Monday, February 7, 2011

Art and Google

You might have notice a small frieze along the bottom of your Google page a few days ago, advertising the newest 'new thing' - the Google Art project. I fiddled with it a little, got the idea that it was something to do with virtual access to art museums, then forgot about it - until this morning when I read Roberta Smith's article in the New York Times: Art in the Age of Google. Roberta Smith is a wonderful art writer so I was interested to hear her opinion - which seems to be 'cautiously optimistic.' The ultra-zoom feature is very intriguing (though not exclusive - some major museums have excellent websites with the capacity for close digital study) and fun to play with. It is kind of cool to get THAT close to Van Gogh's thick juicy brushstrokes, but in general, I'm not sure it's all that helpful if you didn't already know what you were looking at before you zoomed in. I agree with Smith's statement that Google Art is a nice way to examine 'practice' looking at actual art from the comfort of your home - and it's a great entree for teaching and for people who can't drop on in to their local major world-class museum. No digital experience can replace the real thing, but Smith points out some benefits - the lack of jostling in crowded galleries, and her discovery of tiny skinny-dippers all but invisible to the naked eye in Bruegel's Harvesters at the Met in New York. There are only 17 participating museums so far, but the range is interesting, with a contemporary art museum in the Czech Republic, two museums in Russia, the Tate Britain, the Frick, and the Freer Gallery in Washington, along with the Met, the Uffizi, the Rijksmuseum, and the National Gallery in London. I took some time with the Freer site (the Freer is dedicated to Asian art), exploring the virtual tour feature - one trip took me down a hallway to a firmly closed door - and then examining a couple of Mughal book pages. That seemed a good test, as they are small in scale to begin with and are usually examined with the help of a magnifying glass.At first I was afraid that the image of a crowd of men on a 'dictionary page' was hopelessly pixilated at close range but it didn't take long to resolve, and the magnificent intimacy of the lovely detail was in fact, apparent. (my example is not the actual one from the Freer site) The extraordinary Hans Holbein portrait of the merchant Georg Giszes from 1532 was another good test because of the incredible minutiae of the original, as was a delightful still life titled Turkey Pie by Pieter Claesz from the Rijksmuseum. Try zooming in on that one for the fun of getting so close to the crumbling pastry, the juicy raisins, the oysters, the frosted grapes, the salt and pepper spilling out of a roll of paper - and take an extra close look at the knife to see the tiny calligraphy of the date and artist's signature.