“The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection,” said Michelangelo back in the day. In today’s high-end art world, where astronomical auction sales are now commonplace, there’s an impetus to maintain that exalted status for superstar artists both present and past. In this current state of affairs, where paintings can fetch tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, and where the corporate-like prestige of large art institutions has been dramatically amped up, it’s not enough to just certify an artist’s signature or establish attribution. To maintain the divine aura bestowed on the works of the chosen few of any period is necessary to prevent the collapse of a high-stakes arrangement. During the last several years, there have been a spate of non-fiction films that have ventured out to the crossroads where aesthetic ideals and truckloads of cash intersect, the most recent being Penn and Teller’s often captivating parlour-trick documentary, Tim’s Vermeer (2013).
The maverick magicians contend that the much-lionised 17th century Dutch painter likely used a camera obscura or other optical device to create his vividly realistic paintings, which to modern eyes can look like a Kodachrome slide or movie still. The inferences made here have been batted around for years, especially in the disputed theory developed by artist David Hockney and physicist Charles Falco. The Hockney-Falco thesis holds that optical aids like obscuras and concave mirrors spurred the great advances in artistic technique (especially in terms of perspective and realistic detail) seen since the Renaissance. In Tim’s Vermeer, producer-narrator Penn and director Teller bring this theory out of academia and into the pop culture realm by filming their inventor friend (Tim Jenison, a big Vermeer fan) as he painstakingly and obsessively recreates the studio and human tableau of the Vermeer masterpiece “The Music Room.” Then Jenison creates a camera lucida device which projects the scene right onto the canvas, hopefully allowing his untrained self to create a mirror image (if you will) of the painting. Viewers may be surprised what he comes up with 213 working days later.
Certainly, Vermeer’s work has a special beauty that excites intense devotion in art lovers. The curiously modern look of his paintings has also inspired feature films like Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003), All the Vermeers in New York (1990) and Peter Greenaway’s A Zed & Two Noughts (1985). There is an air of mystery around Johannes. There are no sketch lines visible under the paint. Most of his major works, like “The Milkmaid” and “The Geographer”, took place in the same studio rooms and are seen from the same angle, with that famous soft light issuing in from the casement windows on the left. But even if Vermeer used lens technology, it didn’t seem to be used to financial advantage; he was only a modest success during his own lifetime.
The affable Mr. Jenison, by contrast, is wealthy enough to indulge his “unusual hobby” and has a related skill set: he made his fortune in the development of computer graphics software used in dozens of big-budget movies. He doggedly re-creates the setting of “The Music Room” by hand and finds out along the way the physically demanding work of painting. True, some of the claims made by Penn and Teller are persuasive, like the assertion that the pearly gradations of light touching the original’s back wall are all but impossible for the human eye to discern. These types of talking points are regularly said to be “pretty convincing” and Jenison gets an on-camera stamp of approval from the already converted Hockney. For much of this film you gladly accept the invitation to peek in on a hidden realm of cultural history. What’s missing is any response by mainstream art authorities on this loaded topic and any possible counter-evidence, like the unaided work of today’s photo-realist painters. And since art and technology have co-mingled in one way or another for eons, would its use necessarily make the creator any less talented? That leads to the final unaddressed question. Is it just the age-old belief in a great artist’s aura of ineffable genius that keeps the real Vermeers in the hands of zillionaires and museums that charge you a twenty to get in, while Jenison’s doppelgänger is only fit to hang on his bedroom wall?
To great tragicomic effect, a similar issue is raised in My Kid Could Paint That (directed by Amir Bar-Lev, 2007). This is the perfect art-doc title for any “untrained” adult who has ever wondered why some abstract-expressionist masterpieces seem to resemble the end result of a kindergarten finger-painting session. These alleged polar opposites collide head-on when Marla Olmstead, a four year-old girl from upstate New York, ends up with a lucrative painting career, encouraged and coached by her amateur-artist father. In a whirlwind series of events, Marla and her parents go from media sensation with over $300,000 in sales to a deflating controversy when allegations surface that the dad had something to do with the final product, which takes the “prodigy” factor off the table. At the core of this particular phenomenon is the lingering suspicion that modern abstract art has no definable standard and that Marla’s case will, in the words of one interviewed critic, “pull the veil off this con game,” as he and others see it.
Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock? (Harry Moses, 2006) was the reaction of seventy-year-old truck driver Teri Horton upon being told that the large abstract painting she had recently picked up for a fiver at a rural California thrift store may be the work of that famous (to some) action painter who died back in 1956. Hearing that individual “spatter” paintings by Pollock have sold for tens of millions in recent years, Horton embarks on a decade-long odyssey to gain authentication for the painting. Horton’s salty persona carries the film as she heads four-square into the extremely insular world of uppity art experts all too ready to dismiss her claim.
In The Art of the Steal (Don Argott, 2009), the corporatisation of culture is seen as an invasive, extra-legal force trampling the legacy of the eccentric and combative inventor/art collector Albert C. Barnes, whose extraordinary inventory of early modern paintings were displayed at his semi-private foundation in a Philadelphia suburb. Argott meticulously traces the battle that began shortly after Barnes’ death in 1951 between his foundation and the cultural/political establishment over ultimate control of a collection that came to be valued at a cool $25 billion. A self-made millionaire born to working-class parents, Barnes became a passionate and prescient art lover who bought up hundreds of canvasses by the likes Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Renoir and Van Gogh during the depths of the Great Depression. These works were originally ridiculed by Philadelphia’s cultural elite as “primitive” and “debased”, cementing Barnes’ disdain for high-society and causing him to decamp to nearby Merion where he hung the works in quirky galleries and ran an egalitarian art school. At first, The Art of the Steal works as a deft investigation into the subtle but devious chipping away at Barnes’ will (which stated in no uncertain terms that the paintings were never to leave the Merion location) and then morphs into a dicey debate of what is the correct dispensation of world culture in a mega-money era, wondering if there is room any longer for a “handmade thing in a machine world.”
Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010) shows how French émigré and family man Thierry Guetta, owner of a Los Angeles boutique, became an obsessed video chronicler of subversive street artists after his cousin (aka “Space Invader”) introduced him to the shadowy subculture in 1999. He soon befriended its biggest stars, Shepard Fairey of Obama “Hope” poster fame and the super-secretive Banksy, the “genius with a spray can” who was already a sensation in his native U.K. and wanted to make a splash in L.A. Guetta dropped his plans for making the ultimate street-artist documentary, seemingly leaving that task to Banksy. Instead, the Frenchman stages an extravagant show of what he says is his own work, while sale prices are soaring among well-heeled collectors nervous not to be in on the next big thing. This film is a beguiling frontline look at those artists who ply their craft “by any means necessary” and they are such a mischievous lot that some have questioned the film’s veracity, believing that Banksy’s hand was at work in the creation of the pieces by the novice Guetta (now known as “Mr. Brainwash”) in order to expose the folly of runaway speculation and commercialism. With apologies to Michelangelo, nowadays it can feel like the true work of art is but a shadow of the almighty dollar. See you in the gift shop.
About the Author
Using a combination of creativity and technology, Rick Ouellette published his first book in 2013. Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film features reviews of over 300 docs and is now available in all e-book formats. More at the blogsite rickouellettereelandrock.wordpress.com