In a San Antonio warehouse, Tim Jenison slaves over his canvas. He gently caresses its surface with a tiny brush, leaving minute strokes of oil paint behind as he painstakingly recreates the delicate weave of a Persian rug. It’s the latest stage in a project that has taken this inventor-turned-artist years of research and months of intricate rendering, and from his posture and the intense look in his eyes, we can tell that both physically and psychologically, it is s hard, hard work.
The obsessive recreation of a famous painting by 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer might sound like an unlikely subject for a documentary, but Tim’s Vermeer isn’t really just about painting at all. It’s about invention and the nature of genius. It’s about testing preconceived ideas and celebrating human ingenuity. It’s also a detective story, an experiment, and an exploration of the line between art and technology. Tim’s Vermeer is, unlikely though this sounds, a documentary that every film geek should see.
And here’s why.
Penn and Teller are best known for their work as magicians, and they bring an illusionist’s sense of intrigue to Tim’s Vermeer. Teller (the one who never says a word on stage) directs, while Penn serves as producer, writer and garrulous commentator. But the documentary’s really about Jenison, an inventor fascinated by a tantalising mystery.
Although Vermeer died in relative obscurity at the age of just 43, his paintings soon became prized for their luminous use of light and uncanny realism. It’s the uncanny realism that has led some artists and academics to suggest that Vermeer used a form of optical technology to help him paint them – how else could you explain the incredible subtlety of the shadows or the precise recreation of everything from the texture of cloth to the fretwork on a musical instrument?
Those are the questions that began to fascinate Tim Jenison, who first encountered the theory after reading David Hockney’s book, Secret Knowledge, which posited the theory that Vermeer and many other old masters used optical techniques to create their paintings. It’s not an idea popular with very many art historians, however – some have even been outraged at the suggestion that Vermeer used technology, rather than his uncanny manual skill, to render his images.
Over the course of several years, Tim’s Vermeer follows Jenison as he tries to create a system that might have been used by a 17th century artist like Vermeer. Having come up with an ingenious set-up, which essentially involves a lens and a pair of mirrors, Jenison then attempts to use it to recreate one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings: a mind-bogglingly intricate piece called The Music Lesson.
Jenison doesn’t settle for making a rough approximation, either. Instead, he hires an industrial building in Texas, and constructs within it an exact recreation of the building in Vermeer’s original artwork. Jenison goes to the trouble of making his own windows out of oak and leaded glass. He grinds his own lenses. He mixes his own paints. He sources costumes, rugs and furnishings that precisely match the ones Vermeer used. Following month after month of preparatory work, Jenison then starts on the painting itself – which then takes yet more months of back-breaking effort. At times, we can see the stress of the task tell on Jenison’s weary face.
Urgently told, Tim’s Vermeer is illuminated by Jenison’s intelligence and sheer range of skills. A true Renaissance man, he’s shown recreating the room in Vermeer’s painting in Lightwave 3D (a program Jenison’s company NewTek created), building furniture and learning the rudiments of oil painting. At one point, he even pauses to play a few bars of Smoke On The Water on a viola.
It’s through Jenison that the documentary says something fascinating about the nature of genius. In the old sense of the word, a genius is somebody with a talent that is god-given or supernatural; to suggest that they created their work with anything as vulgar as a camera obscura or other piece of technology is tantamount to sacrilege. This Guardian article from last year, for example, describes the film as “a depressing attempt to reduce genius to a trick.”
But as Tim’s Vermeer entertainingly points out, art and technology are inextricably bound together. Whether they really did use an elaborate system of lenses and mirrors to create their works or not, one thing that’s undisputed about history’s great painters is that they were technicians as well as artists. They formulated their own paints using a variety of oils and pigments – some of them potentially dangerous. They learned the principles of geometry, perspective and composition.
Vermeer’s use of mirrors and lenses – if he did indeed use them – doesn’t detract from the extraordinary power of the images he created. Although the artist’s paintings are commonly prized for their realism, it’s not merely their photographic quality that makes them so captivating in any case. His most famous work, The Girl With The Pearl Earring, is so fascinating because of its drama: the young woman looks as though someone’s just called her name, and that Vermeer has caught her just as she’s turned her head in response.
Another painting, Woman In Blue Reading A Letter, is like a miniature drama. A woman, clearly both wealthy and very pregnant, stands alone with a letter clasped in her hands. The expression on her face is difficult to read; there’s an air of mystery, and also voyeurism. Like most of Vermeer’s work, there’s the sense that we’ve walked into the room unseen. If Vermeer were alive today, it’s possible that he’d be a film director. He was a master of creating scenes that feel both staged and spontaneous; artificial and yet somehow luminous and alive.
Through his system of lenses and mirrors, Jenison manages to create a painting that looks remarkably like a Vermeer. But even with this supposed assistance, the work still took him weeks of exhausting labour to complete. Here, perhaps, is the true face of genius: the kind of person who’s willing to tinker with things, question perceived wisdom, experiment, and then go to extraordinary lengths in order to achieve perfection.
Whether they’re 17th century painters, game designers, film directors, musicians or inventors picking up a sable brush for the first time, these are the qualities required of a great artist. Far from devaluing the subject’s genius, Tim’s Vermeer makes his work seem all the more remarkable, and all the more modern: a great video game designer or film director uses all the latest techniques at their disposal to create a great piece of art, which is exactly what Vermeer did.
This is why Tim’s Vermeer is, for me, the ultimate geek documentary. It demystifies the old notion of artistic talent being somehow mysterious and otherworldly, and instead positions it as something more universal and innately human.
Tim’s Vermeer is available to watch on Amazon Prime now.