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Fascinating dissertation on the relationship between science and art
What exactly is the relationship between science and art? Are they entirely separate domains or is there, Venn-diagram-like, some overlap between them?
The 17th Century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer has long been considered the world's master of the "photographic" painting. So lifelike, in fact, are Vermeer's works that it has long been speculated that he may have used some kind of scientific device available at the time to help him achieve the effect. Well, filmmaker Penn Jillette, with the help of Tim Jenson - an inventor, NOT a painter - has decided to get to the bottom of the controversy. The result is "Tim's Vermeer," a brief (76 minutes), fast-paced and utterly absorbing documentary that provides an aesthetic and intellectual feast for art lovers and quite a feast for lovers of science as well.
Since this IS Penn Jillette we're talking about here - an illusionist who is also a tireless advocate for rationalism and empiricism - it's fitting that the movie would apply scientific precepts to its analysis of art. Tim hypothesizes that Vermeer may have used a device called a camera obscura combined with a small portable mirror to achieve an unprecedented verisimilitude in his paintings. It's pure speculation, since Vermeer left no notes behind documenting his creative and technical process. So Tim has decided to paint his own "Vermeer" using the technique he postulates the artist himself used, and to document that process on film.
To that end, Tim has chosen Vermeer's "The Music Lesson" as his subject to copy, going so far as to recreate the room, along with the people and objects contained therein, of the original painting down to the smallest detail, only utilizing (and even crafting, if necessary) lenses, mirrors, lighting and paints that were in existence in the 1600s. It is a project that would take five full years to complete.
If Vermeer did indeed use these optic "tricks" to achieve his effect, does that somehow diminish him as an artist? Does it make his skill as a painter less astonishing, even if it heightens his ingenuity as an inventor and problem-solver? Probably no more so than a second-rate painter being able to replicate (i.e., "forge") any art masterpiece diminishes the talent of the original artist. And why would it be considered "cheating" for an artist to incorporate all the technological devices available to him at the time to help him in his painting? Why must there exist an arbitrary and artificial dividing line between science and art? These are the questions that Teller's fascinating little movie brings to the fore.
But isn't it better just to keep it all as a mystery, to declare Vermeer an artistic genius of the first rank and leave it at that? Perhaps, but then we wouldn't have "Tim's Vermeer" to inspire and engage us.
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