Tim's Vermeer

By Di Golding

Mailed on November 05, 2014


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Dear Leslie Jenison
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Dear Leslie,

Was it nepotism or necessity that got you the job on Tim's Vermeer? Given your relationship to the subject, my guess would be a bit of both. But I get the feeling your husband, the titular Tim, only handed you the camera as a last resort when the crew wasn't around. Turns out, you're an artist yourself. A quilter. And a rather renowned one. You've been in numerous publications, shown your work internationally, and in addition to curating shows and writing several books, you also run workshops as a "fun-cilitator" (which frankly sounds exhausting). Being completely consumed by an art form is likely something you understand better than most. If anyone could empathize with your husband's obsession, it's you.

Surely you knew Tim was a bit of an eccentric when you married him. Having designed a program that renders 3D images for film, his interest in Vermeer's ability to paint photorealistic images that he describes as, "seem(ing) to glow like an image on a movie screen" goes beyond mere fascination. How is the verisimilitude of Vermeer's work light years ahead of his 17th century contemporaries? This is the puzzle Tim is determined to solve.

Tim's Vermeer shares similarities with other recent art-mystery docs like Who The #$&% Is Jackson Pollock and My Kid Could Paint That, both of which dare to question the perceived truths held dear by art world elites. Tim's suggestion that Vermeer could have used lenses and a variation of a camera obscura in order to achieve the near photographic precision of his paintings isn't popular, nor is it new. Architect Philip Steadman and artist David Hockney both seem to think Vermeer had some help, citing that lenses were the cutting edge of technology in the 1600s. But when Tim, who is not a painter, decides to recreate Vermeer's The Music Lesson, I was reminded of another singularly obsessed genius, Philip Petit from the doc Man On Wire, whose enthusiasm, like Tim's, is both contagious and unsettling. Over the course of five years, Tim learns Dutch, visits Vermeer's studio in Delft, then recreates it in a warehouse in San Antonio. He grinds lenses, designs exact replicas of furniture and props in The Music Lesson, learns to make oil paint using the same materials Vermeer would have used, and starts painting.

I bet you were glad you had your quilting to keep you busy.

As an artist, did you enjoy the opportunity to pick up a camera and focus on something a little more technical? Or did you discover, as your husband did while recreating one of the most revered paintings in the world, that what he was doing wasn't subjective but objective? Filmmakers (magicians and proud skeptics both) Penn and Teller are the perfect people to stitch the pieces of this mystery together, and they balance the elements of art and technology handily. From an emotive, whimsical score that never condescends, and lighting that lives up to the high standards of Vermeer's mastery of light, the film hits almost all of the right notes. The only thing missing was you.

We learn that not much is known about Johannes Vermeer, and strangely, the film doesn't tell us much about Tim either. Your three daughters were involved in the film (one produced the film and another sits as the model for the painting), but they don't provide any observations about their dad. We only see you once, in a college photograph of you and Tim. Like the Girl With A Pearl Earring, you too are a cipher. Then again, the film isn't called Tim's Wife's Vermeer, is it? But your insight into the man who decided to devote half a decade of his life to such a strange hobby would have been welcome, much like the batting in between the layers of your quilt that, instead of just joining the pieces together, provides much needed warmth.

Sew On,

Di

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