Opinion

Manet, Munch, and Vermeer, Coming to a Theater Near You

If you live in the US, chances are you won’t to make it to Manet: Portraying Life, a retrospective exhibition of the 19th-century painter’s portraiture, on view at London’s Royal Academy for just another four days. But you might be able to make it to your local movie theater tonight, where a film version of the exhibition is playing at 7:30 pm.

Now, the disclaimer here is that I don’t exactly know what “a film version of the exhibition” means. But a new series from Fathom Events called Exhibition: Great Art on Screen promises to bring three different visual art shows from overseas to the U.S. by way of movie theaters. The first event, happening tonight, focuses on the Royal Academy’s Manet show; the second, in June, covers the massive Munch exhibition coming to Oslo this summer; and the last, in October, features Vermeer and Music, an upcoming show at the National Gallery in London.

This actually isn’t Fathom’s first venture into art-exhibition-as-film territory. Fathom is the company responsible for last year’s Leonardo Live, which worked the same magic on the National Gallery’s Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. Roberta Smith reviewed Leonardo Live, calling it “a strangely hectic, occasionally informative and sometimes even insightful high-definition tour of the National Gallery exhibition.” Her write-up offers an idea of what to expect: lots of talking heads and interviews, mixed with exhibition footage, behind-the-scenes conservator visits, and background stories. Smith isn’t so impressed with the results; here’s her final appraisal:

As “Leonardo Live” proves, when the subject is an art exhibition, the commentary takes over, and we are swamped with fancy, sometimes illuminating window dressing. We come away with a palpable sense of what the exhibition looked like and some welcome but superficial views, via camera, of the paintings. But we haven’t come close to experiencing the art ourselves.

This isn’t surprising: the filmmakers need to find some way to translate still and silent visual art into moving pictures with sound. Plus, it’s hard to imagine 85 minutes of long shots and close-ups of paintings. As one friend commented, in that case, why not just look at Google Art Project?

Smith does concede that those who live across the Atlantic Ocean don’t really have a better option, which is true. So get yourself to a movie theater tonight! Fathom’s trailer says the screenings are happening “in select cinemas nationwide,” but the list of participating theaters is hundreds long, with at least one in every state (including Hawaii). Maybe it will turn out that art history goes well with buttery popcorn.

h/t @mikesteinhauer (no relation!)

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