Tim Jenison of San Antonio, Texas, would probably have made an interesting subject for a documentary even if he had never undertaken the project at the heart of Tim’s Vermeer. A tinkerer from an early age, he founded NewTek Inc., a hardware and software company whose various products have won him wealth, awards and (most of all) the leisure to pursue a wild hair like this one. Jenison mentioned his Vermeer project to his longtime friend Penn Jillette, of the comedy-magic duo Penn & Teller, and the two magicians decided that even if the project failed, there was a movie in it. The result is Tim’s Vermeer, narrated by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller.
Jillette and Teller’s movie focuses on Jenison’s obsession with the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, who died at 43 in 1675, and whose reputation went into eclipse for more than 200 years. Never prolific (only 34 pictures are widely attributed to him, with some estimates going as high as 60), Vermeer is today revered as one of the greatest of the Dutch masters, renowned for the almost photographic realism of his painting—“painting with light,” some have called it.
Jenison dismissed that term out of hand. “You can’t paint with light,” he says in the movie, “you have to paint with paint.” But the question remains: How did Vermeer do it?
“As a video guy,” says Jenison of Vermeer’s work, “I’m looking at this image, and I see a video image; I see something that looks like it came out of a video camera.”
It was British artist David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge that first inspired Jenison. Hockney’s book suggested, controversially, that the great artists of the Renaissance (and after) may have used more than their eyes and imaginations to produce their great paintings: They may have exploited the technology of their day—early experiments in optics, lenses, the camera obscura, etc.—to develop trade secrets that they then took to their graves.
This set Jenison to thinking: What if Vermeer, who left no record of any real artistic training, did something like that? Another book, Vermeer’s Camera by Philip Steadman, reinforced the idea.
So Jenison, who himself had no training at all as a painter, set out to see if he could duplicate one of Vermeer’s paintings using only technology and materials that would have been available to Vermeer himself. The one he chose was “The Music Lesson” because of its complexity and multitude of elements. It would mean duplicating exactly the room in which Vermeer painted and everything in it, then using the doohickeys Jenison developed that Vermeer might also have used (or something like them) to paint “The Music Lesson” in the first place.
That’s probably as much as I should tell you about the “plot” of Tim’s Vermeer, since much of the fun of this brief documentary lies in going with Jenison through all the nuts and bolts—and setbacks and hurdles—of his project.
The movie is entertaining on that level, but on another level it’s even more stimulating, because it explores the intersection between technology and the artistic temperament.
“There’s this modern idea,” Jenison says, “that art and technology must never meet.” A modern attitude, Jenison suggests, that artists 300 or 400 years ago didn’t necessarily share.
It’s a kind of modern arrogance that sometimes makes us think, however unconsciously, that because they didn’t have electronics in the past, they didn’t have technology—or that because they didn’t have light-sensitive film emulsions, they didn’t have a grasp of certain basic photographic principles. Watching Tim’s Vermeer, I remembered something a theater instructor of mine once said: “You cannot separate technique from artistry.” Substitute “technology” for “technique” and any other art for acting, and you have the crux of Tim Jenison’s experiment, and of Jillette and Teller’s movie about it.
In the end, does a hypothetical reliance on technology that would have been state-of-the-art (ironic term!) in the 1600s make Vermeer more or less of a genius? Jillette, in his commentary, answers that question, and his and Teller’s modest, intriguing documentary makes a persuasive argument that he’s right.