In this intriguing and provocative documentary, a Texas-based inventor paints a version of Vermeer's The Music Lesson in a warehouse in Texas.
At first, Tim Jenison's attitude toward the 17th century Dutch painter seems hostile and reductive. He's a self-confessed "geek", a scientist who was heavily involved in the desktop video revolution. Jenison's goal is to prove that Vermeer used lenses and mirrors and that his technique was essentially "photographic". In other words, Vermeer's work was more to do with reproduction than original artistic inspiration – anyone with his tools could achieve the same effect of extreme verisimilitude and create the illusion of "painting with light".
The director is Jenison's close friend Teller, one half of the magic duo Penn & Teller. This itself causes suspicion. Surely, audiences may think, the film itself is an exercise in legerdemain. As it turns out, Teller's approach is as painstaking as that of Jenison, who ends up spending several years on his Quixotic experiment.
Jenison is clearly extremely rich. That means he has the time to go to Delft to study the light and architecture. He is also a brilliant and dedicated scientist. His fascination with Vermeer was sparked when his daughter gave him a book on the artist by David Hockney (who features prominently in the documentary).
Ironically, the longer Jenison spends on trying to paint like a Dutch master , the more mysterious Vermeer's genius seems. This is not a case of a master forger dashing off a quick copy. Jenison's experiment is an act of homage, not one of debunking. He gives us greater insight into the methods of the artist than we are ever likely to receive from a conventional art historian.
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