Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch painted from the 1600s. He was only moderately successful in life. He painted mostly domestic interiors – in fact, mostly the same two rooms of a house, with the same furniture, and women inside them. Years after his death he was rediscovered and renowned for the astonishing use of light in his paintings. His great masterpiece is Girl With A Pearl Earring.
Tim Jenison is a very successful inventor and engineer – he worked in computer graphics and 3D modelling software. He’s also an art enthusiast who fell in love with Vermeer and traveled the world to stalk his artwork. And he came up with an interesting theory: that Johannes Vermeer mastered light by using the technology available to him at the time. What’s that, you ask? And I’m glad you did. It’s astonishingly simple: a mirror. A fucking mirror. It becomes possible to project a living image directly onto a canvas and to match colour and light exactly. Exactly! It’s astonishing to see Jenison whip up an oil painting using this technique. So Jenison, who has a whole lot of money, decides to reconstruct one of Vermeer’s most-used rooms to see if you can reproduce one of his paintings. And Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller), a personal friend of his, becomes his documentarian.
Film critics love this movie, calling it entertaining, fascinating, and profound. And indeed, it is compelling to watch a millionaire and his latest obsession; the lengths he’ll go to, the time he’ll devote to simply testing out a theory when he doesn’t even have a horse in the race. Art critics, however, are less enamoured with the film, which makes sense. Jenison is, after all, sticking it art world. He’s taking talent and genius off the table and claiming that, given the right tools, anyone could reproduce a masterpiece. And while that’s heartening for those of us lacking in the talent department, I’m guessing it stings quite a bit for those trying to follow a calling, or make a livelihood out of it.
Possibly because I am not myself an artist, I don’t really feel like it takes anything away from Vermeer even if he did use technology. Is it less impressive that we landed on the moon because we used technology? Of course not. So maybe Vermeer was less an artist-genius and more of a genius-genius. Good for him. Good for figuring it out, for developing techniques that allowed him to paint light years beyond what anyone else was doing, then or now. Good for him for making beautiful, impactful, lasting artwork. And no one is saying this method is easy, or any easier, than any other kind of painting. It just allows for camera-like accuracy. The bottom line hasn’t changed, we’ve just maybe discovered that Vermeer was even more interesting than we thought.