The big problem with Tim’s Vermeer, Vegas show duo Penn and Teller’s new art documentary, is that neither the filmmakers nor its subject seem to know a lick about art. The new film tells the story of Tim Jenison, a billionaire inventor who made his fortune developing video software and who becomes obsessed with figuring out how the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer painted such intricate and life-like images. After reading a couple of books, Tim got turned onto the idea that, perhaps, Vermeer and other renaissance artists used the camera obscura – basically lenses fitted into black boxes – to project images of their studio onto a wall where they could simply copy the pictures with paint. In Tim’s mind, this method makes Vermeer something less of an artistic genius, and more like, well, Tim – an inventor. Penn, who is friends with Tim and narrates the film that is directed by his stage partner, is giddy at such a prospect and takes it a step further. Perhaps Vermeer wasn’t really an artist. Maybe he was more of a machine, or (ahem) a magician, merely employing painterly sleight-of-hand.
These assertions are, of course, ridiculous, and they are proven ridiculous by the film’s own climax. After years of toiling away at making his own Vermeer, a replication of The Music Lesson (1662-65) – a project which includes the disconcertingly obsessive Tim learning carpentry and spending bags of cash to rebuild a replica Vermeer’s studio near his home in San Antonio – Tim finally paints his Vermeer. He uses an ingenious contraption consisting of just a lens and a mirror to turn the scene he built into a kind of paint-by-numbers follow-along. And that’s what Tim gets, a paint-by-numbers Vermeer, incredibly impressive for someone who doesn’t know how to paint, but nonetheless flaccid and unmistakably a copy. He hangs above his mantle and proudly crosses his arms like a fisherman displaying his catch, looking very much the fool.
Tim looks foolish because just one glance at his painting is evidence that he has failed. He may have accurately rendered the setting, the light, the knots in the rug, and all the other intricate details, but his piece doesn’t possess the ineffable qualities of the original – the touch, a sensitivity. The other foolish aspect of his quest is that it ignores an incredibly obvious aspect of image making. The ability to accurately represent reality is only one aspect of the artist’s craft. Even if the lens enabled the artist’s distinctive use of light, the real life of the painting comes from the way that light is incorporated into the mise-en-scène, the choices made in how to orchestrate the setting itself: the color of the dress; the arrangement of the furniture; the age, gender, and look of the characters; the quieted mood of the room; the drama, tension and emotional life it creates. In short, Tim’s project mistakes the craft of rendering the image – rather than the conceiving of the image — as Vermeer’s art.
That’s a shame, because from an art historical perspective, Tim’s project does offer an intriguing look into the artistic process of 17th century painting. The problem is that in their giddy eagerness to somehow dismantle the notion of artistic “genius,” Penn, Teller, and Tim ask the wrong questions. The filmmakers are trying to prove that Vermeer was a machine, a kind of proto-camera – the artist-as-sensitive film that exposes and develops verite reality. But what’s really interesting about the technique is what it implies about how Vermeer understood or considered the work he was trying to make, the kind of reality he was trying to represent. In other words, if Vermeer used this technique, it wouldn’t change his status as an artist, but rather it would inform just what kind of artist he was.
Assuming Vermeer used Tim’s technique (and there’s solid circumstantial evidence to believe he did) that would make Vermeer a certain kind of proto-photographer. He was also something like a proto-film director, creating a dramatic scene and orchestrating its affects. But he was also still a painter of remarkable ability. The difference between Vermeer’s technique and a photograph is that it leaves the process of painting open to the effects of time and human imperfection and variation, however slight. In the process of employing his lens, Vermeer may have helped to discover a new reality, the reality we most closely associate with the photographic image, and also reality as it appears in the mirror, only rendered permanent with paint. And yet, what appears on Vermeer’s canvases is somehow more than a simple reflection precisely because of the way paint — and the brush, the hand, the mind, the personality — transposes that reflection.
Perhaps tellingly, we are never shown Vermeer’s actual painting, only the reproduction Tim works off of. What Tim is actually doing, then, is making a copy of a scene that is based on the copy of a painting, which he believes is itself a copy of an original scene. These generational removes made me think of contemporary artists like Bill Viola and Eve Sussman, whose artistic practice is bound up in exploring these interrelations between image and material, technology and representation, drawing on the Old Masters to make video and photography that investigates the way artistic mediums affect visual aesthetics. There is a similar game going on in Tim’s effort at making a Vermeer, only inadvertently so. Tim’s use of Vermeer’s presumed technology results in an image whose inferior quality demonstrates that there is more to Vermeer, both as an artist and a painter, than lenses and mirrors.
Sadly, these finer points have no interest to Penn and Teller, who seem more concerned with playing a game of historical gotcha. They hold up Tim as a kind of artistic hero, of sorts, getting hung up on notions of “genius,” misidentifying the accuracy of representation as the defining quality of Vermeer’s art, and then framing Tim’s long-suffering attempts to use technology to recreate that art within the milieu of the romantic cliché of the artist as suffering servant. But art isn’t craft, nor is it computer science or Vegas stage magic. And the questions Penn and Teller think they are debunking — that somehow if Vermeer was copying reality he is less an artist, or that an inventor who can discover the technique is just as much an artist — don’t bare much relation to Vermeer’s status as an artist.
It’s no surprise that what’s most interesting about Tim’s Vermeer is Tim himself, this peculiar, affable, obsessive, prickly, stubborn genius who seems to be driven by some un-addressed need to assert his technological acumen and claim something from art. As for Vermeer, his particular vision may have relied on a visual quality he achieved through lenses and mirrors, perhaps discovering his own almost-photographic way of rendering the world. But the real value of Vermeer’s art is not the technology or the accuracy of his images, but rather it is the way those images reflect their reliance on the human tool – which, like Tim, remains an enigmatic, mysterious, and beguiling instrument.