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FEATURE: Molecular biologist Shin-Ichi Fukuoka honored as a Vermeer aficionado

July 14, 2014

Yasushi Funatsu



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 the artist's most renowned paintings.

The Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, home to Vermeer's masterpiece "Girl with a Pearl Earring," recently named Shin-Ichi Fukuoka, 54, as one of 20 aficionados of the artist from around the world.

The Japanese scientist currently lives in New York, where he is a visiting professor at Rockefeller University, a leading biomedical research institute. 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 recreation 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 known in Japan for popular bestsellers such 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 says.

The realism depicted by Vermeer's brushstrokes 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 Japanese 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 at Rockefeller in New York, Fukuoka says he came across Vermeer paintings at the Frick Collection and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the city and was impressed by them.

Since then, of the 37 existing works attributed to the Dutch painter and held by collections around the world, Fukuoka says he has seen all but one. "The Concert," one of the works 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 has 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 visit to 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 says of his interpretation of what Vermeer attempts with his painting.

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

He returned to New York in March 2013. Fukuoka 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 its social, cultural and racial diversity unseen in any other place in the world.



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Source: Japan Economic Newswire


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