Tim's Vermeer

Tim's Vermeer explores how the Dutch Renaissance painter
might've used technology to up his game
LENS FLAIR: Graham Toms modeled for Tim Jenison's reproduction of Vermeer's 'The Music Lesson.' Jenison used lenses and mirrors to reproduce the effects of the mechanical aids which he believes the painter employed. Photograph by Shane F. Kelly

After a long career of tricks designed to make people doubt their eyes, Penn Jillette and Teller made the sweet and winning Tim's Vermeer. Teller gets the director's credit; Jillette narrates, naturally.

It actually fits what the magicians have done both on stage and as debunkers, their mystification in the name of demystification. It offers a solution to the mystery of Vermeer—"a fathomless genius, now a fathomable one," says the rumbustious Penn. The beauty part is he's a little wrong, and yet the movie is right: it honors the labor of an artist as well as the inspiration that can't be copied even in an age of mechanical reproduction. Or the non-mechanical type shown here.

San Antonio inventor and experimenter Tim Jenison tests a theory of what made J. Vermeer (1632-1675), little known in his day, the most rhaposodized-about artist of the golden age of the Dutch Republic. There's already been a movie (a bad one) about his Girl With a Pearl Earring, the lady caught in a flash of some private moment of surprise or surmise.

Jenison, a childhood pal of Jillette's, made some good money in computer graphics, but side projects interest him: propeller-driven roller skates, an airplane kluged from Home Depot parts and the three pipe organs he grafted into one in his basement. Jenison, a bearded, work-shirted party who looks a little like the French actor Michael Lonsdale, read David Hockney's controversial book Secret Knowledge, as well as historian Philip Steadman's Vermeer's Camera. The books argue Vermeer's departure from rival painters may have been due to some optical advantage. Could this have been a camera obscura? That invention is a precursor of cinema; you can see a good demonstration of how it works in the Michael Powell movie A Matter of Life and Death.

Having time, money and curiosity, Jenison decided to take about six years backward engineering Vermeer's The Music Lesson in a Texas warehouse. He got a 30-minute long date with the original, which hangs in Buckingham Palace, but otherwise had to work with a repro. Jenison tested the camera obscura, but he got better results with lenses, a concave mirror, and another round hand-sized mirror on a stick, a jumbo version of the one the dentist sticks in your mouth to prove to you that you don't floss.

The beginning of wisdom is admitting you don't know, and Jillette shows a hitherto unseen humble side ("if it were up to me to make paint, there would be no paint"). Jenison's obsession is remarkable—he learns to read Dutch, to make and grind lenses, and to mix Vermeer's famous lapis lazuli pigment. He builds a scrim in the shape of the nearby buildings that would have shadowed Vermeer's north-facing window, and he talked his daughter into donning a headbrace to model for the female figure in the painting.

And then Jenison sets to work. "It's like watching paint dry," Jillette says, even as that unworthy thought crosses our minds.

But it gets very moving, seeing Jenison's mad lonely effort in video diary form. Tim's Vermeer is a convincing argument that Vermeer saw better than the unaided eye could have seen, through the gradations of grey that an optic nerve can't pick up, or the hyper-close details like the nap in a rug or a line of decorative gilded sea horses on the virginal (a proto piano). The argument against Vermeer's lenscrafting is easy: there is no historical evidence of the artist using any such optical tools, though naturally an artist would have guarded any special technology from his rivals.

Using this equipment, a non-painter—a dedicated, picky and very observant non-painter, certainly—created an impressive replica. Jillette uses this work to suggest that the split between technology and art ought to be repaired. It's a remarkable achievement. But a close looks shows the perfection of Vermeer's original isn't in Jenison's amazingly hard work. You can tell the difference: there remains some irreproducible element even if you get everything else right.

Tim's Vermeer

80 MIN; PG-13

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