The first time I ever really felt that I “got” art was, ironically, not from viewing a great work. It was reading Salvador Dalí’s Diary of a Genius, in which the artist described painstaking work painting thousands of scales on a fish belly, day in, day out. He might have been joking, and was likely exaggerating, but it suddenly clicked: The willingness to spend hours perfecting something as seemingly insignificant as a fish scale, all in service to rendering a grand vision outside your own head, is art itself. Anyone can have an artistic vision, but not everyone is committed enough to see it through.
Like Dalí, Tim Jenison spent more than five years obsessively poring over details, focusing on minutiae, teaching himself the necessary skills to bring his vision to life. But, unlike Dalí, Jenison’s passion was not an original artwork. In fact, some people may think what Jenison did is rather the anti-art.
Jenison, a highly successful San Antonian in the field of video technology, became intrigued by the work of 17th-century Dutch Master painter Johannes Vermeer. For more than a century, the question of how Vermeer attained such incredible hyperrealism has been hotly contested. In 2006, renowned British artist David Hockney tackled the subject in the book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters, which posited that Vermeer and of many of his contemporaries may have used some technological device, perhaps a camera obscura, to help capture scenes in such glowing detail.
Proving the theory became an obsession for Jension, whose company NewTek gave the world revolutionary 3D graphics software LightWave, among other innovations. He learned Dutch and made several trips to Vermeer’s hometown of Delft. He examined x-rays of Vermeer’s work to discover the artist did very little sketching underneath the paint. He tinkered with various lenses and camera obscura designs.
Around 2008, he visited longtime pal Penn Jillette, of the comedy-magic duo Penn & Teller, and Jillette quickly became entranced by Jenison’s mission as well—so much so he pitched it as a documentary the very next day. The two iconoclasts didn’t feel any of their meetings with Hollywood bigwigs went very well, so they enlisted Jillette’s performance partner, Teller, to come on board as director, with Jillette producing. Thus Tim’s Vermeer was born, and the project kicked into high gear.
Early in the movie, Jenison hits upon an original notion apart from Hockney’s (or those of another well-known Vermeer-as-technologist proponent, Philip Steadman), that for Vermeer to get such photo-realistic results in color and light, he may have used a small mirror to bounce a reflection of the subject to be painted back to the artist working on his canvas. The small, makeup-sized mirror, positioned just above the canvas, allows the artist to mix color until “the edge of the mirror disappears,” indicating the exact color has been achieved.
Jenison himself proves an affable subject, captured over the course of thousands of hours tweaking, building and painting away. While what he’s doing seems absolutely insane at times, he comes off as wry and analytic, almost to a fault. Musing about Vermeer’s famed technique, he tells the camera, “They say Vermeer painted with light, but you can’t paint with light. You have to paint with paint.”
Jenison, who is not a painter at all (though his wife and three daughters are all artists), tests his theory on a simple black and white photograph, which he paints a replica of using his mirror contraption. The result literally elicited ‘oohs and ahs’ from the audience in my film screening. He then gains two enthusiastic supporters in Hockney (who is so delightful in this film you’ll want to track down 2009’s doc David Hockney: A Bigger Picture) and Steadman as he endeavors to recreate a Vermeer painting, from scratch, using his method.
The chosen painting, The Music Lesson, was likely created in a room Vermeer used often for his work, and Jenison wanted to replicate the space exactly. He spends more than 200 days transforming a non-descript warehouse in Northwest San Antonio into the room. He commissions custom pottery, replicates the intricate detail of the harpsichord and special orders the unique instruments, globe-trotting as needed. While Teller might not be the most technically savvy director, he works magic in making this a thrilling process to behold, giving the narrative a madcap caper air.
The actual painting process, too, is somehow enthralling, though we’re mainly seeing Jenison hunched over the same desk, with his mirror contraption and some tiny brushes. As in the tableau, he tried to remain as authentic as possible, learning to mix colors as Vermeer would have back in the 1600s rather than buy oil paints and using only natural light. Like Dalí’s fish scales, this is physically painful work that took Jenison more than 130 days to complete. Just painting the tiny knots on the rug featured in the right-hand corner took almost a month.
The final result is, well, I won’t spoil it. Let’s just say it gives you an appreciation for Vermeer, optical device or not, as well as for Jenison, who stuck with the project for five full years. Jenison has said that he feels about 90 percent sure that Vermeer used a contraption very similar to the optical device he created, but some art historians remain skeptical. While few would call Jenison’s Vermeer copy ‘art,’ after viewing this film, I’d say, based on the passion, curiosity and dedication Jenison displayed, he’s certainly an artist … of some kind.
Dir: Teller; Feat. Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette (PG-13)
Opens March 7 at Santikos Bijou