Tim’s Vermeer: Pollice verso, but which way?

February 23rd, 2014

Curiously, the two most prominent studies of Vermeer in the second half of the 20th century were not authored by art historians. The American economist John Michael Montias pieced together a coherent biography of Vermeer after having translated and transcribed over 400 legal depositions, wills, deeds, warrants, inventories, promissory notes and other official documents related to Vermeer and his extended family. The British architect Philip Steadman meticulously reviewed the long-debated hypothesis that Vermeer had employed the camera obscura as an aid to his painting. Not only did Steadman confirm the hypothesis, he virtually proved (with numbers in hand) that Vermeer used the device to trace the outlines of his compositions directly to his canvas.

Is the Texan tech pioneer Tim Jenison a serious candidate to make the Montias/Steadman duo a trio? The verdict is still out, or to be more precise, it probably hasn’t been pronounced. Yes, it is true that Tim’s Vermeer has slain dead the general public and mesmerized lay press with a revolutionary take on how Vermeer painted with a simple lens device. But to date, art specialists have remained impressively silent (to those who are familiar with the art history mindset that may already be a pretty clear verdict).

Recently, however, the art critic Jonathan Jones of the Guardian broke file to become the first naysayer to step on the stage. Jones takes big swings and holds no punches. He relegates the Texan and his illusionist partners Penn & Teller to the ranks of dilettante outsiders who accomplish little more than producing a passionless, paint-by-numbers copy of a real masterpiece and creating one big illusion of their own: that virtually anyone can replicate a Vermeer painting by a lens and mirror device discovered by Tim.

Read here: 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

6 Responses to “Tim’s Vermeer: Pollice verso, but which way?”

  1. Herbert van der Wegen

    Jonathan Jones’s review reads more like an extremely subjective emotional rant than an objective piece. It is also clear he did not understand the point at all of Tim Jenison’s documentatry and the research behind it. He provides no objective arguments at all – only repeating again the “mysteriousness” of Vermeer.

    At some point during the “recreation” of the Music Lesson, Tim finds a flaw in Vermeer’s work that can only really be attributed to the use of optics: in the seahorse pattern on the virginal the pattern follow a slight curvature – something Tim noticed these in his own experiment when he begun to paint the straight lines of said music instrument, and had to compensate for the curvature caused by the optics he used. I checked this with a high resolution image in an image editor, and yes, when the paintings horizontals are “crunched”, not only does the pattern show a distinct curvature, so do the other lines below.

    And of course, there is the elephant in the room: a human’s vision is incapable of seeing absolute tones – which are present in Vermeer’s work.

    Another hint of titillating circumstantial evidence is Vermeer’s relationship with Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and their shared interest/obsession with lenses and optical mechanisms.

    Was Vermeer a one-trick pony? No, definitely not. The man was a brilliant artist and painter, and probably used his knowledge of optics to improve his work, and “paint with light” – to enable him to go beyond the limits of human vision (and he probably was acutely aware of its limitations). That is why his work stands out, and the light looks different from any of his peers that went before him or came after him. And that makes him a genius: combining art and technology in such a manner.

    Steadman’s and Jenison’s research demystify, and also heighten the stature and intellect of Vermeer. They do not degrade it, quite the opposite in my opinion. They push Vermeer’s art and vision to a new dimension indeed, and only strengthen our respect of Vermeer as a person.

  2. Whose “Vermeer”?

    […] It’s easy to forget with the big Hollywood budget, but we aren’t really breaking any new ground here. I’ve touched on some of this before (see Nigel Konstam for a more compelling theory) and we’ve all read Hockney and Steadman on the subject. (An interesting discourse by Steadman can be read here – thanks to Jonathan Janson for the link.) […]

  3. Thomas

    Apologies Jonathan, apparently linking back to your page in my blog created an ‘auto-comment’ of some kind. Pardon that (above).

    But while I’m here… I can’t help but respond to Herbert’s comment:
    “And of course, there is the elephant in the room: a human’s vision is incapable of seeing absolute tones – which are present in Vermeer’s work.”

    I think we need to be really careful to separate fact from opinion. Tim’s film seems to have this same problem (as did Hockney, but that’s another matter). Admittedly, I don’t pretend to know all the science behind how the human eye actually works, but to say things like “it’s impossible to see this” is really reaching, in my opinion. What makes it so impossible? I was under the impression that Vermeer’s paintings were made up of paint, which occupies a very limited and predefined range of value. The human eye has no difficulties with this range.

    To say that his work contains “absolute tones” really carries very little meaning. What is an “absolute tone”? Why does Tim say “…an artist cannot see that”? Where is this information coming from? How can you say [with a straight face] that something which we are apparently incapable of seeing, is ‘seen’ in Vermeer’s work?

    It goes back to Tim’s comment in that earlier interview saying it was impossible to train your eye. It’s just absurd. True, most people look right past a shadow or the subtle gradations of light on a wall. But artists make it their business to notice these things – it’s really as simple as that.

  4. Jonathan

    Thomas, Thanks so much for the comment. You may be near to the crux of the matter. If Tim is going to breach the art history community, (and that’s where the matter will be settled, not at the movies) he is going to have to provide measurable evidence or documents. Sensations are great when we deal with things like “meaning” or “style,” but when it’s a matter of a physical apparatus being used or not, sensations must be supported by concrete evidence. I am on work with an interview with Tim, hoping address the problem from different angles and hopefully get some information out there so we’ll all have more to chew on.

    BTW, there is a myth that art history outsiders Hockney and Steadman are on the same boat. They aren’t. Hockney’s book is essentially a non-argument in art historical circles. Literally no one cites it. Steadman’s book is largely accepted and you’ll find in mentioned continually in art history studies. Why? Steadman provided hard numbers using combining the laws of geometry and verifiable measurements, statistics are heavily on his side. And as a very personal note, I have the eerie feeling that Hockney’s approach is dangerously close to the “there-is-an-invisible-dragon-in-my-garage” logic–the proof that I have an invisible dragon is that everyone who has ever gone in my garage has not seen the dragon.

    His theories ring to some as “If I can’t do it, then they couldn’t either-hell!, they had to possess some easy way to do what is impossible for me.”

    For one, all you have to do is look around in every-day experience to discover that there exists range of talent and natural predisposition in almost every human activity that is incredibly incredibly wide. There are things that today’s scientists, musicians, mathematicians and sportsman can do that even with the most advanced training and utmost dedication, I will never ever be able to equal even I had three four or five lives to live. Take a look at Mozart or Paganinni: did they need any kind of machinery, pills or secret knowledge to do what scarce few individuals have been ever capable of doing? I think not. Two, there are many achievements by the great masters painters that are virtually impossible to repeat today and that have nothing to do with the optical aspect of painting or even eventual “secret” materials. Hockney underestimates talent, which is humanly understandable.

    In any case, art historians that I know, and I know a few of the big guys, are generally NOT adverse to optics and science in the fine arts, on the contrary. Or at least, they are no more biased against science and scientists than a scientist would be if an art historian entered his laboratory and started making claims about scientific results or processes. Please weigh what I say against the fact that I am painter who is absolutely in love with technology and science, I am NOT a fuddy-duddy art historian trying circle wagons against an Indian attack. If some finds out how Vermeer painted, I’d love to know, because I would be the first to start using it.

  5. Jonathan Janson

    Herbert, Thanks so much for the interesting comment. However, I would like to dissent with one of your affirmations, following the lead of Thomas.

    If, as you state,“human vision is incapable of seeing absolute tones,” will you please explain how Dutch painters were, for example, so able at painting the shadow of a lemon (yellow shadows are the most difficult to render)?

    You are right. no Dutch painter, before Vermeer or after, EVER saw “absolute tones.” They didn’t need to. But the lemons they painted still look uncannily real. Why?

    They get their results largely by trial and error, experimentation and improving on progress made by earlier colleagues. Any painter will tell you that they often learn more by their mistakes and more by chance than by what they learn in books. After that, talent, logical deduction, the courage to attempt new solutions, intuition as well as a little thing called creativity (and maybe even a smack of genius) can go a long long way.

  6. Jon Boone

    Herbert makes excellent comments. The limitations of the human eye are exposed with easy access by photography–as Tim’s Vermeer makes abundantly clear. Well executed photographic images can differentiate a panorama of tones–just as Vermeer’s paintings did–while the human eye is excellent at discriminating tonal differences between adjacent–side by side–tones. Which is what the rank and file of painters have done since antiquity, and this includes most of the impressionists from Manet, Van Gogh, etc, up to Cezanne and Picasso.

    Unlike Tim Jenison, Vermeer knew how to paint with nuanced understanding, as evidenced by his two early works (Jenison, in an interview, has concluded that both the Diana and CHMM were not by Vermeer because they do not evince his mature “style;” this opinion shows how little Tim knows about the art of painting: one can see without too much retrospection that Vermeer began using optical instruments in a major way beginning with the The Procuress, when he was 23, perhaps in response to the mutual interest of his patron). As others have pointed out, most of Vermeer’s paintings must have seen strange to a public that had never seen photographs, which helps to understand why Vermeer’s works seem to have caught on in the last half of the nineteenth century as the public began to “see” under the influence of pervasive photographic images.

    Vermeer’s nonpareil poetic depictions often echo the ribaldry of Shakespeare and the counterpoint of Bach, although they were common tropes in Vermeer’s day. Here, Vermeer seems the seventeenth century version of our greatest film directors/cinematographers. And the process he obviously employed to enhance his optical style, using lenses and mirrors a la Steadman/Jenison, transformed his painterly technique into the transcendence that we associate with the likes of The Milkmaid and over 30 other paintings.

    Jonathan Jones’ comments are not even wrong….

    Both Phil Steadman and I are relatively disappointed that Tim’s Vermeer did not take another ten minutes to feature why Vermeer matters as an artist. Beyond this, what grated me was the bad reproduction of the Girl with a Red Hat that too often filled the screen. In Penn and Teller’s defense, the National Gallery in the USA itself distributes this horrendous image, to its ongoing discredit.

    Altogether, however, Tim’s Vermeer should change the way even the most hagiographic art historian thinks about much of European painting from Van Eyck down through David, although one can imagine people like Liedtke continuing to bob and weave like a punch-drunk post modern literature professor as he continues to confuse what genius is.

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