Since the lockdown announcement on the 23rd March, galleries and museums across the UK have been emphasising the scope and availability of their digital collections, encouraging the public to engage with high-resolution reproductions of their artefacts online.
Considering the work of art in the age of digital reproduction may not be a new phenomenon. And yet, the enthusiasm with which many institutions have been vocalising the accessibility of their archives on the Internet raises the volume on several important questions regarding the significance, if any, of the artwork as a physical, encounterable object, and the responsibility of museums to ensure that their collections are available online.
The last museum I visited was The National Gallery in London. It was quieter than usual – people were already steering clear of public spaces – and many of the rooms were empty but for gallery attendants. It was a short visit, though long enough to spend a few minutes with Jusepe de Ribera’s ‘Lamentation over the Dead Christ’ (early 1620s) and to pay closer attention than I had before to several other paintings, including Sassoferrato’s ‘The Virgin in Payer’ (1640-50) and an unattributed Italian painting of ‘A Dead Soldier’ (17th century). When I learned that the gallery had finally closed its doors, the first time it has done so since the Second World War, I decided to spend some time exploring the collection on the Internet.
There are 2,649 digital reproductions on The National Gallery’s website. If this feels a daunting number, then following a link to the collection’s central database reveals a randomly generated catalogue of thirty images, just over 1% of the gallery’s holdings. Not knowing where to begin, I allowed myself to be directed by these thirty pieces, arbitrarily clicking thumbnail links to Salomon van Ruysdael’s ‘Landscape with a Carriage and Horsemen at a Pool’ (1659) and an altarpiece panel of Carlo Crivelli’s depicting the martyred Saint Peter, a curved and glinting dagger embedded firmly in the chopping-block of his skull, painted sometime in the 1470s. I also searched for the paintings I had last viewed in the gallery – the Ribera, the Sassoferrato, and the Italian soldier – hoping to determine what the difference was in viewing them online.
While there are some obvious shortcomings to the digital experience, one aspect exerts a calm and steady power, derived from the ability to intensely magnify the surface of each canvas, zooming further in than you would ever hope to see in person. Even before considering the now-familiar questions of overcrowding which have been dogging London’s major galleries in recent years, the value of this magnification lies in its revelations, not only of the individual hairs of brushstrokes made by hands hundreds of years ago, but in the areas and details of a painting which so often go unnoticed. Closing in on artworks in this way encourages a slow, attentive seeing. I’m not convinced I would have noticed the subtle pierce in Christ’s side in Ribera’s ‘Lamentation’ without it, or the delicate irregularity of the wound in His right hand. Nor would I have seen the golden hair of Sassoferrato’s Mary, hidden within the shadow of her hooded robes, or the way the light brushes the orange leaves in van Ruysdael’s landscape.
Isolating and enlarging sections of the paintings on my computer screen, making a frame within the frame, I was reminded of the opening scene of John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’, which first aired on the BBC in 1972. The program begins with a shot of Berger in The National Gallery – earth-toned shirt, shoulder-length hair – slicing with a scalpel into Botticelli’s ‘Venus and Mars’ (c.1485), removing a rectangular section of the canvas containing Venus’s face. “It isn’t so much the paintings themselves which I want to consider,” suggests Berger’s overdubbed voice, “as the way we now see them, now, in the second half of the twentieth century, because we see these paintings as nobody saw them before.” I can’t help wondering what he would have made of viewing Venus through the cool light of a laptop screen.
Exploring The National Gallery’s collection on the Internet reveals another curiosity. When looking again for the anonymous ‘Dead Soldier’, the website’s search engine threw up several other paintings depicting corpses. This included Jan van Huchtenburgh’s ‘A Battle’ (c.1680), in which several fallen soldiers slump across trampled ground, Jozef Israël’s ‘Fishermen Carrying a Drowned Man’ (probably 1861), a moving panorama of a provincial village tragedy, and even Andrea Mantegna’s ‘Agony in the Garden’ (c.1455-56), where Christ’s sleeping disciples had been wrongly identified by the algorithm as a heap of lifeless bodies.
There is something undeniably compelling about the results of these associations, tearing through the traditional geographical, chronological, and stylistic classifications of Western painting. What’s more, it soon became apparent that a great many of the paintings – the Crivelli panel, the van Ruysdael, van Hutchenburgh’s ‘A Battle’ – fell into the distinctive category of artworks ‘Not on display’ at all. While an explanatory page on the website suggests that the gallery displays “as many works as possible at a given time,” the effect was of discovering a virtual wing of the museum, a Borgesian suite of rooms that one could never hope to find in person.
I still find myself leaning towards an actual experience of the paintings, an experience of presence, taking place within the space, the smell, even the cold of the museum. It is difficult to predict how the easing of social distancing will change our attitudes to viewing art, let alone to visiting the very public environment of the museum (how do you sanitise a work of art?). For the time being, however, I am taken by the digital experience, the uniqueness of its offering, the looking it encourages. It is an experience I expect to return to often, not only now, but once the galleries open their doors again.