Tim Jenison is a talented architect, an accomplished musician, a pioneer in computer effects industry and something of a prolific inventor. This documentary follows Jenison’s goal to recreate The Music Lesson by legendary Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer. The only problem is that Tim is not a painter.
Tim’s Vermeer is directed by Teller, one half of the famous double-act, Penn & Teller, the duo also serves as writers, with Penn producing and providing narration. Tim Jenison is an old acquaintance of the magicians and they have both been in awe of Jenison’s unique ability to marvel at any skill he lays his hands on. Though technology is at his heart, Tim has long been fascinated by the works of Vermeer, he is fascinated by the “filmic quality” of Vermeer’s paintings, this unique quality distances Vermeer from others Renaissance artists. The great works of Vermeer have an uncanny glow to them, akin to a photograph rather than a painting, the colours too realistic and the attention-to-detail at a near-impossible level. Jenison believes that Vermeer was aided by optic tools in order to achieve such perfection in his paintings and so his investigation begins.
After doing some initial research about optic tools of the era, Tim begins to paint aided with a curved mirror. He uses a photograph of his father as an early template and successfully replicates the photograph. After working out the correct colours, he only has to follow what he sees in front of him, not quite tracing the image but rather filling in the spaces. The finished painting looks flawless, looking like an exact reproduction.
Feeling happy with his results, Tim decides to pay a flying visit to legendary English artist David Hockney. Hockney himself had previously published a book that argued Renaissance-era painters were aided by optical aids and other technology. Both Hockney and Jenison marvel at Vermeer’s technical skill as well as his tremendous artistic ability, they agree that science and art don’t have to be mutually exclusive, they can work together to produce something extraordinary. Tim’s Vermeer does not set out to destroy the romanticised portrait of the master painters, if anything it applauds the Renaissance painters as pioneers ahead of their time.
Now reassured in his actions, Tim begins work on his very own copy of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. As an absolute perfectionist, Tim wants to paint exactly as Vermeer would have done and every detail from The Music Lesson is slowly replicated in his warehouse studio. We are treated to a fantastic montage that shows Tim’s exhaustive efforts in sourcing every object from the picture, the montage is truly incredible, reminiscent of something straight out of a Hollywood film. Tim’s extraordinary, almost super-human efforts are proof that this is no vanity project, Tim has had a love affair with Vermeer for most of his life and wishes to honour the great master as best as he possibly can.
Arguably the best part of Tim’ Vermeer is seeing Tim becoming more and more attached to his painting, behind the tears and the frustration is someone who understands the importance of art, how it can improve our life and of the unexplainable way it makes us feel. For me, Tim’s emotional journey was as important as the progress of the painting.
Though I believe Tim’s Vermeer is an excellent documentary for both art connoisseurs and everyday cinemagoers, I do feel that the film has a certain agenda behind it, mostly due to the inclusion of Penn & Teller. It’s a commonly known fact that Penn & Teller are sceptics: the pair have spoken out against a variety of subjects such as pseudo-science, faith-healers, psychics, Feng Shui, capital punishment and several other controversial subjects. At times Tim’s Vermeer feels like an attack on the concept of artistic genius. A few scenes are dedicated to debunking that Vermeer was not an artistic savant and they make it clear that the great artist had no profound physical abilities, a noble conclusion but it feels like the filmmakers are trying to take the “magic” out of his paintings. Tim’s finished painting is presented more as a finished experiment than a brilliant painting. It’s true that Tim did not paint unaided but the brushstrokes and focus didn’t come out of nowhere.
Tim’s Vermeer is a wonderful film but it has drawn some inevitable backlash from members of the art community for understandable reasons, but in my opinion, the film should be seen as a form of entertainment rather than a serious document. The claim that anyone can paint like Vermeer aided with tools may be a bit much for some, but you can still take some joy from watching a near-impossible project that took years to finish unfold before your very eyes. If you take the film at face value then you won’t regret it, Tim’s Vermeer is packed full of heart, warmth and humour, it can be moving at times and perhaps it may even teach you a thing or two. It may not be the most cinematic documentary ever but it’s an honest film and has its heart in the right place. Whatever you think of the finished product, the journey getting there was the best part.