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The connection between art and technology is explored in an entertaining and accessible way in Tim’s Vermeer, a documentary that demonstrates how a savvy and dedicated amateur with sufficient resources was able to create a remarkable likeness of a great 17th century painting. With his partner Teller behind the camera, illusionist-comic-commentator Penn Jillette takes the viewer by the hand as the team’s computer graphics inventor friend Tim Jenison genially demonstrates his painstaking efforts to get everything right and, in the process, furthers the argument that Dutch master Johannes Vermeer achieved his brilliant effects with the help of a camera obscura. Sony Pictures Classics should have no trouble attracting upscale, arts-oriented audiences to this delight.
Jenison’s epic undertaking, which spanned, by his own count, 1,825 days, was to faithfully reproduce one of Vermeer’s great paintings, The Music Lesson, which depicts a young woman and her teacher at a harpsichord and is typical of the artist in its use of side window light and a simple setting. In no respect an artist himself, Jenison was motivated by a theory promulgated in two widely discussed books published in 2001, artist David Hockney‘s Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters and architect-professor Philip Steadman‘s Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces. The hypothesis, first advanced by American photographer Joseph Pennell in 1891, is that Vermeer was able to achieve his exceptional effects not just by eyeballing his subjects but through the use of “projected images,” achieved via mirrors and lenses, that he could trace.
That Vermeer, who died in 1675, had access to camera obscura equipment is generally accepted; whether he used it or not is essentially unprovable. Infuriated art historians circled their wagons to defend their turf against the outsiders, no matter how august, lashing out at the intrusion of technology into the sacrosanct realm of artistic inspiration. Still, Vermeer’s work, and especially the luminosity and richness of his colors, which make it appear that he was “painting with light,” has for more than three centuries made scholars wonder about his “secret,” something Jenison approaches in the most analytical and industrious way possible.
While bantering with Jillette, who’s an inquisitive and enthusiastic presence throughout, Jenison makes very clear his amateur status, that he’s “a video guy,” but then, as a test, proceeds to “paint” a none-too-shabby portrait of his father-in-law on top of a black-and-white projected image of his photograph. He visits Vermeer’s hometown, Delft, in the Netherlands, with an eye to precisely reproducing the artist’s room in an industrial building in San Antonio, a process which itself took seven months.
Another issue is that the picture Jenison intends to paint isn’t available to be viewed by the public; it’s in Buckingham Palace, where he finally is permitted to regard it for 30 minutes. His verdict: “Reproductions don’t do it any justice at all.”
While Tim the connoisseur ruminates about the creative aspects of his endeavor, Tim the laborer goes about his business, meticulously grinding his own pigments, making lenses according to era-appropriate methods and forging his argument that, in the Golden Age under consideration, “art and technology were one and the same.”
In the end, the protestations of art historians notwithstanding, this is a position that will almost inevitably be increasingly embraced in the modern world. There is scarcely an art form that remains immune to technological advances or that does not involve electronics, machines or new materials in its production or presentation. The remarkable result Jenison achieves — Hockney and Steadman are both very keen when they see it — doesn’t undercut Vermeer’s original accomplishment at all but perhaps removes it slightly from the realm of the ineffable. “How did he do it?” suddenly has a plausible answer that makes Vermeer “a fathomable genius” and, by extension, other artists less godlike and more approachable.
Venues: Telluride, Toronto film festivals
Opens: 2014 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production: High Delft Pictures
With: Penn Jillette, Tim Jenison, Martin Mull, Philip Steadman, David Hockney, Colin Blakemore
Producer: Penn Jillette
Executive producers: Peter Adam Golden, Glenn S. Alai, Farley Ziegler, Teller
Director of photography: Shane F. Kelly
Editor: Patrick Sheffield
Music: Conrad Pope
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