Review by C.J. Bunce
Whether learned or innate, the skill of a master artist is like nothing else. That is true no less for the understanding of color, light, and shadow exhibited by 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. His work is lifelike, so much so that a Texas-based inventor devoted years of his life to try to understand why Vermeer painted in a style so much different from his peers. The result is Tim’s Vermeer, a masterful documentary by director Teller of Las Vegas magic act duo Penn and Teller fame, in limited theatrical release last year and now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Video On Demand.
Scientists and artists for hundreds of years have speculated what tools Vermeer might have used to achieve his mastery, other than his sheer artistic genius. He left no notes to this effect to assist scholars. Tim Jenison, a successful businessman with time to devote to an immense intellectual pursuit, spent years speculating, then he created his own optical device involving a simple mirror that would allow anyone to replicate perfectly any image. This is an even bigger feat than one might expect, because Jenison is not, and never was, an artist. Friends Penn & Teller accompanied Jenison on his research, meeting with experts and artists, and ultimately the magic duo decided to film Jenison’s journey of discovery. Teller directs (and co-produces with Jellette) and Jellette narrates this unusual and enlightening story.
Does Jenison get it right or not? Penn leaves that question to the viewer, but he and Jenison give an abundance of reasons to support Jenison’s study. The mission was simple: Can a layman paint something as well as Vermeer with tools that would have been available to Vermeer in the 17th century?
Jenison is clear that he is in no way attempting to discredit the great Vermeer. Yet skeptics may watch Tim’s Vermeer with eyebrows raised for any number of reasons. Isn’t it possible Vermeer was a genius, a savant like Mozart? Why must we attack such mastery? On the other hand, if Vermeer used mechanical tools to literally create photographs in the 17th century–a conclusion you may make by film’s end–isn’t that just another reason to celebrate the artist’s contributions to culture and art?
Jenison doesn’t just sit back idly and direct the work of others in his project. He rents a warehouse and builds by hand every item that Vermeer included in his painting “The Music Lesson,” so that he may attempt to recreate that work himself. He then uses his invention (or what could be his discovery of a centuries old but lost invention) to paint a new version of “The Music Lesson” over the next 130 days. His device is a smartly realized twist on the camera obscura, technology available to Vermeer in his time, that Jenison discovers as many inventors do, by accident.
A detective story of sorts, Tim Jenison’s surprisingly exciting and entertaining journey may remind you of Stephen Fry’s personal struggle in Wagner & Me, reviewed here at borg.com back in 2013, or even more so, the tedious making of objects and painting a seemingly never-ending image may remind you of the incredible skill of fellow inventor and maker Dick Proenneke, as detailed in the Alone in the Wilderness series.
Tim’s Vermeer is accompanied by a compelling soundtrack, now available on CD at Amazon.com here, by composer Conrad Pope.
Tell any artist friends to check out this film and share their thoughts. Whether you’re a fan of art history or not, expect to add Tim’s Vermeer to your list of best documentaries. It’s that good. You can pick up the movie on many On Demand channels, or via Amazon.com here.