Documentary Explores Secrets of Vermeer

There is something about the very small but stunning oeuvre of 17th century Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) that has for several decades captivated and inspired both the public and those in the art world. At times, it seems, it’s driven them a bit nutty. For example, when the esteemed British artist David Hockney published his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering Techniques of the Old Masters, he claimed that lenses, mirrors, optics and projections were used by Vermeer as well as other Old Masters to create their masterpieces. In doing so, Hockney, who wanted to at least suggest that there was a closer connection between the worlds of art (oil painting) and science (optics and physics) back in the 17th century than there is today, set off a firestorm of debate, some of which focused on the fact that Old Masters could have never “cheated” by using such “tricks.”

Of course, the debate goes much deeper, in part because Vermeer’s paintings, such as The Girl with the Pearl Earring, almost exude a magical aura. To “cheapen” it by pointing out that the Dutch Master was simply tracing the distortions created by the lens projections (and such devices as the camera obscura, which was a predecessor of film cameras) seems more than just an insult. In the art world, such ideas seem anathema.

Nevertheless, the public’s obsession seems unabated, at least in regards to Vermeer. So, a new documentary film, titled Tim’s Vermeer and directed by Teller (the quieter half of renowned magic duo Penn & Teller), should draw more than just the usual art-world moviegoers.

The movie centers around technologist Tim Jenison (The “Tim” in the film’s title), who goes in search of how Vermeer created his extraordinary works, focusing, like Hockney, on the technique of using camera obscuras or lenses to project a scene or setting and then, more or less, tracing the subjects from the projected imagery. In other words, Vermeer harnessed the power of the day’s modern technology to create a new pictorial language, filled with distortions and image characteristics that could only have come about via a lens or camera obscura.

According to the filmmakers, the movie explores how Jenison (who has never painted before) searches and develops his idea of using a mirror to show how Vermeer not only traced shapes but how he may have precisely duplicated the color of real objects. The film reveals how Jenison could paint with “astonishing, Vermeer-like accuracy” and how “it surprised all who witnessed it. It was as if it were a magic trick.” However, there seems little discussion over a more powerful reason Vermeer’s paintings work so beautifully: the delicate balance and their spectacular compositional structure. Still, the film should intrigue most artists.

Not surprisingly, Hockney appears in the film as well, along with actor/artist Martin Mull and art historian Philip Steadman. Click here to find a showtime near you.

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