Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

Tim’s Vermeer

March 18th, we went to the Oriental Theater to see “Tim’s Vermeer,” a very unusual documentary film produced by Penn & Teller, of magic and debunking fame.
Tim Jenison, a successful inventor and who seems to be a normal-ish geeky guy, became obsessed with the paintings of Dutch master Jan Vermeer, in part because Jenison’s experience in video and computer imaging made him aware of how unusual they were. Vermeer’s work has no outlining, and X-rays of the paintings reveal no underpainting or preliminary sketching. Buoyed by the related work of artists and scholars David Hockney (Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters) and Philip Steadman (Vermeer’s Camera, Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces), he became convinced that Vermeer, about who’s techniques essentially nothing is known, must have used technological aids—lenses and mirrors, “fad” items in Holland of the time—as tools in creating his works.
After some experimentation, he hit upon the technique of using a “camera obscura” type projection, reflected in an angled mirror as a color comparator which he found allowed him to create a very close copy of the target image using a sort of paint-by-numbers color matching. After sharing this idea with both Steadman and Hockney, who were encouraging, he determined upon a very rigorous “proof of concept” experiment. He would use his device to attempt to recreate Vermeer’s famous painting, “The Music Lesson.”
It must be noted that Tim, due to his successful inventions (the “Video Toaster” among others--), is well rich, and can afford to jaunt off to England to consult famous artists, and to the Netherlands and other places to study pigment-grinding and other painting techniques. He can also buy a warehouse and convert it into an exact replica of the room Vermeer painted in. Determined to see if he could replicate Vermeer’s work using only techniques available in Vermeer’s day, he not only learned to make paints, but also cast and ground his own lenses. He also ended up hand-building replicas of Vermeer’s furniture to use as the setting. It took him the best part of a year just to get ready to paint, and then more than four months actually putting paint on canvas. All told, Tim spent nearly six YEARS from the start of his quest to the finish of “Tim’s Music Lesson.”
Among the other cool things about Tim, is that he is long time friends with Penn and Teller, who were interested enough to make this movie about their friend’s odd project. Shooting the film as the project progressed means we get an “unvarnished” view of Tim’s occasional mistakes, frustrations, and sometime regrets at his choice of subject matter, which required a lot of eye-bugging detail. (However, it was just that detail that provided a clue that Tim may have been on the right track, also.)
The result is a very creditable replica of Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson.” Tim, who never painted before beginning his experimentation, and who has had no formal art training, does not quite manage Vermeer’s techniques of blending, so there is a bit of roughness in shade transitions, such that it would never be taken for an actual Vermeer. On the other hand, we agreed that Tim had, as he said, 95% made his case that this COULD have been a method used by Vermeer. Hockney and Steadman agree, although of course, there is no way to be certain.
I do have to disagree with one of Tim’s premises, the idea that optical aids had to have been used, since the unaided eye can’t perceive the gradations of brightness that occur in Vermeer’s work. This seems somewhat unlikely to me, since Tim was pointing out just such a gradation of light on the wall when he made this remark, it can be seen in the mirror, and can be seen in the paintings which we view with the unaided eye. So, in my view, the possibility that Vermeer was a visual genius can’t be ruled out.
“Tim’s Vermeer” is a fascinating portrait of a very likeable man exercising a harmless obsession with fascinating results. Altogether it is a totally positive experience, and should be highly interesting to anyone interested in art, vision, and the power of imagination.

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