Saturday, August 2, 2014

Tim's Vermeer

**** out of ****

If you haven’t already seen last year’s excellent documentary, Tim’s Vermeer, I highly recommend you do. This movie may give you a new perspective on the subject of art, as broad as that sounds.

Famed Las Vegas magicians, Penn & Teller produced this film, with Teller as its director. The duo, famous for their aggressive Showtime series, B.S.; make a comparatively sedated piece on an unlikely subject: The famous 17th century Dutch painter Vermeer and his mysterious technique, which achieved amazing light-detail and photorealism. His most famous painting is Girl With a Pearl Earring.

The project came about because their good friend, Tim Jenison, proposed his intentions to put his theory of Vermeer’s process to the test. Inspired by recent art historians, Jenison believes that Vermeer’s achievements were more mechanical than intuitive. Jenison is an inventor and a revolutionary in video editing equipment. Until this project, he’d never painted before.

The movie demonstrates how and why Tim is probably right about Vermeer’s technique, through a thorough and meticulous experiment to replicate one of the celebrated artist’s most famous paintings, The Music Lesson. On top of exercising his theory, he also goes to great lengths to possess the same resources as the original artist, including an uncanny reproduction of the room Vermeer painted.

Interviews with artist David Hockney and Professor Philip Steadman provide support and advice for Jenison’s project in their shared belief that the use of mirrors and the camera obscura (an ancient invention) can aid the most inexperienced painter to achieve masterful work.

The real issue brought forth, is whether Vermeer, Jenison or anyone else who painted this way is a real artist. There’s a brief discussion debunking a belief held by some critics that art aided by technology is cheating. When this film displays the determination and commitment to achieving such beauty on a canvas, it is hard to believe that one can rightfully shoot down such dedication as something less than art.

I almost relate this film’s message to the common criticism about practical versus computer-generated special effects in movies today. People who mold, build and sculpt things are admirable and deserve support for their handmade work. However, great computer generated work should never be dismissed as something made by a machine. Even with the aid of advanced software and the huge amount of people involved, it takes artistic ambition and big brains to achieve effective illusions.

Tim could have been lazy in his duplication process but he wasn’t. He spent a tremendous amount of time trying to get every millimeter of his Vermeer painting the way it was supposed to be. There is an art to imitation and this movie shows us how challenging imitation can be. 

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