March 27, 2014

Tim’s Vermeer at Cinemapolis

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What do you get when you give an inventor a mirror, a book about art and 1825 days to figure out one of art’s greatest mysteries? Well, you get Tim’s Vermeer.

Tim’s Vermeer, directed by the performer Teller, produced by his stage partner Penn Jillette and Farley Zielger, tells the story of Texas-based inventor Tim Jenison’s efforts to duplicate the painting techniques of Johannes Vermeer. What puzzles Tim, and has puzzled art historians for centuries, is how Vermeer was able to create photo-realistic paintings in the 1600s, a century and a half before photography was invented. The documentary reveals elements of this mystery, as X-rays of Vermeer’s paintings show no sketches underneath and Vermeer’s ability to capture certain elements of shadow with such precision that is just about impossible by the human eye. Additionally, Vermeer paints details with such accuracy that to do so without a sketch, and without any records of apprenticeship (a common practice of artists in the 17th century) baffles both art historians and Tim alike. Consequently, some art historians, believe that Vermeer utilized certain techniques or mathematical tools such as optical methods or a black box to create his famous and vivid paintings. Tim sets out to figure out what exactly that tool must have been.

But Tim’s long exploration isn’t just about research but rather his hope to literally recreate a Vermeer painting, specifically “The Music Lesson” (believed to be painted between 1662 and 1665). In order to do this, Tim travels to Delft, Holland, where Vermeer painted, and meets with British artist David Hockney who also agrees that 17th century artists utilized optical methods to paint. Mr. Jenison learns how to create paints as Vermeer would have used and installs his own imitation stain glass windows, like those seen in “The Music Lesson.” He even makes his own lens, claiming the ones made today are too accurate and wouldn’t have existed in Vermeer’s time. In short, he literally recreates the room Vermeer would have painted and puts his tools to the test to see if he, a self-proclaimed non-artist, can paint a Vermeer painting, offering legitimacy to his theory.

The tool in question is a lens and a concave mirror reflecting the image above the canvas. Tim’s technique is to match the colors as seen in the mirror exactly, so that the edge of the mirror disappears over the canvas once the shading is exactly right. He practices this technique with individual items first and they seem to work astoundingly well. But the question still remains whether or not he can use this technique to create a painting as complex and vivid as a Vermeer.

Part of what makes Tim’s Vermeer so good is that it actually creates excitement at the prospect of Tim recreating this painting. The audience laughs at his absurdity and obsessiveness but does so with him, not at him, rooting for Tim all the way. When problems arise with his technique, it feels genuinely disappointing and we hope he can figure the problem out. Whenever he feels a success, the audience does as well. Additionally, just about every moment of this 80-minute film is interesting, whether it is exploring the scientific explanations or artistic elements of Vermeer’s paintings.

The film, while undoubtedly straightforward, actually does maintain a deeper message, one I would argue Cornell students could take to heart as well. Throughout the film, Tim claims he is “not an artist,” but an “inventor,” but the film questions that identification. Tim’s friend, Penn Jillette, who is very present throughout the interviews of the film says, “There is this modern idea that art and technology must never meet … is Tim an artist or is he an inventor? The problem is that we have that distinction.” And this is what makes the film more than just a straightforward character piece. We meet Tim as an inventor, but realize throughout the film that he is both an inventor and an artist. We watch him slowly paint every painful detail of a carpet and we see him recognize that there is something wrong with the composition as he says, “Maybe I do have an inner artist that knew that was wrong,” when he accidentally shifted the lens. The film dissolves the tension between science and art, saying that everyone can be both. Cornell students, as we navigate our pre-professional education, should keep this lesson in mind. Just because a student majors in a STEM or a humanities field doesn’t mean they have to choose one or the other. Instead, we can all be a little bit of both, recognizing the importance of the intersection of the two disciplines, just like Tim and Vermeer.