When an art-historical documentary says, “I think it’s very likely . . . ”, reach for the pinch of salt. The speaker – in the case of Tim’s Vermeer California inventor turned art detective Tim Jenison – is trying to pass off adventurist speculation as scholarly probability.
Did Vermeer use a camera obscura, as Hockney and others have contended? Maybe. Or did he, as Jenison argues, use a small mirror on the end of a kind of long spoon, such as you would use to sup with the Devil of aesthetic theorisation, so that the mirror, reflecting another mirror that reflects a camera obscura image, can help you – no, sorry, I’ve lost the thread of the sentence.
Directed by Teller, of the magic act Penn and Teller, the film is at once great fun and completely, elaborately pointless. Jenison actually repaints Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” inch by inch in a studio adapted to his method. He proudly shows the colour-perfect painting, which took 130 days to complete, to Hockney himself. You never saw a British painter so stricken by agonised politeness. If Jenison’s painting – painstaking in every detail, dead in every brushstroke – proves anything, it is that technology can produce “perfection” while only genius can produce genius.