(2014) Documentary (Sony Classics) Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, David Hockney, Philip Steadman, Martin Mull, Colin Blakemore, Teller. Directed by Teller
The paintings of Johannes Vermeer are exercises in light and color, virtually photorealistic. They were painted at a time when photographs didn’t exist and artists painted their subjects by what they saw alone. In the intervening years, it has been a subject of considerable debate in the world of art as to how Vermeer did it.
Tim Jenison is not a painter. He’s a computer geek and a tinkerer, making his fortune as the CEO of a company that revolutionized both home and professional videography. His company, NewTek, has won Emmys for the Babylon 5 television show. He became intrigued by Vermeer after reading Philip Steadman’s book Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces which opined that Vermeer must have used a mechanical aid, specifically a Camera Obscura (essentially a box with a pinhole or lens through which an image is reflected against the back wall of the box upside down but with the color and perspective intact) in order to get his images. Artist David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters further fueled his fire on this.
Much of the controversy stems from x-rays of Vermeer’s paintings revealing that no tracing lines were drawn which is standard with most artists. As narrator Penn Jillette puts it, “it’s as if Vermeer were some unfathomable genius who could just walk up to a canvas and magically paint with light.” In any case, Tim went from intrigued to obsessive. After coming up with a simple device utilizing a mirror (the inspiration for which came in the bathtub), he discovered that he could match precisely the colors of the images reflected in the camera obscura. He determines to paint a Vermeer of his own.
He uses for inspiration the painting The Music Lesson which hangs in Buckingham palace. In order to duplicate the painting, he built the room and furnishings from scratch in a San Antonio warehouse. He learned how to grind pigments into paint and even learned to read Dutch in order to facilitate the process. He wanted everything to be as exact as he could make it using technology available in Vermeer’s day. When the room was ready, he sat down to paint.
The results are remarkable. His friends Penn and Teller – who met him when they started using Video Toaster as consumers – document this remarkable undertaking. Jenison himself is affable and entertaining, self-deprecating but curious as a child. We catch Jenison’s sense of wonder when after being refused admittance to see the painting, he at last is granted a 30 minute window to view it with the proviso that no recording equipment come in with him. He is visibly moved by the experience and reports that the painting is much more detailed and awe-inspiring in person than any reproduction could make it.
Some critics have sniffed that the filmmakers are forcing a particular theory down the throats of the audience and present it as fact, but those critics were probably surfing the internet rather than watching the film. The movie is clearly presented as a possible explanation as to how Vermeer may have achieved his remarkable achievements in art. That the painter may have also been a tinkerer no less diminishes his achievements as an artist. It must be said that no optical devices were listed among Vermeer’s personal effects when the artist died, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible that he didn’t use any during his lifetime.
We will never know how Vermeer achieved his style of painting because he left no notes behind explaining his technique. No master of any art, from Vermeer’s day right up to the present, is going to reveal their secrets easily. What this movie is about isn’t really about how Vermeer did it. It’s about how Tim Jenison did it. It’s his story, not Vermeer’s. It’s easy to lose sight of that when you don’t want to think that an icon of painting may have used non-standard means to create his art. At the end of the day, what matters is not how Vermeer painted his paintings but the paintings themselves, which are quite literally snapshots of a world three centuries gone. There is nothing that Jenison does here that diminishes the accomplishments of Vermeer; instead, it brings even more of a sense of wonder about them at least in my case.
REASONS TO GO: Absolutely mind blowing.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little too detail oriented to the easily bored.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few choice words.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jenison was not a trained artist at the time he undertook the “Vermeer Project” which he chronicled via blog. He was best known for co-inventing the Video Toaster software bundle as well as the LightWave 3D computer animated graphics program.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Girl With the Pearl Earring
FINAL RATING: 8/10