sheer scarcity of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings is guaranteed to maintain the
art world’s fascination. It was partly
why the notorious forger Han Van Meegeren was able to pass off a reportedly
terrible fake on his National Socialist buyers—demand always outstrips good
sense. However, one entrepreneur might just stand the polite art world on its
ear when he suggests he can paint brand new Vermeers using Seventeenth Century technology. Jenison’s buddy Penn Jillette basically dared
him to prove it for posterity. Jenison’s results are duly documented in Teller’s
Tim’s Vermeer (trailer here), which screens
during the 51st New York Film Festival.
on the research of artist David Hockney and academic Philip Steadman, Jenison
argues it is simply impossible for the human eye to perceive the photorealistic
detail that distinguishes Vermeer’s paintings. Using the scientific process
circa 1650, Jenison develops a method to duplicate the Vermeer look. It is complicated, but like the best magic,
it involves the use of mirrors.
Hockney and Steadman agree Jenison is on to something, but to really prove the
point, he embarks on an audacious experiment.
He will recreate the setting of Vermeer’s The Music Room in a San Antonio warehouse, where he will use his
proposed technique to recreate rather than forge the Vermeer masterwork. However, what started as an intellectual
pursuit becomes an endurance challenge over time.
Teller and producer-narrator Jillette strike a shrewd balance throughout Tim’s Vermeer, injecting enough caustic
humor to satisfy their fans, but never upstaging Jenison’s story. Frankly, it
is a surprisingly provocative film that questions many widely held assumptions
regarding the nature of art. Hockney’s
participation is a particular coup. When
he more or less buys into Jenison’s system, it carries considerable weight.
Jenison argues Vermeer was the original photographer. The composition of The Music Room is still a work of art. He simply used a somewhat mechanical method
to render it on canvas. Of course, he
still had to do the work, which Jenison proves is a painstaking process.
Thanks to the developments in digital video,
Teller and his associates were able to take an eccentric idea and fully follow
through on it. It might shake up
stodgier Academy members to hear Penn & Teller tipped for Oscar
consideration, but they deserve to be in the mix. Consistently entertaining and rather
shockingly erudite, it proves documentaries can cover prestigious subject
matter, but still be fun to watch.
Recommended for Penn & Teller fans and fine art connoisseurs, Tim’s Vermeer screens again this
Wednesday (10/9) as an “Applied Science” documentary selection of the 2013
Labels: Documentary, Johannes Vermeer, NYFF '13, Penn & Teller