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Why Tim’s Vermeer Fails to Illuminate the Work of the Dutch Master

Rating

C

Location

Magnolia Theater 3699 McKinney Ave., Ste. 100 Dallas, TX 75204

Dates

Opens Feb 28

The big problem with Tim’s Vermeer, Vegas show duo Penn and Teller’s new art documentary, is that neither the filmmakers nor its subject seem to know a lick about art. The new film tells the story of Tim Jenison, a billionaire inventor who made his fortune developing video software and who becomes obsessed with figuring out how the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer painted such intricate and life-like images. After reading a couple of books, Tim got turned onto the idea that, perhaps, Vermeer and other renaissance artists used the camera obscura – basically lenses fitted into black boxes – to project images of their studio onto a wall where they could simply copy the pictures with paint. In Tim’s mind, this method makes Vermeer something less of an artistic genius, and more like, well, Tim – an inventor. Penn, who is friends with Tim and narrates the film that is directed by his stage partner, is giddy at such a prospect and takes it a step further. Perhaps Vermeer wasn’t really an artist. Maybe he was more of a machine, or (ahem) a magician, merely employing painterly sleight-of-hand.

These assertions are, of course, ridiculous, and they are proven ridiculous by the film’s own climax. After years of toiling away at making his own Vermeer, a replication of The Music Lesson (1662-65) – a project which includes the disconcertingly obsessive Tim learning carpentry and spending bags of cash to rebuild a replica Vermeer’s studio near his home in San Antonio – Tim finally paints his Vermeer. He uses an ingenious contraption consisting of just a lens and a mirror to turn the scene he built into a kind of paint-by-numbers follow-along. And that’s what Tim gets, a paint-by-numbers Vermeer, incredibly impressive for someone who doesn’t know how to paint, but nonetheless flaccid and unmistakably a copy. He hangs above his mantle and proudly crosses his arms like a fisherman displaying his catch, looking very much the fool.

Tim looks foolish because just one glance at his painting is evidence that he has failed. He may have accurately rendered the setting, the light, the knots in the rug, and all the other intricate details, but his piece doesn’t possess the ineffable qualities of the original – the touch, a sensitivity. The other foolish aspect of his quest is that it ignores an incredibly obvious aspect of image making. The ability to accurately represent reality is only one aspect of the artist’s craft. Even if the lens enabled the artist’s distinctive use of light, the real life of the painting comes from the way that light is incorporated into the mise-en-scène, the choices made in how to orchestrate the setting itself: the color of the dress; the arrangement of the furniture; the age, gender, and look of the characters; the quieted mood of the room; the drama, tension and emotional life it creates. In short, Tim’s project mistakes the craft of rendering the image – rather than the conceiving of the image — as Vermeer’s art.

That’s a shame, because from an art historical perspective, Tim’s project does offer an intriguing look into the artistic process of 17th century painting. The problem is that in their giddy eagerness to somehow dismantle the notion of artistic “genius,” Penn, Teller, and Tim ask the wrong questions. The filmmakers are trying to prove that Vermeer was a machine, a kind of proto-camera – the artist-as-sensitive film that exposes and develops verite reality. But what’s really interesting about the technique is what it implies about how Vermeer understood or considered the work he was trying to make, the kind of reality he was trying to represent. In other words, if Vermeer used this technique, it wouldn’t change his status as an artist, but rather it would inform just what kind of artist he was.

Assuming Vermeer used Tim’s technique (and there’s solid circumstantial evidence to believe he did) that would make Vermeer a certain kind of proto-photographer. He was also something like a proto-film director, creating a dramatic scene and orchestrating its affects. But he was also still a painter of remarkable ability. The difference between Vermeer’s technique and a photograph is that it leaves the process of painting open to the effects of time and human imperfection and variation, however slight. In the process of employing his lens, Vermeer may have helped to discover a new reality, the reality we most closely associate with the photographic image, and also reality as it appears in the mirror, only rendered permanent with paint. And yet, what appears on Vermeer’s canvases is somehow more than a simple reflection precisely because of the way paint — and the brush, the hand, the mind, the personality — transposes that reflection.

Perhaps tellingly, we are never shown Vermeer’s actual painting, only the reproduction Tim works off of. What Tim is actually doing, then, is making a copy of a scene that is based on the copy of a painting, which he believes is itself a copy of an original scene. These generational removes made me think of contemporary artists like Bill Viola and Eve Sussman, whose artistic practice is bound up in exploring these interrelations between image and material, technology and representation, drawing on the Old Masters to make video and photography that investigates the way artistic mediums affect visual aesthetics. There is a similar game going on in Tim’s effort at making a Vermeer, only inadvertently so. Tim’s use of Vermeer’s presumed technology results in an image whose inferior quality demonstrates that there is more to Vermeer, both as an artist and a painter, than lenses and mirrors.

Sadly, these finer points have no interest to Penn and Teller, who seem more concerned with playing a game of historical gotcha. They hold up Tim as a kind of artistic hero, of sorts, getting hung up on notions of “genius,” misidentifying the accuracy of representation as the defining quality of Vermeer’s art, and then framing Tim’s long-suffering attempts to use technology to recreate that art within the milieu of the romantic cliché of the artist as suffering servant. But art isn’t craft, nor is it computer science or Vegas stage magic. And the questions Penn and Teller think they are debunking — that somehow if Vermeer was copying reality he is less an artist, or that an inventor who can discover the technique is just as much an artist — don’t bare much relation to Vermeer’s status as an artist.

It’s no surprise that what’s most interesting about Tim’s Vermeer is Tim himself, this peculiar, affable, obsessive, prickly, stubborn genius who seems to be driven by some un-addressed need to assert his technological acumen and claim something from art. As for Vermeer, his particular vision may have relied on a visual quality he achieved through lenses and mirrors, perhaps discovering his own almost-photographic way of rendering the world. But the real value of Vermeer’s art is not the technology or the accuracy of his images, but rather it is the way those images reflect their reliance on the human tool – which, like Tim, remains an enigmatic, mysterious, and beguiling instrument.

27 comments on “Why Tim’s Vermeer Fails to Illuminate the Work of the Dutch Master

  1. “And the questions Penn and Teller think they are debunking — that somehow if Vermeer was copying reality he is less an artist, or that an inventor who can discover the technique is just as much an artist — don’t bare much relation to Vermeer’s status as an artist.”

    I think this is an important notion because of the stigma associated with using technology to aid one’s art. In fact I would say that this fundamental point of the movie makes the content of the piece all the more important. If craft becomes a level playing field, then the CONTENT itself becomes the best metric for evaluating the art. I’m not saying that Tim’s/Vermeer’s method eliminates craft, it just lowers the barrier of entry into realistic painting. This should then allow people to focus more on what they paint instead of how realistic it looks– which is what you seem to desire based on what I read in this article, right?

  2. I disagree with both the tone and the substance of this review. I don’t think the makers were trying to diminish Vermeer as an artist. They were attacking the 19th century Romantic conception of the artist as some sort of different, higher, more spiritual human. They took the view — prevalent in Vermeer’s age — of the artist as craftsman, and they were testing whether Vermeer, the craftsman, may have found new technological tools to enhance his craft.

    Saying that, “perhaps tellingly, we are never shown Vermeer’s actual painting,” is a cheap shot. It is pretty clear in the film that they were not allowed to film, or even photograph, the original — it’s in the Buckingham Palace collection. After much effort, Tim was allowed in, alone, to see it briefly, but not to photograph or film it.

  3. This is a curiously violent article which determines the “foolishness” or obsessiveness of an individual whilst simultaneously making little to no reference to the basic techniques Vermeer used. To be perfectly clear: the author clearly isn’t someone who is qualified to discuss art technique when the article rests on ad hominem attacks and a complete evasion if what absolutely any good artist knows, namely that what Vermeer did isn’t difficult at all. There are dozens of art courses available which will teach the absolutebeginner to paint pretty astonishing artwork with nothing more than a colour isolation device, proper lighting apparatus, and many hours of practise. It is also wholly absurd to say that Jenison is wrong in declaring his technique perfect; Jension’s copy is “incorrect” ONLY insofar as he (a beginner) knew very little about blending and how to hold a brush. With just an hour or two of going over his copy, I could EASILY lead a qualified “expert” (that awfully abused term) to think Jenison’s version was painted by Vermeer or a student of Vermeer’s. How can I say that? Because I’ve already done precisely that myself. Faking a Rembrandt or a Vermeer isn’t difficult in the slightest, so to suggest Vermeer is some unique genius with an unrepeatable skill is an outright and categorical lie.

    What this boils down to is an arriviste American snobbery which wishes to preserve the exclusionist notion that some artists have a divine ability that others don’t. This is nonsense. All it takes is time and that one quality the author calls “genius” in Vermeer but “obsessive” in Jenison: hard graft.

    So I’d give the author some advice, just as he advises and condescends in Jenison’s direction: learn how to paint, pick up a brush, get a mirror, buy any old oil paint set, and learn how to bump two values of the same colour. After a few years you’ll see that the difference between a “genius” Vermeer and a flat painting by a beginner actually rests on one thing: *a few years*. In other words, obsessiveness and hard work.

    Frankly, Bouguereau was a far greater painter. Vermeer just happened to get there earlier. There’s nothing particularly unique about Vermeer apart from the laughable pseudo-elitist attitude of his fans.

    Jenison is absolutely correct; there is no divine secret- the techniques can all be replicated and enjoyed by anyone with the desire to learn.

  4. I absolutely agree with you. The article is clearly written by a pseud who knows little about art history beyond chucking around Gombrich-esque patter such as “mis-en-scene” !

    Best regards from one David to another :)

  5. This review is terrible, the concept of stumbling on such an incredible lost technique is amazing. I’m sure such a technique was worth quite a lot of money back then, so it would certainly be kept more a secret than other painting techniques, like a patent would today

    if the technique would have been shared, or figured out by contemporaries, it would be taught to any serious art student, it could have impacted art history as a whole, instead it simply highlighted a genius painter who employed it masterfully

    the film never once sets out to tear down Vermeer, it makes it abundantly clear it’s simply investigating the technique. the article doesn’t take a single chance at describing the technique or the impact it could have had on the idea of painting, instead it describes a goal which the film didn’t achieve because it didn’t attempt it

  6. I find it fascinating to see idiot like you debunk the work of tim jenison with such arrogance.

    Here are my point.

    Jenison is not vermeer so obviously….the painting isnt..

    You say that you can easily see with one glance thatHe may have accurately rendered the setting, the light, the knots in the rug, and all the other intricate details, but his piece doesn’t possess the ineffable qualities of the original – the touch, a sensitivity….

    Have you actually see the painting in person….?? Have you actually examine it seriousky….i doubt youve actually seen either the real or the fake….

    Care to explain what the touch or sensitivity might be? A magic sprinke,??? If you duplicate data…you duplicate data…there isnt a paranormal data getting in….this is in your head…

    Now jenison never claim to be a painter..he prooved that a great painter had more then brushes and paint…

    Why dont you fucking step down your cloud shoveling arrogant artist pedestal…explain yourself with more rational argument…cause right here you are the joke…the fool…

    Your the one sounding like you take offense, thinking its impossible to have simple technical mean and produce something amazing…

    Guess what your debunk a non painter guy did it with a mirr…lol
    Vermeer didnt close his eyes look at the sky and poo some painting….he look at a room and paited it….get over it.
    If you want true visionary talent look at some dali, that i would agree jenison could never do,

  7. I agree that the author has a very condescending tone from the very beginning to the end of the article. The movie made it very clear that they weren’t trying to show that Vermeer was less of an artist for using this equipment, exactly the opposite. They discussed how art and technology have always been intertwined. This author was unnecessarily harsh.

    Also, watch the film if you haven’t already. It is amazing.

  8. Thanks you for this essential perspective, Peter. This seemed to be as much a film about Penn Jillette (why his adenoidal voice over, if not to underscore his “stick it to the man” values?) as it is about the Iowa savant. Deeply sad, this nerdly adolescent techno-triumphalism. I’ll continue to be awed by the brilliance of the original work and the great mind that made it, rather than the smaller man’s need to reveal its secrets—as though that tells us anything worth knowing.

  9. Could we please separate the ad hominem attacks out from an intelligent discussion about this topic? I love Vermeer’s work, and I have no issue with someone (who shares that love) highlighting that the former eras of painting were littered with people who saw art, invention, technology, and the all around illumination of the human intellect as one great gift. A large impression I took away from the documentary what that point – they are (like science and spirituality trying to explain truth) more similar than we care to explore, more often than not, in today’s society.

    The derision seems focused on Penn and Teller. OK, so focus it there. I have no issue with any discussion and thought on their intent or the work Tim did. But, Jenison puts forth ideas (physical ability to capture color gradient – human eye vs. a mirror or device, lens errors showing in a painting that cannot be produced from personal observation, etc.) that are near-impossible to account for without supposing that there were lens and mirror techniques used. Where’s the evaluation of those points? A positive outlook on this would find this an interesting backdrop to this work to explore – not an attack or detraction. The response? Attack and detract, hang-ups on the terminology, side-points, TV-screen level artistic evaluation… People see what they want to see, and part of that is the point of this documentary (views rarely lies in realism, and Vermeer somehow was able to capture it). And others have highlighted the subjective nature of art and the perception of its worth.

    So, does anyone gain anything from tearing someone else down to defend a strongly held belief? It is strange that we seem to know so much about a painter who is documented to not have much of a written trail, any evidence of usual technique, nothing… On what basis has anyone stood to defend a position in response to the actual facts derived from this evaluation Mr. Jenison did? I am talking about proven, evaluated, peer-reviewed stances of evaluation. Tim went further, including technically skilled people in their areas of expertise, than any others I’ve seen who have responded to diminish his work. Who before Vermeer did what he did to the degree he did it? Does it lessen his brilliance if we know his techniques? He did it – no one else.

    There is worth in understanding something new about our world. This is someone else’s attempt to learn more, and many see it as that (and nothing more). I have seen neither painting in person, so I will not comment how alike or not the two may (or may not) be. What we could see looked astounding, and it detracts nothing from either Mr. Jenison or Mr. Vermeer. And Vermeer still, as noted, had to have the artistic ability and eye to set these arrangements and create. If it shakes the foundations of a perceived notion of ability or skill then perhaps it is time we start discovering more things that challenge our concept of human ability. It is bizarre that someone known for realism and painting what is there (and not what is perceived or interpreted), in Vermeer, would be involved in such a subjective attack of a fan’s desires to learn about this work.

  10. I am always amused when liberal arts majors decry something such as this as “failed”. When I was in college, liberal arts majors decried those in the sciences as in need of more liberal arts classes. All the while, they failed to understand that the liberal arts are the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), followed by the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). Had liberal arts majors, such as those that look down on efforts such as Tim Jenison’s, bothered to take as many classes as closely aligned with the actual seven liberal arts, they might see the insight it provides.

    Artists from the Renaissance through the Golden Age were trained in the classical seven liberal arts. Brunelleschi used a mirror as a comparitor to demonstrate linear perspective of the baptistry in Florence. I rather doubt Brunelleschi painted the baptistry all in one go before checking his work with the mirror, or that he didn’t play with the method on other things – sketches, for instance – before unveiling his “grand illusion” to the public.

    Brunelleschi’s demonstration was well known; that Vermeer would take it a step further in an age filled with refined optical instruments is therefore hardly surprising.

    I find it especially interesting that not only is this method of its time, but also that the “Girl in the Red Hat” predates Newton’s unveiling of his reflecting telescope by a seven years. Just as Galileo is known to have made significant advances on Dutch spyglasses in producing his improvements in the form of his telescope, could Newton have had some knowledge of Vermeer’s methods, and improved upon them?

    Even if not, independent invention of the same or strikingly similar devices is hardly unheard of; and at the end of the day, Tim’s device, which explains so much, is an arrangement strikingly similar to a reflecting telescope without the tube.

    From experience, today’s liberal arts students don’t get enough history of science and technology in their college diet. As a result, they myopically cannot put themselves fully in the picture of the zeitgeist, or they’d see that it is possible that the Dutch weren’t as haughty as the author of this article and those that agree with him, and simply appreciated well-executed, realistic artwork. That the method wasn’t mentioned? A device such as this and its employment were hardly noteworthy in an age full of optics innovation, which were mere tools, standing in the shadow of great works and discoveries.

  11. agree. This guy clearly did not listen to a word that was said by any of the participants. Not a one.

  12. What a shock, art snobs who refuse to look at things objectively. LMAO No one said it was debunking anything only that there may be an explanation of how someone could be so accurate when the eye can not even detect the differences in shades. You art snobs are like wine snobs who would drink battery acid and call it wonderful if you thought it came from some prestigious winery. Idiots like you dismiss before even looking. You have made up your mind and you forget that one this is the first attempt at a copy of a master and by an untrained non artist. If nothing else it shows that this could very well have been used as a technique of the master painter. Second you forget that paintings that are not near as good as Tim’s have been passed off as real to idiots like you in the past but you dismiss this one because it does not fit your magical idea of some super man who can paint with Zen mystical mind powers. You have built up a god in your mind and anyone who points out anything that makes them less god like you attack like a Muslim who just heard someone say Mohammad did not ascend from the rock. Your pointless blog would have been written by idiots like you before Tim even made his attempt. You are short on fact and long on dogma.

  13. If you came away from that movie thinking that they had “debunked” anything.. you totally missed the point of the entire film. The point of the film was to show that optics played a part in these photorealistic paintings.. and they did.
    What sealed the deal for me that they not only discovered the way Vermeer “might” have painted his works but that they discovered the exact method that he actually DID paint those works.. were the sea horse smile.. only one of several optically warped “errors” in Vermeers original.
    Now that aside.. it does not detract a bit from Vermeer’s genius.. but it does go a great way to explain a few things about Vermeers life. Not the least of them that he was.. like it or not.. a member of a family of forgers.
    This device was likely originally developed for that nefarious purpose. That said, Vermeer did learn to paint and set expressive scenes that could best make use of his new photorealistic method. That.. is the art of his paintings.
    I quite enjoyed “Tim’s Vermeer” and am in the process of building my own Vermeer device… something the author of this article failed to do. What he also failed to do is to examine Tim’s copy in person.. though he makes it sound as though he did. Several features in Tim’s work are BETTER than the original.. some not so much.. because as Tim himself said.. he’s not a painter.
    The device consists of a lens and 2 mirrors. The objective lens is scarcely different than that found in any table top lighted magnifying mirror.. you can find them by the dozens at thrift shops. The back reflector is a shaving mirror.. 4-7X.. the larger diameter the better. Finally a flat mirror with a decent edge.. not too thick.. and you can set up your own experiment with it.
    Until people actually do this VERY cheap experiment, I think it’s safe to say that they don’t understand Vermeer’s advantage.. basically being the first person to discover the reflecting telescope.. and they don’t understand how this crafted his art.
    Tim wasn’t trying to.. and didn’t.. detract at all from Vermeer’s genius.. he simply altered it.. correcting it.. bringing it into focus for us all.

  14. Tim’s adventure in creating a replica of the Vemeer painting was a pursuit in passion and admiration for Vermeer. The film was a masterpiece of self exploration, patience, and curiosity. I commend Tim with the utmost respect and admiration for his 5 year commitment to his dream. The film was inspirational.

  15. What an idiot this reviewer is. He completely missed the point of the film. They were trying to figure out what techniques Vermeer used, not define his value as an artist. It was an interesting exploration into how an innovator like Vermeer might have worked, not an attempt to downplay his work. If Tim is correct, you have to admire Vermeer even more for his inventiveness and problem solving skills. The technique was only a tool to aid Vermeer’s creativity and skill, nothing more. At no point did they try to detract from Vermeer legacy, if anything they added to it. I kept thinking the review would point out how Vermeer couldn’t have worked like that in the era, but nope. The review was way off.

  16. The idea that Vermeer had the same lighting through his window every day for years in Holland is laughable on its face. Tim’s theory rests on the idea that Vermeer reproduced images “pixel by pixel” through artificial means, without artistic license. This is a talented engineer trying to interpret how a talented artist worked and failing in a spectacular way. Now I’d like to see a painter to explain computer science in a documentary. It would have the same merit.

  17. I couldn’t agree more with David. This review is oddly malicious in its tone. I’m not sure what Tim’s net worth (which the author identified, not Tim) has to do with his exploration of how Vermeer achieved his brilliant works. It’s clear that the editor, unlike Tim, has failed to achieve an objective perspective on Tim’s work.

    This is a poor editorial written by an emotional, unseasoned thinker…

  18. I disagree with the review. Tim’s painting relied on a second generation of the original which is hinging on the walls of Buckingham palace, Tim only had 1/2 to look at the original painting. Also for Tim to achieve this task without any Painting background, is quite telling. I do not believe that Tim was undermining Vermeer, but promoting him. There is nothing wrong using technology with art. My only other comment is that Mirrors in those days were make of Mercury and the colors of the hues were different than the mirrors Tim was using which can explain the different color tonality achieved here. I understand he will start marketing a kit for artist.

  19. This type of baseless intellectual snobbery is why people are so turned off by the art world. You didn’t back up anything of what you said with actual physical observations (for instance- what made it flaccid?). Then you blather about two contemporary artists who have no relationship too Tim’s idea or Vermeer’s work- but pat yourself on the back for making a obtuse connection. The review is moronic and misses the whole point of what Tim was trying to achieve- to copy a Vermeer.

  20. I think this is an over exaggeration of the documentary and doesn’t even come close to anything relevant or necessary to any form of art. The documentarians we very plainly covering the fact that Vermeer was both an artist and an inventor, which was said many times through the film. The fact that Tim even stated that he was 90% sure vs the art curator that managed the original piece saying he was 100% sure, shows that there was still decency and honorability to the artist’s representation of his creation and process. Also, they weren’t allowed to show the full scan of the original Vermeer in the documentary, so he was actually using the original as a base for his creation. Sorry, too many flaws in your logic, please do more research and watch the film again for clarity.

    This documentary is one of the most ingenious and remarkable films of our time, capturing the schema of invention blended with artistry; trying to bolster the originality of Vermeer over the process of the documentary is pointless and sophomoric. If you have an outlet to promote ideas, please don’t waste that ability with your worthless viewpoints.

  21. Did you even watch the movie ? All he was trying to show is, Vermeer could have used this technique as part of his creative process. He showed at least two very convincing evidences, the sea horse motif and the absolute greatness.

    You know why there are less and less people appreciate fine arts ? It is because shitty art critical like you, who has below average IQ.

  22. There are many things wrong with this article. In no way did I feel like anybody was trying to defame or devalue Vermeer’s status an artist. If anything, I think this technique raises his status as a master artist, and blurs the distinct lines between artist and inventor… Which they were trying to do….

  23. It does not appear that the author of this review has even watched the movie. If he had, he might have noticed the portions of it that were explicit about the fact that Vermeer’s artistry was not in achieving lifelike images, but in the composition and the “genius” of dreaming up the painted scene in the first place. As the narrator reads towards the end: “Now he’s a fathomable genius. lf there’s any great merit in this picture as a work of art, it’s Vermeer’s. lt’s Vermeer’s composition and it’s Vermeer’s invention.” What Mr. Simek describes as “the touch, a sensitivity” of Vermeer was expressly credited in the documentary to the right person: Vermeer.

    Jenison never purported to be able to create a work of art, as Mr. Simek contends. The hypothesis of Tim’s Vermeer was entirely technical: how was Vermeer able to produce incredibly realistic images using oil paints? The conclusion was also entirely technical: an optical system of the kind described allowed a non-painter to produce incredibly realistic images with oil paints. The message of Tim’s Vermeer, however, ends there.

    Yet Mr. Simek attributes to the movie a message that goes far beyond the technical assertions of the film. Mr. Simek writes: “In Tim’s mind, this method makes Vermeer something less of an artistic genius, and more like, well, Tim – an inventor. ” This is hogwash; Jenison never suggests that the use of a new optical tool rendered Vermeer “less of an artistic genius.” It simply shows that Vermeer may have used a set of tools that was more advanced than just a brush. Does the use of a digital camera make a photographer “less of an artistic genius” than a painter who only uses brushes? Does a painter’s use of a broad spectrum of colors make then “less of an artistic genius” than an artist who only uses only black, white and gray? Does the use of a canvas make a painter “less of an artistic genius” than someone who uses a less sophisticated substrate? Does the use of any tool affect how much of an “artistic genius” they are? Of course not. And Jenisen never suggested otherwise, although Simtek says he did.

    Simek in his critique does nothing more than build a straw man and tear it down. The features of Tim’s Vermeer that Mr. Simek criticizes were not actually in the movie. Well done, Mr. Simek. You shot a ghost in the chest.