“Tim’s Vermeer” or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Imitation

Films about obsessions usually tell us more about the obsessed than the obsession in itself. That’s why I don’t agree with Jonathan Jones’ review on The Guardian of Teller’s documentary Tim’s Vermeer, which tells the story of Tim Jenison, a tech entrepreneur and inventor who desperately tried to discover the secrets of the painting techniques adopted by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.

(SPOILERS AHEAD) After years of obsessive hard work trying to prove Philip Steadman’s theory, according to which Vermeer used some sort of optical machine in his workshop while painting masterpieces such as The Music Lesson (a theory that, if proved right, could update the whole concept of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction), what’s left then with Jenison’s story?

If it’s like Jones stressed in his review, “Tim’s painting does not look anything like a real Vermeer. It looks like what it is: a pedantic and laborious imitation.” Fair enough, given the fact that Jenison had never painted anything before and did not claim to be a professional, nor an amateur, painter.

Tim Jenison tries to discover the secrets of Vermeer's technique.

So what is it all about? To me the documentary focuses on the process of reproducibility more than on the quality of the reproduction. Instead of showing how good or bad Jenison’s output is, the whole point is that he managed to reproduce one of the most astounding masterpieces of its time, with absolutely no training in the art he tries to master.

According to Jones, Vermeer’s genius is not present in this painting. Of course it is not. How could it be? That’s exactly where the occasional painter leaves the room to the professional. In the words of painter David Hockney, who is portrayed in the documentary, the fact that someone could end up with a decent replica of such an iconic painting at the first attempt “might disturb quite a lot of people.”

Tim Jenison (right) and producer Penn Jillette.

Why? Because it challenges the old notion of the artist blessed by the Gods, who produces inimitable art infused by an ineffable quality. In Tim’s Vermeer, painter Martin Mull comments that he took 40 years to get the same result Jenison achieved in half an hour. That’s precisely the point.

Does this reduce the importance of Vermeer as an Old Master? Not at all. Instead it says a lot about how uncomfortable we are when machines enter the realm of creativity, when this is supposed to be a special and unique gift, and not a commodity anyone could buy.