Research topic on Tim’s Vermeer, the Penn & Teller art documentary about Johannes Vermeer

Penn & Teller at a ceremony to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Credit: Angela George)

Penn & Teller at a ceremony to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Credit: Angela George)

Penn & Teller, the famous magicians, may not be the first names that spring to mind when you think of an art documentary. But their film, Tim’s Vermeer, provides an interesting look into the connection between art and technology as viewed through the paintings of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. For your next art or film research paper topic, it’s worth it to watch the film and provide your own synopsis on the documentary.

A synopsis of Tim’s Vermeer

The Tim in Tim’s Vermeer is Tim Jenison, a Texas-based inventor and software developer, who became focused on how artists, particularly 17th-century Dutch artists such as Johannes Vermeer, created an interpretation of reality when they painted. Some suggest that Vermeer may have used new optics developments of his time and a camera obscura to project a scene onto his canvas to copy, rather than paint entirely on his own.

Ty Burr reviewed the film for The Boston Globe in “‘Tim’s Vermeer’ is a debunker’s delight” on February 20, 2014. He describes it as “a rigorous, humorous essay on how the great 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer may have been more ingenious trickster than inspired genius.” Jenison decides to try and recreate a work by Johannes Vermeer using his own mirror-obscura setup, and Penn & Teller detail this in their art documentary.

A magic film by Penn & Teller

Penn & Teller are, of course, known for their conceptual magic shows. While an art documentary that uses a famous Dutch painter like Johannes Vermeer as its underlying focus may not appear to be their kind of thing, the mystery behind Vermeer’s work, which is revealed in Tim’s Vermeer, is exactly in the magicians’ wheelhouse.

Beth Hanna blogged on January 30, 2014 for Indiewire.com in “Teller Speaks! Talking Wondrously Mind-Boggling Art Doc ‘Tim’s Vermeer’” about Jenison’s quest to uncover how Vermeer created such photo-realism in his paintings. When Hanna asks Teller if it was his career as a magician that made him intrigued by “the mechanics behind something seemingly impossible or wondrous?” In his reply he says, “The core of this movie is that if you know what the artist did, to really make this painting happen, the power of it is multiplied many times.”

What made Vermeer’s art special

Whatever Johannes Vermeer painted in his lifetime, today only 35 paintings remain. The Dutch artist, known mostly for landscapes and still scenes and paintings of young girls, demonstrated mastery of light and a very photographic quality, particularly in his mature work.

Writing for The Independent on June 26, 2001, Tom Lubbock shared his own fascination with Johannes Vermeer in “Visual Arts: Clarity, Economy, Purity, Perfection ; the Delft School’s Finest Painters Are Being Exhibited at the National Gallery. But There’s One Artist in a Class of His Own: Johannes Vermeer, the Genius Who Painted with Light. Tom Lubbock Is Mesmerised.” He writes, “Vermeer’s mature painting is indeed literally photographic. He paints light, not things. Light is, so to speak, the air he breathes.”

A lot about Vermeer’s life is a mystery. Much about how he achieved the amazing quality of light and rendition in his paintings could also be considered a mystery, although Tim Jenison may have solved that one. And according to Lubbock, the artist even painted mystery. Perhaps that trifecta of mystery is what drew magicians Penn & Teller to create their art documentary Tim’s Vermeer.  As Lubbock adds, “The pleasure is in the mystery – the quite everyday mystery – the fact that the minds and behaviour of people, even when they’re close to us, are opaque.” 

Want to learn more about Dutch art or landscape painting? Check out Questia—particularly the section on Vermeer

Does the use of technology by an artist in a work make the creation any less the artist’s own? Does it mean the artist is less skilled? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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