How could anyone paint with photographic accuracy two centuries before the invention of photography?
That’s the question that set San Antonio inventor Tim Jenison on an obsessive five-year quest. And his answer to the question is the subject of the documentary Tim’s Vermeer.
In an eureka! flash, in a bathtub in Amsterdam, he came up with an idea. Through a clever arrangement of lenses and mirrors, an artist could readily compare a real-life image with a painting in progress. In this way, capturing even the subtlest gradations in color and light would be a fairly straightforward process. Could that be how Vermeer achieved such precision? Jenison tried it at home – re-creating a photo of his father in oils – and it worked.
Enter the Las Vegas magicians Penn Jillette and Teller. (Teller legally jettisoned his given names and is now known by his surname only.) Teller says the idea of making a movie arose during a dinner between Jenison and Jillette, who are old friends, in 2008.
“Jenison said that he’d been to Delft,” Teller said, “where Vermeer lived and worked, and he had measured the light there. He also pointed out that the light in San Antonio is much the same. He said, ‘I’m going to get a few objects of furniture like the pieces in Vermeer’s studio and try to re-create one of his paintings.’ ”
That’s when Jillette decided to produce a film about the whole process – and asked Teller to direct it. However, when the duo went looking for cash for the project, it became apparent that they faced an uphill battle.
“Nobody would bite,” continues Teller. “It sounded like a movie about watching paint dry. And what if Tim didn’t succeed in his attempt to copy a Vermeer? Also, because magicians were involved, people suspected some kind of put-on, or Borat-like stunt.”
Undaunted, Jillette and Teller pooled their own money, and the film was underway. In a San Antonio warehouse near Six Flags Fiesta Texas, Jenison began to reconstruct the scene of Vermeer’s Music Lesson, with the goal of meticulously reproducing the painting – even though he had no instruction or experience as an artist.
“At one point,” Teller recalls, “Tim said, ‘If I fail, I guess there won’t be a movie.’ I said, ‘Oh no, there will be a movie – it’ll just be a different one.’ It may have been the intrinsic threat of public humiliation that drove him on to a startling level of determination.”
It’s the process, more than the result, that lies at the center of Tim’s Vermeer. And it soon becomes apparent the pains Jenison took to get everything just right. He ground his own pigments and even made his own lenses, using technologies that would have been available in Vermeer’s day.
Then he set to work with his lenses, mirrors and paint brushes, trying to achieve the same level of detail that Vermeer is famous for. The task turned out to be even more daunting that Jenison thought – on Day 82, he turns to the camera and says, “If I weren’t making a film, I’d quit.” On Day 130, when he finally finishes his painting, he breaks down and cries.
Interspersed in the film are interviews with several art experts. For instance, there’s an interview with English artist David Hockney – who shook the art world in 2001 with a book called Secret Knowledge, in which he argued that Old Master artists used optical devices in their work.
“I think this might disturb quite a lot of people,” says Hockney, approvingly, when he sees Jenison’s Vermeer copy.
There’s an element of skepticism hanging over the film – and Jenison admits that he’s only 90 percent certain that Vermeer used optical devices to paint the original Music Lesson.
However, conspicuously absent from the film is anyone who disagrees with Jenison’s theories. But according to Teller, the purpose of Tim’s Vermeer isn’t to rewrite art-history.
“This film isn’t a tract on Vermeer,” he insists. “Mostly, it’s a character sketch of Tim. This movie is about a man who is testing his theory to his own satisfaction – and when he completes the painting, that’s the end of the film.”
Yet he acknowledges that Jenison’s demonstration of how Vermeer’s Music Lesson might have been painted is bound to stir up some controversy.
“If we get a lot of debate going, I’m fine with that. But the movie is about a man who gets an idea and did what we all should do – follow through on it to the end.”
© Colin Eatock 2013