It's holiday time, and besides some paint work to my house I also have some more time to follow my interests. It must have to do with that paint job, that I'm totally fascinated by a documentary that I found on the internet. It's about an old discussion: When is something art and when not? Inspired by two books on the use of optics in art, entrepreneur and video expert Tim Jenison decides to initiate his own research into the use of a camera obscura by Johannes Vermeer.
Of these two books, one I knew already: 'Secret Knowledge’ by the well known British painter David Hockney. With a convincing explanation and an abundance of beautiful pictures, in my opinion he shows quite clear that the old masters, since about Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weijden, masterfully managed to make use of mirrors and lenses. The other book by Philip Steadman, ‘Vermeer’s Camera’, I didn't know yet. Steadman is an architect and succeeds in finding the approximate setup of Vermeer's camera obsura from measurements of Vermeer's work .
As was to be expected, for a number of art connoisseurs this touched a sore spot. This gave rise to some very fierce reactions, and as it goes when people can't win, often the man was tackled instead of the facts.
Reproducing with a lense
Tim Jenison is not a painter, as he admits himself. He was just fascinated by the discoveries of Hockney and Steadman and wanted to see if he could approach Vermeer's way of working via these tools, and could reproduce it. Apparently he is an extremely versatile man: he soon discovers his own version of the camera lucida that Hockney described in his book and begins to paint a copy of a black-and-white photograph of his father in law.
In the full version of the film (to be found at the bottom of this blog post) Jenison single-handedly rebuilds the whole room of Vermeer in Delft, including all the furniture, finds a brilliant solution for the optical problem and paints his own version of The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer. A versatile man with many talents and especially enormous patience.
The ensuing heated discussions (nothing wrong with that, according to me these just add to more understanding) regularly give me the impression that some art connoisseurs feel that Jenisons theory would decrease the respect for the mastery of Vermeer. Strange actually, because Jenison never claimed that Vermeer's work would be 'just a little trick’ that anyone can do, nor that he would achieve the same level of proficiency. He just tried to show that his solution could have been quite possible in Vermeer's time. (Read here a very comprehensive discussion between Tim Jenison and critics about perception, optics and more, with photos, drawings and backgrounds)
We should know better; after all everyone now has access to a reasonable camera, but that won't make everyone a top photographer. Coincidentally I recently thoroughly explored the website of Dutch top photographer Erwin Olaf (here an article about his photos of the Relief of Leiden). He portrays his scenes as Vermeer and Van Dijck did, playing with light, and yes, he also uses a camera. Should you then call cheats?
For me this was not as much news. For sculptors do precisely the same! We may not work with lenses, but if there is a new technology that makes it easier to create what we have in mind, then why not? Measuring with a compass, or an pointing machine, or a scan with a computer-controlled router… is that really so much different to what Vermeer would do with a lense? Does it make him less brilliant if he used a lense than just measuring with a thumb on his brush?
Trying it out for yourself
And now I want to build a few of these devices myself. Firstly, that Camera Lucida that Hockney describes and the mirror device of Jenison. Tim Jenison states he made it with a microphone stand, a part of a photo tripod and a mirror with the shiny layer on the front instead of at the rear (a first layer mirror). I was wondering how in the world to come by such a mirror, but on the internet there is a solution to everything. Just buy a packet of mirror tiles at the hardware store, dissolve the grey protective layer on the backside with acetone, et voilà, you end up with a mirror with the reflective layer on the front. Adjust that to 45 degrees and you're ready to go. Now Jenison is working on a horizontal painting canvas, but I suspect that the canvas can also stand on an upright easel, with the mirror to the side instead of above the canvas.
Below the fascinating (long) film Tim's Vermeer. Those who can find the time should actually see the two videos with David Hockney underneath first.
(update: apparently the video on Dailymotion now been removed. Unfortunately. Hence now the trailer below. I did manage to find the movie in lower quality elsewhere on the Web:
David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge 1
David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge 2