One’s abilities are also one’s limitations: to a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Tim Jenison, the hero of Tim’s Vermeer (2013) is a technologist, the co-founder of a company that produces software for visual imaging. When Jenison looks at a Vermeer, he sees a special effect, a reproduction of the real: he even refers to Vermeer’s paintings as photographs and likens them to video images. This documentary, the work of Jenison’s friends Penn Jillette and Teller (the latter directed), tracks Jenison’s effort to crack the secret of Vermeer’s paintings (the use of optics) and recreate The Music Lesson by staging its scene and painting with the use of lenses and mirrors. Thus the film’s title.
But Tim’s not Vermeer (as he would readily acknowledge), and Tim’s painting is not a Vermeer. As seen on DVD, Tim’s not-Vermeer appears to be a doggedly literal and lifeless facsimile.¹ It seems likely that Vermeer’s paintings owe something to optics. But a painting is not merely a transcription, a reproduction of the real by mechanical means. Vermeer may be, as Jillette suggests, the greatest artist “of all time.” But why? Because his paintings look like photographs? The idea of art that runs through Tim’s Vermeer is sadly naïve.
I like what William Carlos Williams says in Spring and All (1923), a book of twenty-seven poems and a prose commentary on matters of imagination and representation:
The only realism in art is of the imagination. It is only thus that the work escapes plagiarism after nature and becomes a creation.Art is not a transcript, not a copy, Williams says, again and again, in a various ways. His prose has a curious relevance to optics-based art: reversing the instruction that Hamlet gives the Players — “to hold as ’twere, the mirror up to nature,” Williams insists that Shakespeare “holds no mirror up to nature” in his work. The power of imagination, rather, “is to give created forms reality.”
“Plagiarism after nature”: that’s what Jenison seems to think Vermeer is all about. What’s missing is a consideration of the artist’s imagination. The Music Lesson is, after all, a composition of Vermeer’s making, not something that he happened upon and transcribed. What elements went into the composition? What’s compelling about it? What might it suggest to a viewer whose interest in art goes beyond how-did-he-do-that?
What my relatively unlearned eye sees in The Music Lesson: an arrangement of planes, contrasts of light and dark, a variety of textures, a deeply quiet scene (despite the music-making) that has much to do with decorum and intimacy. The figures in the painting are alone and not alone: an artist’s easel is visible in the mirror. I am pretty sure that if I were to travel back in time to Delft, I would not see anything resembling this painting — except this painting.
An excellent site for learning more about Johannes Vermeer: Essential Vermeer. Here is that site’s page for The Music Lesson. For Vermeer and optics, start at this page: Vermeer and the Camera Obscura. And for a large version of The Music Lesson, try this one.
¹ In truth, a facsimile of a facsimile. Jenison received permission to view the painting (part of the Royal Collection of Great Britain), but he worked from reproductions.