Fakes and copies
Make your own Vermeer
Art Basel Film includes an inventor’s lengthy—and not entirely successful—attempt to copy the master
By Iain Millar. From Art Basel daily edition
Published online: 20 June 2014
There’s a new Vermeer on show in Basel this week. But it’s not by Vermeer; it’s a film about an inventor called Tim Jenison, who came up with a gee-whizz gadget to do with television production that has left him with some money and an interest in historical optics. He’s also a friend of Penn Jillette of “Penn and Teller” fame.
Tim’s clearly a very talented man who can turn his hand to most things technical and takes an interest in what goes on under the hood. So when he ends up having a close look at Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, 1662-65 (initially in reproduction), he can’t work out how the painter managed to achieve the effects he did, given the presumed limitations of his age. This is the territory mined by Philip Steadman in his book Vermeer’s Camera (Oxford University Press, 2001) and by David Hockney in Secret Knowledge (Thames & Hudson, 2006), and they both appear in this film, along with the brain and perception scientist Colin Blakemore. But Tim being Tim, he decides to take it all to pieces and see for himself what occurred.
Before you know it, he’s knocked up a near-perfect replica of the room that Vermeer painted, learned to make paint the old-fashioned way, done a nifty bit of glass-grinding to make the devices he’s convinced Vermeer must have used (if he’s right, it’s a classy trick, so no spoilers here) and even cut his own lathe in half so he can get the leg of a virginal to just the right length. And Penn and Teller are along for the ride, the latter showing a steady hand as director, the former acting as producer and calmly enthusiastic narrator (except when they get to England and they think the Queen isn’t going to let Tim see the original painting—then he’s slightly less calm).
There’s a cute graphic doing the rounds via social networks that seeks to explain the creative process using a kind of felt-tip bar chart over time. The last bar is annotated with the words “all the work while crying”. Jenison might not have left all the work to the very last minute, given his circumstances seem to allow him as much time as he needs, but as he finally sits down to work, the crying part of the equation gradually kicks in. The scale of the task is enormous, now that all the preparation is out of the way. When the tears do flow, it’s hardly surprising. The painting has taken him 1,825 days from the initial concept to the last coat of varnish.
Penn Jillette is adamant that “my friend Tim painted a Vermeer. In a warehouse. In San Antonio. He painted a Vermeer.” Not exactly, Penn. He copied a Vermeer. Slowly and laboriously. As a great big show-and-tell project. And while he may, possibly, have contributed to the art-historical investigations by the likes of Steadman and Hockney, it doesn’t tell us a whole lot about why art is great, although Penn has a go when he says: “Unfathomable genius doesn’t mean anything. Now he’s a fathomable genius.” Hockney is perhaps nearer the money when he says of Tim’s painting: “I think it might disturb quite a lot of people.”
Sooner rather than later, someone, possibly even Tim Jenison, is going to come up with a computer-powered device that will exactly copy a Vermeer, a Caravaggio or a Titian (the Modernists are easier to do, which is why forgers congregate around them, rather than the Old Masters). And it won’t be a Vermeer, a Caravaggio or a Titian either. But they will sell by the yard, depending on the price point.
“Tim’s Vermeer” is a finely crafted and engaging film that takes Penn and Teller’s sceptical agenda, no bad thing when it comes to debunking rogues, and uses it as a sledgehammer to crush a nut. The painting we get is just a fancier version of an Empire State Building made out of matchsticks. In a high-tech garden shed.
“Tim’s Vermeer”, Stadtkino Basel, 21 June at 8pm, followed by a Q&A with Tim Jenison and producer Farley Ziegler
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