DIY Vermeer documentary utterly misses the point about old masters

Tim Jenison tried for a whole year to recreate a Vermeer painting – and all he got was a pedantic imitation

Tim's Vermeer is a film about a man who totally fails to paint a Vermeer.

That's right – fails. This is not how the acclaimed cinema documentary by American TV magicians Penn and Teller bills itself or how it has been received by reviewers. Inventor Tim Jenison, we're told, set out to discover how the 17th-century artist used optics, hoping to prove his theory by painting his own version of Vermeer's The Music Lesson. The result, we are told, is almost uncannily convincing – Tim uses simple technology to create a perfect Vermeer.

At the risk of offending the education secretary, I have to quote Blackadder here. It's a brilliant theory, with just one tiny flaw: it's bollocks.

Tim's painting does not look anything like a real Vermeer. It looks like what it is: a pedantic and laborious imitation.

To make his pastiche Vermeer, the Texan tech pioneer goes to unusual lengths in this cutesy film. He builds a room of the same dimensions as the one depicted in The Music Lesson. He creates identical windows and makes period furniture. He gets the right musical instruments. He dresses up his daughter as the girl at the keyboards.

All this to test the picture-making machine he's invented – or rather, if he is right, re-invented. For Jenison believes Vermeer himself used a mirror and camera obscura to get his "photographic" views. Working with such a set-up, very slowly, Jenison produces a painting that both he and the film-makers see as a convincing Vermeer.

"My friend Tim painted a Vermeer! He painted a Vermeer!" enthuses Penn.

But this is nonsense. Tim's Vermeer is not a Vermeer, any more than an Airfix model is a flying Spitfire.

The film performs a crude sleight of hand by never showing us a closeup of the real Vermeer painting. The masterpiece belongs to the Royal Collection in London. There's a scene outside Buckingham Palace, where Penn and Teller tell of Tim's quest to see it. But the only thing the film's audience get to see is a poster.

So it's a film about a man attempting to replicate a poster.

The original painting is not kept hidden away in some royal vault. Last summer it was in an exhibition at the National Gallery. It's a painting of hypnotic intrigue and psychological fascination – a painting to get obsessed with. But Tim Jenison never speaks with any passion about it, or any reverence for Vermeer. Neither he nor the filmmakers show any sense of the greatness of great art. The film is a depressing attempt to reduce genius to a trick. On the commentary, Penn keeps crassly saying Vermeer looks "photographic" and "cinematic", and the film purportedly proves that all the artist's magic lay in the use of an optical machine.

Yet the failure of Jenison's device to create any of the power of a real painting by Vermeer puts all these theories about painting and the camera obscura and "secret knowledge" in their place.

Did Vermeer use some kind of camera obscura in his workshop? It seems highly possible. Philip Steadman's book Vermeer's Camera – cited in the film – offers very strong circumstantial evidence. Vermeer has to be a prime candidate for the experiments with optics that David Hockney thinks pre-modern artists engaged in.

Was the instrument hypothesised by Jenison the actual device Vermeer constructed for himself? Again, perfectly possible. Got no problem with the science at all.

But how much does that actually tell us about Vermeer? Not much, it turns out. With his art machine, Jenison reproduces many aspects of The Music Lesson – but misses something crucial. At one point he admits feeling repulsed by a detail he's working on. As well he might.

It's like the horror film The Fly. The technology Jenison relies on can replicate art, but it does so synthetically, with no understanding of art's inner life. The "Vermeer" it spits out is a stillborn simulacrum.

So what does it lack? The film implies anyone can make a beautiful work of art with the right application of science. There is no need for mystical ideas like genius.

But the mysterious genius of Vermeer is exactly what's missing from Tim's Vermeer. It is arrogant to deny the enigmatic nature of Vermeer's art. If this art looks "optical", it can also look abstract. It is an act of seeing nature, not a work of copying it. Whether or not he made use of optical instruments, Vermeer looked at the world with a uniquely penetrating eye. He was able to paint what he saw with a delicate hand. If you can't see the astonishing nature of his talent when you are standing in front of his paintings you should walk away from them – not make a film about how easy they are to replicate.

Tim's Vermeer is the equivalent of someone hanging a painting-by-numbers version of a masterpiece over the mantelpiece and claiming it's as good as the real thing. At last, an art film for philistines.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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