Tuesday, October 15, 2013


"There’s also this modern idea that art and technology must never meet. You go to school for technology or you go to school for art, but never for both. But in the Golden Age, they were one and the same person." -- Tim Jenison, inventor

Tim’s Vermeer, a good-humored inquiry into the mysteries of what constitutes the artistic process, traces the initially casual obsession of Tim Jenison, an engineer and inventor (he created the Video Toaster among many other video-oriented innovations), with the work of 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Inspired by British artist David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge, which suggested that the sudden shift in painting from more stylized representation to the hyperrealism of masters like Vermeer, Caravaggio and others was enabled by the use of lenses and other complex systems of optics which these painters used to create their astonishingly detailed works, Jenison seizes on the notion of Vermeer’s near-photographic level of representation and begins to scratch an itch it will take five years to satisfy.
The inventor postulates that Vermeer in particular may have utilized a room-sized camera obscura which allowed him to precisely match the tones of objects and gradations of light and create his almost photorealistic canvases. At which point Jenison begins to wonder-- if the process of creation is as objective as all that, then he ought to be able to do what Vermeer did, with comparable results, essentially asking the question, does it take an artist to create art?
So Jenison embarks on his quest to recreate Vermeer’s The Music Lesson and perhaps answer that question. It turns out to be a grueling, exhilarating process dependent on equal parts creativity and technical imagination which finds him not only grinding his own lenses for his own camera obscura ("I couldn’t use a modern lens—they’re too good") and making his own paint, but even building his own version of the furniture in Vermeer’s masterpiece, essentially recreating the room the artist first composed and saw in order that it might be recreated yet again.

The movie emerges as a fascinating examination of the methods of one artist, whose life remains shrouded in if not exactly mystery, then certainly beneath a dearth of documentation-- Paintings are documents that can be read like text, we are reminded more than once-- who reaches out through his work to inform the nascent consciousness of a different sort of artist from an entirely different age. But given that Tim’s Vermeer is directed, deftly, by Teller, with suitably impressed on-and-off-screen narration from Penn Jillette, it shouldn’t be surprising that the documentary also plays on the same level which much of Penn and Teller’s work as postmodern illusionists does—as an elaborate deconstruction of a master magician’s trick.

The questions which are raised by that deconstruction, including whether or not Jenison’s methods are a plausible explanation for Vermeer’s achievements, serve to undermine conventional notions of what separates the artist from the technician, as well as to how much mystery surrounding an artist’s methodology is central to the elevation of their work into the realm of art. But there’s also a disturbing side effect at play here, one openly acknowledged by both Hockney and Jenison-- Does the proof of the duplicator’s success, the sense that any old technical genius with a mirror and a paintbrush can recreate the conditions and the result of the master artist’s toiling, inadvertently devalue the genuine inspiration of a Johannes Vermeer? It’s a question the movie is honorably content to leave us chewing on over the end credits, buoyant on the swell of emotion inspired by an impossible job well done.
Tim's Vermeer had its U.S. premiere on October 3 at the New York Film Festival and will be released later this year by Sony Pictures Classics.


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