PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Reviews

'Tim's Vermeer', Penn and Teller, Magic and Painting

Tim's Vermeer asks you to reconsider what artists do, and how that very question becomes a measure of the cultures they reflect and produce.


Tim's Vermeer

Director: Teller
Cast: Penn Jillette, Tim Jenison, Martin Mull, Philip Steadman, David Hockney, Colin Blakemore
Rated: NR
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Year: 2013
US date: 2014-01-31 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

"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.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.