“Close to Vermeer” – Very personal [MOVIE REVIEW]

Gregor Weber. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Alas and alack. The extraordinary Vermeer exhibition in Amsterdam at the Rijksmuseum is over. Running from February 10 until June 4, 450,000 tickets were allotted and quickly sold out, almost before it opened. There have been other exhibits of this Delft artist, but none as comprehensive. There are only 37 known Vermeer paintings and the museum was successful in procuring 28 from around the world. Tourists planned vacations around these dates, and most were disappointed when they couldn’t get in. What is left, however, besides a plethora of “Girl with the Pearl Earring” backpacks, scarves, and coffee cups, is a fabulous documentary that traces the research, lending negotiations, curation and analysis of the paintings that were obtained by Gregor Weber and Pieter Roelofs, curators from the Rijksmuseum. Director Suzanne Raes’s gift to us is her beautiful and informative documentary called “Close to Vermeer.” 

Gregor Weber. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Learning about the plans for this show in early 2021, Raes contacted Weber and Roelofs about making a film detailing their preparations for the opening. They consented and we, who were unable to visit the show during those four short months, have been given a glorious consolation prize. We get to be flies on the wall as Weber and Roelofs discuss where the existing Vermeers reside, how to approach the guardians of those paintings, and how to best display them. Working closely with the conservators from Amsterdam, Abbie Vandivers, conservator at the Mauritshuis in the Hague that owns three Vermeers, including “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” Abbie is an expert on the scientific aspects of conservation. She guides us through a detailed explanation of what they have learned about this iconic painting. Explaining that technology has improved by leaps and bounds, she points out details in that painting that have caused them to reevaluate it; from the hints of background color, previously thought to be black and now revealed to be green, to diagonal lines that indicate that the background itself was not as flat as they had imagined. You will see detail invisible from the 10 foot guard rail surrounding the paintings in the exhibit, and even to the naked eye without the assistance of the x-rays used by the conservators.

Abbie Vandivers. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Between the Rijksmuseum’s four Vermeers and the Mauritshuis’ three, there were still 29 to try obtaining. The curators will travel first to England and the National Gallery from whom they were able to negotiate the loan of two of their four Vermeers. The Frick Museum in New York, now in temporary quarters on the Upper East Side, granted permission for all three of their paintings. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was only able to lend two of their four Vermeers because of legal restrictions. Important, well when there are only 37 known (and that includes the painting stolen from the Isabel Gardner Museum in Boston) they are all important, examples came from all over Europe including the Louvre (“The Lacemaker,” an exquisite example discussed in detail), Dresden (including the breathtaking “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window”), Berlin and Frankfurt. 

One of the more interesting negotiations and visits was to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. They agreed to lend all four of their Vermeers but were in the process of disavowing one, “Girl with a Flute,” refusing to credit it as a Vermeer. Raes’s invisible gift as the documentarian is allowing us to experience the back and forth as the Dutch curators listen attentively, albeit with a large dose of skepticism, as the Americans detail their reasoning at a seminar on their findings, refusing to brook any disagreement. You see the rigidity of their position as one of the curators states, “We don’t see a scenario that this is by Vermeer.” They were of the opinion that this painting had to have been made by an amateur or an assistant. Weber, the  world expert on Delft artists of the time, continued to maintain that Vermeer did not have any assistants and how unlikely it is that an amateur would have been able to make such a painting. There is a definite, but very civilized disagreement, between them as the Americans highlight technique discrepancies between two similar paintings in their collection—”Girl with the Red Hat,” an indisputable masterpiece, and “Girl with a Flute,” less sophisticated. The Dutch group was blindsided when the Americans announced in the international art press that “Girl with a Flute” was not a Vermeer. Nevertheless, the Rijksmuseum will display “Girl with a Flute” with the Vermeers. This particular incident in the film beautifully illustrates not only how attribution is determined but also how subjective it can be.

Abbie shows how paintings are painstakingly removed from frames for closer examination. She guides us through paint analysis and Vermeer’s use of green as a flesh tone. This American transplant thoroughly communicates both her love for the art and its conservation. Watching her cycling through the Hague, home of Mauritshuis, as her blue braids fly behind, makes us understand that her work is her love and her play. Anna Krekeler, her counterpart at the Rijksmuseum, lets us see Vermeer’s almost pointillist strokes under her microscope. Jonathan Janson, a painter and Vermeer historian whose own style he “borrows” from the master, is able to illustrate the strokes by doing them for us. 

Gregor Weber. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Vermeer may be the star, but it is still Weber and Roelofs who are our primary guides to this wonderful documentary. They discuss how transformative their first encounters with Vermeer were. For both of them, although it is only Weber who talks of retirement, planning and setting up this exhibit is the culmination of a life’s work. Watch as they use postcards of all the Vermeer paintings and try to find the perfect pairings for display. I want those postcards. Not just the most famous ones like “Girl with the Pearl Earring” or “Girl with the Red Hat,” a reproduction of which was in my childhood home, but “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” where the folds of the paper in her hand are so crisp you can hear them, or “The Glass of Wine” where the glass at the girl’s lips is so delicately transparent that you can taste the wine. I was entranced by “Woman Holding a Balance” because the scale in her hand was both fragile and substantial. The play of light and the shadowing, not black as DaVinci said it should be, in colors drawn from the subject is explained. And the next time I see “The Little Street” I will pay closer attention to the one bright red shutter and how it puts everything else into juxtaposition, especially the figures within the precise architecture displayed. 

I knew early on that I would never have a chance to see this exhibit because my advance planning is rarely in excess of a month or two, but the impossibility of visiting is underscored as Weber experiments with the number of people in a group who can adequately see the paintings in each room – 15. If timed entry was to be set at such a low number, it’s no wonder that the tickets sold out almost immediately. 

Still, watching this documentary and listening to these experts, most of whom were approachable and unpretentious, expanded my understanding enormously. Focusing less on the cracks in the canvas than on the brush strokes and use of color, you are allowed to enter the painting, You shiver at the portrayals of seduction and laugh at the comedy of a lusty wench with one foot on a globe and the other shod in a sandal peeking out of her skirt while surrounded by religious iconography ironically (at least in my interpretation) called “Allegory of Faith.” 

Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Controversy? It always exists. Vermeer created very few paintings, probably no more than 60 in his lifetime, of which only 36 have survived. It is not known who his teacher was, or if he had one. Speculation that he may have used a Camera Obscura is discussed along with a very helpful illustration of what such an instrument can and can’t do. Did he make use of it to trace figures? Possibly. Does it explain his exquisite technique? I doubt it. When the curators from the National Gallery in Washington DC question the attribution of one of his paintings, it is because the one painting, “Girl with a Flute” is less accomplished than “Girl with a Red Hat.” Their theory is that the painting was completed by an apprentice or someone from his workshop. This might apply to a Rembrandt or a Rubens, but there is no evidence whatsoever that Vermeer had either a workshop or an apprentice. Couldn’t it be an early painting before he honed his flesh tone technique? Or perhaps he was having a bad day. We all have those. 

There are many takeaways from this remarkable film, not the least of which is the sheer enjoyment of seeing something from the inside out even if you couldn’t see the exhibit itself. At a very fast 78 minutes, you’ll wish there was more. 

In English and  Dutch with subtitles. 

Playing July 17 and 18 at the Laemmle Monica as part of their Culture Vulture Series.


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