Tuesday, 25 February 2014

TUESDAY NEWS DAY: TIM'S VERMEER

BY: BRITTNEY SPROULE

Johannes Vermeer's The Music Lesson (1662-65)

      This weekend, I came across an article in Vanity Fair about a recent documentary called Tim's Vermeer. The documentary was created by the magician duo Penn & Teller and tells the story of their friend Tim Jenison. Jenison is a San Antonio Texas native who became obsessed with discovering exactly how Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer was able to paint the photo-realistic images he is so famous for, hundreds of years before the invention of the photograph. In the documentary, Jenison is confident he has solved the mystery behind Vermeer's artistic"genius" and decides to test his findings by using this new information to reproduce a Vermeer painting himself, by hand. Specifically, Vermeer's The Music Lesson (above). The kicker is, Jenison is an engineer who has made his fortune creating video production software and hardware, and has never painted in his life.

 

      It may come as no surprise that prior to Jenison, art historians have addressed the mystery of Vermeer's exceptional ability to portray such lifelike images in his paintings, suggesting that it is very possible that Vermeer used optic devices (i.e. lenses, camera obscura) to help him see from perspectives and capture light and colour in ways the naked eye alone cannot comprehend. Two of the foremost advocates for this controversial position (both of whom are featured in the film) are London architecture professor Philip Steadman (in his book Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces) and prominent artist David Hockney (in his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of Old Masters).



      Without giving too much away, Jenison becomes inspired by the controversial work of Steadman and Hockney and manages to rig up an optical device that functions, in what he believes, to be a similar fashion to the kind of optic device Vermeer may have used. Jenison then decides to completely reconstruct the scene from The Music Lesson -- and we're talking completely here, in the sense of reconstructing the scene with painstaking historical and mathematical accuracy, from making window glass by hand to building a harpsichord -- and ultimately, when this is finished, he sits down to paint his own Vermeer using the optic device he created (which consisted of technologies/materials that would have been plausible to use in the 17th century).



      Conveniently enough, I discovered that Tim's Vermeer is actually currently playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Thus, I had the fabulous opportunity to actually catch this film, along with a few Musings cohorts, before posting! I highly recommend you check this film out. It is fascinating, unbelievable, and actually quite funny all at the same time. You can't help but love Jenison and feel for him during the painstaking process he undergoes in order to recreate the physical scene from The Music Lesson and then actually paint it. Before I wrap this post up, there are a few things I'd like to throw out on the table for possible discussion...

      One of the main issues that members of the art community have with the suggestion that Vermeer used optic devices while painting is that this is somehow "cheating." What are your thoughts on this matter? Is using technology to enhance art or inspire new artistic processes (which is what Vermeer likely did with his lenses, and I'm sure he wasn't the only one to do so) cheating?

      As Jenison proves, these devices certainly do not make the painting process any easier or less time consuming. So, can we still consider this cheating? Personally, seeing Jenison go through Vermeer's painting process himself makes me appreciate Vermeer's work even more. Does the discovery of these methods now render Vermeer paintings meaningless or valueless, now that we know it may not have been pure "genius" that allowed him to paint this way, but the use of man-made tools? Does this make you appreciate the works of the Old Masters like Vermeer any less? Can science and art/creativity exist on the same plane and perhaps even inspire each other?

Tim Jenison in the process of painting his Vermeer

I could go on posing a million questions to you based on what I encountered watching this film, but I think I'll leave the floor open from here. Please go check this film out if you have the time. Or even just spend a few minutes perusing the related YouTube videos. You won't regret it. Even if you don't buy into what Jenison is doing, I think you will still be transfixed or, at the very least, entertained.

Enjoy!

3 comments:

  1. This is fantastic! It's a very interesting way to re-evaluate a good deal of art history scholarship of Vemeer's techniques. Awesome.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think Tim's discovery proves just how innovative Vermeer actually was. Why is art and technology separated so much? I would consider Tim an artist as well as an inventor. He crafted the set in which he eventually painted however he integrated technology into its production. He also slaved away with the painting and learned brushwork techniques and colour blending. He has demonstrated how beautifully art and technology can be fused together. Thank-you for sharing this Brittney. This is an important topic to discuss!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I am ready to head right to the TIFF Bell Lightbox... thank you for introducing us to this fascinating story!

    ReplyDelete