The Exhibition on Screen series fully comes into its own with this guided tour of the Vermeer show currently taking place at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; all the physical tickets for its four-month run are sold out, and so this film represents the only realistic chance for most people to take a turn around the gallery. While being in the presence of the real thing would clearly be a transcendent experience, there’s something to be said for this elegantly produced walking-tour in a needs-must situation.
The resulting film plays to the series’ strengths – glowing, leisurely closeups of the art, accompanied by a continual stream of learned comment from curators and critics. (In some ways, heretically, a film like this might actually be an improvement on the in-person experience: no fighting through crowds, or craning to see over a coach-party’s heads.) What we get is a brisk run-through of Vermeer’s back story, such as it is known; various Rijksmuseum eminences talk thematically through their exhibition, along with the likes of super-voluble former Times art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston – though, perhaps forgivably, everybody mentions the actual show a bit too much to not remind the audience they’ll never actually get to see it.
Perhaps the most interesting insights come from the curator who spent months X-raying and conserving Woman Reading a Letter, who talks with infectious enthusiasm on how Vermeer layered different shades of colour as he painted the edge of the blue robe. Nor do the commenters shy away from the theories that Vermeer used a camera obscura to fix his images, but steer well clear of repeating anything like the claims of Tim Jenison, of Tim’s Vermeer notoriety – that in essence Vermeer’s work is easily reproducible. And perhaps seeing the paintings in this format drives home Vermeer’s amazingly circumscribed locations, fabrics and props – the pictures that hang behind many of his subjects would make a fascinating chapter in their own right. While – in the end – this is a treatment that doesn’t exactly pull up any trees, as a document of arguably the major exhibition of our time, it’s a must-see.
• Vermeer: The Greatest Exhibition is released on 18 April in UK cinemas.