The number 34 is the one the world is accustomed to living with. That’s how many paintings survive that are attributed to the great Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in his 43 years on earth (1632-1675). Scholars in the 19th century numbered 66 of them, but not only do standards of scholarship evolve over time but in the 20th century, wartime consumed Europe. And art is no less vulnerable than humanity.
So we have only 34 surviving paintings in which to marvel at Vermeer’s genius.
His subjects were the humblest and most domestic of subjects but many of the paintings are, even to the most untutored eyes, clearly sublime. His reproductions of light in pigment are among the greatest even in a painterly endeavor whose early practitioners comprise a kind of mini-aristocracy in a world now awash in photography and movies (Caravaggio, Titian, DeLaTour, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Ribera, etc.).
See “Tim’s Vermeer,” opening Friday, and you’ll understand a possible reason for the parsimony of Vermeer’s genius. Here is a delightfully eccentric film about a gloriously eccentric project – the attempt by an independently wealthy software inventor named Tim Jenison to prove that Vermeer’s paintings were produced by optics. That is, they were produced through a combination of a camera obscura device and a curved mirror that could render the desired image in photographic detail on a surface requiring only that Vermeer’s pigments trace and reproduce it exactly.
So we watch while Jenison takes 150 days (plus advance preparation) to do just that with Vermeer’s “The Music Room.” He assembles replicas of the pieces of Vermeer’s composed image – virginal, viola da gamba, sun-bathed window – and then painstakingly uses his optic technique to reproduce the image with fiendish exactitude, using only paints he has mixed as Vermeer might have.
It isn’t nearly as eccentric an endeavor as it might seem to anyone who knows one of the great masterpieces of 20th century literature, Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” In that story, a modern writer named Pierre Menard arranges to duplicate the life of Miguel de Cervantes just so that he can, independently, write every word of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” In one of the great closing lines in modern literature, Borges compares Cervantes’ text with Menard’s and concludes the two were identical except that Menard’s was “infinitely richer.”
The point being proved in “Tim’s Vermeer” isn’t at all Borgesian. It is, in fact, part of the programmatic skepticism of Penn and Teller, the comedy magicians who, when not performing their act, are freelance rationalists and debunkers, bringing their supreme passion for rational explanation to everything human beings love to shroud in irrationality.
In the case of Vermeer, Penn Jillette (on camera, talking) and Teller (behind the camera, directing, and, as always voiceless to the audience) are out to expose to the sunlight one of the greatest quasi-religious faiths of all – that artists can perform miracles unaided by technology.
It was British painter David Hockney who first significantly advanced the idea that so many of what we now consider old masters – Holbein, Velasquez – may have depended on optical devices to create their masterpieces. Most significantly, Philip Steadman applied that notion specifically to Vermeer in a book.
Hockney and Steadman are both in Penn and Teller’s film commenting on Jenison’s project along the way and, especially, marveling at the finished result, an uncanny Vermeer reproduction by a man who had no artistic training.
Though the heart of the film is Jenison patiently going through every step of the painting, the key moment is when an expert on human vision steadfastly assures us that the human retina is incapable of seeing unaided the gradations of light that are captured perfectly in Vermeer’s “Music Room.”
A perfect Penn and Teller act, of course, whereby the two obsessive rationalists are able to knock the scaffolding out from under a huge human act of faith – in this case, blind faith in the exceptionalism of artistic genius.
But then the basic paradox of faith always can undermine all the elaborate rationality in the world. All you have to do, to quote the famous paraphrase of Tertullian, is say “I believe BECAUSE it is absurd.”
Starring: Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, David Hockney
Running time: 80 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for strong language.
The Lowdown: Independently wealthy inventor Tim Jenison attempts to reproduce exactly the artistic process of a Vermeer masterpiece.