A few weeks ago, I started to seriously fantasize about a springtime trip to Ghent, the Belgian city hosting the most comprehensive exhibition ever of the works of Jan van Eyck, the artist who perfected oil painting.
Now, like most people, my travel ambitions are limited to a walk around the neighborhood. Even if I were in Ghent, I could not see the show because the museum hosting it is closed, along with thousands more museums around the world, including in Philadelphia.
It’s little wonder that a phenomenon has been bubbling up all over the internet and spreading on social media — the virtual museum experience. It seems like every online publication and newsfeed has been touting on-screen art-viewing, without crowds, from the relative safety of your own home.
Nearly all museums have spent the last couple of decades digitizing their collections, and the amount of art available to be seen online and even downloaded to your computer is staggering. In addition, Google Arts & Culture has partnered with more than 2,500 museums of different sorts around the world to present thematic slideshows, detailed discussion of single works, and museum walk-throughs.
Several local institutions are included, though not impressively. Near and far doesn’t matter in cyberspace. You might as well see everything.
Art through a curator’s eye
Indeed, there is so much available it is impossible to say where to start, let alone to draw conclusions. I explored impulsively, letting one thing lead to another, as things do on the web. I can report, though, that many of the sites offer interpretation and documentation difficult to find elsewhere. They really enable you to see an artist through the eye of a top curator.
Their drawback, of course, is that you are not seeing the works with your own eyes, noticing things for yourself in the presence of a handmade object. Online art viewing offers plenty of detail, expertise and fun facts, and even animation. The art’s emotional content — the reason I suspect many are turning to art in this difficult moment — is more elusive.
I started out hating the entire experience, mostly because it took me a while to figure it out. One virtual walk-through kept me on the ramp of New York’s Guggenheim Museum without being able to get down the ramp or looking at any art. Another had me wandering around the exterior of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, without being able to find a way in, though I should note that this sometimes happens to me at real museums.
And while exploring Brazil’s Museu de Arte São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, which features an enormous open room in which paintings are mounted on Plexiglas panels, all facing the same direction, I found myself stuck only looking at the paintings’ backs.
But when I switched from my desktop to my tablet, after installing the Google Arts & Culture App, I was able to walk around my bedroom while on-screen I toured the museum. It was fun, but to really see the works of art, you need to leave the walk-through and peruse the high-definition images on the site.
While each museum’s website is unique, the Google app standardizes the experience so you can quickly see whether an institution offers virtual walk-throughs and slideshows, which the site calls stories, in addition to selections from the collections. There is no real relationship between the size of the museum and its online offerings.
Vermeer at your leisure
For example, Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, one of the largest in the world, offers only one story. But it is an important one, a discussion of Johannes Vermeer’s The Art of Painting.
As the viewer scrolls down, the camera moves over the surface of the painting and captions appear describing the painter’s methods, possible meanings of the painting, and the clothes and artifacts to be seen. You probably spend more time with this painting in this virtual version than if you make the trip to Vienna and had to dodge the shoals of tourists brandishing selfie sticks who converge on this canvas. (I’m still glad to have done so.)
This museum, like most, offers images of some of its most important works, and I couldn’t leave without taking a look at some of the great paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder such as Children’s Games, The Peasant Wedding, and The Tower of Babel.
These are incredibly complex works, full of symbolism and incident, humor and warning. They reward time and patience, and it might be easier to immerse yourself in these paintings and on-screen than it is standing and looking at them in a museum.
The Tower of Babel, that quintessential story of misplaced confidence, misunderstood communication, and monumental failure, seems resonant with our moment. As you stare at the screen you can see the beauty of the edifice, the swarms of workers, and the king who is giving orders, oblivious that the building is falling down even as it rises up.
And since our digital devices are tools of distraction as well as exploration, I was soon looking at the analysis of Bruegel’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels from the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. The slideshow does a great job of explicating one of the painter’s darkest canvases, which combines images of the beginning of time with the end of the world and teems with monsters and grotesques.
Bruegel in VR
On the Google Arts & Culture home page, I found a link for the museum’s virtual reality film of the work. In A Fall With the Rebel Angels, St. Michael and his heavenly allies flap their realistic birdlike wings as they grapple with dark demons, while fantastical creatures float past.
It takes place in an apparently three-dimensional space. If you tilt the viewing angle, you can see almost all the way to heaven. This is not an improvement on Bruegel, but it is engaging, which is what the internet is designed to be.
Seeing that I was in virtual Brussels, I decided to click my way to virtual Ghent. The website there is essentially a promotion for the now-shuttered show, but it contains several good slideshows that at least hint at what makes Jan van Eyck such an uncannily precise yet spiritual painter.
I love knowing that a blue brooch worn by an angel in one of the panels of the Ghent Altarpiece shows the reflection of a specific window at its original location, and the reflection is optically correct.
Like the best of what I discovered online, it gives me something to think about when I can get out of the house and start looking at art for real.