Review: Tim's Vermeer
I'm somewhat embarrased to admit that I never took an art history course in college. My knowledge and awareness of 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer even more embarrasingly begins and ends with Scarlett Johansson portraying the young woman who is the subject of Vermeer's painting in Girl with a Pearl Earring. I felt slightly more knowledgable after watching the documentary Tim's Vermeer, directed by Teller of the comedy/illusionist duo Penn and Teller, which opens in Austin today.
If you take a look at Vermeer's work, it's easy to be struck by how realistic his paintings are. Hundreds of years before photographs, he captures light and his subjects in a way that leaps off the canvas almost as if it's a video image. That's how Tim Jenison sees these classic paintings and, over the years, it has started to become a bit of an obsession. Tim is an internet streaming video pioneer and inventor who lives down the road in San Antonio. He founded a company called NewTek that has developed extensive tools for 3D modeling and animation. That may partially explain his eye for detail, but Tim's Vermeer shows us just how deep his curiosity about Vermeer's painting technique runs.
After reading a book by British artist David Hockney that proposed Renaissance painters may have used optical trickery to achieve their photrealistic work, Tim started to experiment. He eventually reasoned that the "camera obscura" technique of projecting a reflecting image into a dark room could have been the source of Vermeer's detailed works. Through trial and error and a lot of assistance, he discovers that he's able to replicate a black-and white-photograph using this technique and using concave mirrors. From there, it becomes a full obsession, with Tim eventually making an exact replica of the room where Vermeer painted in a a San Antonio warehouse and deciding to recreate a painting called The Music Lesson.
Keep in mind that Tim has never been a painter. Sure, his work over the years has involved 3D modeling and video technology, but he's never painted anything before this idea struck his brain in 2008. After taking almost half a year to recreate the studio space, he begins the lengthy process of recreating the work of art. Everything is documented here by Teller with help from Penn Jillette, who's been friends with Tim for many years and appears on camera while his silent partner in crime takes on directorial duties.
For experts, Tim's experiment certainly seems plausible, but remains purely speculative. There is just no existing proof of how Vermeer worked and this can only exist as one theory on how he achieved his art. The film is as much about compulsion and what can be accomplished if you're rich enough and have enough time on your hands as it is about art. Far more subdued than the featured stories on the former Showtime series Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, the documentary Tim's Vermeer is still tremendously compelling, even for somebody like myself who isn't particularly familiar with art history.