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Tim’s Vermeer

by Louise Adams
Friday Jun 27, 2014
Tim’s Vermeer

Magicians Penn and Teller wrote, produced and directed "Tim's Vermeer," a documentary about the intersection of art and technology in the Golden Age and today, which includes commentary, a Q&A from the Toronto International Film Festival, plus deleted, extended and alternate scenes.

Tim Jenison, longtime friend of Penn Jillette and a television optics inventor, won a 1993 technical Emmy for creating the Video Toaster, a suite of hardware and software for editing and production. This type of success from Jenison's NewTek company allowed him the funding and the time to pursue his obsession: finding out how Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) was able to create such lush light in his limited output.

No documentation of Vermeer's process has been discovered, and no sketches lie beneath his oils as with many paintings. British painter David Hockney conjectured about the possible use of lenses in his book "Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters," as did Philip Steadman in his "Vermeer's Camera," and Jenison concurred, noting that Vermeer's canvases had photo-realism detail and shadow, especially when compared to his contemporaries like Pieter do Hooch.

"This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And I haven’t started painting yet. This better fucking work."

Jenison recreated the camera obscura (Latin for "dark room"), a period, pre-camera optical set-up where an image is lit and projected through a lens, offering an upside-down early "photo." Accompanied by actor/painter Martin Mull, Jenison perfects the contraption by removing the dark box and adding a small, concave mirror at a 45-degree angle. Jenison then visited Delft to see Vermeer's studio to meticulously reconstruct its north-facing light and architecture in a warehouse near his home in San Antonio. While in Europe, Queen Elizabeth II also reluctantly allowed Jenison to see the piece that she owns and he emulated, "The Music Lesson," in Buckingham Palace.

It took 213 days for an obsessed Jenison to build the room, from the tile floor to the intricate windows and virginal (harpsichord). On his blog at the time, he said, "This is the hardest thing I've ever done. And I haven't started painting yet. This better fucking work."

Jenison spent over 100 days painting, and he "definitely would have quit if we weren't making a film." The entire project ran from 2008-2013, totaling 1,825 working days. But he proved his point, that geeks and inventors such as himself are also artists, and that paintings are documents themselves, meta-documents of their own creation.

"Tim's Vermeer"
Blu-ray and DVD Set

Louise Adams is a Chicago freelance writer at www.treefalls.com (and a nom de guerre).


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