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Tim’s Vermeer

Thursday 1 May 2014, by Judy Harris

For the most part Tim’s Vermeer is a film about vision, about how we literally see the world- the limitations of sight and its augmentation through technological means. It’s also a film about how we see the world in the figurative sense; Tim Jenison, a 21st century computer software inventor (whom I would comfortably place in the top 1% or thereabouts) sees it, affectionately, as his playground.

The film takes as its premise the idea that Tim and 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer might in fact see the world in a similar way given their penchant for optical technology. The question of Vermeer’s use of optical technology (mirrors, convex lenses, the camera obscura etc) arises from the perspective, accuracy and detail of his paintings, as well as the absence of any sketching lying underneath. According to a professor of neuroscience it’s not possible that the human retina could register the level of detail present in Vermeer’s work unaided. Several theories have been put forward suggesting that Vermeer may have used a camera obscura to project the image he was painting and then trace the outlines onto a canvas. However this theory doesn’t account for his ability to achieve the tonal details of his paintings. The elaboration of these theories and the question of how particular images come to be realised animates much of the film, although none of the film’s main protagonists are that concerned with the aesthetic and philosophical issues that arise which renders the film interesting, informative but unsatisfying given the weight of the questions it raises.

When Tim Jenison looks at a painting by Vermeer he explains that he sees a computer image, a ‘slide’. He doesn’t mention whether this sensation is altered when looking at an original Vermeer compared to its mechanical reproduction- surely this distinction is important, not least for Walter Benjamin’s sake. The distinction between a poster of a Vermeer, the original painting and Tim’s Vermeer is also not a concern; the film sets itself up in the mystery genre, its purpose is to answer the question ‘how did Vermeer create these paintings?’ rather than to ask why this question is even relevant or whether the status of a work of art is intrinsically connected to its singularity and physicality.

Nonetheless, Tim is a wealthy man obsessed with discovering Vermeer’s technique and, in doing so, establishing a connection between himself and the Dutch Master. In his pursuit of this imagined affinity he sets out to ‘paint a Vermeer’- an oxymoron that is never acknowledged. Tim is not a painter but is apparently able to learn how to wield a paintbrush in a nifty half an hour. He also rather ingeniously figures out how to reflect a projected image into a small mirror which he suspends over a canvas so that he can look at the image in the mirror and paint onto the canvas simultaneously. He then spends a staggering amount of time and money to physically reproduce the set of Vermeer’s Music Lesson- including 3D mapping, producing lenses and pigments and commissioning bespoke ornaments and instruments which he is adamant must be produced with as much historical accuracy as possible. The magician Penn Jillette, who co-financed the film and provides commentary throughout- affectionately refers to Tim’s project as a ‘wacky hobby’. This wacky hobby was begun in 2008. We can assume Tim was solvent enough to continue with this venture in the face of a global financial crisis. ‘Can I paint a Vermeer?’ was his most pressing concern. However, Tim is a likeable guy with a modesty which acts as a nice supplement to his gung-ho, can-do attitude. He says ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ a lot. He gives things a whirl. If his painting, which he has invested so much time, money and manual labour in, should somehow get damaged he assures us that he can ‘just start over’. This isn’t the production of a work of art. There is nothing singular about his painting- he can do it all over again and achieve the same effect if he has to (and if his back can take it).

The entire project took 1825 days to complete, however we aren’t told how much it cost. This is an American movie and a particularly American endeavour. Both the film and Tim’s project intend to bridge the gap between art and technology, to collapse the supposed distinction between the inventor and the artist- inventors being people who produce technologically mediated images, artists being people with ‘unfathomable genius’. In fact this is the least well developed aspect of this film because inspiration and imagination are barely mentioned- no one is that interested in these concepts or the status of art. The film barely asks why Tim is so obsessed with this project (although we are given glimpses of his previous home inventions such as the creation of a lip-synching duck so we could assume he is engaged in a lifelong battle against ennui). That being said, the task is impressive and demands tremendous discipline, drive and free time, all of which Tim has in droves. He’s also episodically emotional and cries as he presents his finished work to the camera. He has ‘painted a Vermeer’. It’s overwhelming.

What is truly moving and unsettling about this film, the elements which make it worth seeing, is not the chance to gawp at the wacky hobbies of wealthy Texans, but the capacity of film to allow us to witness the creation of such a detailed image. It comes into being before our eyes. The most powerful sequences were of Tim diligently painting day after day, the time-lapse footage of the canvas, the close-ups of beads of light a young girl’s hair, his ability to render visible the every finely weaved texture of a rug. Tim paints by matching the colour of the edge of the image he sees reflected in the mirror to the colour he paints onto the canvas .Vermeer is hardly a painter you would association with formlessness but here we see a different way of seeing- colour freed from form, precision in tone rather than precision in geometry. The end result is truly unsettling.

The question of the libidinal drive which fuelled Tim’s obsession remains not only unanswered but wholly unexplored. If this was an attempt to claim some of the prestige of an ‘artistic genius’ for the workers of Silicon Valley then it’s fairly misguided because by the end of the film, whatever esteem and regard the audience may have for Vermeer’s laborious efforts and brilliant inventiveness, his status as an artistic or visionary ‘genius’ has been somewhat undermined. Or at least it seems to have been undermined - it’s impossible to say because cinematic images don’t testify that well to subtle differences in the tone or texture of a painting and they can’t convey differences in historical or physical presence. And besides, the Queen of England owns Vermeer’s original Music Room and even Tim Jenison was only granted access to look at it for half an hour. It seems fitting that the monarchy, whose authority rests on their blue-blooded singularity, should be the last defenders of original, non-mechanically reproduced works of art, since it turns out that all you really need to paint your very own Vermeer (besides an awful lot of money) is a lens, a mirror and something to prove.

Dir: Teller, 2013

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