The year 2014 has given us several movies that are meditations on painters and painting. Penn and Teller’s Tim’s Vermeer, Fred Schepisi’s Words and Pictures, Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, Sam Cullman’s Art and Craft, and Tim Burton’ Big Eyes all explore how paintings are crafted and what they express. Tim’s Vermeer, Art and Craft, and Big Eyes, in particular, raise serious issues about authenticity, about the thin line that divides an original art work from a copy of that work.
I begin with Tim’s Vermeer, surely the most fascinating and thought-provoking of the bunch.
It was written and directed by Penn and Teller and chronicles the obsessive attempts by wealthy industrialist and Vermeer enthusiast Tim Jenison to render an exact copy of Vermeer’s classic painting, “The Music Lesson” (1662-1665).
Hop into your time machine and flash back to Paris in the mid-1850s. Should you find yourself in the crowded corridors of the Louvre, you’ll find dozens of young student painters with easels propped up before the works of the Masters. They are copying the paintings down to the smallest detail, painstakingly duplicating the composition and color down to every nuance of brush stroke. Perhaps, the reasoning goes, these students will not only successfully emulate the painterly achievement of the great artists, but in the process will be well on the road to an empathy and creativity all their own.
Now back in the present, meet the subject of Penn and Teller’s documentary film, Tim’s Vermeer. Tim Jenison is a wealthy Texas inventor, graphics designer, and entrepreneur of the revolutionary New Tek company. He’s not standing in the central nave of the Louvre but in the bleak confines of a San Antonio warehouse. Before him is “The Artist’s Studio,” a painting by the 17th century Dutch master, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Like his 19th-century forebears, Tim is also attempting to make a copy. Unlike his brethren, however, he admits he is not a painter and lacks knowledge and experience of brush and pigment. “At night when I’m in bed,” he confesses, “all I can think about is this goal of painting a Vermeer. It will be remarkable if I can do it!”
Tim is a tinkerer and a problem solver. His fascination with Vermeer’s 1665 masterpiece owes little to the surpassing sublimity of Vermeer’s vision of a woman, her back to us, seated at the virginal (harpsichord), attended by a gentleman positioned at her right hand. He is more drawn (as it were) to its seemingly photographic detail and subtlety of light—qualities, he surmises, that can only have been achieved by somehow transferring to canvas the images captured by a camera. Now, we know little of the life and methods of the notoriously reclusive 17th century Dutch painter, who left behind no written records or student followers, but we can be sure he had no camera, analogic or digital. The daguerreotype technology is still two centuries away. But another camera was probably available to him and his contemporaries, a camera obscura (a device visualized in the motion picture Girl with a Pearl Earring). Tim is aware of recent speculations by the historian Philip Steadman and painter David Hockney to the effect that Vermeer did indeed, like his contemporaries, utilize optical devices, like lenses and mirrors in transferring images to canvas. Perhaps, Jenison wonders, Vermeer thought of himself and his technological apparatus as a kind of painterly machine. . . not unlike Tim himself.
Armed with wealth, mechanical ingenuity, incredible patience, and a lot of time on his hands, Tim Jenison embarks on a five-year project to prove that God-given artistic talent is not necessary to achieve what Vermeer did. Just deploy the same combination of lenses, mirrors and other 17th-century tools and you can make your own Vermeer—note the emphasis on building rather than painting—in a kind of super “paint-by-number” process that his friends, master magicians Penn and Teller, have documented in their film. Note that I emphasize the word “make.” When Tim proudly shows off the finished product now hanging on the wall of his bedroom, he radiates the pride of an engineer not a painter. We are understandably quick to note that what is on display, no matter how accurately rendered, is not a Vermeer. Or is it? We know the original is hanging in Buckingham Palace, safe from prying eyes; yet darned if it doesn’t appears to be the real thing, down to the smallest detail. Even the closest examination reveals the only differences are that the pigments are freshly applied, the surface is free of the cracks of age, and the signature is not Vermeer’s.
Yet... and yet, it achieves a strange empathy, if that’s the proper word, with Vermeer and his world. This point must be emphasized: Tim has not merely copied the painting, like the common practice of students and forgers alike, then and now. Rather, he has instead reconstructed the physical realities behind the painting, taken an inventory of the world that Vermeer had seen before him, and then rendered the experience on canvas. Like Vermeer, Tim paints directly from the three-dimensional setting, much as Vermeer himself had painted his subject. He has not copied Vermeer’s painting so much as he has channeled the experience of Vermeer himself while making the painting.
This is the real miracle of Tim’s achievement. By means of a three-dimensional computerized analysis of the dimensions of the setting of Vermeer’s own studio, Tim builds his own life-sized replica of Vermeer’s room. First he purchases an abandoned warehouse in San Antonio with the proper angle to the sun. He digitally analyzes and measures out the interior of the painting, realizes it as a three-dimensional setting, and populates it with the corresponding complement of furniture, objects, and figures. In his zeal for “authenticity,” he obtains the pertinent materials contemporary to Vermeer’s time, the wood, draperies, a harpsichord, floor tiles, a stained-glass window, etc. He calculates the exact match of the painting’s color palette to each object and fabric. And in a concession to family values, recruits his daughter to “stand in” for the woman at the harpsichord.
Then he turns to the process of the actual painting. He grinds his own pigments from scratch, just as Vermeer had done. He stretches his own canvas, made out of the same raw materials available to Vermeer. And—in what is the final master stroke—he sits down to a device he has fashioned that extends the theories of Hockney and Steadman. By the simple addition of a hand mirror held at an angle from the set, he is able to achieve an exact match on the canvas of its color and detail. Hour by hour, day by day, week and month for almost half a year, Tim labors away, surrendering to the tedium of working on each square inch of the canvas at a time, rendering with exactitude the reality before him, the very stitching of the draping, the intricate traceries of the harpsichord’s decorative embellishments, every pock mark on a jug. In this way he works inductively, from the inside out, from the specific detail to the general effect. No painter could have, or would have, worked that way. No matter. As I said, Tim is not a painter.
Tim’s obsessive quest takes a personal toll. We can enjoy at a safe distance the labors and frustrations of the day-to-day process (“Another day, more dots!”), his on-the-spot education in using a lathe and grinding the lenses and pigments, his visits to the obliging Hockney and Steadman, his lobbying in London of a very reluctant Queen Elizabeth for a private viewing of the original painting. At one point, after weeks and months of relentless labor, an exhausted Jenison addresses the camera and admits,” If this weren’t a movie, I’d probably quit!” Say what you will about Jenison’s lack of painterly skills, his eye-hand coordination is extraordinary. No matter how much the technology of optics and carpentry comes to his aid, he has deliberately avoided simply taking a picture of his re-created set; and instead he has gone back to the tedium of pigment and brush and application. Technology simply provides the tools. The actual application is left to the eye and hand.
It’s a remarkable achievement on all counts. And Tim’s Vermeer is no less a remarkable and endlessly fascinating chronicle of the process. I should add that the viewing experience is not for the faint of heart: One must apply lots of patience to fully savor Tim’s journey.
That Penn and Teller are documenting it all is entirely appropriate. We have observed the peculiarly deconstructive genius of their career, i.e., their simultaneous disclosure of the machinery behind their illusions and the mysteries that survive those illusions. They juggle in full view their secrets and revelations, challenging and confounding us at the same time. And now with characteristic irony and empathy—and the able assist of composer Conrad Pope’s obsessively repetitive soundtrack score—they preside over Tim’s project.
Tilt your imagination a bit. Tim’s simulacrum of three-and-two-dimensional worlds becomes a reality in itself, a ghost in the machine, a state of being in which Tim can join Vermeer in a stroll through 17th-century Delft. I expect to see Vermeer himself—is he the figure standing to the right of the harpsichord?—turning around to regarding us with a speculative glance—an invitation—of his own.
Perhaps he is sizing us up as his next subject.