Every once in a while a movie comes along that is not really like anything you’ve ever seen. This is one of them. It’s a documentary, produced and directed by Penn and Teller, and it tells the story of one of the craziest geniuses you’ll ever meet.
Tim Jenison made his money in electronics, and he must have a lot of it to finance all the things he does here, with no hope at all of any monetary return. He has become fascinated, not to say obsessed, with Johannes Vermeer. I hadn’t known much about Vermeer, other than I thought his paintings are wonderful. Turns out nobody else knows much about him, either. He doesn’t seem to have gone through any training with of the Dutch masters of his day (1632-1675). He didn’t paint a lot. There are only 36 canvases that everyone agrees are by him. They are all interiors, most of them apparently painted in his own house, in a few rooms. And the results are magical. The light, the colors, the attention to detail … no one else was painting stuff like this. How did he do it?
Tim believes he “cheated,” or at least that’s the way snooty art historians would put it. They are unwilling to admit that technology and art can intersect and produce miracles. What Tim believes is that Vermeer used a sort of camera obscura, combined with a mirror, to project what he wanted to paint, and simply painted over it. He also convinces me, and Penn and Teller, through some optical demonstrations, that it would have been impossible for the man to have done it any other way. If that weren’t enough, he visits David Hockney, who most considered England’s greatest living artist, and shows him the technique. Hockney loves it. He agrees that this is probably how Vermeer did it.
This is total heresy to the art establishment.
So Tim, who has never dipped a brush into paint in his life, demonstrates how he and an experienced artist can exactly duplicate a simple still life of a vase in black and white. It is photo-real, it jumps off the canvas and right at you. It’s so simple, I believe even I could do it, and I can’t draw for sour apples. And it uses nothing but technology that existed in Vermeer’s day.
But that’s not enough. He sets out to reproduce one of Vermeer’s paintings, “The Music Lesson.” Google it right now. Find the highest resolution you can. Now look at the dense detail of the carpet off to the right. The best reproduction I could find can’t show the detail on the virginal (a type of harpsichord) against the back wall, but trust me, it is amazing.
A less obsessed man might decide to get a high-rez copy of the painting (and part of his research is to visit Buckingham Palace, where the owner of the original, Queen Elizabeth, has it hanging, probably in the loo), and use his gadget to reproduce the painting that way. That’s not enough for Tim. He starts from scratch, literally. He reconstructs the room. He learns wood-working so he can make a chair exactly like the one in the picture. (When his lathe proves too short to mill the 36” legs, he cuts the lathe in half and puts it back together.) He learns to mix paint exactly as the Dutch masters did. He has the clothes duplicated. He casts and grinds a lens with the technology of the 17th century! Talk about tedious!
Then he sets to work. It is astonishing to see this amateur build up the painting, inch by inch. It’s like incredibly precise paint-by-numbers (the critics would sniff).
It near-about kills him. Month after month he labors at it, almost giving up several times, but then solving a technical challenge. Watching him working on the rug alone will break your heart. The detail! The friggin’ detail! But you also realize that, whether or not Vermeer used Tim’s gadget, he himself had to have worked just as hard, sweated just as long. You begin to understand why he painted so few works.
This is just a magical film. Before this, it would have been hard to convince me that I would be glued to the screen for a film, about half of which is watching a man paint! As he himself says, it should have been about as engaging as watching paint dry. But I couldn’t wait to see the result, and it is stunning.