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Tim’s Vermeer

By Philip Martin

This article was published April 11, 2014 at 2:20 a.m.


Tim Jenison fiddles with a lens as he attempts to construct a device that will allow him to replicate the effects achieved by the 17-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer in the documentary Tim’s Vermeer.

Video software engineer (and untrained painter) Tim Jenison produces a photo-realistic painting with the help of an optical device in the documentary ...

Perhaps what modern audiences value most in the paintings of 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is the uncanny “objectivity” with which the artist was able to record a world minutely out of phase with our expectation - he almost imperceptibly skews toward beauty. Vermeer shows us a world that very nearly exists, the soft-focus world of the dazzled.

We look at how he rendered the soft play of daylight on his subjects with a kind of photographic precision (achieved despite the sometimes rough layering of his paint) and wonder: How could the painter’s mind contain such detail, how could he see so much?

For years, experts such as painter David Hockney and art historian Philip Steadman have argued that Vermeer made use of mirrors and lenses, and may even have converted a room in his house into a large camera obscura. While there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest that Vermeer may have “cheated” in this manner - the usual records documenting his apprenticeship do not exist - no one had quite worked out how Vermeer might have made his paintings.

Until now. Tim’s Vermeer, a provocative documentary from Penn and Teller, the meta-magic duo who are probably as well known for debunking of conventionally held canards as for the illusions they perform, details Tim Jenison’s quest to reproduce Vermeer’s famous The Music Lesson using only period technology and materials. (Penn Jillette, the burly and garrulous one, narrates; Teller, whose public persona is silent, directs.)

Jenison, an inventor and video engineer (he developed a lot of desktop video software) with the time and money to pursue his fancy, starts out with no experience in painting. Yet his first attempt at working with oils - copying a black and white photograph with the aid of a simple, ingeniously employed mirror - yields a remarkably accurate image. Thus encouraged, he undertakes to re-create a full-scale model of the room in which Vermeer painted in a San Antonio warehouse, and to produce his own version of The Music Lesson.

He builds by hand almost every object in the painting, including floor tiles and an intricately carved model of an elaborate harpsichord known as a “virginal.” (At least, I presume it is a nonworking model - the viola da gamba Jenison acquires is a real one on which he plays the opening riff from Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.”) Then he begins what can only be described as the insane task of painting, using a fairly simple system of mirrors and lenses, the scene before his eyes. And over the months it takes to complete the work - using this method is no shortcut - several remarkable truths about Vermeer’s technique are revealed. He was painting things the unaided human eye cannot detect.

What emerges from this delightful, brief documentary doesn’t debunk Vermeer’s genius, but certifies it.

Tim’s Vermeer 89

Cast: Documentary, with Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, Martin Mull, David Hockney, Philip Steadman, Colin Blakemore Director: Teller Rating: PG-13, for some strong language Running time: 80 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 04/11/2014

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