Tim’s Vermeer is a documentary film, directed by Teller and narrated by Penn Jillette, that follows computer graphics developer Tim Jenison. He wants to recreate a Vermeer masterpiece even though he has never used a paintbrush. What has troubled him and so many art historians is how photorealistic Vermeer’s paintings are, despite the lack of image capture technology in the 17th century. He believes he has found the solution, involving mirrors and lenses.
Jenison wants to recreate the painting The Music Room completely from scratch, with as much attention to detail as possible. He begins by building an exact, full-sized replica of the music room, which takes 213 days. Despite his impassive face, it is clear that Jenison is having a huge amount of fun. Then he spends another 120 days actually painting – this seems less fun. These scenes are completely fascinating to watch, and even though the audience has only been sitting there for twenty minutes while Jenison has been painting for four months, it is easy to get an idea of the extreme patience and obsessive nature that are required. The sheer audacity and magnitude of the undertaking is astonishing.
Beyond the premise, the documentary has great depth. First, it poses questions about our role as viewers: the documentary itself is a piece of art as much as the painting that Jenison creates within it. We are watching paintings, and the process of painting, through the medium of film. There is an interesting collision of time as Jenison creates the 17th century technology – pigments, lenses – while we watch him in HD on a high-tech projector screen via 21st century technology.
The bigger question is this: if we use technology to help us create art, to make the process easier, does the finished product still count as art? As David Hockney says in a guest appearance, an artist’s choice to snub technology or to attach less value to Vermeer’s art because he may have used technology is just childishness. The film is quite convincing in suggesting that Vermeer used a similar set-up to the one built by Jenison, but it is difficult to know whether this matters. As Jenison says, “I am not a painter. I’m trying to show the power of the concept.” And the results prove how powerful a concept it is.
Tim’s Vermeer is released in select cinemas on 17th January 2014.
Watch the trailer for Tim’s Vermeer here: