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February 16, 2014

'Tim's Vermeer': Is it painting or a process?

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Directed by Teller of the magic duo Penn and Teller, and written and narrated by his partner, Penn Jillette, the movie puts forth an utterly fascinating and fairly compelling argument, not to mention the question: Was Vermeer less genius than geek?

Put another way, if an unartistic tinkerer like Jenison can produce a reasonable facsimile of “The Music Lesson” using so-called trickery, is it not also reasonable to ask whether Vermeer himself might have availed himself of those same tricks? The film can’t offer proof that he did, but it’s intriguing enough to sway even skeptics.

The one drawback of “Tim’s Vermeer” is that we can’t see the finished product of Jenison’s labors in the flesh, though on camera his “Vermeer” comes across as remarkably close to the original. Hockney, who is shown inspecting it with Steadman, pronounces it “better” than the original, which sounds slightly fishy. What he means, of course, is that it’s too good a copy, too precisely rendered.

At another point, someone refers to Jenison’s painting as a “dead ringer” for Vermeer, which may inadvertently be closer to the truth, at least judging by the glimpses we’re shown of details of Jenison’s painting. In those close-ups, Jenison’s paint handling looks tight and somewhat lifeless: soul sacrificed for precision.

Without seeing the two pictures side by side and in person, it’s hard to judge. “Tim’s Vermeer” makes a convincing case that Vermeer could have painted the way Jenison says he did. It also makes a pretty powerful ancillary point: that some people are both geniuses and geeks.

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