By Joan Ellis
Tim Jenison is a man you’ll remember.
An inventor with an insatiable curiosity about how things work, he designed and built a series of fanciful contraptions (think a man propelling himself on roller skates by a fan strapped to his back).
Then one day he wondered why Johannes Vermeer painted differently from other artists of his era. How did he paint photographically before photography was invented?
For Tim, that question became an obsession. He fastened on Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson,” which hangs in Buckingham Palace where he was finally allowed a 30-minute viewing, no instruments allowed.
To get the feel of the light, Tim visited the house in Delft where Vermeer painted. Nothing less would do, he decided, than to recreate the painting optically. To do this, he would build the painting to scale in wood and materials and work from that.
What he had in hand was a very small mirror he had designed that would become the first step. One thing he learned quickly as he worked in minute detail is that the optical method is long, difficult and demanding. What it does not demand is artistic talent. Tim states unequivocally that he is not a painter but a technologist – a technologist with great patience.
He called for opinion. Author Phillip Steadman and artist David Hockney concurred that Vermeer did use a lens, but the simple small lens Tim devised wasn’t enough to explain Vermeer’s singular use of light and texture. By the time he had finished his exhaustive process, he had designed the optical system that allows him to recreate “The Music Lesson.”
And what a trip it has been for the audience.
Much of the fun of the movie lies in watching a man who, once in the grip of his search, turns himself into a machine that paints that painting in just the way he believes Vermeer did. His was not the passion of an artist for his creation, but the obsession of an inventor caught by the mystery of a painter who painted like none of his peers in a way that seemed impossible.
On the 102nd day of his 130-day project, Tim Jenison was still painting the dots in the pattern of the ancient rug with paints mixed as Vermeer had mixed them. He has proven to himself the power of his concept of optics, and to our own astonishment he has shown that the power of the concept derives from the fact that he is not a painter involved in imitation, but a detective unraveling a mystery. What does that make Vermeer?
In the absence of historical documents, that part of the mystery may never be solved. To David Hockney, Phillip Steadman and Martin Mull – and to Penn who produced and Teller who directed – it makes Vermeer a master inventor of optical systems that can see, in the way a camera now can, the beauty of light on surfaces.
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