Monday, March 3, 2014

Tim's Vermeer

DAY SEVEN (continued): The next film we saw on Friday was stunning. It was titled Tim's Vermeer, produced and directed by the famous illusionist duo,  Penn and Teller. Here is a description of the film from the Detroit Free Press of February 28, 2014, written by Claudia Puig of USA Today:

Soft-spoken Texas-based inventor Tim Jenison lies awake at night obsessed by one thought in the compelling documentary Tim’s Vermeer. “All I can think about is this goal of trying to paint a Vermeer,” Jenison said. “It would be pretty remarkable if I can — because I’m not a painter.” The subject of his obsession is 17th-Century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (1632-75), considered by some to be the greatest painter of all time. This thought-provoking film addresses the origins of Vermeer’s photo-realistic art with all the suspense of a thriller.

Vermeer’s paintings are so astoundingly accurate they seem “to glow like the image on a movie screen,” says producer and narrator Penn Jillette. “He painted the way a camera sees.” Penn’s partner in magic — Teller — directs this captivating film. The alchemy of creativity is an ideal subject for the clever illusionist duo. The light-filled realism of Vermeer’s paintings fascinated Jenison so much he became a man possessed. His profitable inventions in the area of video equipment and computers have enabled him to spend years pursuing what is essentially a hobby. But he’s no mere millionaire dabbler. He delves into his subject with more painstaking commitment than most people do their life’s work.

The quest to understand the process of Vermeer’s artistry began a dozen years ago when Jenison read artist David Hockney’s book, “Secret Knowledge.” Hockney suggests that the artist used visual tools to make his paintings look strikingly realistic. High-quality lenses and telescopes, for instance, were all the rage in the Netherlands in the 17th Century. Jenison is determined to discover whether the Dutch painter used optical devices — such as the camera obscura — to achieve his gorgeously detailed artwork.

Teller intriguingly documents Jenison’s meticulous efforts in a lively inquiry that fuses science and art. Jenison travels to Vermeer’s hometown of Delft in the Netherlands and to England to speak to Hockney.

On one of his jaunts, Jenison was granted a half-hour audience with the painting he used as the basis of his experiment: Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson.” That audience was granted by none other than Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth. She owns the painting, housed in Buckingham Palace, and would not allow him to film or record his time in the company of the artwork. He could absorb it only with his eyes. That may be one of the film’s most quietly moving moments: seeing Jenison struggle for words to explain the beauty of what he beheld.

Jenison is scrupulous in his research methodology, captured just as deftly by Teller’s camera. He plans to paint “The Music Lesson” by re-creating the room it depicts (in a Texas warehouse), using only the materials available to Vermeer in the 1600s and applying his optical theory. He grinds his own lenses, mixes period-appropriate pigments and, after 130 days, produces what is essentially a hand-painted, faithfully rendered color photo of the Vermeer painting.

Does that make Vermeer’s work any less of a masterpiece? Does it prove that Vermeer used optical enhancements as a visual aid in his painting? These questions are left for the viewer to ponder.
Bolstered by Conrad Pope’s beautifully evocative score, the film’s writers — Penn and Teller — turn what could have been a dry art history lesson into an enthralling meditation on art, ideas, technology, craftsmanship and passionate dedication. 

This film is stiunning mainly because what it depicts is almost beyond belief in many ways: (1)that anyone would be so obsessed by Vermeer that he would go to such lengths over a period of more than a decade to recreate one of Vermeer's paintings; (2) that he would be able to invent a method of creating a painting that is very plausibly the one Vermeer used to create his own paintings - a method that had not occurred to anyone before; (3) that he himself would be able to use that method to recreate one of Vermeer's paintings, The Music Lesson, so accurately that it is virtually indistinguishable from the original, despite his having no previous experience as a painter, and (4) that he would be able to stay with this incredibly painstaking process of painting for 130 consecutive days. The final amazing thing is that this film is not boring at all - it is not like watching paint dry - but is actually suspenseful and gripping. 

Vermeer's The Music Lesson

Tim Jenison using the technique he used to paint the Vermeer
The key to Jenison's technique is a mirror in which he views a reflection of a picture (in this case a photographic portrait), and then applies paint to a canvass below the mirror, seeking to exactly match the color that he sees at the edge of the mirror and the paint he is applying to the canvass just above that edge. He first tested this method using the photo shown, and when the result was a perfect copy, he was emboldened to try the technique on a Vermeer. 

Needless to say, what Tim Jenison has done, and the claims he makes for it,  is controversial. But that just makes it all the more fascinating. It will be interesting to see what the universe of art historians will do with the idea that Vermeer used the "technology" used by Jenison, or something like it, to create his paintings. But whatever they decide, the film is wonderful to watch. 

There was a surprise bonus after the showing of this film: Tim Jenison appeared in person on-stage and answered questions. He was just like he was in the film - sort of self-effacing and low-key, but very skilled, to say the least. 

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