Why did acclaimed magicians Penn and Teller make a doc on Vermeer?
It helps to have interesting, wealthy friends, ones that have a lot of time on their hands. As it happens Penn Jilette’s boyhood friend Tim Jenison is the inventor of Video Toaster, the first low coast video post-production and switching system. Jenison can take the time necessary to handle any idea that strikes his fancy.
As it happens, Jenison has become fascinated with the 17th century Dutch master painter Johannes Vermeer, who achieved great acclaim for his remarkable rendering of light. The mystery of how Vermeer created his paintings began to take over Jenison’s imagination. He decided to solve how the artist had achieved his special effect centuries before the movie world’s f/x became popular.
Sparked by art historian Philip Steadman’s book Vermeer’s Camera and acclaimed contemporary artist David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge, which both argued that Dutch artists and in particular Vermeer, had benefitted by using a camera obscura, Jenison decided to prove their theories correct by painting a great 17th century work of art.
Jenison, a self-proclaimed “non-artist”—though he clearly is a digital genius—set himself a challenge, to only use technology that existed in 1650. The camera obscura, an optical device that projects an image onto a screen, was in use during that time. If Dutch artists like Rembrandt, Hals, Rubens and Vermeer were, indeed, using the camera obscura that would account for the famed realism of their work. You could project an image onto a screen or paper or canvas and be quite exact in your paintings.
Jenison told Penn about his decision to reproduce a Vermeer, The Music Lesson. Penn and Teller came on board as, respectively, the producer and director of Tim’s Vermeer, the doc on Jenison’s experiment.
The resulting film is an interesting exercise in duration. Jenison had to recreate the paint, brushes and canvases of the time. His camera obscura had to be correct and when he realized that a different sort of mirror would have been necessary for Vermeer to reproduce light so accurately, Jenison had to recreate it according to the dictates of 17th century optical science. And then there’s the matter of actually painting The Music Room. It turns out to take well over a month, which might explain why there are so few great Vermeers.
Tim’s Vermeer is fascinating because it asks us about the role of imagination in art. If the Dutch masters were actually rendering by using camera obscura, were they great artists? The same question has been asked of photographers and documentary filmmakers. Is rendering reality enough to make one an artist?
Teller, Tim Jenison and Penn never directly wrestle with that question but it lies at the heart of a documentary that has a truly intriguing premise. Though Jenison does demonstrate that Vermeer could have used a camera obscura to paint The Music Room, he, Hockney and Steadman all agree that it doesn’t prove that he did so.
As for the question of art, I am happy to argue that Vermeer’s work is great, however he achieved his rendering of light and realistic detail. But then I think Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans and Robert Frank are great artists, too. It’s the choice of subject and the exact moment that is being reproduced for viewers that is brilliant, not just the method chosen to convey it.
Tim’s Vermeer is a doc well worth seeing—though I would argue that Teller could have cut at least 10 minutes from the film. Jenison’s duration dilemmas shouldn’t be ours too. But making a film about 17th century art relevant is amazing. Kudos to Penn and Teller: this is another magic act from the duo.