The Gallery in the Machine

 Ben Howell Davis

Leave Comments

Scientific American

May, 1995, Vol. 272, No.5 Pg. 85-91.


Great Paintings, Renaissance to Impressionism: The Frick Collection. Digital Collections, Inc., 1994.

Art Gallery: The Collection of the National Gallery in London. Microsoft Corporation, 1993.

American Visions: 20th Century Art from the Roy R. Neuberger Collection. Eden Interactive, 1994.

There is something mystical about visiting an art museum, and particularly so about wandering through the enigmatic Frick Collection in New York City. What is El Greco's famous portrait of St. Jerome doing here isn't it in the Prado? And how has Johannes Vermeer's Mistress and Maid found its way into this converted private mansion that was built just in 1913? The Frick is a quiet island of art treasures located on Manhattan's upper east side. But like a number of other art museums it has also moved into cyberspace, popping up in digital form on a CD-ROM.

Museums have always relied on technology to aid in the presentation, preservation, storage and retrieval of collections. But the latest innovation - the digital museum collection - marks a radical turn in the relationship between art and technology. For the first time, the diverse functions of a traditional art museum have been converted into a single form, electronic bits; artworks have been transformed into information objects.

Publishers and museums are grappling to find appropriate applications for digitized art. Are the disks a research tool, a form of catalog, an "edutainment" product? Should we view them as high-tech surrogates for coffee-table books or as primitive versions of virtual museums that will someday reside on the information highway? Do they function as interactive previews of the real museum collections or actually substitute for a visit? Can the mystery of great imagery survive when viewed on a cathode-ray tube?

The three CD-ROMs reviewed here all propose to create museums inside the personal computer, but they offer tellingly diverse approaches. Great Paintings, Renaissance to Impressionism is a database containing some (but not all) of the works in New York's Frick Collection. Art Gallery is a database as well as a rudimentary art encyclopedia and educational tutorial. American Visions consists of a database as well as a point-of-view presentation. The disks require 4 to 8 megabytes of memory and, of course, a CD-ROM drive.

All three CD-ROMs share a peculiar omission: that none of them tells you how to get to the real museum. Nor do they provide floor plans so that, once you have arrived, you can locate the works that you have seen in digital form. The disks never encourage you to experience the real works, which is the point of looking at digital-art collections isn't it?

Where these disks differ is in their intentions, which are most acutely revealed in the way each one uses motion. Curiously, even though museums are not particularly dynamic settings, it is the moving images and audio that create in the CD-ROMs a sense of place, a genuine feeling of connection to the actual museums. Whether through clever animations that explicate painting techniques or digital-video testimonials, the motion in the multimedia beckons the user into the virtual museum.

Yet the Frick Collection CD-ROM is constructed as a static, image database that uses essentially no motion imagery at all. This disk seems to be designed more for an art researcher than for a casual visitor. The data interface resembles Windows, workmanlike and devoid of frills. The disk provides a variety of ways to explore the database, including keywords, style and type of work, themes or topics, and date of execution. You can enlarge areas of the works, although you quickly end up with a screenful of pixels.

Unfortunately, most consumers buying an art CD-ROM do not know the things that a researcher would be looking for. You can rummage through the holdings, but there is no sense of wonder to the quest. How did Velazquez paint the eyes of his noble subjects to make them appear a bit strange? No ready answer awaits in the rather minimalist digital documentation available on the disk. Even a simple timeline or an example of how to conduct a historical search would make the browsing much more rewarding.

The lack of context is particularly frustrating because of the eclectic nature of The Frick Collection and the haunting ambiance of the building that houses it. On a recent visit I rediscovered the richly furnished rooms and the startling diversity of works that had left me with such vivid memories. Henry Clay Frick himself insisted that the works he had collected be seen in the setting of the Relegance and distinctionS of his home.

The corresponding CD-ROM completely lacks this aura. Nowhere do you see the marvelous architecture in which the works reside. It takes a bit of persistent exploring to find the one chunk of background on the artworks and on the collection itself: a brief but excellent text by Charles Ryskamp, the director of The Frick Collection, which is available under one of the "info" options. Perhaps the positive side of the sparse background material is that when you visit The Frick Collection you will be able to discover what a jewel it is without any preparation from the CD-ROM.

Microsoft's Art Gallery embraces a warmer, more accessible approach - that of the art encyclopedia. This disk aims to expose the user to a broad range of experiences while maintaining a familiar pattern of access. Closely patterned on workhorse teaching references (such as H. W. Janson's History of Art), this style still gives the browser the feeling of researching through a database, but this time with the help of a kinder, gentler interface created by an art historian.

You can search the collection by the name of the artist, or search through groupings labeled "historical atlas", "picture types", and "general reference". You also have the option of jumping into four user-friendly tutorials. This educational approach is appropriate to a museum like London's National Gallery. Here the collection reflects the activity of an institution rather than the viewpoint of a single art-lover.

The tutorials in Art Gallery offer wonderful if somewhat brief formal explanations of how perspective works, how composition works, how color affects subject matter and how a work of art is restored. Each tutorial includes narration, descriptive text and animated analyses of about a half-dozen paintings. An unraveling of Van Eyck's The Arnolfini Marriage, for example, includes views of the painting, a detail of the artist reflected in the mirror in the painting, and a short but thorough discourse on the effect that Van Eyck was trying to achieve.

When you are searching through the main collection, small thumbnail images of works appear alongside black text on a white screen that seems intended to simulate a page, a card or a white wall. A click of the mouse expands the image. Viewing the computer screen in this setup feels something like looking into a light bulb; a neutral gray background might be less jarring. Most of the paintings are rendered in color. Why some of them are shown in black and white is not obvious. An art novice might mistakenly assume these are monochromatic paintings.

The disk incorporates a refreshingly simple alphabetical index to aid the user in finding a specific work. Clicking on a letter reveals all items from that part of the alphabet. Selecting a specific name then brings up information about that artist or artwork. Some words in the descriptions of the works are highlighted; when clicked, they take you to other images and related text, a kind of connection known as a hyperlink. Text marked with an asterisk can be clicked on to call up a box containing a more in-depth explanation of the topic.

Hyperlinks between artists and historical movements create an expanding network of pathways designed so that the user can always find a little more information on any particular artist, work, or theme. This interactive mode of presentation offers multiple ways to look at a painting and helps create a sense that the works are all related in some way. Another useful and distinctively multimedia feature in Art Gallery is the audio icon that, when clicked, gives the pronunciation of the artist's name. It is a little like having your history teacher on hand, correcting you. The electronic voice is welcome but inconsistent: it only tells you how to say the last name of Jan Van Eyck (is the first name pronounced JAN or YAHN?) but clearly gives both names in other cases (Harment Steewyck).

Art Gallery also suffers some more serious pedagogic gaps. For instance, Frans Hals, who painted in a surprising, abstract style in some of his very representational portraits, is passed over in the guided tours without any comment. And if you searched under surrealism, you would find works by Bosch, Picasso and Goya that have little or no connection to surrealist imagery; they just happen to be the only paintings by these artists on the CD-ROM, so they have been somewhat arbitrarily lumped together. In general, the material on the disk is probably too conceptually thin to enable a serious-minded user to discover and prove a hypothesis about art history. Nevertheless, the disk manages to cover a lot of artistic territory.

Where Art Gallery aims for breadth, American Visions shoots for specificity, to good effect. Like The Frick Collection, the Roy R. Neuberger Collection (located at the State University of New York at Purchase) came together through the will of a single man. But unlike the Frick CD-ROM, American Visions actually explains why the works were collected and tells stories about them. The Neuberger disk uses an interactive-museum approach that feels much friendlier than the FrickUs image-database model. This disk also imparts more of a sense of place than the other two because it includes anecdotal video clips of artists and critics.

Starting up American Visions takes the user to a theatrical opening, replete with a jazz soundtrack and a collage of paintings, faces, dates, and names that gradually covers the screen. Unfortunately, if you have already seen this introduction, you cannot stop it and go directly into the collection itself. Once in, you can take an audio tour of how to use the disk, watch a brief movie about Roy Neuberger (you learn that Neuberger's focus was on "buying the art of living artists" - particularly in Paris in the 1920's because "good times cause things to happen in the arts"), or enter the database and explore the collection. For users dazed by the amount of material on the disk, the most reassuring philosophical statement in the audio tour comes at the end when the narrator says, "...and remember to turn off your computer at least once a week."

The disk's graphic interface is attractive but somewhat confusing. Rows of similar-looking buttons represent many different things: the artworks, photographs of the artists, anecdotal movies, text about the works and the artists, and social events of the period. The user can also uncover more buttons (and hence more choices) by clicking on arrows at the end of the rows. Once you have chosen a particular painting, for instance, you can request to see links, which calls up a vertical column of new thumbnail buttons next to the work. Each image can be enlarged and then swapped for any image linked to it. This setup of hyperlinks creates a great variety of ways to circulate through the collection, but the material on the CD-ROM is finite, so you will soon run into the same material from a number of different routes.

The generous use of sound and video motion in American Visions quickly pulls the viewer inside the collection. The disk's most novel feature is the instant accessibility of movies about the artists and works - a resource that would not be available in a real museum, and one not provided in the other disks. I immediately searched out all the movies on the disk in order to collect as much background information as possible. The movie clips, sometimes accompanied by snippets of jazz, range from color interviews with Neuberger to old black-and-white films, such as one of Jackson Pollack painting. The CD-ROM contains many more movies about artists than about individual pieces, so it gives a rather personality-driven sense of art history.

A set of icons stretched across the bottom of the screen permits the user to re-orient the virtual pathways connecting the information in the disk. These icons provide access to a timeline, a viewer for looking at individual artworks, or an alphabetical listing of artists. Making use of these various options in American Visions imparts in the user a genuine sense of discovery and a feeling for the ways in which Neuberger's style of collecting was influenced by artists' sensibilities, the mood of the times and various social events.

The structural approach in the Neuberger CD-ROM is very much in tune with the present state of multimedia technology. The fairly formal presentations in the Frick and National Gallery disks proffer the standard view of art as a composition and technique-centered activity that is only marginally affected by the times in which it was created. The more dynamic Neuberger disk brings the work into direct contact with its social context. That intellectual stance is reinforced by the articles by Peter Samis of the San Francisco Museum of Contemporary Art included in American Visions. Samis's articles clearly describe contemporary structural criticism, which holds that art can only be fully understood when it is linked to other forms of expression. CD-ROM multimedia, which explicitly synchronizes art and technology, offers an apt medium for elucidating the structuralist line of thought.

The publication of these three virtual museums denotes an important moment in the history of art. The medium is clearly still in its infancy; these CD-ROMs miss much of the inner essence of the artworks. But that very failure may help the user appreciate the myserious power of art that the technology cannot yet replicate. For now, the magic of the museum experience can be explored only by going to the actual works - being there, breathing the same air as the art.