Computer zillionaire Tim Jenison believes that the great Dutch painter Vermeer used a combination of mirrors and lenses to achieve the extraordinary exactitude of his artistry. The remarkable documentary “Tim’s Vermeer,” directed by Teller with the on-camera participation of his magician partner Penn Jillette, paints a cinematic portrait of their friend Jenison that is part detective story, part art history seminar, and part bromance.
The theory that Vermeer used optical devices to aid his eye has been around a long time – for example, both David Hockney and author Philip Steadman have written books proposing that Vermeer used a camera obscura. Jenison goes a step further. Fashioning lenses that would have been operative in the 17th century, and reproducing Vermeer's studio in a San Antonio warehouse, he proceeds, over the course of 213 days, to reproduce, brushstroke by brushstroke, a famous Vermeer canvas, right down to the costumes and the stained-glass windows.
The final result is graphically faithful to the original to a remarkable degree. Does this mean that Jenison is right about Vermeer? And if so, does it detract from Vermeer’s genius to say that he used mechanical devices to achieve his ends?
The movie doesn’t delve very deeply into these aesthetic questions, and perhaps this is just as well. It’s all about the artistic process, not the meaning of the process. (Watch Orson Welles’s documentary “F for Fake” for a definitive movie about the nature of forgery.)
When I interviewed Jenison at the Toronto film festival, I asked him to play devil’s advocate against his theory. How he could prove himself wrong? He said there were three reigning possibilities: First, no documentation of any kind exists from that time to prove his theory. Second, even though Jenison’s reproductions are amazing, that doesn’t prove Vermeer used lenses. The third possibility is that Jenison, who has shown no previous artistic talent, is in fact, a painter of genius. None of these seem likely.
What matters in the end for Jenison – who believes Vermeer was a genius in any case – is the work itself. However these great paintings came about, they exist apart from the method used to create them, and for all time. And of course, Vermeer’s compositions, so integral to to their power, were not created by an assortment of lenses. What “Tim’s Vermeer” is really about is two geniuses, of very different sorts, communing across time and space. Grade: A- (Unrated.)