At the L.A. Film Critics’ year-end voting session, one critic tried to make the argument that the cinematography in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” wasn’t really cinematography at all since so much was done on sound stages and with animation and digital effects.
I am happy to report this notion was hooted down by virtually everyone. Instead we chose to recognize this work as a genuine cinematic breakthrough. Yet many critics in the arts do love to draw strong lines of demarcation between art and technology.
How wonderful then that “Tim’s Vermeer” comes along to prove the absurdity of these artistic Berlin Walls. Here is proof — no doubt many art historians and critics will beg to differ though — that the great Dutch master Johannes Vermeer achieved his brilliant effects with the aid of technology, specifically optics and mirrors.
For in the doc, made by the comic illusionist Teller with his partner Penn Jillettte in front of the camera to act as interviewer/MC/astonished observer, you follow a project of a dozen years or so by a computer graphics inventor — a geek, in other words — named Tim Jenison.
Jenison wanted to prove that through use of optics he could replicate a painting by Vermeer with precise exactitude. The kicker is that Tim is not a painter. Not at all.
Vermeer has long been a source of controversy in the art world since no one could figure out how he did it. X-rays show no sketches beneath his paintings, which is the usual way a painter would begin a significant canvass.
Yet the colors and textures of his works do not seem like something accessible to the naked eye. One can’t just walk up to a canvass and achieve these effects.
Vermeer’s paintings pop from across the room, looking more photographic than painted. So art historians love to say Vermeer “magically painted with light.”
Tim scoffs: “You don’t paint with light. You paint with paint.”
In 2001, two books were published, artist David Hockney’s “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters” and architect-professor Philip Steadman’s “Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truths Behind the Masterpieces.” These tomes argued that Vermeer must have made use of the “camera obscura,” an optical devise known to Aristotle.
A camera obscura, Latin for “darkened room,” projects an image of its surroundings on a screen through light from an external source passing through a hole that strikes a surface inside, only rotated 180 degrees (thus upside down).
The books were savagely attached, of course. But Tim is rich enough to have the resources and apparently the time to see if he could prove the theory by actually doing it, much as Thor Heyerdahl piloted his Kon-Tiki raft across the the Pacific Ocean to prove South American peoples could have settled Polynesia in pre-Columbian times.
Tim is determined to reproduce faithfully Vermeer’s painting “The Music Lesson,” which shows a young woman and her instructor at a harpsichord with strong northern light streaming in from a side window.
Tim’s pal Jillette drops in on the experiment at about the 11-year marker. Just as well since at one point Tim remarks, “You know, this project is a lot like watching paint dry.”
The film is anything but. It’s downright fascinating, a must for anyone interested in art, science or just a good mystery story.
Tim is rigorously honest. He visits Vermeer’s hometown, Delft, in the Netherlands in order to reproduce as best he can the conditions of the artist’s room in a warehouse in San Antonio, Texas. He mixes paints and uses only lenses available to a 17th-century artist.
As he recreates a chair seen in the painting, Tim grouses, “I have no love for wood working. I can’t buy these stupid chairs anywhere.”
Still the project comes up short. Using a camera obscura he can’t get an image sharp enough to achieve the desired results. Where the critics right after all? Is artistic genius unfathomable? Lying in the bathtub one night, the thought hits Tim: Mirrors!
And concave mirrors at that. Suddenly it all works. Tim has, in Jillette’s words, “invented or rediscovered a new optical instrument.”
Now comes the hard part. Months of laborious painting ensue. For as Tim notes, the process is objective, not subjective, mechanical not a matter of artistic inspiration. But in painting over the image his mirror gives him he achieves a true Vermeer.
Hockney himself looks at the results and declares he “very likely” demonstrated Vermeer’s process. Again the art purists may scoff. The rest of us will probably be convinced.
Does this make Vermeer a fake? No, of course not. As Jillette remarks, Vermeer is now “a fathomable genius.”
The composition, the light and the invention itself all belong solely to Vermeer. In the Golden Age, art and technology are one and the same.
Opens: January 31, 2014 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production: High Delft Pictures
Producer: Penn Jillette
Executive producers: Peter Adam Golden, Glenn S. Alai, Farley
Director of photography: Shane F. Kelly
Music: Conrad Pope
Editor: Patrick Sheffield
PG-13 rating, 80 minutes