Home > Art, Film, Reviews > Film Review: Tim’s Vermeer

Film Review: Tim’s Vermeer

Tim’s Vermeer (2014; Directed by Teller)

Tim Jenison is an inventor, which means to say that he solves problems by using technology. This description might seem to be considerably removed from, if not diametrically opposed to, that of the artist, who doesn’t solve problems so much as diagnose and represent them aesthetically, or else imagine and conjure up a vision of an idealized absence of those problems. This last description in particular would seem to be an apt description of the artworks of Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch painter of delicately composed, timelessly poised, exquisitely lighted interior scenes of contemporary quotidian life.

Vermeer’s paintings achieve a vivid serenity that feels practically impossible. But Tim Jenison thinks them all the more possible because they’re so practical. Having made a comfortable living developing and manufacturing high-tech video technology, Jenison has examined Vermeer’s paintings and his expert eye has recognized a photorealism that can only have been achieved with the aid of some more primitive form of visual projection technology. The prevailing theory is that the human eye and the artistic imagination are simply, technically not sufficient to produce the effects seen on Vermeer’s canvases.

Tim’s Vermeer documents Jenison’s thorough multi-year effort to first devise a mechanism allowing him (a total novice as a painter) to replicate Vermeer’s artwork and then to set about the time-consuming task of actually replicating it. Stage magicians and spokesmen for rational empiricism Penn and Teller produce and direct, respectively; Jenison is an old friend of theirs, and has dedicated his life to a more practical magic. His methods and practices are quite wondrous, all the more so for their tinkerer’s ingenuity, and the film’s greater message is that this mix of qualities was more than likely Vermeer’s as well.

Investigating and designing the type of mirrors-and-lenses optical device that Jenison believes Vermeer likely used (documentary evidence on the painter’s life is scant, and little or nothing is known or can ever be known for certain about his techniques), our hero rejigs the reflective apparatus of a room-sized camera obscura to craft a simple but fiendishly clever device that places an inverted reflection of any given object in a small shaving mirror rigged at eye level above a desk and canvas. All one needs to do is take up a paintbrush (which Jenison has never done before, but he’s a quick study) and painstakingly transfer the image that the eye sees in the glass to the canvas directly below it. It’s a visually intuitive process, albeit one requiring a high level of concentration. If you’re doing it right, the edge of the image in the mirror should blend into the one on the painting surface.

It might sound like a complex and confusing process in description but Jenison’s demonstrations for the camera as well as for artist guests like Martin Mull and David Hockney (who has written extensively about the potential use of optical aids like Jenison’s in achieving the Renaissance’s great leap forward in realistic artistic representation) are revelatory (see it demonstrated in the excerpted clip embedded below). “It’s not subjective,” Jenison says of his method, “It’s objective.” Once he’s shown that the device can produce virtual verisimilitude with a variety of simple objects, Jenison decides to undertake the odyssean task of applying its operation to the work of the master himself. He elects to use his device to produce a painstaking copy of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson.

The practical logistics that this project requires would surely daunt a less meticulous and determined person, not to mention a person lacking Jenison’s financial resources, technical manufacturing know-how, and apparent vast reserves of free time. To accurately create a painted copy of the The Music Lesson using his optical device, Jenison must construct, stage, and light the entire interior scene that it depicts in a warehouse studio, then sit in front of it for the better part of a year, diligently painting the mirror image in all of its considerable and minute detail. This designing and building process, though only a prelude to the grueling task of painting that exhausts and even begins to depress the seemingly unflappable Jenison, is impressive in itself. Jenison makes or tracks down the specific windows panes, tablecloth, mirror, chair, virginal (the period keyboard instrument played by the pupil) flooring, and clothing. At one point, he chops an expensive electric lathe in two because it isn’t long enough to make the virginal legs he requires.

Jenison pursues and executes the project of producing a Vermeer to call his own with an admirable but slightly frightening scientific obsessiveness. Tim’s Vermeer can feel like an extended Mythbusters episode with greater sophistication, more of a wry sense of humour and no explosions or production deadlines. The Guardian‘s art critic Jonathan Jones ripped into the film’s total lack of mystified awe at the rare power of artistic genius, accusing it of reducing The Music Lesson‘s creation to a mere “trick”. Jones is far from fair concerning Jenison’s investment in Vermeer’s art. If the tremendous investment of time and resources and mental exertion required to produce “a copy of a poster” isn’t proof enough of Jenison’s admiration of the original, his quietly moved reaction after being allowed to see the painting at Buckingham Palace should appeal more to the sort of mesmerized worshipfulness that the critic seems to feel appropriate when faced with Vermeer.

But my own reaction is that Tim’s Vermeer makes the master’s achievement seem grander and more ingenious even while systematically demystifying the amorphous cult of the genius. Nothing can ever be proved beyond doubt concerning Vermeer’s use of optical aids in the production of his masterpieces, but Jenison collects data to support the hypothesis in the course of the experiment: many almost imperceptible visual details in the original painting that are familiar to his trained techie eye suggest the use of image projection, including a very slight curve in the supposedly straight horizontal lines of the virginal that would not be reproduced if painted from life through the human eye alone. Obviously a working artist like Vermeer had to be quicker in producing his work than Jenison was, although a longer production period would serve to explain the relatively small number of known works by the master.

But the technical ingenuity and problem-solving acumen that Tim Jenison demonstrates and implicitly attributes to Johannes Vermeer need not preclude the evolved creative instincts and aesthetic vision that are breathlessly (and lazily) imparted to ineffable “genius”. Jenison’s device and painstaking model scene-setting allows him to merely (if convincingly) replicate The Music Lesson. Vermeer had to conceive of this transcendent tableau of light, air, and stillness and then apply whatever ingenious methods he formulated to execute its making. The Jonathan Joneses of the world acknowledge amazing technical acumen but seek to segregate it from the sublime ephemerality of artistic genius like high priests mediating between supernatural mystery and the empirical reality of their dull mud-splattered congregants. Tim’s Vermeer suggests more open-mindedly that sophisticated technical achievement is its own form of genius, and can tessellate seamlessly with loftier visions to form the genesis of a most memorable art. And even better, it shows us how. A most practical magic, indeed.

Categories: Art, Film, Reviews
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  1. January 1, 2015 at 11:01 am
  2. January 2, 2015 at 3:09 pm

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