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Was Dutch master Vermeer a painter or an illusionist?

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Tim Jenison studies the The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer.

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Tim Jenison studies the The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer.

Two questions arise from the documentary Tim's Vermeer.

One: How did Dutch master Johannes Vermeer paint pictures with almost photo-realistic detail in the 17th century?

Two: Why is the film on the subject produced and directed by the magician duo Penn and Teller?

To answer the second one first, Penn and Teller are illusionists, yes, but they have also been in the business of revealing the mechanics behind illusions.

And the first question? Instead of buying into the accepted notion that Vermeer was simply gifted with a dazzling visual genius, the magicians suggest that technology was available in the 17th century that would have given Vermeer the ability to create his paintings with a proto-photographic technique.

As luck would have it, producer Penn Jillette's friend, inventor Tim Jenison, came up with a precise model of how Vermeer might have done it, incorporating a huge glass lens, a camera obscura projection system and a mirror.

Better: Jenison, a self-made success owing to his invention of digital video breakthroughs, could fund his own project to recreate the Vermeer painting The Music Lesson, in spite of his claim he has no artistic talent.

The effort required Jenison to reconstruct a 400-year-old Dutch drawing room in a Texas facility, right down to the tapestry, rugs, plastered walls and the intricately designed virginal (harpsichord). Once completed, Jenison proceeded to reproduce the painting itself, brush stroke by brush stroke, over the better part of a year.

Supportive of Jenison's project is artist David Hockney, who has long theorized about Vermeer's use of technology.

Jenison's project has been deemed controversial, with some critics horrified at the suggestion that Vermeer was more of a technician than a real artist. On that score, Penn and Teller are remiss in digging up any stuffy art academics to repudiate Jenison's theory.

The film could make a stronger case that Vermeer's genius was revealed not in how he painted, but in what he chose to paint. Even a photographer gets credits for his or her use of light, colour and composition.

Nevertheless, the film is a fascinating piece of work that accomplishes its primary goal: it prompts a provocative reconsideration of art history as we know it, and it does so with a touch of wit and a healthy helping of awe.

randall.king@frepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 9, 2014 D5

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