Whenever the camera looks closely at Johannes Vermeer’s paintings in fascinating documentary “Tim’s Vermeer”, you cannot help but marvel at their vivid colors and details – and their verisimilitude which almost approaches to the level of modern photography. This Dutch painter of the 17th century did not have a camera, but his paintings feel so vivid and realistic that they sometimes look like those fancy modified photographs, and you will naturally become curious about how the hell he acquired such awesome mastery of color and light. Is he a rare gifted genius who saw things differently unlike others? Or did he have some secret tricks of his trade?
While “Tim’s Vermeer” does not wholly prove the second possibility, its visual presentation of one attempt to give more credibility to that possibility is compelling to watch. Here is a guy who became curious about whether he can confirm the hypothesis suggested by others, and his tremendous efforts put into his personal project are as absorbing as those fabulous details observed from Vermeer’s works.
His project surely requires lots of time, money, and efforts, but Tim Jenison, the hero of the documentary, is fortunately a very affluent man who can afford all of them. While he is an inventor both experienced and talented, Jenison is also a prominent entrepreneur who is the founder of NewTek, and this hardware and software company has brought considerable reputation and wealth to him through various video equipments and softwares.
He usually spent his free time with his various inventions including a lip-synching duck robot, and then his interest was drawn to Vermeer’s works through a book written by British artist David Hockney, who suggested the possibility that Vermeer used optical devices for creating that remarkable vividness of his paintings. The optical technique at that time was still at a relatively crude stage compared to our time, but optical devices such as camera obscura, an ancient cousin of camera which can project the image of object on the wall in its dark room, were widely known during the 17th century, and they could make lenses and mirrors good enough to provide clear images to be used for painting. In addition, X-ray scanning results showed that there is not any basic sketch beneath the dye layer in many of Vermeer’s works, and there are several notable details in his paintings which, according to a neurological doctor, cannot be possibly detected by our bare eyes; this strongly implies that Vermeer might have ‘copied’ from the images projected by optical devices.
Although he was not an art expert, Jenison decided to do the research for himself, and that was the start of his long journey. After several tests, he eventually constructs a special optical device Vermeer might have used, and he succeeds in drawing a small, nice painting which looks as good as a black and white photo it is based on. He also travels to Holland to learn more about Vermeer, and he learns not only background knowledge but also Dutch for gaining more information.
And then he plans the recreation of Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson”, so he pays tons of attention to the details and components of that famous painting to recreate the same environment at his private warehouse in San Antonio, Texas. He also manages to get the permission to have a good look at the painting for no more than 30 minutes at the Buckingham Palace(Its current owner is none other than Queen Elizabeth II), and he later tells us about how amazing it was for him to appreciate it alone(the camera and the crew were not allowed into the palace, by the way).
Of course, it takes several months for him to fill the space at his warehouse step by step while meticulously checking small and big details in the painting, but the director Teller, who wrote and produced the documentary with his entertainment business partner Penn Jillette(Jillette also appears as one of the interviewees and did the narration in the film), captures well the intriguing moments of this long, arduous process. We may not understand everything shown in the film, but Jenison is a smart, engaging person to observe and listen to, and it is fun to watch him making a slow but steady advance to his ultimate goal while solving various problems he comes to face during the process.
Recreating “The Music Lesson” turns out to be as long and difficult as setting the stage for that, but it is also an equally fun part. While there was an absurd situation in which he and his friend were poisoned by carbon monoxide due to a faulty heater during one cold day at the warehouse, Jenison discovers a small but important detail in the painting which has never been noticed before, and he also pushes himself further during his painting process. We see him taking care of every tiny detail in his recreation, and, to be frank with you, it was almost awe-inspiring for me to see how detailed his recreation is in many aspects – and how vividly it evokes that unmistakable texture of Vermeer’s paintings.
While we still cannot be entirely sure about whether Vermeer was really helped by optical devices, “Tim’s Vermeer” is an engrossing and informative documentary which throws an interesting perspective on Vermeer’s works, and I enjoyed it with growing fascination. Jenison’s final result may not mean much in the end, but it is a pretty nice result generated from genuine interest and passion, and you will appreciate it more as looking back on it.