Dubbed a “once in a lifetime” event, the Rijksmuseum’s exhibition, Vermeer, has been a huge success. It is the most comprehensive gathering of Vermeer paintings for a generation, with loans from across the world. For those of us not lucky enough to see the sold-out exhibition in person, it is now the latest subject of the Exhibition on Screen series (showing at Plymouth Arts Cinema on Thursday 27 April). Providing a crowd-free tour of the exhibition everyone is talking about, the documentary, Vermeer: The Greatest Exhibition, leans into the canvases and offers insight from curators and art historians.
The scale of Vermeer’s work is the most surprising element of the documentary. The camera zooms in on tiny paintings audaciously framed on bare walls. Vermeer’s artistic language is conveyed, not in huge swathes of paint, but with a delicate touch. Vermeer is the Dutch master of understatement. His handling of shadow and illumination acts as a spotlight, indicating where our focus should be. Vermeer has the instincts of a cinematographer, telling an entire story without saying a word. As the documentary discusses Vermeer’s brand of innovation, the affinity his art has with cinema is particularly striking. The works featured in the Rijksmuseum all have a commonality: they are freeze-frame moments in time.
The narrative within Vermeer’s paintings is distinguishable by the fact that his sitters are always doing something. Their hands are usually fixed on a task (The Lacemaker, 1670; The Geographer, 1669), but their minds appear to be elsewhere (The Milkmaid, 1658; Woman With a Water Jug, 1660-62). Vermeer’s ability to suggest interior life lifts these domestic scenes into something more reverential. There is an intensity to these captured moments that makes these paintings feel reminiscent of film stills. With the more formal portraits (Girl With a Red Hat,1669, and of course, Girl With a Pearl Earring,1665) there is a spontaneity that stands Vermeer apart from his contemporaries. There is a conscious breaking away from the formalised portraits of previous generations; Vermeer is determined to convey character and individuality.
The cinematic quality of his art means it is not surprising that Vermeer’s influence re-emerges in contemporary film. We see a lot of his process in Peter Webber’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. The film celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and rediscovers its groove as Vermeer is again headline news. Applying an appropriately unhurried approach to story-telling, Colin Firth plays a brooding and taciturn Vermeer; Scarlett Johansson plays an imagined servant, Griet, who becomes the face of the portrait. Webber, along with exemplary work from cinematographer Eduardo Serra, recreates 17th century Delft. The careful, painstaking way Vermeer, with Griet’s help, sets the scene for a painting may seem formulaic, but in the approach to creating, lighting and editing a view, Vermeer’s techniques resonate as we consider how we would crop a photo, apply a filter. The gap between his time and ours begins to narrow. It is worth revisiting this film just to see how Vermeer’s treatment of light is beautifully replicated by Serra. Controversially, while Serra was nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA, he won neither award.
Dovetailing with Peter Webber’s imagined Vermeer, is the real-life account of Dutch artist Han van Meegeren, in The Last Vermeer (2019). In the period immediately after the Second World War, van Meegeren was accused of conspiring with the Nazis. A soldier, Joseph Piller, is sent to investigate. Directed by Dan Friedkin, this film looks at the legacy of Vermeer. It is suggested that van Meegeren (played by Guy Pearce who, even in a bad wig, is still great value) has sold Vermeers, and other precious works of art, to members of the Nazi Party. The Nazis stole cultural treasures from across Europe, and the Dutch were particularly angry at Vermeer being used as collateral by people who only saw its value in crude financial terms. In sifting through the chaos, there is a need for justice to be visibly done (accused traitors are readily hauled in front of a firing squad). Van Meegeren is a marked man.
The Last Vermeer is the epitome of a slow burner, shifting gears in the third act of the film, as Piller (Claes Bang) becomes increasingly convinced that the colourful and charismatic van Meegeren may be innocent. The film’s success entirely hinges on Pearce’s committed performance, but Friedkin does raise interesting questions about how artwork is valued, and devalued, in times of crisis.
As the post-pandemic fallout continues, and global markets fluctuate, it feels right that 2023 is Vermeer’s year. The clarity of his work builds a reassuring presence. Exhibition on Screen frame him as an Old Master whose way of seeing the world – transforming the mundane into something magical – is eternally fresh and exciting. His work may look outwardly traditional, but Vermeer thought differently to his peers. He turned his back on epic, heroic subjects and actively chose female sitters over male. They were not just cast for beauty, there is the implication of inner worlds; thoughts and desires, at a time (and in a place) where women’s lives were tightly subscribed. The documentary is careful not to make a case for Vermeer: The Feminist. For every empowered gaze meeting our own, there are plenty of unobserved intrusions that tip the power balance. A milkmaid making a pudding wouldn’t quite pass the Bechdel Test, but a modest score from the 17th century still feels like a win.
Vermeer: The Greatest Exhibition essentially proposes we consider the artist not forever tied to 17th century Delft, but someone whose method of creativity crosses over into other genres, other ways of making art. Packing emotional depth and technical virtuosity into a tiny space, the briefest moment, as Vermeer did, is a challenge accepted by every film-maker. His elevation of the everyday and observation of the psychological interior, feels more in sync with our age. He may be part of that select Old Masters group, but in the egalitarian way he approaches art, technique and subject, Vermeer is very much our contemporary.
by Helen Tope