Vermeer’s enduring appeal for filmmakers

If you missed the once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of his work in Amsterdam, this documentary is the next best thing

Vermeer's painting "The Mistress and the Maid" is shown at an exhibition of 28 works by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in Amsterdam, Netherlands on February 6, 2023.
Vermeer's painting "The Mistress and the Maid" is shown at an exhibition of 28 works by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in Amsterdam, Netherlands on February 6, 2023.

Vermeer’s enduring appeal for filmmakers

It was this time last year when tourists were flooding into the Netherlands, and not just to see the tulip gardens. From February through June, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum displayed 28 of the 37 known paintings by Dutch Golden Age master Johannes Vermeer. As the Guardian’s reviewer wrote in the equivalent of an all-caps email, it was “one of the most thrilling exhibitions ever conceived.” The New York Times called the show “perfectly argued, perfectly paced, as clear and uncontaminated as the light streaming through those Delft windows.” Both publications remarked (as did anyone looking for a rationalisation while booking a KLM flight) that a staging of this magnitude would never happen again.

Though 650,000 people visited the blockbuster show, that still leaves many who may have hung a poster of The Milkmaid in their first grown-up kitchen, wishing that they could have gone. Luckily, Dutch documentarian Suzanne Raes had her cameras rolling during the lengthy—and surprisingly controversial—run-up to the exhibition, during which the curators worked diligently to convince other museums, and one American collector, to part with their precious paintings.

The resulting film, Close to Vermeer, is now rentable for just a few florin (or whatever currency you use) via most major streaming platforms. It is engaging and even, at times, touching.

The finite number of the 17th-century master’s works has long been part of the allure, and Close to Vermeer leans into this to give each entry in the catalogue its spotlight. The mastermind co-curator behind the exhibit, checking his list like George Clooney crewing up for the next Ocean’s Eleven-style caper, is the Rijksmuseum’s Gregor Weber—a mild-mannered man whose passion for the mysterious painter powers him through all bureaucratic hurdles. Just describing the impact of Vermeer’s art can bring him to tears, proving that he’s the right man for the job. And that he intends it to be his last before retirement makes the project all the more poignant.

The documentary quickly introduces the painter—and Vermeer scholar Jonathan Janson—to explain to those of us who skipped art history just why these paintings are so special. We also meet the effervescent Abbie Vandivere, a Canadian-raised Princeton University alum living in The Hague who is, essentially, the caretaker of Girl With a Pearl Earring and seems to have an almost supernatural connection to one of the most famous images in Western art. (There’s a humorous detour into the Mauritshuis museum’s gift shop, brimming with Girl kitsch.)

Also in the mix is Thomas Kaplan, a New York-based billionaire who owns one of the largest collections of Dutch art. As with beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder to determine if Kaplan comes across as a benevolent caretaker or a bit of a braggart with the shiniest toys. Raes, the filmmaker, tips her hand a bit when she cuts to the faces of conservators who are aghast at how he somewhat brusquely handles Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, one of only two Vermeers that are privately owned.

Every good movie needs a villain, though Kaplan is a little too goofy to fit that bill. Better is the stern representative of the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum in the not-exactly-bustling burg of Braunschweig, Germany, who refuses to consider parting with The Girl With the Wine Glass for this once-in-a-lifetime show. Though hundreds of thousands of people would be able to see it in Amsterdam, the reason for the refusal is that local students need to view it for their exams, and deviating from this routine would cause disruption.

Also, sadly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City refuses to part with two of its five Vermeers, because this would violate a no-lending stipulation made in their bequests. (To which any reasonable person should shout back “oh, come on, the guy’s dead!!”) A third from the Met, Young Woman With a Water Pitcher, is deemed too fragile to travel, as are works held in Vienna and Great Britain. The Astronomer, usually at the Louvre in Paris, is on loan in Abu Dhabi and cannot be moved.

Whereas the Met brought Americans shame for their unwillingness to play ball, New York’s Frick Collection is eager to share its three works, as is the National Gallery in Washington, DC, with its four. But here’s where things get really wacky. Maybe the National Gallery only has three Vermeers?

Just a few months before the show, the National Gallery, after careful study, declares that Girl With a Flute, one of its most valued paintings, was actually a fraud. Though the Washingtonians make a strong case, Weber and his team at the Rijksmuseum reject their conclusion and say it still counts. This leads to an emergency closed-door conclave of art evaluators and far more tension than you would expect in a nice documentary about a museum exhibit.

What one comes away with after watching Close to Vermeer is both an understanding of the artist’s greatness and the impact that his work has had on so many people’s lives. The mystery of Vermeer—about whom almost no biographical information is known, who has no record of apprenticeship with other masters, who achieved no fame in his lifetime, and whose impoverished widow sold paintings to buy bread—has proven to be a rich source for filmmakers in recent years.

The most famous example is the 2003 British film Girl With a Pearl Earring, a Masterpiece Theatre-esque fabrication of Vermeer’s process in creating his most famous work. Colin Firth plays the gloomy genius with flowing locks and an eternal scowl, capturing light up in his attic while avoiding his nagging wife and mother-in-law. Scarlett Johansson plays a wide-eyed new maid named Griet, who becomes Vermeer’s muse—and, as I am sure you can imagine, many aching glances of longing are passed between them. (Recent Academy Award-winner Cillian Murphy also pops up as the handsomest young butcher at the Delft marktplaats.)

Based on a bestselling novel—and pure conjecture—it’s far from a masterpiece, though there are plenty of impressive period details. And it’s certainly lit and framed well, as any movie about Vermeer damned well better be. The sequences of Firth and Johansson grinding lapis to make the perfect blue pigment is a none-too-subtle excuse to show sexual tension, but also speaks to the long hours put in by artists of this era to make their canvases sing.

Which brings us to a big question: how the hell did Vermeer do it? As with Shakespeare and Mozart, there are conspiracy theories. With Vermeer, the question isn’t about authorship, but whether he was an artist with an unfathomable gift or a clever tinkerer who made a scientific breakthrough, embracing new technologies. Even the revenant Close to Vermeer allows that there is evidence to suggest that the Dutch painter had his hands on a still pretty new gizmo, a camera obscura.

More credence (and some even say proof) regarding the latter concept can be found in the quite whimsical 2013 film Tim’s Vermeer. Produced by the magicians/pranksters Penn & Teller along with Farley Ziegler, the documentary follows Tim Jenison, an inventor, computer whiz, and, importantly, not a painter, who becomes obsessed with trying to recreate Vermeer’s methods.

Over years of sleuthing it out (and suffering setbacks that only convince him he is on the right path), Jenison—who, again, is not a painter—is able to perfectly copy Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. First, he recreates the Dutch artist’s studio (this itself takes almost a year), then, setting up a series of lenses and mirrors, he very slowly matches each colour he sees dot by dot. The film argues that Vermeer did not approach his blank canvas with a vision but worked, in a way, as a human camera. That long process could explain why Vermeer’s output is so manageable, even with smaller paintings.

We’ll never know if Jenison’s theory is correct, but several experts, including British painter David Hockney, seem convinced by the end. Importantly, the movie insists that if the theory is correct, there is still great artistry in how Vermeer designed his tableaux, the creativity in devising this method, and the tenacity needed to conquer the task.

And if all of that doesn’t slake your Vermeer thirst, there’s the 2019 drama The Last Vermeer, in which Guy Pearce stars as Han van Meegeren, a Dutch art forger—bad!—who hoodwinked the Nazis into buying fake Vermeers—OK, that part is good!

Adolf Hitler’s love of art is well known (you should watch the fantastic Burt Lancaster picture The Train for more about that). And for a stretch, he did possess Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, which now hangs, somewhat controversially, in Vienna’s Kunsthistoriches Museum. The Last Vermeer, in addition to being an entertaining yarn, paints an interesting portrait of a man who was heralded after the war as a resistance hero but may have just been a typical swindler. Of course, the movie art lovers would most like to see is one in which detectives finally find The Concert, one of 13 artworks—which also included paintings by Rembrandt, Edgar Degas, and Édouard Manet—that were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. Sadly, a happy ending to this—unlike previous stolen Vermeers, which were eventually restored—remains in the realm of fantasy. For now.

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