By maxdennison, Feb 1 2014 05:27PM
I was at an awards screening of 'Tim's Vermeer' last night at BAFTA, a candidate for this years Best Documentary category . I had been waiting for the chance to go and see this ever since I first heard about it some months ago and I was delighted to finally have the opportunity. It was produced and directed by the famous magicians Penn & Teller, which ordinarily wouldn't quite offer the usual gravitas for a subject concerning classical painting, but nevertheless, for them to be involved in a documentary of this type certainly gave it a thick glaze of intrigue. This feature length documentary is about a 'technologists' quest to try to fathom and unravel the mysteries of how Johannes Vermeer managed to attain such photographic realism in his paintings.
Johannes Vermeer (b1632 - d1675) was a Dutch painter living and working in Delft who specialised in interior scenes and is possibly most noted for his 'Girl with a Pearl Earing'. His work, famous for soft light entering through a window from the left and falling onto an everyday middle class domestic scene became, in essence, an historic document describing life at the time. He differed from his contemporaries by the quantitive level of detail he added and his qualitative use and understanding of light.
As a Matte Artist, I have often admired Vermeer's work. It's adherence to the art of photographic visual representation is one which has a striking resonance with the work which I, along with many others, do to this day. Indeed, one could easily argue that he was one of the very first 'matte artists' to have emerged and that matte artists such as Poppa Day, Ellenshaw, and Pangrazio etc. were merely standing on his shoulders. Of course, there have been many other photographic artists in history, and since Vermeer, who have demonstrated this incredible, and some might say - supernatural ability to accurately describe what they see in oils (not an easy medium at the best of times). Artists such as Caravaggio, and later - Albert Bierstadt and Peder Monstead were notables who, I believe, were absolute masters of this genre.
So the question remains - how on earth did he do it?
The Documentary follows Tim Jenison, a technologist, entrepreneur, software manufacturer and inventor who developed a deep fascination for Vermeer's work. Like many fans of Vermeer, he had a ringing question in his ears - how on earth did Vermeer managed to capture such incredible detail and such accurate lighting? Indeed, if you study a Vermeer very closely, and I mean very closely, you will see firstly, that there are no lines or underlying sketches beneath the paintings. Secondly, you would see the incomprehensible level of detail. And thirdly, the more observant of you would notice the incredibly complex and accurate perspective. Now, as an artist myself, I know just how difficult this is to achieve, and I can have all the modern day techniques and materials at my disposal. Vermeer lived 350 years ago!!
Tim set himself a challenge: discover if Vermeer was indeed superhuman, or did he use 'tricks'?
We follow Tim over about 4 years on his quest to find the answer. Gaining the endorsement and support of David Hockney who himself had written about the Camera Obscura and the use of 'optics' in early painting, he develops an hypothesis to show how Vermeer 'could have' done it. With his background in technology and problem solving, he builds a painting rig which, surprising, works! Tim admits to us that he has never done a painting before and that he is not a painter, but using his technique, he challenges himself to reproduce, faithfully, The Music Lesson by Vermeer. And he does it!!
What this film demonstrates more than anything else is the use of and help that technology has played in the development of art and painting over the centuries. Painting has never been about exclusivity, inhabited only by the rich and 'knowledgeable'. It is about exploration, trickery, experimentation, invention and creativity. As David Hockney says in the film (and I paraphrase here) - the use of technology and trickery in art is only winged and criticised about by the people who write about Art, and not by the artist.