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Review: Curiosity turns to obsession in art doc ‘Tim’s Vermeer’

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Tim's Vermeer

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Never has a film made me feel so lazy and uninspired as the documentary Tim’s Vermeer. The thought, effort, money, and most significantly, time, put into one man’s “side project,” as chronicled in this documentary, is truly astounding, yet so is his end result. So was it worth it?

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Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch master painter from the 17th century, famous for the detailed and realistic use of light in his work. Tim Jenison is an American inventor and technological innovator. In the 1980’s, he founded a computer company that specializes in post-production video tools and visual imaging software. He has no real painting experience.

So why did this man – again, with no real painting experience – set out to painstakingly re-create one of Vermeer’s most celebrated works? And more importantly, how did he do it? Entertainers/illusionists Penn and Teller set out to answer these questions in Tim’s Vermeer, a film produced/narrated (Penn, the boisterous one) and directed (Teller, the quiet one) by the duo.

Art historians have long been puzzled by Vermeer’s photo-realistic work. How did he accomplish such precise coloring and detailing 150 years before the development of photography? Some, including artist David Hockney and academic Philip Steadman (who both appear in the film), suggest he used a device akin to a camera obscura (an optical device used to project images) to create his paintings. Seems plausible, but since no evidence exists, it is only speculation. On top of that, was it even possible for the time?

Jenison took this idea and really ran with it. He did not want to just assume that is how Vermeer painted, he wanted to prove that is how Vermeer did it. With more determination and time than one could possibly imagine, Jenison embarked on a five-year project to prove this theory by recreating one of Vermeer’s most notable paintings, The Music Lesson.

On his blog, which he updated throughout the process, Jenison says, “Can I just say for the record: This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. This better f***ing work.” The project included creating oil-based paints and glass lenses with only materials available in the 17th century, building a life-size set identical to the one in Vermeer’s painting (which took 213 days alone), and finally, painstakingly recreating every inch of the painting down to the last thread count detail (130 days of tedious work) – plus, if you are to believe the narrator, Jenison also learned Dutch. In total, Tim Jenison’s project, which clearly began to wear on him towards the end, lasted 1,825 days from genesis to completion. So was it worth it?

The results of the project are unquestionably fascinating, but the questions it poses are even more thought-provoking. If a man – armed with no painting experience, but a ton of resolve – can duplicate a master, what does that mean for the master? Does it in anyway diminish the original’s importance or impact? Could this artistic method be considered cheating?

The film does not resolutely answer these questions, but rather dismisses them with an emphatic “why should it?” They contend that, during that time period, the line between inventor and painter was nearly non-existent. Any painter who could develop a technique to improve upon his craft would, of course, take advantage of it. And furthermore, it should actually enhance Vermeer’s reputation as not only a painter, but also an inventor and innovator.

As for Jenison, as seen earlier in the film, he travels to London in hopes of seeing the original Vermeer he is attempting to re-create, which is in the Queen of England’s private collection. He does manage to see it under strict supervision and for only an extremely limited time period. Later, when he finally finishes his own “Vermeer,” he hangs it over the fireplace in his bedroom – where he can look at it every day for as long as he wants. And after seeing this film, no one can question his ability, knowledge, ingenuity, drive, and desire after completing a project of this magnitude

* * * out of 5 stars

Sponsored by the New Orleans Film Society, Tim’s Vermeer screens Wednesday, March 12 at The Theatres at Canal Place at 7:30 p.m. Admission: NOFS members: $10.50 / General: $12.50

Tim’s Vermeer then opens for a limited theatrical run at The Theatres at Canal Place starting Friday, March 14 with several showtimes daily.

For more information on the film, theatre, or showtimes, please visit The Theatres at Canal Place website.

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