The question of what makes art has fueled debate ever since prehistoric man began etching on the walls of caves, or at least ever since college students began frequenting coffeehouses. Tim’s Vermeer, a documentary by the magician duo Penn & Teller, doesn’t exactly shed light on the definition of art, but it does contribute to the conversation by examining that arcane place where art and technology intersect.
It’s an esoteric subject, to be sure, but the rendering of Tim’s Vermeer, now showing at AMC Quail Springs Mall 24, 2501 W. Memorial Road, is hardly difficult. The straightforward documentary focuses on speculation that Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch master, might have created his startlingly photo-realistic works with the help of cutting-edge technology of his day.
Penn Jillette (who produced) and his less loquacious partner Raymond Teller (who directed) follow the remarkable journey of Tim Jenison, a Texas inventor and computer genius whose self-made fortune has afforded him the time to chase down various pursuits. And one of those obsessions has been the belief that Vermeer made his masterworks with the secret use of lenses, mirrors and images projected from an optical device called a camera obscura.
It is complicated to explain, but not to see. Jenison demonstrates a process by which he essentially can paint right up to a mirror’s-edge image of his subject. The result is astounding. Using his contraption, Jenison’s first-ever painting bears resemblance to a photograph.
Did Vermeer’s artwork stem from similar technology? Jenison thinks so, and he’s not alone. Art historian Philip Steadman and painter David Hockney, both of whom are interviewed in the film, have arrived at similar conclusions. Not until Jenison, however, did anyone manage to show how it might have happened.
Tim’s Vermeer documents a multiyear experiment in which Jenison seeks to replicate a Vermeer masterpiece, “The Music Lesson,” in a San Antonio warehouse. He was impressively thorough. Jenison traveled to Europe to study Vermeer, including being granted a rare visit inside Buckingham Palace to check out “The Music Lesson” in person. His commitment meant ensuring the authenticity of everything, from building period furniture to producing the paint and lenses that would have been used in the 1600s.
Ultimately, Tim’s Vermeer might not say much about the Dutch master’s process — this is a doc based on speculation — but it definitely says a lot about the ambition of Tim Jenison. His experiment is fascinating to watch unfold, to say nothing of his dedication to seeing it done right.
Tim’s Vermeer is surprisingly workmanlike given the brashness of Penn & Teller. This is a good documentary, not a great one. Still, its no-frills approach suits the material. After all, the film is about demystifying the notion of artistic genius.
“Unfathomable genius doesn’t really mean anything,” Jenison said.
In doing so, however, the movie illuminates the mysteries of obsessive genius. By Jenison’s measure, that was Johannes Vermeer. By any other measure, that is also Tim Jenison.