Is a painting a work of art if the painter uses technology that makes it possible for even a novice to be successful? What tools are off limits for an artist if their art is to be considered legit? These are the questions asked by the documentary Tim’s Vermeer written and directed by Penn and Teller.
The documentary focuses on Tim Jenison, an inventor who has spent most of his life creating visual effects technology used in movies, and his quest to find out if he can paint a Vermeer, specifically “The Music Lesson.” His hypothesis is that the precision and detail in Vermeer’s paintings had to be a result of something more than Vermeer’s genius and skill, that some sort of technology was likely involved.
Jenison goes to great lengths to recreate Vermeer’s painting– building by hand an exact replica of the room Vermeer used in “The Music Lesson” including all the furniture and windows as well as the instruments Jenison believes the 17th century painter used to achieve his masterpieces: a camera obscura and a mirror. These tools would have allowed Vermeer to arrange scenes in a room and focus closely on each part of the scene using the mirror. Jenison tests his mirror by painting an incredibly accurate portrait of his father-in-law from a
photograph. The whole project from the research stage to building the set to painting a replica of “The Music Lesson” took Jenison over five years to complete — the painting alone taking 130 days — and the whole process was documented by his longtime friend Penn Jillette, who was enthusiastic from the first moment about his pal’s brilliant idea. Watching Jenison’s process was interesting and excruciating in equal measure. He made it very clear that he is not an artist or even particularly interested in art. He’s an inventor, a tinkerer, the kind of guy you know built amazing shit out of Legos as a kid. But what was missing from his experiment and the documentary was any real history of Vermeer’s life and how he may have painted and Vermeer’s original of “The Music Lesson,” as this The Guardian article points out. Jenison, Teller and crew went to Buckingham palace to see the original, but only Jenison was allowed in, sans cameras, so us viewers only got to see his poster version of the painting, which just isn’t the same thing. According to Jonathan Jones at The Guardian,”It’s a painting of hypnotic intrigue and psychological fascination – a painting to get obsessed with.”
And while Tim’s replica is quite amazing, there is something mysteriously different about the two paintings; maybe it is that lack of hypnotic obsession in Jenison’s Vermeer that’s missing. Maybe it’s that his experiment is a bit reductive, implying that with the right tools anyone can paint a Vermeer or be an artist, completely ignoring the heart and soul that create the mystery behind great art. Or maybe it’s that he approached the project like a scientist, not an artist, but he wouldn’t agree with that notion.
Jenison says in the film that we’ve now turned science and art into false binaries that didn’t exist when Vermeer was painting. About that he’s right. After all, Michelangelo blended science with art, and as this Quora post illustrates again and again, this isn’t uncommon. It’s true that art and science are cousins that rely on each other for sustenance and life.
The remaining question is what exactly is in art that makes it art? I know, this question is too big, but this experiment of Tim Jenison’s is a good place to start answering that question, or to add more interesting questions to it. Did Jenison actually rediscover Vermeer’s tools and techniques, and if so, does this in any way diminish Vermeer’s art? If this 17th century artist used boxes and lenses and mirrors to make his magical, light-filled work, is he less an artist, or should we just stop asking that question and enjoy what he created?