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Film & DVD

‘Tim’s Vermeer’ captures an inventor’s strange artistic obsession

Movie about San Antonio inventor Tim Jenison explores inventor’s fascination with Johannes Vermeer’s technique

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‘Tim’s Vermeer’
★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

The first time I ever really felt that I “got” art was, ironically, not while viewing a great work. It was reading Salvador Dalí’s Diary of a Genius, in which the artist described the painstaking work of painting thousands of scales on a fish belly, day in, day out. He might have been joking, and was likely exaggerating, but it suddenly clicked: The willingness to spend hours perfecting something as seemingly insignificant as a fish scale, all in service to rendering a grand vision outside your own head, is art. Anyone can have an artistic vision, but not everyone is committed enough to see it through.

Like Dalí, Tim Jenison spent more than five years obsessively poring over details, focusing on minutiae, teaching himself the necessary skills to bring his vision to life. But, unlike Dalí, Jenison’s passion was not an original artwork. In fact, some people may think what Jenison did is rather anti-art.

Jenison, a highly successful San Antonian in the field of video technology, became intrigued by the work of 17th-century Dutch master painter Johannes Vermeer. For more than a century, the question of how Vermeer attained such incredible hyperrealism has been hotly contested. In 2006, renowned British artist David Hockney tackled the subject in the book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, which posited that Vermeer and many of his contemporaries may have used some technological device, perhaps a camera obscura, to help capture scenes in such glowing detail. 

Proving the theory became an obsession for Jenison, whose company NewTek gave the world the revolutionary 3-D graphics software LightWave, among other innovations. He learned Dutch and made several trips to Vermeer’s hometown of Delft. He examined X-rays of Vermeer’s work to discover that the artist did very little sketching underneath the paint. He tinkered with various lenses and camera obscura designs.

Around 2008, he visited longtime pal Penn Jillette, of the comedy-magic duo Penn and Teller, and Jillette quickly became entranced by Jenison’s mission as well – so much so that he pitched it as a documentary the very next day. The two iconoclasts didn’t feel any of their meetings with Hollywood bigwigs went very well, so they enlisted Jillette’s performance partner, Teller, to come on board as director, with Jillette producing. Thus, Tim’s Vermeer was born, and the project kicked into high gear.

Early in the movie, Jenison hits upon an original notion apart from Hockney’s – or those of another well-known Vermeer-as-technologist proponent, Philip Steadman – that for Vermeer to get such photo-realistic results in color and light, he may have used a small mirror to bounce a reflection of the subject to be painted back to the artist working on his canvas. The small, makeup-sized mirror, positioned just above the canvas, allows the artist to mix color until “the edge of the mirror disappears,” indicating the exact color has been achieved. 

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