Tim’s Vermeer (2014)
“I could paint that” is a common refrain heard when viewing art, especially when the art in question is abstract, simple or elliptical in a way that defies easy meaning. 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer painted intricate interiors that were so realistic he seemingly “painted the light”. Few would claim that they could replicate his work accurately, but that’s exactly what inventor Tim Jenison sets out to do in Tim’s Vermeer, an intimate documentary that examines process and art, and how science may have played a role in the creation of centuries-old masterpieces.
Teller, the silent half of famed duo Penn & Teller, makes his directorial debut here while the gregarious Penn Jillette appears as an expository talking head; their mutual friend Tim Jenison is the central subject. A successful inventor, Tim now has the freedom and means to pursue a wide variety of typical rich guy interests and is aided by restless curiosity and his polymath abilities. The doc details Tim’s obsessive multi-year quest to recreate one of Vermeer’s works (The Music Lesson) utilizing the principle of the camera obscura and a reflective surface that allows him to emulate the original painting very closely.
The level of meticulous detail that Tim incorporates into his recreation cannot be overstated. He travels to Europe to research Vermeer and see his paintings firsthand. He learns Dutch so he can discuss and better research Vermeer in the artist’s native language. He builds a replica of the tableau that Vermeer painted from scratch, which required no less than: fabricating the room, blowing the glass, creating the furniture, having the clothes made, and a million other tiny details. He even enlists his exasperated college-age daughter to stand in for days on end as the female subject of the painting. The research and preparation alone take over a year, without having even put brush to canvas yet on his version of The Music Lesson.
Archival footage and talking head segments provide context and background throughout, serving as a needed counterpoint to the understated lead. Tim explains to actor/painter Martin Mull that it took him 30 minutes to learn how to paint after he worked out the kinks in his lens/mirror contraption, while Martin deadpans that it took him 40 years to hone his craft. Jillette relates a story of the time he and Tim flew to Las Vegas on a whim to witness an eclipse. Teller films it all in a straightforward manner and with welcome brevity that allows viewers to draw their own conclusions.
At its heart, Tim’s Vermeer is a close study of process and art, and details a rare drive that is necessary to succeed as an entrepreneur and perhaps as an artist as well. Tim is certainly a gifted craftsman, but is his version of The Music Lesson art or simply a skilled facsimile? There’s certainly no lack of effort put forth. The second half of the film shows the painting process in time lapse, with the slow forward momentum and frustrating setbacks of many months condensed into digestible chunks. Tim remains steadfast in his resolve to finish the painting, even when the scope of the project becomes clear. Eventually when Tim steps back and gazes upon the finished product there is a well-earned and beautifully understated moment of catharsis.
Did Vermeer utilize a similar process to realize his masterpieces? Tim thinks so, but his theory is just that – something unprovable barring a miraculous historical find. Teller doesn’t lean one way or another – he simply presents what the camera captures. In the absence of Penn & Teller’s usual sleight of hand, what remains is a fascinating look at the intersection of science and art, and a glimpse into a level of perseverance that borders on the pathological. Those looking for a more detailed look into Tim’s mindset or a history lesson on Vermeer may be disappointed, as the brief doc has a laser focus much like its subject. However, those looking for a witty and wry journey should find satisfaction. It may be difficult to answer the broad question “is it art?”, but Tim’s Vermeer proves that it’s worth asking.