I see that all three Toronto newspapers this morning featured reviews of the documentary, Tim’s Vermeer. For good reason. This gem premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival to great acclaim. It shows this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and also at the Cineplex International Village Cinemas in Vancouver. And is apparently opening next weekend in Montreal. Although it sounds obscure, this documentary is a winner. Fascinating in its detail and provocative in its thesis, it will put you into the centre of a major debate in the world of art.
Tim’s Vermeer relates the story of how a super-wealthy life-long inventor, Tim Jenison, who is not a painter, undertakes to “paint a Vermeer.” His objective is to prove his theory that the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer used a particular type of mirror as a tool to paint his unique and highly acclaimed paintings. Encouraged by illusionists Penn and Teller, he sets about to paint “The Music Lesson,” the original painted by Vermeer in 1663 in Delft, and now hanging in Buckingham Palace. How he does it is the subject of the film.
Who would have thought that “watching paint dry” would be so fascinating? Jenison spent more than five years on this project. Among other things, he learned to speak and read Dutch, he researched all the elements of the painting he chose (the paint itself, the light, the setting, the costumes, the furniture). He learned how to replicate all the elements which appear in Vermeer’s original, and then reproduced them in his San Antonio, Texas studio. Ultimately, he undertook the painstaking task of using his mirror device to paint the painting. All the time encouraged by Penn and Teller. Artist David Hockney (Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, 2006) and art historian Professor Phillip Steadman (Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces, 2001) appear in the film to evaluate how Jenison takes their ideas, adds to them, and puts their theories into practice.
For anyone who has ever been awestruck by the luminosity of Vermeer’s paintings, this film will be fascinating. The film will be equally delightful for those who love a real story about real people, particularly about one of those rare people who actually act on their obsessions and ultimately achieve the unachievable. When Jenison appeared on stage for a Q and A session with Penn and Teller, at the film festival last September, he was besieged by admirers full of questions about what he had done. When we last saw him, he was trailing down a hallway at the Lightbox, his admirers in tow.
See the reviews in today’s papers. Chris Knight in the National Post and James Adams in The Globe and Mail are thoughtful and right on.