Tim’s Vermeer

Tim’s Vermeer
Directed by Raymond Teller; produced by Penn Jillette
High Delft/Sony Pictures
80 mins., colour, 2013

In Tim’s Vermeer, we meet Tim Jenison, an inventor and computer graphics guy from Iowa with a talent for figuring out the inner workings of mechanical things. At one point, Jenison had a business fixing arcade games before a foray into 3D imaging resulted in an Emmy Award-winning career.

Jenison, we quickly learn, possesses the kind of brain that never stops working. If he is impressed by something he sees, he needs to take it apart and find out how it works. This is terrific when he is faced with an electronic gadget (or a pipe organ), but more complicated with a work of art. Like thousands of people over the last 300 years, Jenison became fascinated by the photo-realist painting style of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 75). Unlike those of us who can merely afford to go to a museum and look in awe, Jenison has the resources to investigate how Vermeer could have painted this way, over 150 years before the invention of photography.

Vermeer’s origins as an artist are unclear; no documents about his training have been found and no preparatory sketches discovered beneath the paint on his canvases. For Jenison, and the film’s producer and director, Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller (yes, that Penn and Teller), this makes Vermeer into a magician. After reading The Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering Lost Techniques of the Old Masters by British artist David Hockney, Jenison fixates on Vermeer. Hockney’s book states that art developed symbiotically with technology: painting was no longer going to be the same with the invention of the telescope, which created a world where we no longer looked using just our eyes. For Jenison, this means that the magnificent lighting effects in Vermeer’s paintings, his ability to make it seem as if the canvas is actually glowing, could possibly be related to a technological breakthrough that allowed him to paint this way.

The film follows Jenison over the course of several years as he develops theories about how Vermeer painted with such accuracy: projecting images onto a canvas doesn’t work, but a few fumblings with a mirror puts Jenison on to something. Using a photograph of his father-in-law and a small circular mirror, Jenison sets drawing materials to paper and, little by little, recreates the picture perfectly. Further investigations lead to more complicated set-ups (mirrors reflecting mirrors) and then it is time to move to the next level. Jenison picks a Vermeer to recreate, “The Music Lesson” (1662-65), and begins to test his theory.

Joining the journey at one point is Hockney himself, who declares Jenison’s discovery ingenious. His attitude towards Jenison’s undertaking seems somewhat dismissive, though he doesn’t go so far as to suggest that Jenison is cheating. After all, art and technology as two separate spheres of learning is a modern concept; once, they were combined. Today, motion pictures are the main art form where they still exist in some acknowledged symbiotic way.

Penn and Teller take great pains to simply observe Jenison’s process, offering little in the way of additional commentary or interpretation. As a result, Tim’s Vermeer is memorable, but dry. Spartan filmmaking techniques are applied to a story that is all facts and no fancy. At the centre is an event that is not fully explained: the technique Jenison discovers is described, but I can’t say that I understood how Jenison’s contraption works, even though the evidence shows that it does. It’s an artless film about an artless project, with Jenison a brainy Thomas Crown who undertakes a seemingly impossible task just to see if he can pull it off. The film rarely allows for humour, though Jenison’s daughter, Claire, home on a school break, does end up spending her vacation posing as the student in The Music Lesson. Mainly, we get an obsessive recording of details (i.e., the creation of a mirror uses techniques and materials from Vermeer’s day; the painstaking reproduction of the furniture in Vermeer’s painting.) What little drama there is stems from Jenison threatening to give up after 83 consecutive days of painting, and then some fatigue-induced weeping at 130 days. Tim’s Vermeer is erudite, but lacks passion. The end result leaves a viewer overwhelmed with (partial) information, but not quite satisfied by the film-watching experience.

Vermeer painted from life. He painted what he saw in the way that he saw it, but how did he make decisions about what and how to paint? Does Jenison figuring out how to paint a Vermeer make the originals any less impressive? Would we value Vermeer less if it was proven, definitively, that he used such devices while painting? These questions are never raised. The subject of this somewhat frustrating film probably doesn’t have answers to such questions because he is more interested in convincingly recreating a Vermeer than pondering what the act of creation actually means. (Such questions are to be mulled over by the audience afterwards, I suppose.) Jenison is not trying to debunk the Old Master and, while he may have figured out the technical means by which Vermeer could have painted, does he understand the gift of inspiration? And, does it really matter if someone can forge a painting? Works by many great artists – Turner, Monet, Chagall, Warhol – have been forged, but this hasn’t affected the cultural or monetary value of their legitimate works.

Penn and Teller anticipate some of these criticisms in the section of the film dealing with Philip Steadman’s book Vermeer’s Camera, which also opined that the painter used optics. Most interestingly, Steadman drew the ire not of painters, but of art historians. This film may garner the same reaction, and yet, it is worth watching when viewed as a film that allows for close observation of another person’s unique experience. Maybe the lesson of Tim’s Vermeer is that art is never without form and discipline, but such rigour feels empty when it’s not accompanied by inspiration.