Magicians Penn and Teller have spent 30 years debunking their art and mystifying us with it, usually in the same show. So they’re logical guides through “Tim’s Vermeer,” a documentary that both explains away the presumed secret behind the Dutchman’s masterpieces and lets us marvel at them anew.
Johannes Vermeer, who was born in Delft in 1632 and died there 43 years later, never painted prolifically. Fewer than three dozen works are universally acknowledged as his, though they include such jaw-dropping beauties as “The Lacemaker” and “The Milkmaid.” If you saw “Girl With a Pearl Earring” at Atlanta’s High Museum last year, you know what I mean.
How did he depict subjects in such realistic detail? Inventor Tim Jenison decided Vermeer used a camera obscura, a box with a hole in one side. (Painter David Hockney suggested that in 2002.) Light passes through a lens in the hole and bounces off a surface inside, producing an image that’s upside down and backward but retains colors and perspective. Project that image outside the box, trace over it, and voila!
Jenison found you couldn’t match colors exactly that way, so he linked the lens and a movable mirror. That created a seamless line between the image in the mirror and the canvas where he was painting. He could experiment with paint until the match was perfect.
Then he set out to duplicate “The Music Lesson,” a complex Vermeer. The film chronicles his five-year journey, during which he teaches himself Dutch so he can read history books, learns to mix paints, figures out how to grind lenses, buys or builds every item in the painting, even visits Vermeer’s home to see how light comes through a window. Eventually, Jenison builds an exact reproduction of the room in the painting, down to tiles in the floor.
Though he’s in his 60s, he comes off as a phenomenally gifted kid who’s never bored, as long he can adapt a piece of equipment or master one from scratch. Film and TV software has made him a millionaire, so he’s like Bruce Wayne assembling the Batcave: He can’t run out of time or money. (And he has a sense of humor: When he buys a viola da gamba, because that antiquated instrument figures in the painting, he plays “Smoke on the Water” with it.)
The film asks two questions. Can he really duplicate a masterpiece, if his patience and hand-eye skills are up to the task? What’s it like to be both detail-oriented and conceptually intuitive, as Jenison is and Vermeer must have been?
The bigger question – whether Vermeer really used this lens-and-mirror technique himself – may never be answered. No firm evidence exists, though this film makes that seem likely.
Whether or not he did, the documentary lets us appreciate Vermeer in a new way. Suppose he did have optical help: He’d still need the brilliance to choose and arrange objects, the skill to mix pigments he needed (which didn’t have to replicate reality in any case) and the devotion to see fantastically complex projects through.
If he was a technological genius, does that make him less of an artistic one? Who said those categories must remain apart, anyhow?