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LITTLE ART FILMS
by David D’Arcy
 
Plenty of films are made about art and artists, almost more than you can count. Yet you don’t see them, even though most are made for television. They are screened in movie theaters at least once, however, at the yearly International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA) in Montreal, which ended its 28th edition in March. It’s the world’s most extensive showcase of films on art -- an event that is better described as one of the best film festivals for films that you’re unlikely to hear about, much less see.

The fest featured no less than six films on Picasso, including Arne Glimcher’s unlikely Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies, a 60-minute-long documentary populated by Chuck Close, Eric Fischl, Lucas Samaras and others, which premiered at Art 40 Basel in June 2009. Glimcher drew a certain amount of praise for unearthing so much rarely seen archival footage, including scenes of Loie Fuller dancing with swirls of Cubist-like drapery, which he interspersed with images of Braque and Picasso works to make his quirky argument that Cubism was inspired by early movies.

Typically, however, the Picasso films and other hour-long documentaries provided familiar perspectives on familiar artists, many of them the subject of recent retrospectives, just as the films about architecture tended to be infomercials for new buildings and the people who paid for them.

Not so with Views on Vermeer – 12 Short Stories, a Dutch documentary by Hans Pool and Koos de Wilt that weighs Johannes Vermeer’s influence on contemporary artists, writers and others. This documentary, which premiered in November 2009 at the International Festival of Documentaries in Amsterdam (IDFA), aims higher than the kindergarten-level film that augments museum retrospectives.

The "Vermeer effect," it turns out, is rather widespread today. Photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia finds it in his photographs of prostitutes, while English painter Robert Hunter sees it in his paintings of squatters, set in English brick council flats. And the filmmaker wants to find his own Vermeer effect for cinema -- something a little less precious than the diffuse light of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, the 2003 period bomb starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johannson.

The Old Master dealer Otto Naumann, who drives a Mercedes with a VERMEER license plate, tells of Steve Wynn’s sale of a rediscovered Vermeer, which he had bought at auction for $30 million, to the family of Thomas Kaplan, who talks on-camera in a rare interview. Could more Vermeers be out there somewhere? Naumann hasn’t found one yet, but he’s looking. It’s one of the film’s best "short stories."

The oddest angle on Vermeer comes from former New Yorker writer Lawrence Weschler, who links the post-9/11 view of New York to Vermeer’s View of Delft, which the painter completed after an explosion had eviscerated the city’s armory. With disasters like that in mind, not to mention the bloody religious wars raging during Vermeer’s active years, we might want to revisit the notion that Vermeer’s serene figures are realistic. 

One well-known Vermeer fan is David Hockney, whose return home to England, and the expansive landscapes that resulted, are the subject of the hour-long BBC documentary David Hockney: A Bigger Picture (Coluga Pictures). Last time we saw Hockney on film, more than a decade ago, he was obsessed with optics, and thought Vermeer was, too. Now all that’s changed. No camera can handle the vast spaces of East Yorkshire, Hockney insists. Only painting can do that.

As the filmmaker Bruno Wollheim observes, Hockney’s own drawings and watercolors provide a parallel record of his plein air activities. Hockney agrees to be filmed while painting, something that he had always resisted, so the process unfolds, firsthand and outdoors. In the end, Hockney moves back to photography, the better to render a group of winter trees that he paints in huge sections, a work that he later donates to the Royal Academy.

Did he really abandon photography, Wollheim asks him. "Never believe what artists say, only what they do," Hockney replies.

As for architecture films, Oeke Hoogendij’s The New Rijksmuseum provides an inside look at what apparently was a dispute-plagued renovation of Holland’s venerable art repository. Who would have thought that the sensible Dutch, in their effort to make the famous museum "more than a labyrinth" would produce a Tower of Babel, as the museum’s director asks before he quits in frustration.

The issues range from water beneath the museum site to a new study center that visibly shrinks in size during the courses of the film. If there’s a lesson here, it is that no one should take on the Amsterdam Cycling Association, which opposed adding to the museum footprint.  

There are labyrinths, and then there are labyrinths. Elizabeth Lennard and Ermanno Corrado’s Casa Bronfman is a film about a building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that was gutted and reconstructed for the use of Edgar Bronfman, his wife Clarissa and their children. If you want to see how the very rich create spaces for themselves, here’s one look. Even Bronfman himself complained about the cost.

The building was renovated by the architect Peter Rose, who also worked on the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal, a project funded by Phyllis (Bronfman) Lambert. We see in film how Rose emptied out the Manhattan palazzo’s dark interior for its light-deprived owners. We see how the family’s private spaces are created above the "social" floors where Bill Clinton and other celebs schmoozed and dined.

The Bronfmans have lots of art. Clarissa Bronfman takes the viewer on the tour, which begins with flowers by Jennifer Steinkamp at the door and meanders through works by Wifredo Lam, Joaquin Torres-Garcia and others, noting correctly that Latin American art is neglected in the broader marketplace. The family also collects Mezoamerican antiquities. A radiant Incan yellow feather cape, encased in glass, hangs over the bed in the master bedroom. Do Peruvian authorities know anything about the cape’s provenance? Maybe that’s why the film doesn’t give the house’s street address, although it warns you that the security there is tight.

This film is clearly more about the client than the architecture -- la maison, c’est moi. And when it comes to the rich, well, their needs are more than a little silly. The Bronfmans have a huge refrigerator, just below the entrance. It’s used for garbage in the summer months, to keep any smells from wafting through the house. The audience in Montreal, the Bronfman’s hometown, had the right response. The crowd laughed throughout.


DAVID D’ARCY is a correspondent for the Art Newspaper, a contributing editor at Art & Auction and a regular critic on the "Front Row" program on BBC Radio.