Monday, June 30, 2014

Tim’s not Vermeer

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.

comments: 3

The Crow said...

No, Tim is not Vermeer.

While I was fascinated by Jenison's investigation of his theory regarding Vermeer's painting, it didn't explain why The Music Lesson is different every time I view (reproductions of) it, even setting aside the inconsistencies of the reproductions or ambient light. I liked that Jenison dissected the painting as I would if I stood in front of the original, following the brushstrokes, trying to see the colors beneath the surface, tracing with my eyes the shadows in hopes my brain will remember when I try to use the technique in something I paint. But is that the point of art? Without using Vermeer’s exact paints and brushes, without the light of day that Vermeer painted in – without being Vermeer, all Tim can do is copy. No one else can put into a Vermeer – or Picasso or Dali – or van Gogh or Turner – Wyeth, Hopper or any other artist’s work - the spirit, the inspiration, and the emotions that the artist felt when it was painted. It is that singularity of creation which shines through and is so difficult to duplicate.

Art truly is born for the observer at the moment it is viewed, at the instant the eyes light on another section, at the beat of the heart that quickens with emotion, at the breath that slows in wonder and appreciation. Appreciating art is an intimate and unique experience…for me, anyway.

(My favorite part of the documentary, though, was the painting of the carpet – that painstaking detail work.)

Anonymous said...

The impetus to try to reproduce another's genius is a fool's mission, or so it seems. Whether attempting to reproduce the conditions for a Vermeer or the materials for an Amati or the "pristine world of the noble savage," it seems odd that folks try to pursue secrets without noticing that without Vermeer himself, Amati himself or some actual 'savage' that is somehow noble, no recreation of an original can succeed. It should always be 'close but no cigar.' Oddly, so much capital in both time, energy and money goes to learning secrets incompletely makes me wonder. Why not spend that capital to the best of the new? After all, in your 'Words to live by,' you say again, "Every day is a new deal." Thanks for the apt critique. Not so much a music lesson, but a lesson indeed. A facsimile remains but a fact simile.

Michael Leddy said...

I’m grateful for these deeply thoughtful comments.