“I woke up one morning and looked around the room. Something wasn’t right. I realized that someone had broken in the night before and replaced everything in my apartment with an exact replica.“ – Steven Wright
The Van Gogh Museum stirs up a storm
When is “like” so like that even the phonies and blowhards will admit that the likeness is convincing? That’s the murky question that gathered like a storm cloud over the press last week when the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam announced that it had partnered with Fujifilm to create 3D replicas of some of its paintings. According to The Guardian, the technology in question is known as Reliefography, which combines a three-dimensional scan of the painting with a high-resolution print.
As usual in the art world, virtually religious qualms about purity and the taint of commerce mixed liberally with the bluster of experts who felt certain that the replicas were, somehow, an insult — to the artist, to our (belied?) princess-and-the-pea aesthetic sensibilities, as well as to the intended demographic for sales of the replicas. Never mind that sales of the “Relievos” (the museum’s name for the copies) immediately sold out in the Hong Kong mall where the museum-approved, numbered and limited editions made their debut, selling for approximately €25,000 or approximately $34,250 each. The five-digit price tag is much more acceptable than the $82.5 million Japanese businessman Ryoei Saito paid for Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet at a Christie’s auction in 1990, or the $53.9 million Australian businessman Alan Bond paid for Irises in 1987.
At present, the Van Gogh Relievo collection consists of five works: Almond Blossom (1890), Sunflowers (1889), The Harvest (1888) (above), Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds (1890) and Boulevard de Clichy (1887).
“Maybe the edges of the brush strokes are not quite so sharp on the copy and the overall sheen is fairly even, whereas on the original the varnish can vary,” Rueger said. “If you’re a layman, they are pretty indistinguishable [from the originals],” said Van Gogh museum director Axel Ruger, “Of course, if you’re a connoisseur and you look more closely, you can see the difference.”
Technology & Art Preservation
Honestly, I think the masses, and frankly most art professionals, would have the same experience gazing at the Relievos as at the real thing. It strikes me as an emperor’s-new-clothes sort of pretense to scoff at the very notion of replicas.
The fact is that 3D technology is tried and true when it comes to accurate and useful captures. It is only when the keepers of aesthetics chime in that verisimilitude is called into question. It seems we can’t allow that “fakes” might engender the same awe as originals for fear that our judgment will be called into question if we are not more sensitive to every odor and light reflection than others.
Yet since the 1983 public opening of Lascaux II, the work of technological teams developing 3D scanning and replication technology has been paired with the expertise of historians and artists to grant heightened accessibility to delicate historical sites, expand the reach of science, and even replace missing pieces of cultural artifacts.
3D Technology Meets High Art
Founded by Adam Lowe and Manuel Franquelo, both painters themselves, Factum Arte, a Madrid-based company uses their high resolution 3-D scanners to reproduce artworks using historically accurate materials and paints in the name of preservation.
But over its 14-year history the company has also worked extensively with many blue chip contemporary artists. They are the technology behind the Marc Quinn’s dramatic seashells, Anish Kapoor’s polished steel triangle mirrors, and Boris Savelev’s (Russian – Борис Савельев) multi-layered pigment prints. Usually hidden behind the scenes, they gained a tiny bit of attention a few years back when they created a reproduction of Veronese’s Les Noces De Cana (below) which was used in a 2009 performance piece by Peter Greenaway that took place in the refectory of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice where the painting had hung originally.
The mix of Additive Manufacturing with fine art does not always sit well with those who insist on placing high value on the artists’ hand. Ever since photography and lithographic technologies allowed for mass production and reproduction of fine art works, the degree to which technology is acceptable, and the proper way to valuate serial works has been an issue of constant debate.
“Factory” artists from Warhol to Koons and Hirst, have not erased the unease that comes with art that is produced without the “billed” artists’ hand involved. And even appropriation art has not made a dent in the armor of art’s knight in shining armor, Originality. And so it is that although the use of scanning and building technology is on the rise, it is hardly discussed.
And yet there is, clearly, a difference between mere iteration and the works made by the artists who work with Factum Arte.
3D Technology Meets Low Art
I know it’s not cool to categorize high and low art these days, save for the (obviously hypocritical) use of the terms to deny the difference, but I’m going to go ahead and take a risk here. I’m going to distinguish between the use of reproductive techniques in high art, to those in low art.
The fact is, as with any tool of technology, artists can use 3D printers well or poorly. Examples of both abound, ranging from dopey filigree skulls sold as art projects on Kickstarter, to astoundingly graceful sculptures like Mariko Mori’s Butterfly.
The difference rests partly in the sophistication of the technology and partly in the sophistication of the artist. Whereas many fine artists like Mori, see the printers as tools toward realizing a larger vocabulary (literally, perhaps, but also figuratively). Children, lay folk , and naïve, or craft artists are happy with the drama that can be created by printing any rococo design in 3D. Without a high concept, nor even an eye for grace, balance, drama, or beauty, one can create a lot of really cool looking kitsch. Results are often breathtaking. They are also a new source of clutter.
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