Guerilla artist playfully painting over Vermeer during Rijksmuseum exhibit's final week
This is the final weekend of the lauded Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which has attracted visitors from around the world. As part of this special occasion, Jessica Kuhn, a 23-year-old German-Russian artist, has been presenting a performance in the museum's bicycle and pedestrian tunnel, where she paints over her own copy of a Vermeer artwork before covering it back up again immediately afterwards.
The exhibition at the Amsterdam museum, which sold out just over a month after it opened, is among the most celebrated showcases in the art world this year, bringing together 28 paintings by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. During the final week of the exhibition, Kuhn, who resides and studies in Rotterdam, has been spending her day painting over Vermeer's "Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” to add an extra element to the artwork. Once completed, she quickly covers it up, "as if it was never there," she explained to NL Times.
She said that her inspiration for the performance came after a painted-over Cupid was uncovered during the restoration of the painting, which was originally painted around 1658. The restoration, which took place in Germany from 2019 to 2021, used X-ray imaging techniques to reveal that a nude Cupid was part of the original work, and was covered up with an additional layer of paint by someone in the 18th century, long after the artist’s death. “This was hidden for ages, and now it’s there,” Jessica said. “A new story has emerged.”
The discovery caused a rethinking of how Vermeer’s painting should be interpreted, as the presence of a Cupid gives it a new romantic connotation. The masks at the Cupid's feet could be meant as making a point about true love.
With her performance, entitled "Un/cover Vermeer", she aims to explore what else might have been hidden in Vermeer's painting. She does this by painting over a copy of the artwork she made during her studies. She added varied new elements, including Maurizio Cattelan's notorious banana duct-taped to a wall, an angel wielding a machine gun, a table featuring the infamous blue envelope from the Dutch tax authorities, and Kim Kardashian. Once Kuhn is finished, she paints over it and starts again.
Her goal is to highlight the complexity of Vermeer's painting and reestablish its connection with our contemporary world. “The goal is to tell a different story every time,” she says. She has observed that visitors and passers-by seem intrigued by her performance. "It's very interactive," she states. Her audience reacts in various ways when she makes her painting vanish. She reflects, "Sometimes they get emotional, it's very funny to see people's reaction."
"Most people are here for Vermeer, so they are interested in my work," she said. The artist noted that many engage in their work as they had been studying his work before coming to the museum. “Sometimes they brag a lot,” she added.
The security staff of the museum first did not let her paint under the museum. “It’s actually forbidden.” She calls it a guerilla performance, a spontaneous surprise performance in public spaces, often in unauthorized locations. The goal is to surprise the audience. “At first they asked me to leave, but now it’s fine, they just let me do my own thing.”
The museum even offered her a job following the success of her performance. “The funny thing is that I actually don’t like the way Vermeer paints,” she admits. What appeals to her is the buzz his work generates and the thought-provoking reflections his paintings invoke. She does stress the need for greater appreciation of contemporary artists. “There are many Vermeers out there, but people don’t care about them," she remarks.
Unlike most, she managed to view the Vermeer's exhibition. "But I had to sneak in," she confesses with a chuckle.