As I watched Tim’s Vermeer I found myself staring at the screen slack-jawed from time to time. What I was seeing on the screen was an amazing combination of personality, mystery solving, art, and technology all coming together.
The Tim in the title is Tim Jenison, a millionaire inventor, whose goal, he states at the beginning of the film, is to paint a Vermeer painting. The key problems with this are that Jenison is not a painter and that Johannes Vermeer has been dead for a few centuries, so whatever Jenison paints won’t be a Vermeer, will it?
Vermeer, a 17th Century Dutch painter, is renowned for the near photographic detail of his work and the vividness of color and light within his paintings. It has been a mystery how he accomplished these qualities, especially since there is no record of his training as a painter. A few art historians have suggested that Vermeer used a camera obscura to make his paintings. (A camera obscura is a dark room with a hole in one wall that allows an image from outside the room to be projected upside down on a wall.) But there are problems with the theory, as well. Jenison was fascinated by this concept and set out to learn how Vermeer might have done this. The result is a project that took five years to complete. It involved building a replica of Vermeer’s studio, all the furniture in one of his paintings, and lots of invention and discovery. He set out to do everything just as Vermeer might have. He made his own lenses. He ground his pigment and made his paint.
The documentary is the work of the illusionist team of Penn and Teller. Penn Gillette produced and narrates the film; Teller directs. It is not coincidental that this subject would appeal to them. They make their living understanding how to make the seeming impossible happen. We often speak of illusions as the result of smoke and mirrors. There is a certain comparison that applies to Jenison’s project. No smoke, but mirrors are of great importance. Jenison discovers that what Vermeer might have done is its own kind of magic trick. It is, like many stage magicians’ tricks, the intersection of art and technology.
The modern world has in some ways separated science and the arts. We discount the idea that a computer could create a good, well-written story. In films, I sometimes think CGI effects are less artistic than the magic film made before such things were possible. (It is of note that one of Jenison’s inventions is a key element in 3D effects in films.) The film makes the case that creativity, whether technological or artistic, is often a combination of many forces. I did not come away from the film thinking Vermeer cheated in some way to create his art, but rather that he discovered a way to use the new technologies of his day to do something no one before had been able to accomplish. Sometimes that in itself is art. Watching Jenison work to recreate as exactly as possible a Vermeer was also art in its own right.