Film Review: Tim's Vermeer

Tim Jenison plays copycat with revered artist.

Mar 4, 2014 at 11:29 am
“Can’t I just use my Mac, please?”
“Can’t I just use my Mac, please?”

Tim’s Vermeer | B

Whatever kind of geek you are, it’s hard not to appreciate, nay, honor the obsessive ambitions of Tim Jenison. A self-made digital-effects millionaire, the 59-year-old Texan inventor decided that he wanted to paint an exact copy of Johannes Vermeer’s 350-year-old masterpiece, “The Music Lesson.” 

Two thousand days later, Jenison succeeded, which is pretty remarkable given that Vermeer’s canvases are among the most intricate and mysteriously photo-realistic in Western art … and that Jenison freely admits from the get-go, “I’m not a painter.”

When you consider where Jenison’s research and efforts take him, it’s not a surprise that the magicians Penn and Teller decided to co-produce a documentary about his brilliant obsession — and the deconstruction of one of the art world’s more vexing riddles: How did Vermeer do it?

The theory is that Vermeer used mirrors and lenses to craft his eerily luminous paintings, employing photographic techniques more than a century before the invention of photography. It’s a premise British painter David Hockney and architect Philip Steadman (both on hand in the film) support, arguing that the claims that Vermeer was an “unfathomable genius” are little more than hyperbole.

Tim’s Vermeer is a fascinating yet, at times, slow-moving chronicle of Jenison’s monomaniacal exploration and, ultimately, proof that Hockney and Steadman’s theories hold water. He dedicates five years to studying Vermeer’s work, builds a to-scale replica of the artist’s room, makes his own paints and grinds and polishes his own lenses. And we’re with him every step of the way.

Penn Jillette provides the kind of droll narration fans of Bullshit will appreciate, while sidekick Teller hops behind the camera, directing with a breezy and inquisitive eye. It’s an 80-minute descent into fanatical geekery, tackling art, history, and technology with a deconstructionist’s eye. What’s missing, however, are the contrarians, the purists who balk at the idea that Vermeer was more inventor than aesthete. You’d think there’d be art historians champing at the bit to defend such a beloved painter. That friction would have been a welcome narrative counterpoint.

Luckily, Jenison is curious and self-deprecating enough to hold our attention, because, in the end, we’re mostly just watching a guy tinker and paint. At one point Jenison even admits that his project has grown tedious, inciting moments of mental instability. It’s not hard to sympathize.

Eventually the amateur delivers, creating a convincing Vermeer and presenting some damn persuasive evidence that old Johannes’ talents were no less genius but infinitely more “fathomable.” Whatever techniques the 17th century painter used to get the paint from palette to canvas, however, his sense of composition was undeniably brilliant. Tim’s Vermeer reveals that, though we can uncover the methods artistic masters used to achieve their work, we need their passion to copy them. 

Tim’s Vermeer opens at the Main Art on Friday, March 7. It is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 80 minutes.