Documentary “Tim’s Vermeer” shows how valuable the intersection of the arts and technology is to a nation re-learning how to make things

Updated Jun 25, 2014

Tim's Vermeer and the intersection of art and technology

If you are any kind of craftsman, if you’ve ever had to build your own tools, jigs or fixtures to solve a problem, you’ll get a kick out of the recently released DVD documentary Tim’s Vermeer.

It’s a clever technological mystery story that illustrates the oft-ignored relationship between art and technology. Tim Jenison, the subject of the film, is a successful entrepreneur and tinkerer who made his fortune developing graphics technology and software used in movies. For much of his professional life he had been fascinated with the work of the 17th Century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.

What puzzled Jenison was that nobody has been able to figure out how Vermeer painted with such stunning photo realism. Vermeer left no clues, and artists and scientists have been working for years to try and figure out his technique. Most think he had some kind of lens or optical technology that guided him, but nobody could reproduce it, or his luminous results.

Jenison embarked on a five-year journey to see if he could figure out Vermeer’s secret, and this becomes the plot of the film directed and produced by his two friends, the comedian/magician team Penn and Teller.

Jenison first discovers a combination of projecting lenses and mirrors that enable him to paint a near perfect portrait, despite having no skill as a painter. It’s a eureka moment. So Jenison builds a room to perfectly match the room depicted in Vermeer’s painting The Music Lesson, then sets up his device and begins painting. After 180 days of painstaking work dabbing paint on his canvas, Jenison completes a perfect recreation of the Vermeer and discovers a mistake in the original that proves his theory was right.

Even if you’re not into art history, the film is worth it just to see Jenison’s shop and the great lengths he goes to test his theory. At one point he discovers his lathe is 2-inches too short to turn the leg of a table in the set he’s building, so he cuts his cast-iron lathe bed in half and welds in an extension. The man does not lack for determination or skill.

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The big question raised in Tim’s Vermeer is how much influence does technology have over art. In years past, artists scoffed at the idea that the old masters used technology to improve results.  But Jenison thinks many of those painters may in fact have been talented technologists just like himself. In the film, artist David Hockney, who wrote a book about the challenge, Vermeer’s Camera: The Truth Behind the Masterpieces, agrees. Hockney says that three-dimensional perspectives didn’t exist in paintings until the Italians discovered how to render them using lenses and optics.

I’m in the camp that believes art and technology can inspire each other, that they’re often one and the same. But in American education today, they’re taught as separate entities.  Art is taught as some kind of subconscious, primitive inspiration that can’t be explained. Technology is handed over to the kids who are good at math.

Rarely do art and technology meet in business or education. But when they do, in products like the iPhone and the Corvette, the results are wildly popular.

The separation of technology and art in the modern age, has consequences. As Robert Pirzig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, engineers see a factory or industrial complex and view it admiringly. People with little appreciation for technology see the same factory and think it ugly. Environmentalists see the same factory and think it’s the devil.

Are those bulldozers raping the earth or helping build a new school? Are those factories stamping out soul-less consumer junk or tools and appliances that make life easier?  The answer depends on how engaged you are with technology.

One hundred years ago, when technology was still fairly primitive, most people were mad for inventions and labor saving ideas. The nation was teeming with little Edisons and small entrepreneurial shops. Today we enjoy unprecedented ease and wealth thanks to all these inventions, and yet too many people scorn the process and sneer at the product.

The people who are most disconnected are environmentalists who take to the woods laden with so much Gore-Tex, polypropylene and nylon, you can barely find a thread of natural fiber on them. Yet all three of these products would not exist without the oil refineries they constantly malign.

I’m sure I’ll be labeled a Philistine for saying this, but I think artists in general, painters in particular, have run out of things to say in the last 50 years. Picasso demolished the idea of representational art, and by last half of the 20th Century most artists had resorted to decadence and ironic “statements” a la Warhol. Is it any wonder that nobody pays attention anymore?

The iPhone and the Corvette, on the other hand….

What we need is for a lot more artists to embrace technology and for more engineers to investigate the arts. Tim’s Vermeer shows us is that art and technology were one and the same in the past and strongly suggests they ought to join forces again in the future.