Subversive films are rarely as polite and amusing as “Tim’s Vermeer,” an amicable little documentary about Tim Jenison’s quest to “paint a Vermeer.”
Jenison isn’t a forger or even a painter. He is an inventor and a rather impressive one. Among other achievements, his company invented LightWave, a 3-D imaging program that has become a standard tool of the movie industry. It has been used in scores of visually spectacular movies, including “Jurassic Park,” “Iron Man” and “The Hunger Games.”
Jenison is an intellectually restless, curious person — and therefore a perfect documentary subject — whose wealth gives him time to explore crazy ideas like painting a Vermeer.
His project began in 2002 when he read David Hockney’s book, “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters” and is founded on the simple assumption that Vermeer used technology to create the exquisite details and representations of light that characterize his paintings.
Hockney and other art historians argue Vermeer used a camera obscura, but Jenison theorizes Vermeer used other devices, too. And since Vermeer’s process incorporated mechanical means, an inventor like Jenison should be able to replicate Vermeer’s method.
“Tim’s Vermeer” is built around Jenison’s attempt to test his theory using the scientific method. But that approach requires Jenison to control all other conditions, which is when the story stops being about art and instead becomes a portrait of obsession.
Jenison reconstructs Vermeer’s studio as exactly as he can, then builds a camera obscura to capture the light reflected off of it. He learns to make paint using the same materials and methods as Vermeer by grinding pigments, mixing them into the oil base, etc. He makes a lens from scratch for his camera obscura because modern lenses are significantly better than lenses in Vermeer’s time.
He chooses to replicate Vermeer’s “The Music Room,” and therefore must reproduce every object depicted in the painting, almost all of which he does himself.
One of my favorite moments comes when Jenison is using an industrial lathe to craft the legs of a harpsichord. He discovers his lathe is 2½ inches too short to create a perfect replica of the legs on the harpsichord in Vermeer’s painting. Jenison solves the problem by cutting the lathe itself into two parts.
The lines between ambition, folly and madness are fine, and it is riveting to watch Jenison march unwaveringly across those lines. And this is all before he even begins to paint.
Equally fascinating are the questions Jenison’s project raises about art. The notion that a machine could allow amateurs to produce a painting rivaling work by one of the greatest painters in history calls into question notions of genius, how we value art and the distinction between art and technology.
I ended up not caring whatsoever whether Jenison proved this is how Vermeer worked. As anyone who saw the Dutch Masters collection recently exhibited at the High Museum can attest, paintings such as “The Girl with a Pearl Earring” would be profoundly moving if they were painted by elephants.
Jenison gets to see “The Music Room” in person at one point.
Afterward he says, “The amount of devotion, or dedication, or obsession to get that amount of detail that just makes a general impression on the viewer must have taken months of hard work.”
Would it be any less admirable if Vermeer did, indeed, employ technology?
Unfortunately, the filmmaking in “Tim’s Vermeer” is not worthy of its subject. Much of the movie was shot on consumer camcorders set to auto focus. During certain interview scenes, Jenison is out of focus. These technical shortcomings undercut a film entirely about visual aesthetics.
So “Tim’s Vermeer” will not win any technical awards and doesn’t offer a single moment of praiseworthy style. But it’s still a fascinating journey down the rabbit hole, a glimpse into two beautiful minds and a provocative discussion of how we value works of art.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.