Here’s a review of the documentary we saw Wednesday in Austin. Fascinating documentary! We loved it!
Tim’s Vermeer: How’d he paint that?
Imagine having the time and resources to pursue any question that intrigues you. Inventor Tim Jenison does just that in the engaging documentary Tim’s Vermeer, looking into a mystery surrounding the works of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675). Jenison’s efforts are captured by celebrated magicians, debunkers and smart-asses Penn and Teller, with Teller directing and co-producer Penn Jillette narrating.
Johannes Vermeer painted meticulous interior scenes of domestic life in the 1600s. Most of his work was set in two small rooms of his home. His paintings were photo-realistic, making masterful use of light. So how did he create such works long before the invention of the photographic camera? Contemporary x-rays showed there were no sketches on the canvases beneath the paint. So what was this guy, a magician?
Two 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, elaborate on old speculation that Vermeer used projected images to achieve his remarkable effects, probably employing a camera obscura to reproduce his scenes and provide a guide for him to paint over.
Enter Jenison, who founded the hardware/software company NewTek in the ’80s and hit it big with Video Toaster, a desktop video-production tool. With no deeds to do or promises to keep, the groovy rich man sets out to see if an amateur can reproduce one of Vermeer’s works using only tools available during the painter’s days. The painting he chooses is “The Music Lesson,” which shows a young woman and her teacher at a harpsichord.
Tim’s Vermeer breaks into roughly three segments: The set-up for the project and an early experiment, Jenison’s painstaking reproduction of the people, objects and lighting of “The Music Lesson” in a studio, and his struggle to recreate the scene on canvas using projected images and mirrors.
The first segment grabbed me. I was intrigued by the description of the documentary and found the project fascinating. Tim Jenison is a likeable fellow, and Penn Jillette, who periodically appears on camera, thankfully ditches his blustery onstage persona and comes off as a genuine interested party. Spending time with Jenison and his friend is easy.
The middle section left me squirming at first. I didn’t care how Jenison went about accurately staging the scene in his studio, I just wanted to watch him try to reproduce it. But I eventually realized that showing the process was necessary because Penn and Teller weren’t just documenting the project, they were also documenting Tim Jenison, and an obsession with detail is part of who he is.
Ah, and then there’s the final portion of the film. Witnessing Jenison – an amateur – ever so slowly (1,825 days!) attempt to use the projection and mirror to recreate the work of a master artist is mesmerizing. Does Jenison’s success lessen Vermeer’s achievements? Of course not. As is mentioned several times through the documentary, artists routinely use tools to make sure their perspective is right. And projecting images onto canvases is common now. An artist chooses what to paint and how to paint it. Tools are just tools. And Tim’s Vermeer is a short (80 minutes – thank you Penn and Teller), satisfying piece of art in its own right.