Watching Tim’s Vermeer, I was sort of reminded of a pair of art documentaries that turn ideas about artists and creation on their ear. There’s My Kid Could Paint That, a doc about a purported child prodigy named Marla Olmstead, and there’s Who the*$#% Is Jackson Pollock, a doc about a woman who unwittingly buys a purported Jackson Pollock from a thrift shop. The targets of both these films are the art world and certain sacred cows of the art world.
Or at least I was reminded of those films at first. With Tim’s Vermeer, Penn & Teller explore the bizarre obsession of Tim Jenison, an inventor who believes he’s figured out how Johannes Vermeer was able to paint with such uncanny beauty. Using this technique, he tries to recreate Vermeer’s The Music Lesson from life, from scratch.
Thing is, Tim is not an artist, but there are lines between science, innovation, and fine art that blur. I think Tim’s Vermeer is a celebration of art and obsession, and it implicitly makes the case that without the latter, the former isn’t possible.
[For the next few weeks, we’ll be covering the 2013 New York Film Festival, now in its 51st year. Flixist will provide you with reviews, video, news, and features on some of the best films on the festival circuit. To check out all of our coverage of NYFF51, click here.]
Release Date: TBD
The most unique thing about Vermeer’s paintings is that under close x-ray analysis, scientists have found that there are no sketch lines beneath the paint. Vermeer applied paint directly to the canvas, building color values in such a way that they captured the lustrous qualities of light that seem impossible to invent. It led many to declare that the master was able to paint with light itself. This has led some to speculate that Vermeer used a lens of some kind, perhaps a camera obscura, in order to project an image of a composition onto the canvas over which he painted.
This entire notion has obsessed Tim Jenison for the better part of 10 years now, though it’s one of his many passions shown in the film. He’s a tinkerer with a knack for repairing electronics as well as player pianos. He designs post-production software. He makes remote controlled gizmos. He’s an all right woodworker when pressed to the task. He’s not even what you’d consider the classical definition of an amateur. Tim is simply good (or good enough) and what he puts his mind to, and he puts his mind to a lot since he seems to have an insatiable curiosity for the world around him. I think this quality is key to a larger point, but that’ll come in a bit.
At the center of Tim’s Vermeer is a kind of detective/scientist story about recreating a process that Vermeer might have used. The technique that Tim refines over the years allows him to almost perfectly recreate a photograph. What’s most startling is that this is his first attempt to work with oil paint on canvas. It’s a marvel to watch this happen on screen, how simple and elegant the solution is. All I’ll say is that it’s a trick with mirrors, because it’s remarkable to witness it yourself. In hours, Tim can paint with a frightening degree of proficiency, one that takes many people ages to master; yet throughout the film, Tim insists he’s not an artist.
While Tim continues his quest of discovery, Penn Jillette guides the film with his narration, noting other experts in optics who’ve suggested similar theories that Tim built his work on. Maybe the most fascinating thing about Tim’s Vermeer is the recreation of the Vermeer itself. The process is extensively documented from all angles, with literally thousands of hours of footage taken, condensed with surprising efficiency. Every brushstroke, every second, every day that Tim works on his own Vermeer is chronicled.
Maybe it’s unsurprising, but there are no art establishment figures interviewed in the film to protect the sanctity of Vermeer. Some may start lobbing accusations of bias or insularity, but I think it’s fine to leave out the art world out of this. Tim’s Vermeer is more like a bizarre science experiment about an art process. The art world has long kept art and science at a distance when in fact the two fields have shared interests in human innovation and discovery. Lenses and optics were used by many in Vermeer’s time in order to assist with the creation of art, and many past masters had something of an amateur scientist about them (e.g., obviously Da Vinci). I think it was David Cronenberg who said something about scientists having a lot of poetry in their soul, and it seems like there’s interconnected passions in fields that are all about noticing, observation, and understanding.
With that in mind, that’s why Tim’s Vermeer splits away from the documentaries that are simply about undermining the art establishment. Instead, Tim’s Vermeer seems to have more in common, at least to me, with Errol Morris’ Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, a film that shows how different people in different fields manifest their unique genius in similar ways. Tim may not consider himself an artist at heart, but that drive to research and to discover is a kind of poetry in his soul; and maybe given what’s revealed about the process Vermeer may have used, there’s a kind of scientific determination for refinement and innovation. Between the left half of the brain and right half of the brain is the corpus callosum, and if there’s a division explored in this documentary, the connective matter between the art/science split is obsession itself. Obsession is what makes art, science, knowledge, and innovation possible.
I think a lot of people are going to ask the wrong questions after watching Tim’s Vermeer.
“Does that mean that Vermeer is less of an artist?”
No, especially given what many artists do with lightboxes and photo reference today. It’s not necessarily a cheat, and it’s not necessarily not-art given the potential process of creation. If anything, it might increase admiration for Vermeer given his spirit for innovation and the meticulousness of his hand.
“Does this mean anybody could paint like Vermeer?”
Well, yes and no. Technically, yes, but it takes a certain kind of person to want to do it.
“Does this mean anybody could be an artist?”
This one is another technical yes and no, but the answer would have to involve obsession. Anyone could be a scientist if they dedicated themselves to it, but it does take an innate passion or calling to be a scientist in the same way that it does to be an artist, and it takes a certain innate drive to want to follow that passion.
In his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami said that there are four important qualities for being a writer. There’s talent first and foremost, and without even just a little innate talent, being a good writer is impossible. After talent, there’s focus, endurance, and patience, all of which can help make up for deficiencies in talent. To be an artist, it does take those qualities; same goes with being a scientist and being a chef and being a mathematician and being a musician and so on.
While it may seem to some that Tim’s Vermeer diminishes the innovations of an artist, I think it just highlights something more human and wonderful. There’s an implicit concern that draws different kinds of people together in a larger network of driven obsessives, and this network of obsessives persists through history and across different disciplines. Art is still a kind of dazzling magic born of an innate affinity toward the aesthetic, but it’s closer to so many other passions than most people think — to science, to technology, to progress — and to me that makes the whole of the human endeavor to create and to understand in our lifetimes that much more beautiful and even that much more ineffable.
[Tim’s Vermeer will screen at the Howard Gilman Theater on Wednesday, October 9th. For tickets and more information, click here.]