Tim's Vermeer (12A)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner17/01/2014

Four out of Five stars
Running time: 80 mins

Engaging and fascinating documentary that raises some challenging questions about the nature of art and serves as a remarkable portrait of obsession, while casting Vermeer's original technique in an intriguing new light.

What's it all about?
Directed by Teller (of Penn and Teller fame - Penn is on hand for commentary), Tim's Vermeer is a documentary about inventor Tim Jenison's attempts to recreate one of Johannes Vermeer's most famous paintings. Fascinated by Vermeer's photo-realistic 17th century paintings, Jenison learns from artist David Hockney that Vermeer may have used a complex system of optics, so he begins to experiment, eventually developing a system that uses the principles of a camera obscura and essentially projects an image onto the canvas which can then be copied exactly.

Inspired by his low-level successes, Jenison embarks on a five year project to exactly recreate Vermeer's The Music Lesson, using only materials that would have been available to the artist at the time. This involves grinding his own lenses, mixing the same type of paint, recreating Vermeer's own studio in a garage in San Antonio and painstakingly re-staging the exact same scene of the painting.

The Good
Jenison is a fascinating and engaging character and it's impossible not to admire the level of his obsession, particularly in the latter half of the film, where he sets about steadfastly recreating The Music Lesson by hand and it takes him 130 days - the film presents this section as a to-camera diary, with the tedium of the work clearly taking its toll. The film is also enormously satisfying, both on the level of solving (or introducing, depending on how swayed you are) an art history mystery and also in its depictions of Jenison's own boyish enthusiasm, which becomes more and more infectious with each new success or discovery (it's easy to see why he insists on carrying the project through to the end).

One of the most riveting things about the film is the element of puzzle-solving, particularly at a certain stage in the painting when Jenison is presented with a challenge involving the pattern on a piece of furniture. It's a tiny detail, but the way the film is presented allows you to share Jenison's joy at solving the problem, not least because it seems to offer proof that he's on the right track.

The Great
Like many of the best documentaries, Tim's Vermeer raises a number of intriguing questions and leaves you with a lot to think about surrounding the nature of art. Is Vermeer any less of an artist because he used the camera obscura technique? Is he, essentially, a cheat? Does the fact that Tim (a non-painter) perfectly recreates Vermeer's painting make him as great an artist as Vermeer? Or was Vermeer a different kind of genius who basically tapped into the principles of photography over a century before photography itself was invented?

Worth seeing?
Tim’s Vermeer is a thoroughly entertaining, well made documentary that explores a fascinating subject and raises some intriguing questions. Highly recommended.

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Tim's Vermeer (12A)
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Content updated: 11/12/2017 05:56

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