Friday, March 21, 2014

Film: Art Project

Tim's Vermeer, Directed by Teller

Yeah, I know. I seem to be nothing but reviews at the moment. I suppose that this is because I am in a
review sort of mood. Plus the fact that my life is otherwise rather boring at the moment, though it is boring in a good way. Getting stuff done, hanging out with people, playing games, reading. Boring can be very good sometimes.

And in this case last week I decided on a weeknight (gasp!) to go a movie (Gasp!) by myself (GASP!) up in the U-District (meh). In this case, it was a tidy little film of the type that I didn't want to drag friends out to - Tim's Vermeer, about a guy who paints himself a Vermeer.

The Music Lesson by Vermeer
And the film was playing at the Sundance theater, and the last time I had been to that building it was for the Firefly sneak peak, so we're talking, what, nine years or so? Yeah, I'm not one for much repeat business. But I do note that the theater has been upgraded to a high-end, comfortable-chair, over-21-so-we-can-serve-alcohol venue. I arrived early, and as a result spent about an hour upstairs in the lounge by the gas fireplace, eating a pizza, nursing a cuba libre, and reading Wodehouse's Code of the Woosters. So I was pretty relaxed even before the movie.

Ah, right, the movie. Tim Jenison is successful inventor and founder of NewTek, which did Video Toaster and Lighwave 3D. Creative, ingenious, and having both time to pursue his ideas as well money to aid in any pursuit he takes an interest in. And he decides to paint a Vermeer.

And he's not forging a Vermeer, but rather using the Vermeer (The Music Lesson) as a model in an attempt to figure out Vermeer's technique. Vermeer is best known for his photo-realistic style and his soft, almost golden light. How did he capture these effects on the canvas? Jenison, an avowed non-artist, seeks to duplicate it.

The artist David Hockney put forward the theory in his Secret Knowledge (2001) that the more realistic painters of the 16th and 17th century achieved their results by use of increased technology and research in optics and lenses. Indeed, my book of Vermeer prints from 1997 makes mention of the camera obscura as a technique, a simple device that consists of a dark room with a hole in an end. The reflected light present the image of the outside world in a ghostly, inverted image.

What Jenison has done is take these theories down to the ground level and examines the possible applications of this technology. First he fits the aperture of the camera obscura with a lens to sharpen the image. Then, he ingeniously uses a small mirror to duplicate the images, one line at a time. There is no sketchwork, no underpainting. merely duplication. He is coloring the image he sees at the edge of the mirror onto the canvas. Finally (as he discovers during the course of the film), he replaced the blank wall the image is focused on with a convex mirror to sharpen the image further. It is an optical three-bank shot that allows him to photocopy the image by hand.

There's more to it than that, of course. He could have taken a reproduction of The Music Lesson and copied it directly in this fashion. Instead, he recreated the scene in the picture and then painted that in order to confirm that the distortions visible in the final product are the result of the methodology. Which means he created a studio with a northern exposure, had the costumes shown in the painting made, built the furniture, tracked down suitable pottery and musical instruments, and built a virginal (an early harpsichord). He ground his own lenses and mixed his own paints in the manner noted. And then, having done all that, started to paint, a long and detailed process of painting what he saw and matching the color along the mirror's edge.

The movie is that journey, of Jenison's attempt not just to reproduce, but to get it right. To create a proof-of-concept that this was a legitimate "lost technology" that could have been used by painters of the era. And the presentation captures and holds the attention. Jenison himself comes across as reasonable, engaged, and down-to-earth. He is balanced by Penn Jillette's narration (Teller directs), which provides the level of excitement bombast necessary to declare, yeah, this is a big deal.

Vermeer himself is a bit of mystery here throughout - there is record of his birth (I think - his father carries a different surname), and of his entering the Guild of Saint Luke, the painter's guild in the Low Countries, but no record of his apprenticeship in Delph. That may just mean  he spent his apprenticeship elsewhere, as those were more portable days. And while he was made the head of the Guild, he did not found a school or train others to follow in his style. At the time, he did not enjoy the popularity of the Dutch Masters of the era, and while his work was rediscovered in the 19th century, in my research I keep seeing the teeth-grating definition that he was a "provincial" artist of "genre" works.

I any event, a good film, and one that you should get out to see, or to at least queue up for the Netflix release.

More later,