How did seventeenth-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer paint with such accuracy that his works look more like exquisite photographs on canvas? And if he developed a device that enabled him to capture light and color with clarity not discernible by the naked eye, does that lessen his standing as a great artist and possibly make him a cheat?
The documentary Tim’s Vermeer that opens in Nashville today probes those questions during its 80 minutes. The film, produced and narrated by Penn Jillette and directed by his professional partner Teller, follows Tim Jenison on an eight-year quest to discover what might have made Vermeer’s work so startlingly different from his contemporaries (and many others for that matter).
It’s probably fair to credit Jenison as the mind behind the modern desktop video world – he founded NewTek in 1985, and developed such innovative products as DigiView (one of the first video digitizers for a computer), DigiPaint and the Amiga Video Toaster®. He’s quite familiar with digital art, but by his own admission he is not a painter.
Jenison wondered if speculation that Vermeer might have used a camera obscura in creating the 35 paintings attributed to him could be proven. In the film he finds that such a device would not be enough – what else could Vermeer have devised to help him see, and then paint, what others could not?
The film does a good job of presenting Jenison’s journey, including some illuminating interaction with Professor Philip Steadman, whose 2001 book “Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces” caused an uproar among art historians and others, and artist extraordinaire David Hockney, who published “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering Techniques of the Old Masters” that same year. He manages to see a Vermeer in Queen Elizabeth II’s private collection at Buckingham Palace (though sadly no camera crew got to go with him), and finally takes on the task of recreating The Music Lesson, painstakingly setting up the conditions he believes Vermeer painted under and then beginning the arduous task (which the film crew documented on a daily basis during a 130-day process) of painting as close a replica of the master’s work as possible.
If there’s any disappointment in watching Tim’s Vermeer – and it’s not a major letdown from my perspective – it’s that the entertainingly irreverent minds that brought us the terrific Penn & Teller: Bulls^&t! Showtime TV series for eight seasons have created an intelligent audio-visual treatise that cinematically is a dry and by-the-numbers digital affair, even with musical contributions by Conrad Pope. I understand them respecting Jenison’s story for more than one reason, including (as noted in the film) the inventor’s longtime friendship with Jillette, but why not have more fun with this subject than they did? This is, after all, a film intended for general audiences.
I don’t think it lessens Vermeer’s standing if he developed a device to enhance his ability to paint – it shows he was an ever greater genius if it’s true. As Hockney says in the doc, art and science were happily aligned in Vermeer’s time in a way they aren’t now (though he, and others like me, think they should be viewed in complementary terms). Cheating? Ridiculous – as others have noted that’s like saying it’s cheating to use a paintbrush instead of one’s fingers. And the fact is no matter what Jenison managed technically, Vermeer did it first; and ultimately the master painter’s brilliant artistry, which Jenison cannot capture no matter how impressive his research and results as an attempted replicator, remains unique.
Tim’s Vermeer (www.sonyclassics.com/timsvermeer) opens today (March 14) in Nashville exclusively at the Regal Green Hills Stadium 16 (3815 Green Hills Village Dr.); see www.regmovies.com for times. Rated PG-13 for some strong language, 80 min. Directed by Teller. With Tim Jenison, David Hockney, Philip Steadman, Penn Jillette and Martin Mull.
*Photos by Carlo Villarreal and Shane F. Kelly © 2013 High Delft Pictures LLC courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.