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Vermeer: How to create a blockbuster exhibition

The BBC4 documentary Close to Vermeer follows the development of the most successful blockbuster exhibition ever staged at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The exhibition attracted 650,000 visitors between February 10th and June 4th, or 5,700 visitors a day.

In spite of Vermeer’s contemporary popularity, his oeuvre has been shrinking over the years. French art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger attributed 74 paintings to Vermeer in 1866. But today only 34 paintings are firmly attributed to Vermeer, with a further three possibly by him. Vermeer’s value as an artist has risen as his works have become increasingly rare, and research has underlined his unique style and skill. This has increased the challenge of staging a Vermeer exhibition, as well as increasing the value of the surviving works.

Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum (photo Greg Richards)

A perusal of the distribution of Vermeer’s works indicates that most of the verified paintings are in the US (14), the Netherlands (7), Germany (6) and the UK (5) (8 countries). This is similar to the spread of works of Hieronymus Bosch, which are held by institutions in 9 countries.

Paintings by Vermeer

In the documentary, curators at the Rijksmuseum are shown compiling a ‘hit list’ of Vermeer’s paintings. One comments: ‘we now have 27, more than the Mauritshuis’. This refers to the last major Vermeer exhibition in the Netherlands, staged by the Mauritshuis in the Hague in 1996. That exhibition managed to bring together 23 paintings and attracted 450,000 visitors.

Seven of the paintings in the Rijksmuseum were on show for the first time at an exhibition in the Netherlands.

The exhibition has been positioned as a unique event for a number of reasons. Firstly because gathering 27 of the 35 known paintings represents an increasingly rare opportunity to see so many of Vermeer’s works together. This is essentially a “first and last” exhibition of all the Vermeer paintings that are fit to travel, an Rijksmuseum Director Taco Dibbets claimed growing museum rivalry makes such international cooperation unlikely in the future: “What I am seeing, if you look since the 1996 exhibition, it is more and more difficult to get the loans because Vermeer is such an iconic painter.” At the same time, “The pressure on museums to make exhibitions is larger. There are more and more museums in the world and works from the 17th century are fragile. There is more pressure on the works.”

Unlike previous Vermeer exhibitions, the Rijksmuseum show is also backed by an extensive research effort, which is followed closely in the documentary. The ability to examine the canvases with modern technology has allowed the museum to make new claims about how the painter worked, and his influences. It is likely that Vermeer worked with a camera obscura, allowing scenes to be projected onto a wall and making it easier to capture details. Curator Gregor Weber also claims in his book Faith, Light, and Reflection that Vermeer was influenced by the Jesuits in his use of light. We know very little about Vermeer’s short life, as Weber admits “We have no definitive documents where we can read that on a particular day he was baptized Catholic,” but that doesn’t stop him claiming “if you marry a Catholic woman, and then you live in the papal quarter in Delft, then you must have been Catholic.”

As well as providing material for storytelling about the paintings, the research also generates controversy, which is useful for publicity. Documentary shows the Rijksmuseum team discussing the authenticity of the painting Girl with a Flute with curators from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, who had spent most of the pandemic examining the painting and decided it was not a Vermeer. The attribution of the painting was changed to "Studio of Johannes Vermeer" by the Americans. In a tense meeting, the Dutch and American curatorial teams discuss the authenticity of the painting, with the Washington team pointing to the green hue and wooden background as evidence for their re-attribution, and the Rijksmuseum curators arguing that the green background tinge was found in many of Vermeer’s other works. In the end, Amsterdam curator Pieter Roelofs decided it was a Vermeer – securing the biggest Vermeer exhibition ever.

The documentary reveals that the development of the Vermeer exhibition has striking parallels with the Hieronymus Bosch programme staged in Den Bosch in 2016. This was also an attempt to gather as many surviving paintings as possible (eventually they managed 17 out of 24 surviving works) and the exhibition was supported by an extensive research programme. As in the case of Vermeer, the research also raised questions about authenticity, with one painting being judged as not a real Bosch, while another ‘new’ painting was discovered in Kansas (of all places). The Bosch exhibition was also plagued by disagreements between curators, particularly when the Prado Museum in Madrid was told that one of their four Bosch paintings was not by the master himself. Retribution was swift: the Prado decided not to send some of the paintings it had promised to the Netherlands, deciding instead to stage their own Bosch exhibition using many of the paintings gathered by the Dutch team. The results of the two exhibitions were also surprisingly similar – both reached 5,700 visitors per day, with the museum in Den Bosch topping the Art Newspaper rankings in 2016.

The Vermeer documentary is fascinating for giving us a glimpse of these behind-the-scenes machinations, although it falls short in really quizzing the curators about their aims. Watching the Rijksmuseum team at work one is left with the impression that they were simply intent on gathering as many Vermeer works as possible to create a ‘first and last’ chance blockbuster.

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