• Otter Views: Camera Obscura- Of Entrapment Art and Vermeer’s Optics

    A doorstop sized novel titled “Shantaram” took up residence in my head for the fortnight I spent reading it, then for another week or so afterwards. The protagonist’s misdeeds, triumphs and tragedies stayed with me night and day. I couldn’t shake it.
    This column isn’t about the book, although if you enjoy gritty South Asian adventures, you’ll find it listed under Gregory Roberts in the fiction section.
    I only mention it here as an example of what might be called “entrapment art” – a creative work that occupies your thoughts with or without permission.
    I finally escaped “Shantaram’s” mighty pull only to be sucked under by another cognitive rip tide. The catalyst this time was the documentary film “Tim’s Vermeer,” which explores a Texas inventor’s obsession with the 17th century Dutch master Jan Vermeer.
    Tim Jenison had an idea he couldn’t shake, either. It was the nagging suspicion that a secret optical array had enabled Vermeer to imbue paintings like “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and “The Astronomer” with almost supernaturally meticulous detail. Also curious was that nearly all of Vermeer’s 34 masterpieces were painted in two adjoining rooms in his house in Delft.
    This setup suggested to Jenison that Vermeer could have used one of the rooms as his studio setting; the other as a “camera obscura” where he sat with his easel, paints and brushes. By carefully positioning his models and furnishings in the main room, the theory goes, Vermeer could have projected through a wall-mounted lens in his camera obscura room an exact, if inverted, duplicate of the scene he wished to paint.
    The notion that Vermeer used optical science to make his pictures photorealistic has intrigued others before Jenison. The eminent British op-art muralist David Hockney even wrote a treatise on the subject, and he is duly credited and interviewed in the film.
    But until Jenison caught the fever, none of Vermeer’s skeptics had ever gone “the full Monty” and put their theories to the test. As an inventor and multi-millionaire with his own Lear jet, the energetic Jenison had the time and resources to take his obsession to the max. His goal: to paint a Vermeer himself, using optics and mirrors from the master’s time to compensate for his own lack of artistic skills.
    Jenison started by flying to Delft, where the artist’s house and its furnishings stand, fully restored. After taking thousands of measurements and photos, shooting myriad angles and calibrating the changing daylight values in Vermeer’s rooms, Jenison came to a Texas-size realization. To do his project justice, he would need to build an exact copy of Vermeer’s creative space.
    This alone took years, as Jenison refused to cut corners. To clone Vermeer’s rooms in his San Antonio warehous, the inventor taught himself all the operations 17th century Dutch builders had to master. Thus he learned to make period glass, flooring and window frames; to plaster walls, upholster chairs, grind pigments and turn furniture legs on a lathe. He even built a viola gamba because there was one in “The Music Lesson,” the Vermeer canvas he sought to reproduce.
    Jenison was about to build the camera obscura room when he made a lucky discovery: by positioning a small desktop mirror at the correct distance and angle from his subjects, he didn’t need the second room. He found that by moving his gaze back and forth along the edge of the image the mirror cast upon his canvas, he could match Vermeer’s colors exactly and “see” exquisite atomies of detail. Jenison had another surprise when he finally completed the studio, positioned his models, and started putting paint to canvas: his system worked much too well. Because he could see every detail of the scene before him, he felt honor-bound to paint every detail.
    Thus his project became a three-year “paint by numbers” ordeal from hell. At one point, Jenison spent weeks replicating countless thousands of color dots visible on a fold of tapestry. Recreating the intricate seahorse ornamentation on a harpsichord like the one in Vermeer’s painting took another full month.
    At the end of what became a multi-year quest, Jenison felt “90 percent certain” Vermeer could have and might have used an optics system to paint his masterpieces. Absent any letters or other documentation to that effect from Vermeer himself, the mystery will remain unsolved. But at least Jenison came away with a Vermeer to hang in his bedroom.
    And I came away with a renewed appreciation for the world’s complexity and its infinitely rich detailing. It took years for a very motivated, diligent and industrious inventor to recreate one portion of a single pictured room. As was the case earlier with “Shantaram,” Tim Jenison’s story has stayed in my mind for days.
    Bodysurfing Tuesday morning at Lovers Point, I dove beneath a wave and surfaced amid a frothy raft of sunlit bubbles that tickled as they burst. Gazing at the countless thousands of tiny, glistening spheres around me, I wondered how long it would take to paint them all.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on March 21, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views


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