Did Dutch master Johannes Vermeer use technology to help make his astonishing images? He did, according to Tim’s Vermeer, a documentary written and narrated by Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller), and directed by Teller. The movie opens Feb. 28 in North Texas.
Artist David Hockney and others believe that Vermeer may have employed a device called a camera obscura, though many art historians are not convinced. But when inventor and digital video expert Tim Jenison, of San Antonio, became intrigued with the question, he decided to take a scientific approach. His quest is detailed in the film.
Though he has no art training, Jenison came up with a device — combining a camera obscura and a couple of mirrors, one of them angled — that allowed him to paint a respectable copy of a photo of his father-in-law. Encouraged, he concocted a grand experiment: to reproduce one of Vermeer’s masterpieces, The Music Lesson.
For eight months he labored with brush in hand using the optical device he created that could have been employed by Vermeer. We spoke to Jenison by phone from Los Angeles.
1 What was it about Vermeer’s paintings that first caught your attention?
They’re just inhumanly good. They look like photographs. They jump right off the wall, among other Dutch paintings. People have noticed this for centuries, that there’s something uncanny about his unfailing accuracy.
2 You said on the Charlie Rose show that Vermeer painted the way a camera sees, not the way a human eye sees.
Most people don’t believe this argument, they say, “Hey, I see just fine, I don’t know about you.” But we don’t. You can look at optical illusions, and they show your eye is lying to you sometimes.
3 Some people seem to resent the idea that an artist might use a device like the camera obscura, as if it’s a trick or a deception.
I think it’s a very modern mind-set. We tend to discriminate between illustrators and artists with a capital A. Illustrators use kinds of projectors and things. Norman Rockwell said he used a projector. He didn’t like to talk about it, but it saved so much time. Kind of ashamed of it. Vermeer would not have been ashamed of it. He was a Renaissance man, and they would do anything in their power, [use] any skill or any tool, to get at their image.
4 What would you say to people who think your experiment somehow diminishes Vermeer and his work?
I didn’t change the painting (laughs). The painting’s still exactly what it was. To me, I’m a technical guy, and Vermeer went up a few notches in my book.
5 At the end of the movie, Penn Jillette says that it’s a mistake to make a distinction between an inventor and an artist. Do you agree?
Oh, yes. Just to go the other way, I write computer software, and there’s a tremendous amount of art and creativity in that, which most people don’t realize. It’s a human process of creation in both cases.
— Walter Addiego, San Francisco Chronicle