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Tim's Vermeer

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by Sydney Levine
January 30, 2014 10:55 AM
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Tim's Vermeer (The Music Lesson)

Sony Pictures Classics presents the Los Angeles Premiere of Tim's Vermeer directed by Teller and starring Tim Jenison, Teller, Artist David Hockney, and Vermeer's paintings.  The screening will be held Wednesday January 29th at Pacific Design Center  (8687 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood CA 90069)

Tim’s Vermeer explores boundaries between art and technology and between art and creativity.  Vermeer is one of the world’s most loved painters, but this 17th century Dutch master was mostly ignored until 19th century Parisians “rediscovered” him.  The jewel-like beauty of his small pictures captures your eye and has a near mystical effect in the realistic portrayals of scenes such as a woman reading a letter or pouring milk from a jug or drinking a glass of wine.  

Raised in Delft, Holland, a city where perspective was treated as an optical illusion and in the 17th century where “the art of describing” typified Dutch art, Johannes Vermeer may have been using his painting more as a technical inventor than as an artist.  This film sets out to test a theory of Tim Jenison, a Texas based inventor, (Video Toaster, LightWave, TriCaster) as he attempts to solve one of the greatest mysteries in all art: How did 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (“Girl with a Pearl Earring”) manage to paint so photo-realistically – 150 years before the invention of photography?

Tim Jenison himself is not a “mere” inventor, his ideas have changed technology and art.  After founding NewTek in 1985 he led the way in the development of Digiview, one of the first video digitzers for a computer, DigiPaint and the Video Toaster.  He saw the personal computer as the mode for incorporating his varioius interests in electronics, music, film and video.  Testing his theory on how Vermeer captured his scenes is very much in keeping with his own uses of technology.  As he tests his theory, his journey itself is as extraordinary as what he discovers.  Tim sets out to reproduce a Vermeer painting using optical instruments which he believes Vermeer actually used.  The work was so tedious, I got a bit overwhelmed by it as did Tim himself, but the excitement of discovering the same tools Vermeer probably used, conjecture over the fact that perhaps Vermeer was using science to depict life and may or may not have had “art” in mind with his own creations is fascinating.   

Tim’s wanting to discontinue the work and his tears at finally completing his work are candid and endearing.  The question of “art vs. science” is an interesting one, something akin to the question of “art vs. commerce” vis a vis the moving picture industry.  The separation between art and science may be a contemporary separation, but on a closer look, one can stay that all art changes its forms as technology advances and changes our reality.  Vermeer truly created art, whether he knew it or not at the time.  That has been judged by history itself.  Perhaps his “secret” use of technology (no one ever wrote of how he painted) is akin to the producer Penn Jillette, half of the magic team Penn and Teller.  The secrets die with the artists. 

On the other hand, Tim is not creating art, but true to his nature, he is creating a technology in such an “artistic”, that is to say, in such a pure way, that he too ranks among the “greats” much like the science/ technology participants in the film business are.  As they receive their own Academy Awards, so Tim deserves accolades for the purity of his investigations and ultimate creations.  He handmade the lens, handcrafte the paint and pigments, calculated and designed the room, built replicas of the furniture and all the objects in the room as he set out to reproduce The Music Lesson by Vermeer in order to prove, over 130 days of painting, how Vermeer could use a camera obscura and two mirrors to duplicate the color and light of real objects in a real room.

As three “older” men discuss Vermeer as colleagues, the stature of Tim to that of David Hockney himself and their mutual interest and curiosity in the great master Vermeer makes this investigation into Vermeer’s techniques into an event we the viewers are able to share in as equals.  I felt like I was a part of their discussions which were on a visibly normal plane and yet at the same time were discussions by masters about another great master of art.  I felt accomplished at speaking the same language as they used to express their thoughts.

Spanning eight years and edited from over 2400 hours of footage, Jenison’s adventure takes him to Delft, Holland, where Vermeer painted his masterpieces; on a pilgrimage to the North coast of Yorkshire to meet artist David Hockney; and eventually to Buckingham Palace, to see the Queen’s Vermeer.
 
Directed by Teller, Tim’s Vermeer was produced by Penn Jillette and Farley Ziegler and features Tim Jenison, Penn, David Hockney, Philip Steadman and Martin Mull.  Executive producer, Peter Adam Golden.    

Huffington Post features an interview with Tim here by Kristine McCracken.

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