24 June 2014 | StevePulaski
For the art students and documentary fans, this one is for you
Tim's Vermeer is a wonderfully entertaining story about personal passion and obsession and the crossroads where technology and art meet rather than stay apart from each other, a concept that some fear to be anecdotal in the analysis and appreciation for art. The film focuses on Tim Jenison, an accomplished inventor and founder of the hardware/software company NewTek, who has grown to become increasingly fascinated with the works of Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer is one of the most subversive painters in history, with many art critics and scholars citing him as the greatest painter of all time. Vermeer's paintings have taken on a life of their own in recent time because of the beauty they bear in terms of lighting and clarity, in an era where cameras didn't exist. His techniques and even his personal life are still largely a mystery today, and Tim's Vermeer shows that one man may have an idea how he did it all.
Tim proposes the idea that, as unique as it would've been for Vermeer to walk up to a blank canvas and begin painting the photo-realistic paintings he became known for, some technology, even as primitive as it could be classified, had to be involved. Narrator Penn Jillette of the magician duo Penn & Teller (with Teller serving as the documentary's director) tells us of a device known as "camera obscura," which is Dutch for "dark room." The device is a box that could be of any size - from as small as a shoebox to as big as being able to house a person inside - that would have a small hole drilled in it to fit a circular lens inside. It would project whatever was outside of the box into the dark interior of the box in an upside down, backwards state; one would curve the lens to reposition and resize the subject inside the box.
Tim believes that, despite the device being common during the time, it would've been difficult for Vermeer to paint something as deep and intricate as what he did on a small-scale canvas or in a room of little light. What he manages to create is his own kind of "camera obscura," with mirrors and lenses that have the same sort of basic imperfections, shortcomings, but in addition, wondrous advances as Vermeer could've dealt with in 17th Century Dutch. Confident after speaking to art curators and professionals that share his feelings that he's on to something remarkable, Tim decides to sit down, with his creation of mirrors and lenses, and try to copy one of Vermeer's paintings. He goes as far as to renting a warehouse and constructing it like the room in Vermeer's painting, which was the north-facing room on the second story of his home. He goes back to use the 17th Century lenses of the time and even works to grinding his own paint, rather than using the paint one could easily by at a store for hobbyists. What unfolds is one of the most fascinating documentaries about art I have yet to see.
The film is a perfect showcase for somebody who is operating in a very advanced league in the computer graphics and software industry, who bears a fascination of where his medium originated. In turn, he decides to go back in time and see how the pioneers of their time operated and worked to create the hard we cherish today. It's the classic example of someone going back and learning the roots of the medium they love; a necessity, considering things are progressing at such a rapid rate these days it's difficult to keep track of things.
Second-time director Teller shows just what a grueling and meticulous process replicating an intricate painting is for Tim, who is operating by his own set of specific rules he has to follow (cannot use modern equipment of any kind, he must paint what he sees in the mirror to assure he's painting as if he was Vermeer during the time period, etc). We assume Tim must be a very relaxed and gentle man, rarely getting frazzled and taking his time with such an elaborate painting, careful not to rush or shortchange any element of the work. It becomes clear that his passion begins to rework itself and become a full-fledged obsession.
Tim's Vermeer seals the deal by adding in ideas and thoughtful discussion points about the role technology and technological advances play in art and how optical machines were used in art, despite some carrying the idea that painters painted straight from their imagination. In addition, the film works to humanize the unfairly ridiculed and shortchanged field of study that is art history, effectively giving it a much-needed leverage in terms of thought and complexity. And, in short, the film is an unexpectedly entertaining dive into the ideas of passion and obsession, art and technology, and devotion and determination.
Starring: Tim Jenison. Directed by: Teller.