The paintings of 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer have long been a source of mystery in the art world. Modestly successful in his own time and almost completely forgotten for more than two centuries, Vermeer is now considered one of the greatest painters of all time. Though his work consists largely of domestic scenes painted in two rooms of his middle-class house in Delft, Holland, Vermeer had a way of portraying light and colors realistically that instantly sets him apart — even to the untrained eye. His paintings appear lit from within and nearly photorealistic 150 years before the invention of the camera. Vermeer left no written records of his methods, or of any training he may have received as an apprentice as was commonly done (and meticulously documented) by his peers. How did Vermeer do it?
Written and directed by satirical illusionists Penn and Teller, Tim's Vermeer documents one man's quest to solve the central mystery of Vermeer. Tim Jenison is an extremely successful inventor who transformed film and television in the 1990s with breakthrough technology that first turned computers into high-quality digital production studios. Jenison was fascinated by books written by historian Philip Steadman and artist David Hockney that suggested Vermeer may have used the technology of his time — which included lenses and other optical devices — as tools in the creation of his paintings. There is physical evidence in the paintings to support the theory, which raises philosophical questions about art, technology and artistic authenticity. Jenison decided there was only one way to explore these ideas, and that was to paint his own Vermeer using the technology and materials of the painter's era — even though he'd never painted before.
Tim's Vermeer turns Jenison's exploratory journey into a first-rate detective thriller as he gradually rediscovers lost technology and techniques that allow him to paint in a style much like Vermeer's. The key breakthrough is an elegant lens-and-mirror system that allows anyone with enough patience to match a projected image using tiny strokes of a paintbrush. The system turns the painter into one component of what is essentially a painting machine.
Penn and Teller's film is not artfully done — it's practical and straightforward just like Jenison's quest. Available resources were not devoted to making the film warm and beautiful as its subject might suggest. But the film does get to the heart of the matter with relative ease. With help from authors Steadman and Hockney, in addition to inquisitive narrator Penn Jillette, Tim's Vermeer makes clear that no one sees these discoveries as diminishing Vermeer's art. Penn, Teller, and Jenison want us to question modern-day assumptions that place art and invention in separate camps. Their film also makes the rarified world of fine art approachable and entertaining.
At 80 minutes, Tim's Vermeer doesn't have time to address all the questions suggested by its discoveries. Are we now returning to an age where art and technology are indistinguishable, as they seem to have been in 17th-century Holland? And is our modern concept of art transformed when it can't be created without the latest technology? The film doesn't offer any answers, but the right questions seem like more than enough. New Orleans Film Society also hosts a screening at 7:30 p.m. March 12 at The Theatres at Canal Place.