Post #799 • May 30, 2006, 4:48 PM • 29 Comments
This weekend I saw Stolen, the documentary of the theft of the masterworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on St. Patrick's Day in 1990. Thieves overpowered two guards on duty and netted Rembrandts, Degas, a Manet - thirteen works in total, including Vermeer's The Concert. The film concentrates on Harold Smith, the art detective on the case, affable, charming, and dapper despite the brutal ravages of skin cancer on his face. (Sporting a derby, suit, eyepatch, and prosthetic nose, he makes for a character rivaling any from the history of detective fiction.) Director Rebecca Dreyfus follows him as he trails his leads, punctuating his story with interviews with a rich cast of art experts and Vermeer aficionados (including Tracy Chevalier), as well as dramatic rereadings of letters between Gardner and Bernard Berenson, exchanged as he sneaked around Italy in search of paintings to procure for her. What at first seems like an informative little documentary evolves into an ever more gripping narrative as Smith's investigation takes him to the outer rings of the Irish Republican Army, as Gardner describes to Berenson her incipient pennilessness brought on by her pursuit of masterpieces, and as art lovers break into barely restrained weeping.
Once abstraction became a viable mode in its own right, art shed a function that it had served for many thousands of years: to tell the human story. Watching people describe the Vermeer, I thought of how a contemporary artist might produce something equally capable of drawing people in and fixing their imaginations there. Ah realism, and the comforts of orthodoxy - your artistic life decided as thoroughly as your religious life would be if you converted to Hasidism. I doubt I have the patience for it, but I doubt equally that anything else could have the effect that that Vermeer has - conveying in exacting detail the gestures and depictions that communicate the human experience across time.