Monday, March 24, 2014
The documentary Tim's Vermeer is the story of Tim Jenison, a businessman and inventor with a curious obsession. Jenison's field is 3D animation and computer graphics, and it's his skill in those areas that propelled his study of the painter Vermeer. Taking his cue from the writings of artist David Hockney, Jenison came to believe Vermeer used a camera obscura or other optical device to achieve the detail and effects of light in his work. The bulk of the film is Jenison's attempt to construct a similar device (and to replicate the conditions) that will allow him to paint a copy of Vermeer's The Music Lesson.
Tim's Vermeer is directed by Teller, the silent member of the magic duo Penn & Teller, and the film exists at least is part because of Jenison's friendship with Penn Jillette. (Jillette narrates and offers occasional onscreen commentary.) The story of Jenison's painting is a sort of slow-motion reveal of a magic trick, with the science clearly explained through animation and David Hockney himself showing up to validate Jenison's efforts. The first demonstration of Jenison's mirror technique is the film's most dramatic scene, with Jenison able to complete a photo-realistic copy of a picture of his father-in-law. After Jenison spends months building a replica of the room Vermeer painted in - the cost is never discussed - it takes four months to complete his Music Lesson. The final result is remarkable, but neither Jenison, Hockney, or the filmmakers address the question of how we're supposed to think about Vermeer in light of Jension's work. The art historian Philip Steadman (impressed with but unnerved by Jenison) asks the question "Was Vermeer a machine?", and it's that question that should animate discussion among art lovers as they leave the theatre. Does the idea that Vermeer or another artist of the time may have used a camera obscura invalidate their creativity, or their genius? What is genius, anyway? Hockney observes at the end that Jenison's work will "disturb" peeople invested the idea of Vermeer's unique ability, and hearing from one or two of those people would have helped put Jenison's achievement in perspective. The question of whether explaining the process behind great artistic work then diminishes that work is one that can't be answered, but Tim's Vermeer is only one half of the argument.