How do we talk about art?
Too often our language is elevated and alienating, as anyone who has read scholarly monographs on great artists can attest. Equally often, we struggle to articulate what it is that attracts us to a painting or statue, which at least reflects our humility before an object of transcendent value.
One of the many virtues of "Hidden Treasures," subtitled "Stories From a Great Museum," is that the people who are discussing works of art in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art have a deeply personal relationship with these works. As a result, their comments have a depth, even a mystical quality that heightens our own understanding of the many dimensions that make these objects worthy of inclusion in this great institution.
One of the interviewees calls the museum a "reliquary," suggesting a sense of religious veneration, which accurately captures the feeling many of us ha ve.
Only a few of the people producer/director Alexandra M. Isles has selected to discuss the treasures in the Met are curators or collectors, that is to say "experts." Most are people who do the unseen work of the museum, restoring its ancient objects or, in one case, cataloguing them. The fact that they, quite literally, live with these works on a daily basis gives them a special perspective.
We hear a night watchman, for example, discussing his growing intimacy with El Greco's famous "View of Toledo" as he approaches it nightly on his appointed rounds. Without the crowd of people who usually surround it he is able to observe what seem to be simple, dynamic brushstrokes that create human beings, which put the turbulent landscape in a new dimension.
Several of the people are educators. One shares with young people her fascination with a medieval miniature carved in soft wood that portrays the crucifixion in astounding detail. One of the most moving sequences shows another educator exposing Renoir's grand portrait "Mme Charpentier and her Children" to a group of intellectually and emotionally challenged viewers, whose responses are a tribute to the power of great art.
Unlike the Renoir or the El Greco, most of the "treasures" the documentary highlights are likely to be unfamiliar even to denizens of the Met, a sword , for example,with a hidden chamber that had been locked for centuries, a 1623 music box that still functions, giving us a fairly wild idea of what ws "hot" in the early 17th century.
The museum's holdings are inexhaustible, and this could easily be the first of many such documentaries. Its value is not just to put these treasures in a framework that is intimate and accessible but to help us see their mystical power.
To this end there is a subtle soundtrack featuring the music of the early 20th century mystic Gutdjieff and his disciple Thomas de Hartmann. Because their work is performed on the solo piano (quite sensitively by Laurence Rosenthal), it is likely to remind us of the work of Erik Satie, but whereas the French composer is cryptic, these pieces have a sense of wonder..
"Hidden Treasures" will be presented in New YorkThursday at 8 p.m. on WNET-TV. For screenings elsewhere go to www.hiddentreasuresthemovie.com. It is an unusually illuminating and moving film.