Tim’s Vermeer is a fascinating new documentary which explores subjects such as art, technology, and obsession. The film is directed by Teller, best known as the silent partner in the illusionist duo Penn and Teller. Penn Jillette is also featured as a narrator in the film as well as being instrumental in its production. The real stars of Tim’s Vermeer, however, are inventor Tim Jenison and the paintings of famed Dutch master Johannes Vermeer.
Tim Jenison and his experiment to recreate Vermeer’s painting The Music Lesson are the central focus of Tim’s Vermeer. Jenison is a fascinating and curious character. He’s a wealthy inventor and founder of a successful computer software company called Newtek, based in San Antonio, Texas. Tim’s Vermeer follows the meticulous lengths Jenison goes to in order to realize his personal dream of recreating Vermeer’s studio and painting his masterpiece “The Music Lesson” (1662-1664).
Along with a number of art critics and historians (those cited in the movie include David Hockney, whose book is entitled “Secret Knowledge” and Philip Steadman, author of “Vermeer’s Camera”), Jenison believes that artist Johannes Vermeer utilized science and 17th century technology as a means to create his extraordinarily realistic paintings. Of course this particular theory is very controversial especially among art purists, critics, educators, and historians. Jenison goes to great lengths in his effort to explore and analyze Vermeer’s artistic methodology and sophisticated use of light and color. Early on in Tim’s Vermeer the inventor uses mirrors and a camera obscura in order to demonstrate his theory of how the Dutch master was able to use photographic images to aid in the creation of his masterpieces. Jenison’s theory is in direct opposition to the traditional belief that artists such as Vermeer relied solely on visual observation in order to bring their artwork to life on canvas.
What makes Tim’s Vermeer even more interesting than a routine documentary exploring the work and technique of Johannes Vermeer is Tim Jenison himself. Despite all his accomplishments Jenison is the first to admit that he’s a fish out of water when it comes to the art world. In fact at the beginning of the film he states outright, “I’m not a painter.” During the course of the film Jenison goes to extreme lengths not only to recreate Vermeer’s studio but also to remake the actual scientific materials and artistic supplies that would have been available during the time Vermeer was painting.
Jenison employed an army of workers to help him construct an intricate copy of Vermeer’s studio in a south Texas warehouse. The painstaking effort to recreate the artist’s studio took a total of 213 days. The inventor also learned woodworking techniques in order to build authentic 17th century furniture, meticulously made by hand his own painting pigments, and even mastered the proper method by which to grind glass into a lens. The actual painstaking process of painting The Music Lesson took Jenison 130 days of tedious work.
Tim’s Vermeer also follows Jenison, accompanied by Teller and Penn, on various trips to investigate Vermeer’s life and work. Jenison travels to Delft, Holland where he learns Dutch in order to gain a better understanding of Johannes Vermeer and his homeland. Jenison also takes a trip to the north shore of Yorkshire as well as London, England. In one particularly poignant scene Jenison receives permission from the present owner of The Music Lesson (the Queen herself) to visit the painting at Buckingham Palace (without cameras) for half an hour. The encounter proves to be an intensely moving experience as the usually stoic Jenison is brought to tears as he describes the once in a lifetime opportunity to see Vermeer’s original painting.
Tim’s Vermeer explores subjects such as art, optics, the perception of light and color, and perspective. Although many scenes are tedious, this element of monotony is actually one of the major themes of the movie. TIM’S VERMEER deals with a person with an overwhelming passion (or obsession) and demonstrates how the creation of something great requires an enormous amount of blood, sweat, and tears. Creativity doesn’t always manifest itself in exciting bursts of artistic energy. Art, like other disciplines, involves a degree of drudgery and monotony. The artist must soldier on even when his or her task becomes routine and boring. All too often in pop culture artistic genius is depicted as being something similar to divine intervention or inspiration. The artist is seen merely as a vessel out of which brilliant works are born; thus the element of their humanity is lost. It’s much more realistic to view artists like athletes who chose to persevere and devote endless hours in an attempt to perfect their technique and hone their skills.
Tim’s Vermeer is a very entertaining and insightful film which explores the relationship between science (or technology) and art. While historically these two subjects have been portrayed as separate and often competing entities they have the ability to work together as a means of achieving exquisite beauty and greatness. The lofty experiment that Tim Jenison attempts in this documentary is that Johannes Vermeer’s photo realistic paintings are the result of a combination of creativity and technology. Of course without the testimony of Johannes Vermeer himself the plain and simple truth is that no one will ever really know the secret behind The Music Lesson and perhaps that’s what makes such work a masterpiece.