“It seems like more than paint on canvas. It seems to glow like an image on a movie screen.” In describing the work of Johannes Vermeer, Penn Jillette finds an image that could never have occurred to the Dutch painter or anyone else who might have described his art in the 17th century. While it’s common to say that Vermeer “painted with light,” the reference to the movie screen offers another dimension, one that may be particularly apt in a movie about Vermeer, or more precisely, about the question that Penn asks at film’s start: “How did Vermeer do it?”
Even more precisely, Tim’s Vermeer is about one individual’s pursuit of this question. The titular Tim Jenison is a friend of Penn and the film’s director Teller, as well as an inventor by inclination and trade, the founder of NewTek in 1985, an exceedingly successful venture that has since afforded him lots of money and time to do what interests him. According to the film, he took up the project of figuring out Vermeer’s “magic,” the step-by-step procedure by which he made his art. That this expedition has to do with light and also the “magical quality” of Vermeer’s work, which “mystified the world for 350 years,” is, of course, a helpful hook, Penn and Teller being master illusionists with a well-known appreciation and knowledge of how tricks are done.
This isn’t to say that anyone is arguing that Vermeer’s art is the result of a trick, per se, though the film does note the peculiarities of his story, that there is no record that he had training as a painter and no visible sketches beneath his painted surfaces. Penn notes as well that the perceived lack of such record might be a function of traditional means of assessment. “Paintings are documents,” he says. “They contain the story of their own creation. Every brushstroke, every layer of color, every shadow, represents another piece of information.”
And, the film proposes, this information leads to the search for more. Jenison’s project is inspired in part by the Hockney-Falco thesis, namely that Vermeer—like some other artists of his time and place, but in his own remarkable way—might have used a camera obscura as part of his mysterious painting process. Hockney elucidates his proposition in the book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, which Jenison uses as a point of departure for his project: he travels to London to discuss the mechanics with Hockney, who marvels at Jenison’s determination, namely, that he’s gone so far as to reconstruct Vermeer’s studio in order to reproduce The Music Lesson, using Jenison’s own ingenious version of a camera obscura.
Jenison takes an additional step in his convincing himself that he’s on a right track with this device, by visiting with a “specialist in vision,” Colin Blakemore. The doctor assures him that Vermeer, even if he was a savant, could not have achieved his magic without an optical device, as the human eye’s “nervous organization” is unable to perceive Vermeer’s specificity. When he and the filmmakers travel to see the painting itself, the film offers just a bit more distraction, as the team acts out their upset when the Queen (temporarily) rejects their request. Once he does get inside the room with the painting for 30 minutes, sans reproductive technology, Jenison emerges apparently transformed. “It’s hard work,” he says, “I don’t know if I can even come close.”
He does indeed come close, of course. But the film is less compelling for its documentation of Jenison’s demonstration that such an achievement using such a device is possible, and so, so too is the Vermeer’s use of such a device than for the questions it poses concerning the magic of art. if Tim’s Vermeer begins with wondering how Vermeer did it, the more intricate magic is not mechanical but social and political. That is, art is traditionally evaluated and marketed according to a set of myths, having to do with the creator’s gifts, his or her difference from you.
While you might admire this difference and understand it as a reason that an artist can do what you cannot, you might also wonder at the importance of the myths in broader contexts, how careers and cultures are premised on faith in the exceptional. Certainly, Jenison is exceptional in his own right, and he and others have forged their own sorts of art using technologies. But the investment in the painter as someone who needs nothing but pigments and canvases, someone who might create or recreate worlds or based on his or her eye or imagination alone is deeply entrenched. What if that myth is revealed as such? What if Vermeer “did it” with help?
The questions ripple from this initial stone tossed into historical waters, leading to more questions about more geniuses and more types of achievements. How do glasses help? What about evolving ingredients in paints, wah-wah pedals or turntables? How do you measure the effects of other technologies—say, drugs—in the achievements of a Coleridge or a Philip Seymour Hoffman or an Alex Rodriguez? If Tim’s Vermeer doesn’t ask any of these questions directly, it does ask you to reconsider what artists do, and how that very question becomes a measure of the cultures they reflect and produce.