I highly recommend the recently released, thought-provoking, movie Tim’s Vermeer. When my husband suggested we go, I begrudgingly agreed, thinking that it would be a snooze-fest with pompous art historians and that it wouldn’t be an ideal way to spend one of the first sunny, Spring-like Saturdays of the year. Wrong!
Produced by Penn & Teller (of course, that Penn & Teller), it is lively and engaging film about digital inventor Tim Jenison’s attempts to prove a theory that Vermeer painted his photo-realistic paintings using optics in a way that nobody else has before or since. Jenison attempts to prove his theory by recreating a Vermeer — the bedazzling, light-filled The Music Lesson — using the same materials available to the Dutch painter. He ground his own pigments, made his own lenses following 17th century processes, and went to great lengths to recreate the studio setting for the painting. The movie documents Jenison’s 5-year endeavor to study and replicate the physical items in the painting, even having a Dutch potter make him a replica water pitcher and recreating the Delft light conditions in his Texas warehouse studio by constructing a Dutch-style false building facade outside his studio to diffuse the light as it would have been diffused by neighboring buildings in Vermeer’s studio.
Most importantly, Jenison hit upon a solution to low-light issues with a camera obscura by building additional mirrors to re-invert the image and to brighten and focus it in order to paint. This, in Jenison’s theory, is what Vermeer must have done with the camera obscura that separated his art from that of his peers. It isn’t simply geometry, or a savant artistic ability, but a mechanical solution to recreating on canvas what is seen — and what is not so easily seen — by the human eye.
This film is a documentary but don’t expect it to be unbiased. There are a few comments by artist David Hockney and architect Phillip Steadman (both wrote scholarly works that prompted Jenison’s quest) that support Jenison’s theories, as well as comments that his theories will be rejected because of the “art establishment” looking down its collective nose at an outsider. And they are right: art historians have been mostly silent or dismissive, Jonathan Jones in The Guardian even describing the documentary as “an art film for philistines“, without addressing the counterarguments.
The film doesn’t really discuss alternative theories. But, on some level, it goes beyond trying to prove Jenison’s theory. Instead, this film can be seen as being more about Jenison’s obsession with trying to figure out how Vermeer created such realistic paintings 150 years before the invention of the camera than it is about trying to disprove or resolve century old questions definitively. That may not have been director Teller’s vision, but as a viewer, I find it hard to walk away without thinking about the relentless obsessive journey to prove what cannot be proven or wondering what sort of reception Jenison’s “discovery” will have in the art world in the long-term.
Jenison, Hockney and Steadman discuss in the film how one could never be sure whether Jenison has proved anything. His idea that Vermeer could have used a camera obscura and additional lenses to refine the light can never be proven; it can only be a theory — with a demonstration that it is possible. Hockney repeats several times in the film that paintings are documents, even Tim’s recreated copy of The Music Lesson. As documents, all paintings — including Vermeer’s and Jenison’s — are open for speculation and interpretation.
I think it is important to recognize that Jenison never says that his painting is as good as Vermeer’s. He never tries to put it up to a test to see if it could fool someone into thinking it is a Vermeer. Even the painting’s name — Tim’s Music Lesson — suggests that he doesn’t think it is even a reputable copy of the artwork, simply a recreation of another’s work using the same hypothetical technique. If you were an amateur — and admittedly not a very good one — what might you do with a work that you researched for four years and then spent another five months producing? I think many would do what Tim Jenison did: hang it in his bedroom, a sign of a personal accomplishment.
I think that this film raises many questions that it doesn’t attempt to resolve in a meaningful way. Foremost is the issue of what is a “legitimate” use of technology in the making of art. In Vermeer’s day it may have been a mechanical tool to recreate a scene. The film points out that the use of geometry for depicting the correct perspective in a painting, even though it is an acceptable technique, is as much a tool as using a set of mirrors. The film suggests that to be dismissive of the use of a “tool” is a bunch of BS — but in doing so they are as dismissive of the counterargument as the critics are of Tim’s theory. Is the art world stuck into thinking that the use of a tool is “cheating”? What other tools might be considered inappropriate for the making of art? Is it the same today, perhaps, of digital art?
The closing comments by Penn Jillette suggest an answer. It is something that I will ponder for a long time: “Is Tim an artist? Or is he an inventor? That we even ask the question is the problem.” This film has a lot to consider, especially for people interested in photography or digital art.
I highly recommend Tim’s Vermeer (website), even if — especially if — you consider yourself a philistine — or a photographer, an artist, a culture enthusiast, a scientist, a technology geek….