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Tim Jenison, a wealthy entrepreneur from Texas, had never had an art lesson when he sat down to reproduce Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece, The Music Lesson. After four months employing nothing more than a dentist mirror, a brush and oil paints, the result is nearly as breathtaking as the original painting by the 17th-century Dutchman. His efforts to recreate the photorealistic painting are chronicled in Sony Pictures Classics documentary, Tim’s Vermeer, produced by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller in theaters today.
Appearing in the movie is artist David Hockney who wrote the 2001 book, Secret Knowledge, speculating on Vermeer’s use of optics, which was interpreted by some historians as a refutation of the 17th century Dutch master’s genius. Hockney recently spoke with THR about Vermeer as well his video murals, Yorkshire Landscapes and Jugglers currently on display at LACMA.
Tim’s Vermeermight be mistakenly interpreted as labeling the artist a fraud.
Tim’s work does not diminish Vermeer at all. He admits in the film that the creative genius is Vermeer, however he did it. If he had been a painter he probably wouldn’t have done it, knowing how difficult it was. I do not see why this undermines his genius. He made the painting and it is very, very great, again, however it was done. I might point out that Lawrence Gowing in his great book on Vermeer speculated that he used a camera, but this did not diminish his admiration for the work.
What about your own embrace of the tools of our era, working with the iPad and digital cameras? What have these tools afforded you that past tools could not?
I have written before about art historians and technology, but I might point out brushes and paint are also technology. The problem it seems to me is perspective, which was invented, I am sure, using a concave mirror. Why would a narrative painter want to stop time? In Giotto there is just enough perspective but he didn’t use a vanishing point, which is the problem. It reduces us to a mathematical point, which I don’t think we are. About 25 years ago I made a film about two Chinese scrolls. One used perspective with parallel lines that have no vanishing point, and was very beautiful, and the viewer could follow the emperor through a city. The other one began to use western perspective, but was obviously inferior. It’s called, A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China, or, Surface is Illusion But So Is Depth.
You currently have two video murals at LACMA, Yorkshire Landscapes and more recently Jugglers, June 24th, 2012. How vital are video cameras to this phase of your career?
As for The Jugglers, it’s a different kind of picture, not at all possible with one camera. I had realized that when video cameras became smaller you could put a few together and get new kinds of pictures. The Jugglers is playing with time and space, something a single camera cannot do. It’s the same time in every part of the picture. The Jugglers has at least 18 times, which I think is new territory that is only just been made available.
Peter Greenaway told me the worst thing to happen to movies was D.W. Griffith. Because of him, film at its inception became married to narrative and has never had the opportunity to grow the way other art forms have. How does this relate to motion pictures in your own work?
Peter Greenaway once said that film hadn’t developed. I agree, really. We filmed my show in San Francisco with three cameras upright, so you can now see where we have been and where we are going, more like real life perhaps.
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