A suspenseful non-fiction investigation into the artistic process, Tim’s Vermeer charts the unlikely odyssey of Tim Jenison, a TV industry inventor and engineer whose fascination with the paintings of 17th century Dutch master Johan Vermeer–whose techniques have always been a mystery to scholars and historians–led him to not only look into how they were made, but to recreate one himself. The catch is that Tim is not a painter. Yet that, amazingly, winds up not being an insurmountable hindrance.
Inspired by Philip Steadman and David Hockney’s books, Tim surmises that Vermeer utilized a series of camera-obscura optical mirrors to create photorealistic replicas of scenes he’d staged in his studio. Thus, Tim thinks that, using this “objective” procedure, he too might be able to achieve a close-to-exact Vermeer duplicate of “The Music Lesson”–so long as he also learns how to paint, and then exactingly reconstructs the room featured in Vermeer’s work in a San Antonio warehouse.
Narrated and directed by Tim’s friends (and expert optical illusionists themselves) Penn and Teller, respectively, Tim’s Vermeer is an awe-inspiring account of Tim’s five-year-long experiment, which requires equal parts creativity, savvy and perseverance. Employing the same crude oil paints and mirrors as Vermeer, and doing all the woodwork himself, Tim proves to be tireless not just in terms of learning new crafts, but using his venture to unravel the mystery of how Vermeer accomplished his feats.
Recounting its historical whodunit with a mixture of good-natured humor as well as reverence for both Tim and Vermeer, Penn and Teller’s sterling documentary advances towards its denouement with escalating tension, as it becomes increasingly possible that Tim’s own painting may be proof of Vermeer’s heretofore-unknown methods. In its depiction of Tim’s use of ingenious technology to recreate imagery in a manner akin to Vermeer’s system, this stands as a portrait of kindred innovative artists, separated by centuries and yet in complete spiritual and procedural harmony.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 2, 2013