Opening 9 Nov 2023
Expect to be charmed by this slow-paced documentary about the painstaking preparation for the largest Vermeer exhibition ever showcased. For those of us lucky enough to have been one of the 650,000 visitors at the Rijksmuseum in the spring of 2023, it was especially fascinating to watch Suzanne Raes’s exquisite documentation of what took place behind the scenes to coordinate this historic event. However, the filmgoer needn’t have been physically present at the Rijksmuseum to appreciate the exhibition which captured the imagination of the art world and far beyond. It might be said that the documentary Close to Vermeer gets us up closer to and more intimate with the painter and his paintings than an actual two-hour visit to the exhibition.
There are between thirty-four and thirty-seven surviving Vermeer paintings, and twenty-eight were on display during the exhibition. The heart of the documentary is Gregor J.M. Weber, curator of the Vermeer exhibition. Quiet, introspective, and close to retirement, Weber passionately wants the world to feel the wonder he had first experienced as a teenager when viewing Vermeer’s paintings. His emotional attachment to Vermeer chokes him up, this elegant gentleman, robbing him of all words when asked by the director to explain his feelings for the artist. His charming, boyish co-curator Pieter Roelofs, traveled to museums abroad to negotiate the lending out their Vermeers. Raes portrays his delicate dance to secure the paintings for the exhibition. Sometimes it worked: the Frick lent all three, the National Gallery lent four, the Met lent two…and sometimes it didn’t. The curator at the Met explained they were not allowed to lend out two paintings, A Maid Asleep and Study of a Young Woman as stipulated in the donor’s will that they never leave the museum. Gregor Weber traveled to Braunschweig, Germany, himself to try to convince the curator that Young Woman with a Wine Glass was essential for the exhibition. He was unsuccessful. What the audience sees is a look behind the curtain in the classy, but high-level bargaining of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” in the world of art museums.
Explored, too, is the question of what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer. Raes introduces us to Jonathan Janson, artist, historian, and renowned Vermeer expert who has created the website Essential Vermeer (www.essentialvermeer.com), so great is his devotion to the painter. He is filmed in rapt conversation with Weber discussing brushwork, colors, light, and the authenticity of a yellow shawl. Raes also spotlights two passionate experts, museum conservators Abbie Vandivere and Anna Krekeler filming them analyzing the paintings with microscopes and newfound technology to scan the paintings, virtually peeling away layers of paint to discover what was original, and to see if the paintings are authentic. That was a prevailing question throughout. Girl with a Flute, quite simply, did not pass the test, according to a Washington D.C. team of expert curators/conservators, and they determined it must have been painted (rather clumsily) by someone else. A scandal in the art world! Yet Girl with a Flute was deemed authentic by the Rijksmuseum curators and displayed in full view during the exhibition.
Then there are the paintings themselves; the camera brilliantly captures their exquisite charm both hanging on museums’ walls and under the microscope. Though mostly painted on small canvases, the viewer is drawn into the deliciously detailed scenes as Vermeer plays with the light, creating a mood, a sensation, suspended in time. Many of his paintings are of women, discretely, coyly inviting you into their worlds. This documentary enables the moviegoer to get just that little bit closer. (Pat Frickey)
The much anticipated, blockbuster exhibition of Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam from February to June 2023 was a staggering success. According to the museum, sold-out crowds totaling 650,000 visitors journeyed from 113 countries to endure very crowded conditions to view Vermeer’s paintings. A member of that small group of Dutch Golden Age masters, the Rijksmuseum’s general director, Taco Dibbits, acknowledges there are likely less than 50 paintings attributed to Vermeer, 37 are known with 28 exhibited making it the most comprehensive Vermeer exhibit ever. Other than his paintings, the elusive 17th century artist left no letters, diary, etc. behind.
Now, writer-director Suzanne Raes’ documentary, Vermeer – Reise ins Licht (Vermeer – Journey into Light), takes audiences on a behind-the-scenes adventure into the discreet world of renowned museums and Western artists. The Rijksmuseum’s Vermeer experts Gregor Weber, curator and Pieter Roelofs, head of paintings and sculpture, were involved in the early stages of assembling the painting and art restorer Anna Krekeler patiently dissects masterworks more than 350-year-old to determine its authenticity; Jonathan Janson, American painter and art historian has been a Vermeer aficionado since 18; Lisanne Wepler, together with Weber discuss and demonstrate the camera obscura, it’s effect—and connection to Catholicism—that is elemental to the play of light in Vermeer’s serene, often domestic scenes, e.g., Woman Writing a Letter With Her Maid.
The Rijksmuseum sourced material from friends and colleagues in museums in France, Ireland, England, USA, Germany, etcetera; sometimes pledges of reciprocality were exchanged. Betsy Wieseman, National Gallery, Washington, D.C., and Abbie Vandivere, Mauritshuis, The Hague also contribute to the documentary. An interesting segment involves Weber, Janson, the American art collector/philanthropist Thomas Kaplan and his Vermeer, Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, authenticity. Currently most important/great artworks are in private collections or museums. Although, to paraphrase an interviewee, the superrich die, circumstances change, and eventually the Old Masters’ works end up in museums.
Victor Horstink’s camerawork is impressive, and Noud Holtman’s editing astute. Alex Simu’s score is wonderfully complimentary. If you missed the museum exhibit, do not miss the documentary. The journey through Vermeer’s magical light is an unforgettable film. (Marinell Haegelin)