Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Tim's Vermeer

Last night I watched the film Tim's Vermeer, a documentary produced and narrated by Penn Jillette (and, incidentally, directed by Teller) about his friend Tim Jenison and his fascination with Johannes Vermeer's ability to make very photo-realistic paintings.

Jenison is an inventor and designer of television equipment and he became fascinated with Vermeer after reading British artist David Hockney's book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters in which Hockney posits the idea that Vermeer may have used optics, that is lenses and mirrors, to make his paintings.  Jenison, coming from a background of video technology became obsessed with Hockney's thesis and set about to prove it correct.

The film records the five year process by which Jenison sought to replicate Vermeer's Music Lesson using 17th century optics.

Along the way Jenison taught himself how to grind lenses, make his own pigments, wood-working, even how to paint to a certain degree.  He replicated the room that Vermeer used as his primary studio.  Jenison is a man obsessed and the viewer follows along with his obsession.  However, unlike many obsessive types, Jenison remains a very personable and likable guy throughout the process.

There are several points in the film that discuss the physics of optics and how they would have been used and the neuroscience of light and vision and they provide excellent background context as do interviews with David Hockney.  One of the key points the film makes is that the idea that art and science are forever and always separate is very much a modern idea and did not exist in the 17th century.

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