Penn & Teller Conjure 'Tim's Vermeer'

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by Caryn James
January 31, 2014 8:59 AM
1 Comment
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Did Vermeer paint by numbers? Tim Jenison, a software innovator with lots of time, imagination and money to throw around, has an idea that comes close to that. In Tim's Vermeer, the delightful new documentary narrated by Penn and directed by Teller, we watch as Jenison tries out his theory: that Vermeer might have created his masterpieces by putting his models in a camera obscura (a big dark room with a hole in the wall), looking at the scene reflected in a mirror, and essentially matching the lines and colors to achieve the precise realism whose technique has mystified art historians since the 17th century.

It's a wackadoodle theory,  inspired by controversial ideas posited by the architect Philip Steadman and by the artist David Hockney (both seen in the film) and widely rejected by art historians. No matter, because Jenison's obsession is the basis for a playful, entertaining film.

Tim's Vermeer takes its tone from Jenison's genial manner, accompanied by his old friend Penn on his years-long adventure of trying to recreate a Vermeer. He begins with a small-scale experiment, using a mirror-contraption and a photo of his father-in-law to paint a perfect clone; it's pretty amazing to watch. 

Then Jenison, admittedly no artist, takes on Vermeer's The Music Lesson, a complex painting of a man and woman at a virginal in a light-filled, elaborately decorated room.

He spends about seven months just reproducing Vermeer's room  in his Texas studio; he builds the furniture, learns to glaze glass to get the windows right. It's a benign obsession, but definitely obsessive. He hand-grinds pigments as Vermeer would have done, looks at a mirror image and painstakingly matches the colors until a faithful-looking painting emerges. Along the way he  -- and Teller's fluid, easygoing film -- head to the Netherlands to see the places Vermeer did, and to London where he tries to get a private audience with The Music Lesson itself, tucked away in Buckingham Palace, part of the Queen's collection.

You might expect Penn & Teller, whose successful television series "Bullshit!" was all about debunking commonly accepted ideas, to be the skeptics here, or that the whole thing might be one of their illusions. But on-screen, Penn is much more forceful than Jenison in rejecting the idea that Vermeer used some low-tech device -- like his eyes.

Jenison and Penn have their rebuttal arguments ready off-screen and on. When I talked to Jenison at a reception at the New York Film Festival, he said he wasn't convinced that Vermeer actually painted this way, because as a scientist he can't rule out other possibilities; he's even exploring more. And when I told Penn it was unlikely that Vermeer's models took their camera  obscura secret to their graves, he answered that he assumed the models were Vermeer's family members, and added that the people who keep Penn & Teller's secrets don't give anything away.  Good point.

Still, Vermeer would have needed the camera obscura and the mirror and the secrecy -- all available to him,  but really, that perfect storm of possibilities veers toward conspiracy-land. I wasn't convinced for a millisecond that Vermeer used this technique, but I enjoyed every minute of Tim's Vermeer

Originally shown at the New York Film Festival, the film is now open in NY and LA (with other cities to come).  

 

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1 Comment

  • J Z TORRE | October 14, 2013 12:50 PMReply

    Penn and Teller have been hoaxed by Tim, Hockney, et.al.
    Tim uses a Camera Lucinda, an imaging tool that's familiar to thousands of graphic artists worldwide. It works best for outlining in black and white a brightly lit room. The subject must remain perfectly motionless if you want accuracy.
    In Hockney's Secret Knowledge, take a look at his tortured attempts to paint portraits with a CL. They are quite hideously overworked, probably because his living subjects could not stay motionless, and every time he looked away from the CL lens, he could not quite find where he left off.
    Further, the assertion that Vermeer used a Camera Lucinda in conjuction with a Camera Obscure remains unanswered. When we see Tim working from a well-lighted photograph, we must realized that that would be impossible with a Camera Obscura. Camera Obscure means Dark Room (!) Dah.
    The peep-hole Camera Obscure requires that the viewer be inside a darkened room -- so how can Penn,Tim, Hockney, et.al., possible conclude that they have (re-)discovered how Vermeer did it?
    As for Hockney, he's trying too hard. He might want to stop seeking magic formulas for creating works of art and realistic rendering. Instead of looking for answers with optical devices, computers, and digital tricks -- perhaps he should try earning it the old fashioned way with paint and brushes!

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