of Light”), three years ago.

The trip in June was Fukuoka’s fourth to the Mauritshuis. The “Girl,” owned by the museum, is also known as “Girl in a Blue Turban.”

Fukuoka is drawn to the color blue.

“In nature, there is no pigment for blue and it only exists as a phenomenon. It’s not something you can capture in your hand and own. Blue is a color of longing,” he says.

Whenever Fukuoka visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art near his apartment, he only looks at Vermeers, bypassing the Impressionists, van Gogh and other masters.

“The world is constantly flowing. You cannot describe it as it is. You carve out a fragment and then you have the time leading to that moment and the time starting from there. It is like suspending and then depicting the constantly evolving life,” Fukuoka said of his interpretation of what Vermeer attempts with his painting.

Fukuoka sees it as an approach akin to differentiation in calculus, the discovery of which is attributed to Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, both great thinkers of the 17th century in which the painter lived.

Fukuoka returned to New York in March 2013. He plans to stay on for the time being to “philosophically contemplate the phenomenon of life” in a city that he says has a distinct “pulse” that stems from a social, cultural and racial diversity unseen in any other place in the world.