Film Review: “Close to Vermeer” – Out of This World

By Ed Symkus

Johannes Vermeer as a person and a painter remains a mystery, but this documentary expertly probes the brilliance of his art.

Close to Vermeer, written and directed by Suzanne Raes. It screens at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on July 21 at 7:30 p.m.

Abbie Vandivere, paintings conservator at the Mauritshuis, and Girl with a Pearl Earring in a scene from Close to Vermeer.

Allow me to be completely transparent about my relationship with the works of the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. They move me, make my jaw drop. Upon seeing them in person, their emotional impact has, on a couple of occasions, brought me to the edge of swooning.

I’d never heard of Vermeer when, close to a half-century ago, I went, for the first time, to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. And there, above a small table, on the right side of the Dutch Room, was the small (28-9/16” x 25-1/2”), exquisite The Concert, a painting I would make a beeline to during every recurring visit. I have no idea what fascinated me, but I could never get enough. A couple of decades later, after the painting had been stolen, I wasn’t just heartbroken. I felt violated.

Over the years, though, I’ve managed to check out a number of Vermeers in museums throughout the United States and Europe. So far I have been up close and personal with 18 of the (supposed) 37 that exist. The theft of The Concert left some scars, but I’m happy to report that, because of those other viewings, my soul has been soothed.

Forgive me; I ramble. This is supposed to be a film review. Initially learning that Close to Vermeer was a relatively brief (78-minute) documentary about the mounting of an expansive, much ballyhooed Vermeer retrospective at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, I must admit that I feared a dry, even pedantic, experience.

Unless, of course, the film focused more on examining the artworks themselves, than going on (and on) about how they could be best displayed (Where should we hang Girl with a Pearl Earring? How far away should viewers be kept from The Geographer?). The good news is that, though Close to Vermeer swings both ways, a great deal of time is commanded by cameras  tasked with lovingly lingering on the singular oil paintings, brimming with color, light, shadow, texture, and a bit of enigma. Who are these subjects? Why did Vermeer choose to place them in what often appears to be the same indoor setting over and over (except when he opted to create, atypically for him, an exterior scene)?

Yes, the film also deals with the challenges of putting this ambitious show together. It was curated by Gregor J.M. Weber, who admits he actually fainted when, as a schoolboy, he saw his first Vermeer. This will be his final exhibition before retirement, and his dream was to go out with the equivalent of a curatorial bang. He would assemble the largest Vermeer collection ever to be seen. Weber explains that “a good exhibition should sweep you away,” asserting that “I want people to get inside Vermeer’s head.”

We meet the researcher Anna Krekeler, who, gazing under a high-powered microscope at The Little Street, gushes that the red shutter in the detailed painting is “possibly the most beautiful shutter in the history of art.” While she and Weber discuss the fact that so little is known about Vermeer, including what he looked like, he mentions, “Rembrandt has about 80 self-portraits, and we just have [Vermeer’s] back, as the camera stares at that back in The Painter.

Predictably, the film is loaded with unabashed Vermeer geeks. Jonathan Janson, himself a painter, recalls seeing his first when he was 18, thinking, “What is this mysterious object? It looks like it came from Mars, landed, and wanted to say something to me.” As he speaks, the camera lovingly ogles Woman Holding a Balance.

Johannes Vermeer’s The Concert. Photo: Wiki Common

That “dryness” I was concerned with? The film never goes there. I found it fascinating to be a fly on the wall as the curator made his way to museums around the world, hoping to convince the powers-that-be to lend their Vermeers to be in his show. Weber met up with the word “no” more often than he expected. Real drama materializes when it appears that one of the paintings he was going after comes with questions about its attribution attached. Did Vermeer really paint it? Was it done by an assistant? By one of his daughters?

Modern technology is able to settle a number of quandaries, and misinterpretations, about Vermeer’s paintings. Still, Close to Vermeer only gets so close: as the finished exhibit was about to open to the public (it ran, completely sold out, from February to June of this year), Vermeer and his art still remained, as Janson suggests, otherworldly.

Alas, The Concert is nowhere to be seen in the film. It’s not even mentioned by name. The closest we get to hearing about the pilfered masterpiece is when art dealer Otto Naumann talks about the ever-growing value of the paintings in the collectors’ market. “There are no Vermeers left,” he says, ruefully. “Except the one that was stolen.”

Ed Symkus is a Boston native and Emerson College graduate. Among his accomplishments: He went to Woodstock, interviewed Edward Gorey, Ray Bradbury, Ted Nugent, and Kathryn Bigelow, and has visited the Outer Hebrides, the Lofoten Islands, Anglesey, Mykonos, the Azores, Catalina, Kangaroo Island, and the Isle of Capri with his wife Lisa.

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