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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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Jenison himself proves an affable subject, captured over the course of thousands of hours tweaking, building and painting away. While what he’s doing seems absolutely insane at times, he comes off as wry and analytic, almost to a fault. Musing about Vermeer’s famed technique, he tells the camera, “They say Vermeer painted with light, but you can’t paint with light. You have to paint with paint.” 

Jenison, who is not a painter at all (though his wife and three daughters are all artists), tests his theory on a simple black-and-white photograph, which he paints a replica of using his mirror contraption. The result literally elicited “oohs” and “ahs” from the audience in my film screening. He then gains two enthusiastic supporters in Hockney (who is so delightful in this film you’ll want to track down the 2009 doc David Hockney: A Bigger Picture) and Steadman as he endeavors to re-create a Vermeer painting, from scratch, using his method.

The chosen painting, “The Music Lesson,” was likely created in a room Vermeer used often for his work, and Jenison wanted to replicate the space exactly. He spends more than 200 days transforming a nondescript warehouse in northwest San Antonio into the room. He commissions custom pottery, replicates the intricate detail of the harpsichord and special-orders the unique instruments, globe-trotting as needed. While Teller might not be the most technically savvy director, he works magic in making this a thrilling process to behold, giving the narrative a madcap caper air. 

The actual painting process, too, is somehow enthralling, though we’re mainly seeing Jenison hunched over the same desk, with his mirror contraption and some tiny brushes. As in the tableau, he tries to remain as authentic as possible, using only natural light and learning to mix colors as Vermeer would have back in the 1600s rather than buying oil paints. Like Dalí’s fish scales, this is physically painful work that took Jenison more than 130 days to complete. Just painting the tiny knots on the rug featured in the right-hand corner took almost a month.

The final result is … well, I won’t spoil it. Let’s just say it gives you an appreciation for Vermeer, optical device or not, as well as for Jenison, who stuck with the project for five full years. Jenison has said that he feels about 90 percent sure that Vermeer used a contraption very similar to the optical device he created, but some art historians remain skeptical. While few would call Jenison’s Vermeer copy art, after viewing this film, I’d say, based on the passion, curiosity and dedication Jenison displayed, he’s certainly an artist … of some kind.

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