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Going right behind the scenes

A new film offers a tour of the National Gallery’s recent Vermeer show—but can it replace the real thing?

Vermeer, A Young Woman standing at a Virginal, around 1670-72

The National Gallery’s exhibition “Vermeer and Music: the Art of Love and Leisure” closed last month, but you can still go to see it, and not just in London.

From 10 October, in cinemas all over the world, a film of the same name by the director Phil Grabsky offers a guided tour of the show, led by the art historian Tim Marlow and with added extras including interviews with curators, biographical sequences and specially commissioned musical interludes. This is the third film from Grabsky’s Exhibition on Screen initiative, following previous re-presentations of “Manet: Portraying Life” from the Royal Academy of Arts in London and “Munch 150” at the National Gallery and the Munch Museum, both in Oslo, Norway.

The Vermeer exhibition has been well reviewed, so the purpose here is to assess how well a film stands in for the experience of visiting the show. It goes without saying that it will never be quite enough, although this is to take nothing away from the film-makers. Among the many cinemas listed on the film’s website (more than 1,000 are said to be showing it) are, for example, a number in New Zealand, to where few blockbuster exhibitions travel. This is especially apt because one of the show’s star exhibits, Vermeer’s The Guitar Player, around 1672, is only at the National Gallery at all due to renovations to London’s Kenwood House, the painting’s permanent home, which is scheduled to reopen this autumn. Such is the value and fragility of the work that it is unlikely ever to travel again.

If it was simply a matter of viewing the works at as high a resolution as possible, then perhaps the internet would suffice: most paintings are reproduced many times over on museums’ websites, via specialist academic resources or on art lovers’ and experts’ blogs. There, the works can be contemplated at leisure. The point here is added value and a sense of participation for those at a far remove or who were simply unable to attend. Marlow has no great personal narrative to promote, as would a presenter advancing a thesis about, say, the history of German painting, as might be the case with many of the personality-driven series found on television. No careers are being advanced, egos buffed or exotic theories promulgated. This is non-controversial art history, in some depth but nevertheless easily digested: nothing to scare the horses and everything to leave viewers feeling as if they have gained a greater understanding of what they missed on the ground.

In the Vermeer film, Marlow talks to the author Tracy Chevalier, whose novel Girl with a Pearl Earring is based on the artist’s work, and to the exhibition’s curator, Betsy Wieseman, while biographical sequences and period music played by the Academy of Ancient Music put the artist’s life in the context of his times.

One small quibble, especially given the attention to detail in the musical history and performances, is that a piece of 18th-century piano music (or at least 18th-century in style), possibly Bach and certainly played on a modern piano, is overlaid on an early sequence including paintings of women at virginals. However, the review copy of the film was not the final edit, so this may have been dealt with by the time it reaches the big screen.

One hesitates to call any survey definitive, but Grabsky’s film is comprehensive, smart and highly informative—and, in the absence of the show on your doorstep, a very fair substitute for the real thing.

For more information, visit www.exhibitiononscreen.com

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11 Oct 13
21:33 CET


I found it astonishing that no mention was made of Vermeer's possible use of a camera obscura in this film. There was a suggestion instead that Vermeer never 'saw' the compositions he painted, and that they never existed except in his mind. I thought this stance ludicrous, particularly in view of recent evidence that he must have used a lens. To see how he could have employed a camera obscura, go to my website www.printedlight.co.uk where you can see how projections can be traced and successfully transferred to a canvas, using authentic materials, righting the image in the process. The results have striking similarities to Vermeer's own underpaintings. Jane Jelley Oxford Uk

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