When the Frick Museum featured "Girl with a Pearl Earring" in "Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshius," its formidable Fall exhibition that just completed a 3-month run, curators could not have anticipated a timely coincidence: that a new documentary in which a humble, self-effacing and very talented inventor seeking to copy Vermeer 's "The Music Lesson," would be taken up by the duo Penn & Teller. Teller's directorial debut, Tim's Vermeer, follows Texas-based Tim Jenison as he constructs a room taken from the famous painting; the original is housed in Buckingham Palace. Jenison has one of his daughters model for the young woman at the harpsichord, and essentially repaints the Dutch masterpiece, all on the hunch that Vermeer crafted the work using mirrors. The Frick show underscores Vermeer's greatness, while the documentary demystifies the notion of high art.
First establishing Vermeer's greatness, the documentary then follows Jenison as proclaimed novice attempting to copy not so much the painting, but Vermeer's process. It's hard work and tedious. You see him working with tools, some self-made, to create the room, the instruments, the furnishings. He uses sparse haired brushes to make the intricate décor and detail of fine-lined guitar strings. This week at a screening at MoMA, Jenison, Teller, and Penn Jillette, who serves along with Farley Ziegler and others, as producer, fielded questions from the audience about this "obsession" which Jenison redefined as discipline. No one bothered to ask an obvious question, "Why?" The trouble seems worth it in this adventurous, entertaining, and original act of filmmaking, and in the movie's final image of Tim's Vermeer hanging over a mantelpiece in his comfy bedroom: It looks good.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.