Tim’s Vermeer is a documentary, a fascinating recreation in painstaking detail of a Vermeer masterpiece by an American inventor in a warehouse in San Antonio, Texas. It’s also a “howdunnit” exploring and refining the techniques by which the artist created images with photographic levels of reality, but most of all it’s a study of total obsession on the part of Tim Jenison as he learns to become an artist for the purposes of this project and uses his skills as a forensic innovator to deconstruct the techniques of Vermeer.
From conception to conclusion the enterprise is estimated to have taken Jenison, a man who made his wealth and fame through electronic innovation company NewTek, a grand total of 1,825 days – of which 130 were spent in the actual painting. The latter part alone demonstrates the formidable concentration required by artists of the Dutch classical school – while often working by candlelight, one would imagine.
Naturally, this phenomenal recreation of reality did not take place by simply painting but variations of the camera obscura technique. Using the evidence of the pictures, Jenison refines the process using optical lenses and mirrors similar to those available in Vermeer’s day, compensates for the flaws in the process created by the use of optical devices – which in turn demonstrate that the painter was indeed doing something very similar.
Tim had a major benefit in his pursuit of perfection, namely that he is chummy with renowned sceptics Penn Jillette and Teller, they of TV magic show fame. Turns out the pair are renowned broadcasters and film-makers, so naturally turning their talents to support a friend in his obsession and maybe even make a bit of money on the side, must have seemed a logical step. Teller directs while Penn co-produces and acts as all-purpose facilitator, narrator and interviewer.
Along the way the film is eked out to 80 minutes with the sort of road trip so common in TV documentaries. Here the protagonists visit the Netherlands and to London (making fun of the monarchy along the way), and also speak to a various artists and academics. Having a household name helps the sales along, and here the household name is David Hockney, whose book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters apparently inspired Jenison in his quest for evidence. A degree of credibility is added by these interventions, but this is after the event: clearly the hard work of deconstructing Vermeer had been done behind the scenes, so the job of filmmakers Penn and Teller was to reconstruct it in the form of an artist detective story.
In spite of a bit of knowing popularist pizazz added by the P&T duo to lighten the mood , but actually the underlying material is crafted well and portrayed to good effect. It’s not merely an exercise in academic art history, though there is sufficient to apply rigour to the process. The presence at the centre of an inventor lends a radically different perspective, including the geometrics and mathematical approach that his fresh pair of eyes can lend. While it is not a project against the clock, the ticking of days and the evident stress on Jenison takes its toll, but nonetheless he finally makes it to the finish line and stands proudly with his version of the masterpiece – a likeness but not an exact copy.