“Tim’s Vermeer” is a documentary all about the connections between technology and creativity. Produced by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller – yes that Penn and Teller, the film chronicles one man’s odyssey to delve into the mystery that is Johannes Vermeer (1632-75).
Vermeer is at the same time one of the best known and least known Dutch painters of his era. His paintings display a mastery of light to the point where they’ve been compared to photographs. Yet little is known about Vermeer, the man, or about how he painted. Unlike other painters he has left no sketch books, nor are there outlines visible by x-ray on the canvas beneath his finished works. It’s as if they just appeared.
Enter Tim Jenison. Jenison, a technologist inventor and the man behind the video tech success story NewTek set himself the goal of replicating a Vermeer masterpiece. At this point, it’s central to the story to note that Jenison has never painted anything, ever. And this is where the technology comes in.
It has long been theorized that Vermeer actually created his paintings with the use of lenses, specifically with a modified camera obscura, a device that allows one to basically trace images on to canvas. Jenison is betting the farm that Vermeer actually traced his way to immortality. Well that’s not actually the way that Jenison puts it:
“It’s possible,” he says, that Vermeer “could paint some pretty remarkable pictures without a lot of training. It’s possible that he was more of an experimenter, more of a tinkerer, more of a geek. And in that way I feel a kinship with him because I’m a computer graphics guy, and we use technology to make a realistic, beautiful image, and it’s possible that’s exactly what Vermeer was doing.”
It’s a good thing that Jenison’s past has left him with more money and time than he appears to know what to do with, because this journey takes up the good part of four years. From replicating, from scratch, Vermeer’s studio in a San Antonio warehouse to attempting to recreate what he believes was the technology used by Vermeer, the film chronicles Jenison’s efforts from beginning to end.
It’s not surprising that given that it’s Penn and Teller, the story feels a lot like a couple of skeptics (i.e. Penn and Teller) trying to debunk a popular myth (i.e. Vermeer), but Jenison is more nuanced in his approach. He feels that Vermeer is no less a master because he managed to create images that evoke the emotions of viewers through the use of technology. Vermeer is no less a creative genius, though not necessarily in the way we have thought of him for the past 350 years, according to Jenison. This places the film directly at the intersection of technology and creativity.
The story of “Tim’s Vermeer” is fascinating, and watching his painting emerge over time is really quite magical. It is, however, a story that could be told in less than an hour and a half. It is after all, about painting, and while that is a visual medium, it’s not necessarily a medium that lends itself to a feature length documentary. The phrase “like watching paint dry” comes to mind at points. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating story that opens up the issues of the balance between creativity and technology in assessing the legacy of a genius. Whether Vermeer was a technical genius or an artistic genius, or a bit of both, is a question that remains open.