HHow do you feel when you encounter a masterpiece? Humble? Intimidated? As well as being cultural havens, historically museums have had a didactic vocation, prompting us to think, feel and move in a particular way. For example, the Sainsbury’s Wing of the National Gallery in London was built to look like a 15th century Florentine chapel. To this end, it reconstructs the original context of the early Renaissance works it houses, which adds to the sense of wonder.
This is not the experience you get from seeing Eternalising Art History at Unit London. For the first time, using blockchain technology, Unit and the digital art platform Cinello created digital equivalents of six Italian masterpieces from hit names like Leonardo, Raphael and Caravaggio. The digital images are presented on screens, surrounded by identical reproductions of their original wooden frames, handcrafted by artisans in Poggibonsi, Tuscany. And, as this is a commercial gallery, they are for sale, by nine (a number which reflects the production of sculptures, where often nine were produced: two as tests and seven as finished pieces) .
Each digital doppelganger hangs on its own dark wall. Da Vinci’s first and oldest work, Head of a Woman, is displayed in Plexiglas – exactly as it appeared in the Louvre’s blockbuster exhibition in 2019. A highlight is Le Baiser by Francesco Hayez; whose passion fills an exhibition that is not united by a specific period or theme. As a viewer of Caravaggio’s Fruit Basket or Raphael’s Madonna and Goldfinch, you are not intimidated by the grandeur attached to a masterpiece in a pseudo-sacred space. The exchange is more like an intimate conversation. The walls are devoid of explanatory text, supporting the idea that no historical knowledge of prior art is necessary to appreciate the art – but you can also access the information on your phone via a QR code, if you feel inclined.
So, can replicas compete with the real deal? Can the indescribable but tangible “aura” of the original ever be reproduced? In short – no. When your eyes scan the surface of an image to locate impasto – heavier layers of paint accumulated on the surface – or areas where a varnish has darkened significantly over time – you get a sense of access to the past that is absent here.
Yet the point of these digital replicas is not to recreate or rival the original, but rather to bring a new – and perhaps younger – audience to engage with masterpieces in a world where contemporary art holds all the attention. In 2020, for example, the Tate Modern was the most visited museum in the UK, while the National Gallery, with its collection of Old Masters, was ranked fourth.
Part of the reason Old Masters may put off gallery-goers is that art history is steeped in tradition and exclusivity. This unusual exhibition upsets it, challenges it and enriches it. What’s refreshing – especially for a commercial art gallery – is the educational potential. Where non-fungible tokens (NFTs) alone do not democratize the art world as once promised, this marriage of digital technology with a physical counterpart creates digital permanence and increases accessibility to historical art.
Fifty percent of the revenue generated by the sales of these digital versions will go to the museums that own the original works – much needed in the wake of Covid, which has seen, on average, the number of visitors to Italian museums drop by 70%. Right now, institutions around the world are under tremendous pressure to embrace new technological innovations or face hard choices – such as alienation – to make ends meet. The show offers an alternative, and these masterpieces would otherwise be inaccessible to international audiences – they are all too fragile to travel.
For me, the collective ritual of making a pilgrimage to a much-loved museum is unbeatable. But the harsh reality is that we simply cannot get around the same way we did before the pandemic. In the (very near) future, exhibits may include both original artwork and digital replicas, allowing for broader curatorial themes at a fraction of the cost and ecological impact. In this sense, the exhibition is a nod to what is to come.
Of course, an exhibition of digital artwork is bound to polarize opinion; this unit has chosen to reproduce some of the most significant works of western art may just be salt in the wound. However, love it or hate it, the digital art revolution has arrived; and the gap between the physical and the virtual is well and truly bridged.