What if… we could move figures in a painting like characters on a stage?

You know the paintings I’m talking about: filled with complex Biblical references, or maybe scores of characters unfolding countless plots on a single canvas. Or both. Either way, there are paintings that are just outright daunting for visitors to explore independently.

Last year the MFA Boston, working with Portland’s Second Story, put together an immersive story-theater experience of Honthorst’s Triumph of the Winter Queen. The painting is your traditional 18th century allegory: a mix of still-living and long departed people, floating cupids and mythological gods. And they’re all jumbled in together with the restraint of a kid in a candy shop. Don’t get me wrong, I love this kind of painting, but it’s very hard for to access if you don’t know what you’re looking for!

Installation of Gerrit van Honthorst’s Triumph of the Winter Queen at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, February 14 – July 21, 2013

The Honthorst installation guided visitors across the canvas using spotlights, illuminating different sections in turn. The effect was smart. The accompanying voiceover could skip right into explanations, confident that the visitor was correctly oriented on the massive canvas. It was flashy and techy, but kept the visitors’ eyes right on the object itself.

However, the lights could only be so precise, especially due to an unmoveable beam across the ceiling. They raked slightly across the canvas. They haloed the action, but didn’t bring it to life. Also, the scale, complexity of installation, and budget of this project move it far outside the reach of most museums.

What if we could use 2.5D photography to accomplish something similar? Imagine having (albeit on a digital screen) figures in the painting subtly shift and move? Clearly I’m not the first person to have this idea, as here’s a great existing example by artist Rino Stefano Tagliafierro.

But what if instead of just a few sections per image, we delved into a painting as with the Honthorst? We could highlight areas for the visitor to decipher, one at a time, in a sequence. In this example, Velásquez’s Surrender at Breda, we could examine the spears, the differences in costume, the town in the background. We could use the moving image to guide the viewer as docent might.

Diego Velázquez, The Surrender of Breda, 1634-35, oil on canvas

Pushing it one step further: what could we do psychologically? What would it be like for the visitor to shift their perspective behind the Spaniards while we’re hearing about Charles V, and then to subtly move over stand behind the Northern Provinces as we hear their side?

The objections are clear: We take close looking away from the real object. We’re altering the composition, interfering and manipulating with the “sacred” picture. But, for me, the opportunity to model paintings in action, and how they can move in your imagination, is absolutely worth it!

Thanks @ArantxaVaillant for the video link! I originally was going with a WWF video.


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