Tim’s Vermeer is an art howhedunnit

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Directed by Penn and Teller. Featuring Tim Jenison and David Hockney. Rating not available.

Science and art have always worked together, despite the common perception of their supposed separateness. These realms come together delightfully in Tim’s Vermeer, in which an inveterate tinkerer and super-logical mind explores the limits of craft.

This is a first documentary feature directed by magicians Penn and Teller—although it’s sometimes just credited to Teller, the smaller, mute-voiced half of the comic duo. These Vegas troupers have long been pals with Tim Jenison, a tech savant who developed much nifty video software before cashing out and moving to San Antonio, Texas, to work on various personal obsessions. Chief among these was a burning curiosity as to how the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer developed a level of photorealism more than two centuries before the arrival of photography.

About eight years ago, Jenison started exploring what technologies Vermeer might have used to get his staged images so faithfully transferred to canvas. The notion of lenses and mirrors being harnessed extensively in the age of the camera obscura had already been detailed in two books of the past decade: David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters; and Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces, by Philip Steadman. Both men appear here to bolster the argument. (Curiously, both books are already out of print.)

With Penn Jillette as enthusiastic tour guide, we follow Jenison to Delft, Holland, which lets him prowl around the artist’s neighbourhood, and to Buckingham Palace, where the Queen of England has the original of The Music Lesson on (nonpublic) display. This is the spectacularly crowded composition Jenison decided to re-create in his Texas warehouse, in which he installed a replica of Vermeer’s studio, developed optical gizmos and built props while grinding colours from scratch, et cetera, leading to six tedious months at the drawing board in an attempt to prove his howhedunnit.

Bolstered by clever editing and an excellent neoclassical score, the film somewhat underplays the amount of ingenuity it took Vermeer to visualize, as opposed to merely capturing, the images that became The Milkmaid and The Girl With a Pearl Earring. But Jenison’s finished simulation—clinically impressive but oddly lifeless—testifies to the vital difference that art actually makes.

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