By Robert Barlow
What is and isn’t art has been debated ever since paint was first put to canvas. A new documentary, Tim’s Vermeer, takes that argument even further by asking if there is or isn’t a difference between an artist and an inventor.
In the documentary, Tim Jenison, a Texas-based inventor, attempts to solve one of the greatest mysteries in all of art: How did 17th century Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer ("Girl with a Pearl Earring") manage to paint so photo-realistically, 150 years before the invention of photography?
In hopes of finding an answer to this mystery, Jenison painstakingly recreates every single item – including the room itself – that Vermeer used for one of his paintings. Jenison then sets out to make his own version of a Vermeer. This epic “research project” spans eight years and is told by Jenison himself as well as Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller magician fame. Teller directs the film and, as you will see, is the perfect man for a film about possibly one of the biggest illusions ever.
Here’s where the debate comes into play. Many, including Jenison, believe that the only way Vermeer could have painted so realistically was with the assistance of some sort of optical projection system like a camera obscura. If this is true, does it take away anything from the paintings or Vermeer himself? Regardless of one’s opinions on the subject, Jenison’s results using optics are astonishing.
After the Rochester premiere of the film on March 11 at the Little Theatre, which was part of the One Take: Stories Through the Lens documentary series, Nancy Norwood, curator of European Art at the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, gave her perspective on the issue. In a Q&A session with audience members, Norwood said that while she would not be surprised if optics were used by painters of Vermeer’s time period, she questioned whether or not Jenison’s recreation has any merit on its own.
Does Tim’s Vermeer answer this question or solve any mysteries? It’s impossible to know just how Vermeer was able to accomplish such realism in his paintings, but the documentary presents a fascinating investigation into one man’s obsession with the question.