Movie review

A new angle on Vermeer's art paints a new picture

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Full disclosure: Teller -- the small, silent half of Penn & Teller -- is a dear friend of mine. One night after a knockout performance at the Byham, he came over to the house and my kids -- who'd seen the show -- bombarded him with "How'd-you-do-this-or-that-trick?" questions. Teller just put on his beatific little smile and, with one finger, drew a line across his lips.

The magician's First Commandment is, of course, Thou shalt not tell. Which makes "Tim's Vermeer" -- a terrific documentary, directed by Teller and narrated by Penn -- all the more perversely fascinating: America's foremost magicians set out to reveal a 400-year-old secret behind the magic of one of the greatest Dutch Masters.

'Tim's Vermeer'

Documentary  featuring Tim Jennison, Penn Jillette, David Hockney, Philip Steadman.

Rating: PG-13 for some strong language..

Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) was a provincial genre painter who left a scant 34 super realistic paintings with an uncanny shimmering beauty and tranquility about them. His art seems to perfectly -- almost photographically -- imitate life. His extraordinary attention to detail, highlighted by tiny pearls of paint and light, is unlike anything found in the typically darker styles of his fellow Dutchmen. Vermeer had little or no formal training. He created no preparatory sketches for his exquisite paintings.

Teller's documentary at hand chronicles the five-year effort of computer-video inventor Tim Jenison to uncover Vermeer's techniques, in general -- the theory that he used optical/mechanical aids, in particular.

It wasn't Mr. Jenison's original idea. British artist David Hockney argued in "Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters" (2001) that Vermeer (among others) used a combination of mirrors, camera obscura/camera lucida (superimposing images onto a paintable surface) to achieve precision. The camera obscura ("darkened chamber"), an optical device known since the fourth century B.C., consists of a box with a hole in one side, through which light from an external scene passes. Upon striking a surface inside, the image rotates 180 degrees and is reproduced upside-down with color and perspective preserved. That image can then be projected onto paper and traced with near-perfect accuracy.

Mr. Jenison tested the theory by attempting to re-create Vermeer's "The Music Lesson/Lady at the Virginals," using the camera obscura process, in his San Antonio warehouse. First he physically re-created the painting's music room and everything in it -- stained glass, curtains, rugs, viola da gamba, elaborate woodworking, and the "virginals" itself -- a small oblong harpsichord, popular in the 17th century, so named because it was played largely by upper-class young ladies. That work took 213 days.

Then came the hand-and-mind-numbing work of trace-painting every face, object, pattern, stitch and carpet fiber -- precisely matching all colors. That took years.

British architecture professor Philip Steadman reinforced the Hockney theory in "Vermeer's Camera," noting that at least six of Vermeer's paintings were painted in the same room, all of them the exact same size of a camera-obscura box theoretically located in the room's back wall. Other experts point to Vermeer's unique sparkling pearly highlights as the halo effect from a primitive camera-obscura lens.

Mr. Jenison's results are amazing, but the theory is still disputed. Hockney posits that Vermeer was "a scientist as well as an artist," well aware of Holland's state-of-the-art optical developments. But there's no historical or biographical proof of Vermeer's interest in optics, and a detailed inventory of his belongings after his death includes no camera obscura or any other similar device.

Teller carefully balances Mr. Jenison's obsessive experiment with the larger cultural context in 80 brisk, thought-provoking minutes, exploring the relationship between art and technology in an entertaining and accessible kind of a detective story. Was Vermeer a truly masterful artist or just an extremely skilled technician? Was the use of optical devices -- if, indeed, he used them -- cheating or innovation? Should our evaluation of him change if he did?

Maybe so, but maybe not downward. Maybe Teller's and Mr. Jenison's demystification of Vermeer's artistic process leaves us with a different mystery. Penn's narration ends with a nice insight: " 'Unfathomable genius' doesn't really mean anything. Now he's a fathomable genius."

At which point, Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" provides the perfect exit music.

("Tim's Vermeer" opens today at the Regent Square Theater. P.S.: Vermeer's 1664 painting "The Concert" -- depicting a man and two women playing music, much like "The Music Lesson" -- was stolen from Boston's Gardner Museum in 1990 and remains missing. It is the most valuable unrecovered stolen painting, valued at more than $200 million. Penn & Teller need to work their magic on making it -- abracadabra! -- reappear.)

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris:

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