Behind the Vermeer
Tim's Vermeer. Picture: Supplied

FILM
Tim’s Vermeer
4 stars
Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette,
David Hockney
DIRECTOR TELLER
REVIEW STEPHEN BEVIS

Anyone who saw the speculative biopic The Girl with the Pearl Earring would have seen Colin Firth's Johannes Vermeer trying to seduce Scarlett Johansson's teenage maid Griet by showing her his optic box.

Vermeer's purported use of lenses, mirrors and the camera obscura, a predecessor of the modern camera, has been one theory proposed by some art historians to explain his carefully composed, highly detailed and beautifully illuminated paintings of domestic interior scenes.

Largely overlooked for 200 years after his death, Vermeer's reputation as one of the greatest Dutch masters of the mid-1600s grew after his work was rediscovered in 1866 by French critic Theophile Thore-Burger.

Since then, experts have debated the mystery of how the artist achieved his photo-realistic treatment of light, perspective and variable focus to such exacting standards. Was it entirely due to a keen eye, expert hand and that indefinable X-factor known as genius, or did he have the help of the technology of the time? Did Vermeer use a "painting-machine" in his Delft studio to project and trace an image on to the canvas?

That was a scenario painted by British academic Philip Steadman, who stirred up the art world with his 2001 book Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces. The great contemporary artist David Hockney whipped up an even greater frenzy the same year when he argued in his own book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters that many of the greats before Vermeer also used optical contraptions to create their masterpieces.

Enter Tim Jenison and his DIY Vermeer.

Jenison is an inventor and video engineer from Texas with two Emmy Awards to his name and many millions in the bank from pioneering desktop video and animation software. He is restlessly curious and slightly eccentric and his inventions also have included a lip-synching robotic duck, an electric moth and a plane made entirely of parts you can buy at the hardware store.

Jenison had no art training and could not draw to save his life but, as a technophile and scientist, he set about trying to solve the Vermeer hypothesis by experimenting with 17th century optical technology to try to paint a Vermeer of his own.

The Vermeer he decided to reproduce is The Music Lesson (1662-65), a small painting of a girl at a harpsichord with her male teacher standing at her side.

His task turned into a magnificent obsession spanning the best part of eight years.

This long and winding quest (from San Antonio, Texas, to Delft and London, where The Music Lesson hangs in Buckingham Palace) is captured in a documentary that plays out like an episode of Mythbusters crossed with an art-history whodunit.

Tim's Vermeer is produced by the Penn and Teller duo, the American TV magicians and professional debunkers with their very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Penn Jillette, one of Jenison's best friends, is the on-screen narrator while silent partner Teller is the director.

Hockney and Steadman also feature, offering advice, feedback and looks of astonishment at Jenison's magic trick.

The lengths Jenison goes to are extraordinary and it is this dogged dedication and persistence that gives the 80-minute Tim's Vermeer its propulsive focus and energy.

With little known about the way Vermeer worked, Jenison used trial-and-error configurations of mirrors and lenses to create a device that would allow him to paint-by-numbers any scene in front of him.

"It is a little scientific experiment waiting to happen," he says in the film.

But before he could copy The Music Lesson, he had to replicate the room in which it was set and the world from which it sprang. He immersed himself in everything Vermeer. He travelled to Delft and learnt Dutch, he made by hand the period lenses, ground his own paint pigments, calculated, designed and constructed Vermeer's studio and every object in it down to the lead-glass windows, the virginal-style period harpsichord and viola de gamba.

All that before he even picked up the brush.

To Jenison, Vermeer was much like himself - a geek and experimenter curious about the workings of the world in the Golden Age when science and art were more closely entwined than today.

In his first-time attempt to paint, Jenison copies an old black-and-white portrait of his father-in-law. In eight hours, he produces a startlingly accurate copy of the original

"If I could do the father-in-law, I could do a Vermeer," he says with a naive confidence that gets somewhat bruised as the daunting, often backbreaking complexity of the Vermeer masterpiece threatens to overwhelm him over the course of 130 days of painting.

In the end, the pleasure is in the hunt rather than the kill. As compelling as the evidence is, Jenison proves that it can be done, not that Vermeer necessarily created his art in this way.

In any case, it would not be a dent to the duco of Vermeer's genius if it were proved that he had used a painting machine to create his work any more than skill with a quill or piano is a precondition for the artistry of Shakespeare and Beethoven.

It is on this issue that the film opens itself to criticism, because as The Guardian's art writer Jonathan Jones asserts, "Tim's Vermeer is not a Vermeer, any more than an Airfix model is a flying Spitfire".

The filmmakers' own sleight of hand is that they never show us the original artwork which, although held in the Royal Collection, is often loaned out for exhibitions. All we get to see is a poster, so comparisons are impossible.

Tim's Vermeer is not some dour, serious art film. It has a light and folksy tone and is laced with humour such as Jenison's quip: "This project is a lot like watching paint dry."

Thankfully the same cannot be said about this thoroughly engaging film which, in spite of Jenisen's achievement, still leaves Vermeer's enigmatic masterpieces as the ultimate evidence that there is much more to art than great technique.

His task turned into a magnificent obsession spanning the best part of eight years.

The West Australian

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