Johannes Vermeer is regarded as one of the great Baroque painters, along with contemporaries such as Diego Velázquez, and Rembrandt. He’s often considered one of the greatest painters in history. His depiction of light is masterful, incomparable to any of his contemporaries. In the 17th century, the guild system was still firmly in place, not to see its fall until nearly the 19th century. Most, if not all, great masters of art studied in the guilds. They trained, and honed their skills, in order to, hopefully, become a master. Vermeer, however, had no such training.
It’s common amongst art historians looking for more in-depth knowledge of their subjects to x-ray their paintings. This penetrates the various layers and unveils the artists’ process. You can literally see the painting from inception to final product. In the work of Manet, for instance, such as The Dead Toreador and The Bullfight, when x-rayed, you can see various adjustments: the removal of a matador, the changed placement of a bull, the raising or lowering of a wall. This is common amongst artists of every era. Vermeer’s paintings, however, show virtually no alterations. This is almost unheard of amongst painters of any kind, let alone a Baroque painter of Vermeer’s quality.
There has been a wide range of speculation about Vermeer’s practice, as he was not a trained painter, yet rendered some of the most photorealistic paintings in history. Scholars such as David Hockney and Philip Steadman, both experts on Vermeer, have often suggested that the master was as such because of the use of a camera obscura, or camera lucida. Simple tools often implemented by artists in order to help them properly render more realistic scenarios in their paintings. However, they would mostly be used to lay the groundwork for their paintings, never to produce them as a whole, which was what Steadman and Hockney were suggesting. Such speculation both titillated and outraged art historians and scholars alike. To suppose that a master used machinery to render his work would challenge the very notion of art as a practice. It suggests an objective, almost scientific, nature. For many, it was interpreted as a kind of cheat.
Enter Tim Jenison. Lifelong friend to Penn and Teller of Bullshit and Vegas stage show fame, he is a graphic artist, inventor, and entrepreneur. Specializing in digital graphics, he fancies himself a jack-of-all-trades. If something stumps him, he’ll break it down and put it back together just to see how it works. Such techniques aren’t quite as successful when you’re dealing with 17th century Dutch painters.
Tim’s had a bit of an ongoing fascination, perhaps even obsession, with Johannes Vermeer. He’s been perpetually stumped by Vermeer’s ability to render light in such a photorealistic way. To a trained eye such as Tim’s, Vermeer’s paintings unmistakably look like they were rendered with a video camera, which is an obvious impossibility.
Given Tim’s penchant for discovering the undiscoverable and learning new talents, he decided to dissect Vermeer, and see if there was a mechanical way to reproduce one of his masterpieces. The goal was not to prove that Vermeer used a camera lucida, or any other similar simple machine – that would be impossible. There simply aren’t enough records to ever be able to prove such a thing definitively. However, through study, research, and execution, Tim Jenison took on the gargantuan task of recreating Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. Over the course of roughly five years, Tim researched 1660’s Delft (Vermeer’s town), learned how to make his own pigments, rebuilt Vermeer’s studio – and consequently became a carpenter out of necessity – and, most importantly, learned how to use a paintbrush. The end result is staggering.
Directed by Teller, and executive produced by Penn Jillette, Tim’s Vermeer is first and foremost about … well, Vermeer. But it’s also about the process of discovery. Tim’s voracious appetite for knowledge is astounding. His dedication to the project is almost confounding. The strain he puts himself under in order to properly execute this significant experiment is incredible. When asked if he could drop the whole thing and just not paint, his very honest and frustrated answer was, had they not been filming, absolutely. But he was committed.
Tim’s Vermeer is like an art history whodunit. Except in place of murder, we have artistic discovery. Watching Tim’s process unfold is absolutely astounding. The process from the genesis of Tim’s interest, to his investigation into Vermeer’s practice, and the eventual completion of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson is captivating. Almost breathlessly, you watch as the entire piece comes together, as predicted. But they had to recreate mere speculation in order to know if it would work. Vermeer never recorded his process. There are no sketches, or plans for his work. As previously mentioned, even x-rays of his paintings don’t betray his process. He covered his tracks, and eliminated the evidence. To document his process would have given away his “trick”. But, ultimately, there is always a way to read art like a text. And Tim found a way to read Vermeer.
The film also firmly addresses this confounding notion that, had Vermeer used tools to complete, not just aid, his work, it would have been a cheat of some kind. Steadman, who literally wrote the book on Vermeer’s use of supplemental tools (Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces) defends this notion of “cheating”. “The reason it isn’t cheating,” he says, “is because it’s hard.” It’s mathematics, and geometry. Time, calculation, and effort. A cheat implies, somehow, facilitating the process. This, most certainly, facilitates nothing. The process is almost excruciatingly slow. The notion that art and technology must never meet is a foolish one. Even artists like the great Leonardo relied, to some degree, on technology.
Art aficionados, historians, and amateurs alike will thoroughly enjoy this film. For those with an in-depth knowledge of art, it can be profoundly moving. The significance of this experiment is staggering. You don’t attempt to recreate a Vermeer just for kicks. It’s a painstaking process that, while it can’t definitively prove that Vermeer was, as Tim dubs him, a “tinkerer”, it can give very substantial support to the claim. The results are emotional. Funny, intelligent, witty and perfectly paced, Tim’s Vermeer is the perfect analytical look at the science of art.
Tim’s Vermeer will be playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox until February 27th.