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Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Music Lesson

One man’s quest to replicate a Dutch master

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With color and texture, Johannes Vermeer brought small corners of the world to life. Vermeer’s paintings seem to glow with inner illumination and can resemble color slides. X-rays reveal none of the sketch marks usually found beneath the paint on the surface of the canvas. The methods of the 17th-century painter were mysterious; unlike many Dutch masters, he left no paper trail and few documents aside from the paintings themselves.

Produced and directed by comic illusionists Penn and Teller, Tim’s Vermeer records one man’s obsession to find out how Vermeer did the job. Tim Jenison is a Texas-based inventor who never found a gadget he didn’t want to take apart and reassemble. He made a fortune developing the LightWave 3D technology used in computer-generated filmmaking and spent much of it on his quest to replicate one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings, The Music Lesson. Jenison’s enterprises must be running themselves nowadays, given the time and effort he devoted to this project, including recreating the room Vermeer painted in The Music Lesson inside a cinderblock San Antonio warehouse, down to the delicate seahorse pattern gracing the veneer of the harpsichord in the painting’s background.

Near the onset of the documentary, Jenison announces his intention to paint the Vermeer. “At the face of it, it seems impossible,” he admits. And then he adds the “Huh?” moment: “I’m not a painter.”

Right, he’s a technician convinced that Vermeer employed technology more sophisticated than mere paintbrushes. In this he stands on the shoulders of mighty men. In David Hockney’s book, Secret Knowledge, the British painter speculated that Vermeer used lenses to project images onto canvas. Art historian Philip Steadman enlarged the idea in Vermeer’s Camera. Jenison’s contribution was to figure out exactly how the Dutch master did it and to do it himself, down to making paint and grinding lenses just as was done in the 1600s. Spoiler alert: after reconstructing the room depicted in The Music Lesson, Jenison spent month after month with the reflections and projections of that rebuilt chamber through various lenses, painting the impressions that fell on canvas as if tracing light. Convinced he has replicated The Music Lesson, he hangs the result of all that labor over his mantle.

At worst, Jenison’s efforts could be dismissed as the stunt of a man with way too much time on his hands. At best, he has added a plausible addendum to art history, showing that art and technology, inseparable concepts to the ancient Greeks, do not necessarily exist in separate worlds. Does this make Jenison an artist? Probably not, since his inspiration consisted solely in figuring out how to copy the results of someone else’s inspiration. Is Jenison’s The Music Lesson as good as the original? We’ll have to take his word for it.