Cast: Tim Jenison
Watch Tim’s Vermeer online in the UK: TalkTalk TV / iTunes / Amazon Prime Instant Video / Wuaki.tv
It’s not often you see the words “A Penn & Teller Film” on the screen. The pair of magic comedians (or comedy magicians) are more likely to be seen sawing a cow in half on stage while talking to a dead US President on the phone and teleporting a chihuahua. But this documentary turns out to be a natural fit. It’s the study of one of history’s great magicians, Vermeer.
The title, to be accurate, is Tim’s Vermeer – and that possessive moniker makes a world of difference.
Who is this Tim? Tim Jenison, a friend of Penn & Teller with a knack for invention – and a plan to recreate Vermeer’s mysterious photorealistic style, despite never having painted so much as a sunflower in his life. A magician slowly revealing the answer to something that has baffled experts for years? It’s like watching an episode of Jonathan Creek.
The project is documented in as much painstaking detail as Tim puts into it – and that’s a lot. For the paint, he mixes the exact pigments from scratch. To faithfully reenact the creation of Johannes Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, which is hidden away in Buckingham Palace, he travels to London for a private audience, then builds a replica of the room depicted in the frame. A time-lapse of the scene coming together spans over 200 days, an act of love as much as it is science.
That combination of passion and innovation runs throughout Tim’s Vermeer – both the painting and the film. Jenison is as much an architect or a builder as he is a painter, but that doesn’t hold him back; he uses computers to produce the furniture to exact specifications, engineering art into existence. For him, that’s exactly what Johannes did in the 1600s. How, then, did Vermeer capture the lighting so perfectly 150 years before photography was developed? A mirror.
In Tim’s hands, the camera obscura lets him daub oil on canvas until it perfectly matches his subject; until the line between the lens and reality disappears. It was either that, he suggests, or the Dutch master had super-human retinas. “We’ll need a scientist who specialises in eyes,” says Teller’s partner, Penn Jillette. A man appears on screen. “I’m a scientist who specialises in eyes.”
Interviews with experts show the full range of responses to the theory, from outraged traditional critics, who think that Jenison is cheating by using optics – and, by implication, that so did the revered artist. Others, such as Yorkshire’s own David Hockney, are more embracing of the concept, while Teller stacks up endless evidence to support the claim; the correct dimensions of people in his work, the warped angles of the furniture, his paintings’ out-of-focus perspective, much like that of a camera.
As silent as ever, the mute performer closely follows Jenison on his mission to prove the secret to Vermeer’s gift to “paint with light”. The use of a camera obscura gives the notion a whole new meaning, as does the visual format in which it is present: that’s exactly what Tim (and Teller) are doing. Painting with light. Penn’s narration navigates the step-by-step solution with a typically dry sense of humour, but in between the beautifully edited sessions in Jenison’s workshop, another feeling comes through: hushed awe. The music emphasises that tone of respect, both for Vermeer and for Tim, who seems to be able to do anything Johannes could without any of his renowned talent. If they can reach the same end point, does anything really separate Vermeer’s Vermeer from Tim’s Vermeer? Or Vermeer from Tim?
At a minute 77 minutes, this delicately composed documentary succeeds because it doesn’t try to answer the fascinating question of technology vs art: rather, it praises the imagination and inventiveness of each. There’s a world between the two men, but in terms of pure creativity, there’s no difference at all. They’re not just artists; they’re magicians. The finished piece is a quietly profound celebration of art and artistry – and the best episode of Jonathan Creek in years.
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