Cult magicians Penn Jillette and his mysterious (mostly) mute assistant Teller are no strangers to either controversy or truth-telling. Known for revealing the artistry behind many popular stage magic tricks and their series “Bullshit!,” which investigated and exposed pop-culture myths, they have a tendency to seek out the truth regardless of offending or alienating audience members. While I always found this quality entertaining, never did I realize how much it really had in common with the great documentarians of our time, like, say, Errol Morris or the Maysles Brothers. Enter TIM’S VERMEER.
A local art teacher suggested I check out this movie, and while I expected it to be an interesting and perhaps vaguely educational way to spend a snowy afternoon, I certainly didn’t expect it to be so thought-provoking and captivating. A man trying to create a painting in the technique of Vermeer….well, sounds kind of boring, right? What if I mention that Tim Jension, the documentary’s subject, is also a brilliant self-made inventor, and was interested in Vermeer’s technique of capturing light, which reminded him of the optics in modern photography and video? Slightly more interesting, maybe. What if I told you that in his experiment to replicate this painting technique, the inventor Tim Jenison both confirmed and extended evidence in books presented by two subversive authors, David Hockey and Philip Steadman, who rocked the art world with their theories that Johannes Vermeer painted by layering paint over a reflection or projection created by a mirror or lens—basically a really complex, modernized, and really work-intensive way of tracing and filling in? Would that pique your interest a bit?
Although calm, quiet and methodical, Tim Jension makes a deceptively fascinating documentary subject. His work in television and special effects, in combination with reading David Hockney’s book, led to his obsession with Vermeer’s techniques and how much they reminded him of video. Falling further down the rabbit hole in his journey of scientific inquiry, he moves from simple camera obscuras to more complex jury-rigged devices with inverted mirrors and lenses, finally finding a device that allows him to create a perfectly objective, scientific painting simply by laying paint over light and shadow. The result, as Jenison jokes, his first oil painting, is a completely photographic representation of his subject achieved through technology. As Jenison states, it is an entirely scientific, objective method of painting, and although painstaking, involving absolutely no inborn talent or trial and error.
This in itself is a fascinating discovery, but Jenison’s scientific interest didn’t stop here. His dream is to paint a Vermeer, to see if it can be completely replicated in today’s modern world, including with the same light and color and elaborate scenery. He chooses the painting “The Music Room” to re-create. But how does a scientist and inventor completely copy the scene in this intricately decorated room?
Easy: he uses the same special-effects computer modeling technique to build an entire life-size clone of the room, done to obsessive scale. It is here where Tim’s obsession, attention to detail, and technical skill absolutely boggle the viewer’s mind. We see a montage of him consulting specialized experts like potters and costume designers to remake exactly what is in the painting. Anything that he cannot have made to his satisfaction, Tim simply builds himself, one time even cutting a lathe in half to create a bench leg to the exact size and scale as the old-fashioned one he needs for his room. He even goes so far as to only use paints that would have been available in Vermeer’s time, consulting an artist to help him grind pigments so he can only use colors that were available to Vermeer in his time. The room in itself is an artistic museum piece of breathtaking beauty when it is finished, like traveling in time to a place that is stiller, quieter, more lush and beautiful.
The only portion where the movie can be said to drag is where Tim begins, and works at, his painting. However, the combination of time-lapse photography revealing the painting results, as well as an exhausted Tim bending over his bench laboring with a tiny brush over every curlicue in his opulent furniture, is necessary to show just how time-consuming, work-intensive, and completely obsessive the whole endeavor is, as well as the stunning results. In the end, spoiler alert, the untrained Jenison’s painting, which took him years of planning and work to complete, is an exact replica of the Vermeer—expert authors David Hockney and Phili Steadman even joke that it looks better than the original.
TIM’S VERMEER is so thoroughly entertaining that it is easy to varnish (a little art history humor) over the monumental issues it addresses. Through his completely scientific, objective, and technical study of Vermeer’s paintings, Tim Jenison is able to tease out details that art historians and researchers have not discovered in 350 years, such as the subtle curvature of some of the intricate patterns in the painting’s furniture — yet another suggestion that Vermeer was painting from a reflection — or fuzzy lines of light around subjects that resembles those seen in photography. The implications of this are huge for the worlds of both art and science. Is Vermeer any less of an artist now that all the evidence suggests that anyone, with enough work and effort, could create a painting using exactly the methods and devices he did? What about the ingenuity of his invention and technique, doesn’t that count for something? And what about subject, composition, and use of color–all important aspects in photography and painting as well? And what really makes an artist, anyway –being talented, doing the work, or both?
As an amateur artist, the film brought to mind Betty Edwards’s landmark book “Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain.” The book also presented scientific evidence that drawing from life is not an inborn skill, but one that anyone can learn because it is simply a method of mathematically translating proportion and spatial relations to the page. You can do this by practicing and improving measuring with your eye and other tools, or you can do it with a reflecting device, such as scientists and inventors may use. But in the end, aren’t you really doing the same thing? (Note that this is drawing from life with photographic realism, which is what Vermeer was so well-regarded for…drawing from the imagination is, of course, a whole other issue).
In the end, I admired TIM’S VERMEER for not only raising these questions, but not conclusively answer them. It had the subtlety to acknowledge that Vermeer was still a gifted artist for many of the reasons we admire artists; use of composition and subject being among them. It also proceeded along in a clear line of scientific inquiry that naturally built to a conclusion. At each step of the way, Tim Jenison satisfied his curiosity by consulting theorists in the art world, and even a leading optical expert to get his opinion on whether Vermeer could have captured light in his paintings that way simply by using his imagination. Maybe that is the difference in our modern society, the film proposes. Many Renaissance men, like Leonardo Da Vinci, were known as brilliant scientists and inventors as well as artists. Today, there seems to be a sharp divide between the training for these, and upon the categorization of people as one or the other. However, all the evidence suggests that these worlds are often not quite as distant as they seem.
TIM’S VERMEER is currently in theaters.
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