It’s a rare thing, when a documentary puts you on the edge of your seat and has you emotionally engaged with a topic that at first glance should be like watching paint dry, but it happens. “Tim’s Vermeer” is a compelling look at the marriage of art and technology and it how it produced some of our more memorable works of art. I got the chance to talk to subject Tim Jenison and how he came up with the idea to tackle this challenge, how Penn and Teller got involved, how the art world has responded to the film and how this idea speaks to the human condition.
Dave Voigt: This is the loaded question, but it’s the one that I have to ask, what was it about Vermeer, over any other painters that made you want to tackle this experiment?
Tim Jenison: Well, by trade I am a computer graphics and video guy, and I am used to looking at images in a very technical way…it’s actually spoiled TV watching for me, because I am constantly seeing technical problems (Laughs). When I first saw the Vermeer’s I knew that something wasn’t right because they really do jump off the wall when I see them next to other paintings. They just look extremely realistic as if though, as some people have said that they were painted with light. They are just very different and I was very curious about that. Subsequently my daughter had given me David Hockney’s book back in 2002, that talked about how artists must have started using optics back in the late Renaissance as the work started to get more and more realistic. Most people thought that they were just tracing the shapes of things by using lenses and something called a camera obscura. But when you look at the Vermeer’s that really isn’t an explanation at all, because he got the colours and the brightness of certain things just exactly right and the human just isn’t capable of doing that which I learned from my experiences designing television equipment. There is simply something that is truly superhuman about these paintings and that is what got me thinking.
DV: Obviously, not everyone has Penn & Teller as friends. How did they ultimately come involved and turn what you started out as a hobby and an experiment, into a feature documentary?
TJ: (Deadpan) Well, it was just a huge mistake (Laughs), it really did get out of control when Penn Jillette got involved (Laughs). I had met Penn & Teller about 25 years ago through a mutual friend. We ended up hitting it off, with Penn especially if only because we had a lot in common. I’ve known him for quite a while and we have done other projects together. One night we were having dinner together in Vegas and I told him about this idea that I had, about how Vermeer may have been using this arrangement of mirrors to make his paintings and he got really excited about it. He said that this has to be a movie, and told me to stop what I was doing on it and don’t do anything else until he could get a film crew together. I was skeptical because I knew that this was pretty esoteric stuff, and he was adamant how great of an idea this was for a movie…and you know that’s why he gets paid the big bucks (Laughs), he saw something in there that other people wouldn’t necessarily see. The pitch for this film doesn’t necessarily sound that exciting when you are talking about 17th century oil paintings, but he really saw this adventure story which is what it became.
DV: For years and years we’ve always had this distinction in our minds between the art of science and the art of creativity which in many ways has been blurred by your experiment documented in this film. When you first started out, were you just setting out to do it for the sake of doing it or were you trying to prove a grander point?
TJ: When I thought of the basic idea, to trace not only shapes but exact colours. Basically make a hand painted photograph with this very simple device, it hit me like an electric shock. I was in the bathtub at the time, so maybe the hair dryer fell in or something (Laughs) but it was a really powerful epiphany. It was just so elegant and so powerful in my imagination that I just couldn’t believe that I was actually the first one to think of it. It was such a perfect explanation for the Vermeer’s that it almost had to be true.
As far as the blurring of art and sciences goes, I don’t really think that there ever has been an actual separation and it is more of a modern division. I mean in Vermeer’s day, Renaissance men were men of art and science simultaneously. Plus art has always had technology intertwined with it, oil painting is a technology and the geometry of a house is a technology. I don’t think Vermeer would have looked on it like any kind of cheat, but it was just a tool in order to get the perfect image.
DV: The film has done the festival circuit and its theatrical run with now available on DVD & Blu-Ray for mass consumption. How has the general reaction to the movie from the art world been so far?
TJ: Well we haven’t heard much so far. In 2001, when David Hockney’s book “Secret Knowledge” came out, there was a huge uproar. It caused this flame war on the web which continues to this day and “Tim’s Vermeer” is really only just starting to enter this conversation. Some people are pro and some are con which obviously makes for a polarizing debate, but the academic world really hasn’t thrown in their two cents yet. Once in a while, they will get quoted and say some nice things but I have a feeling that we are in the calm before the storm right now, as the truly big debate really hasn’t happened yet?
DV: We got some background in the film, not only about your career and background but also some of the things that you have done strictly as a hobby over the years, dare I ask if there is a “Tim’s Vermeer 2” or something similar in our near future?
TJ: (Laughs) You know it’s funny because we kept this thing under wraps and no one really knew it was coming until we showed it at Telluride last August. It was such a simple and elegant idea that we thought if it did get out we would almost certainly get scooped on it, so to be honest if we did have a “Tim’s Vermeer 2” up our sleeve, I probably wouldn’t tell you (Laughs)
DV: That’s a completely fair answer, and obviously you are a successful guy outside of this realm but I’m curious, what is it that for you that keeps that wheel turning and what do you ultimately get from coming up with ideas like this and trying different things?
TJ: You know, I don’t know. I think it really is just about being alive. I’ve always felt the most alive when I have been in the middle of a big project. In my day job, I’ve had to see multiyear projects to completion and I am still doing that as it is the main channel for my efforts. This movie project was definitely a bit off the beaten path for me, but I do have a lot of hobbies and all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. I’m just interested in a lot of different things, I can’t tell if that’s a weird thing or not as I am just inside looking out…
DV: Not at all, but it really does speak to the human condition and reminds of an old quote I heard. “Why would anyone ever climb Mount Everest?…because it’s there”
TJ: Absolutely, exactly. You only go around once and you just have to make it as interesting as possible.
“Tim’s Vermeer” is now available on DVD & Blu-Ray everywhere.