World Views
8:21 am
Thu May 30, 2013

High-resolution Imaging Gives Art New Life Online

Henry VIII (1491-1547), Oil on panel, c. 1530-35
Credit Joos van Cleve / Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Listen to Suzette Grillot's interview with Desmond Shawe-Taylor and Anna Somers Cocks.

Technology is changing the way we experience art. High-resolution imaging not only allows museum curators to catalog and preserve their collections, it also changes the structure and function of the museums themselves.

“If you look at almost any great museum, it starts either with the collections of private individuals, or else with the heads of state,” says Anna Somers Cocks, founding editor of The Art Newspaper. “If you go around the Met in New York, it's like a kind of series of chapels devoted to various donors – galleries that have not just been financed, but have actually been filled with works of art collected.”

Even though many private collectors have donated their collections to public museums, access to high art is still limited by entry fees and geographic location. But museum digitization initiatives could change the game entirely.

Individual museums are increasingly adding searchable digital collections to their websites. Ventures like the Google Art Project take this work even further, using high-resolution images of pieces from hundreds of collections worldwide to make art freely available to the public.

They’re also making it interactive. Somers Cocks says that the Google Art Project allows users to feel as if they were close enough to reach out and touch the art in front of them.

“I was looking at a medieval capital from a column, and I got so excited.” Somers Cocks says. “I thought, ‘My goodness me, this has got over the problem that you can't ever in a museum get really close enough to something.’”

The Surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, oversees nearly 7,000 oil paintings and 3,000 miniatures from the British Royal Collection. Shawe-Taylor says that experiencing art online is undoubtedly different from experiencing it in person.

“Every work of art exists in a hundred different manifestations,” Shawe-Taylor says. “If you think of a piece of music, you would completely accept that you would have it as a CD or electronically, as well as something that you could play or something that you could go hear other people play live. That's, I think, the essence of a work of art. Its soul is released from the actual object, but then you go and see the object and you get the physical experience.”

According to Shawe-Taylor, though, the ultimate benefit of digitizing art is that is lasts forever. 

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

Shawe-Taylor on how the Royal Collections reflect the history of the British monarchy

It's really almost not one history, it's several histories because sometimes there's no connection between what one monarch will have collected or commissioned. So, for example, Charles I was really the first great collector of the British monarchs, and it tells you that collectors are not necessarily good kings. He fought in the Civil War and was tried and beheaded. So his rule was not entirely successful, but his art collecting was extremely successful. But what he was collecting, basically Italian, Renaissance art, was fundamentally different from, what, for example, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were collecting in the mid-19th century.

Somers Cocks on how the economy affects art collecting

At the moment, we're living through an extraordinary period because the middle classes are getting squeezed, the poor are having a harder time, but the very rich are getting richer. And because of the shortage of good vehicles for investment, you find rich people buying works of art, very expensive works of art. Some of them go straight into the free port in Geneva or Singapore, but some other people who have a bit more of a sense of the fun of life, then put them on show either in museums, or else creating a museum for them.

Somers Cocks on art theft

Interestingly enough, given the amount of art that there's around in private hands, the number of thefts is really quite small and you hear about them precisely because they are so extraordinary. The more important a work of art, the less likely you're going to be able to sell it in any kind of honest way. Therefore, it'll have to disappear into a kind of underworld of shady dealings, sometimes traded against drugs.

Somers Cocks on art in the Middle East

In Qatar, which most people know because it produces Al Jazeera television, there is a museum devoted to Arab art of the Middle East from all over the Middle East. It really needs very little to get an art scene going, and encouraging people, and they have art colleges there, as indeed they have art colleges in Egypt, and Jordan, and so on. And it's a good way of expressing political feeling without incurring the wrath of the authorities, because, generally speaking, the authorities can read, but quite often they can't really interpret art.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST:  Desmond Shawe-Taylor and Anna Somers Cocks, welcome to World Views.

SHAWE-TAYLOR: Great to be here.

SOMERS COCKS: Here, here.

GRILLOT: Well, Mr. Shawe-Taylor, I know that you are involved with overseeing, managing, Queen Elizabeth's art collection. Tell us a little bit about that art collection and what you see, who gets to see it? Tell us a little bit about that.

SHAWE-TAYLOR: Well, it's really the, I think, one of the greatest art collections that somehow passed under the radar. Actually, you can see it in lots of places. You can see it at Buckingham Palace during the summer, Buckingham Palace summer opening; you can see it all the year round at Windsor Castle, and also at Hampton Court and Kensington Palace, and Holyrood Palace at Edinburgh, and also other places less well-known. So what I think people don't necessarily realize is that the artwork in all those places belongs to this one collection, the royal collection.

GRILLOT: And so what exactly is in the collection? Does it vary in terms of the type of art? The period of art?

SHAWE-TAYLOR: It's the accumulation of things acquired by the British monarchy since it started. So it's unbelievable in its range.

GRILLOT: So things, paintings, and...

SHAWE-TAYLOR: Paintings, for example, but paintings represent a relative... I'm the surveyor of the Queen's pictures, so I look after the paintings, and it's one of the most important collections of paintings in the world. But the paintings represent an actually very small part of the collection as a whole, because there's furniture, the crown jewels, for example, are part of the royal collection, ceramics...

GRILLOT: What about fashion? I read a little bit about fashion.

SHAWE-TAYLOR: There's a dress collection that's held at Kensington Palace, and it's an absolutely fabulous dress collection, including, of course, very, very important coronation dresses, and so on, but also court dress from the 18th and 19th century. Jewelry, magnificent jewelry, and also works on paper. The royal library has one of the best collections in the world of Italian old master drawings, including 600 drawings by Leonardo DaVinci.

GRILLOT: Very interesting. So what does this say, then, about the British monarchy? These things, as you put them, these various works of art, I guess, are reflective of the history of the monarchy and the kinds of things that were interesting to them over its rule?

SHAWE-TAYLOR: Exactly. But it's really almost not one history, it's several histories because sometimes there's no connection between what one monarch will have collected or commissioned. So, for example, Charles I was really the first great collector of British monarchs, and it tells you that collectors are not necessarily good kings. He fought in the Civil War and was tried and beheaded. So his rule was not entirely successful, but his art collecting was extremely successful. But what he was collecting, basically Italian, Renaissance art that was fundamentally different from, what, for example, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were collecting in the mid-19th century.

GRILLOT: So definitely different histories. That's interesting. I connect them to different monarchs as time goes by.

SHAWE-TAYLOR: Different monarchs, different histories, exactly.

GRILLOT: Well, Ms. Somers Cocks, you have been involved in the art world for many years, I'd like to connect what we've heard from Mr. Shawe-Taylor about private collections, or the collections of the rich and famous, if you will, the monarch, to public collections and the connection between the two, the distinction between the two. I mean, you know, we tend to think of art as something that the rich really pay attention to. How is it accessible to the public, and how would you make a distinction between these kinds of collections?

SOMERS COCKS: If you look at almost any great museum, it starts either with the collections of private individuals, or else with the heads of state. For example, the Louvre is a collection, essentially, of the kings of France. And then it becomes a state organization, begins to acquire as a government organization, but at the essence of it is one collecting power that happens to span generations. Alternatively, the British Museum starts off with the collection of a man named Sir Hans Sloane. So, private collections have a way of becoming public collections. I mean, this happens to an amazing extent in America, where people give their collections. If you go around the Met, in New York, it's like a kind of series of chapels devoted to various donors, you know, galleries that have not just been financed, but have actually been filled with works of art collected. So I think that there is a transition between the two. What is changing now, I've noticed, is that actually quite a lot of private collectors are beginning to open their own museums. I mean, Eli Broad, for example, in California. François Pinault's done it in Venice. The French luxury, you know, Christie's, you know, he's a millionaire collector, and some of them are very, very good at having outreach programs, and some of them are less good at having outreach programs.

GRILLOT: So, I have to ask, in today's economy, is art something that you see is less accessible, or less of interest? Are people selling off their private collections? Are they likely to give them up, perhaps? Is the collection of art something people do less and less because of the economy? Is there a connection at all between economic situations and access to or interest in art?

SOMERS COCKS: At the moment, we're living through an extraordinary period because the middle classes are getting squeezed, the poor are having a harder time, but the very rich are getting richer. And because of the shortage of good vehicles for investment, you find rich people buying works of art, very expensive works of art. Some of them go straight into the free port in Geneva or Singapore, but some other people who have a bit more of a sense of the fun of life, then put them on show either in museums, or else creating a museum for them.

GRILLOT: Very interesting. I wonder if this relates at all to another issue, and again, forgive me because I have to ask this question because it's in the news often, that art is often a target of crime. And that you see, because the value of these works of art is fairly sustainable, that they then become a key piece for theft and that there's this market for black market work. Do you see this at all, or is there a connection we can make there?

SOMERS COCKS: Interestingly enough, given the amount of art that there's around in private hands, the number of thefts is really quite small and you hear about them precisely because they are so extraordinary. The more important a work of art, the less likely you're going to be able to sell it in any kind of honest way. Therefore, it'll have to disappear into a kind of underworld of shady dealings, sometimes traded against drugs. We know that that has happened. That being said, there remain some mysterious things. The Isabella Stewart Gardner, it's now at least 20, maybe 30 years, since a number of unbelievable masterpieces were stolen from there, and they've never surfaced.

GRILLOT: They've never recovered them. And who knows. Could they be hiding away in someone's house somewhere, and will resurface at some point?

SOMERS COCKS: The worst possible thing that could have happened is that the people who stole them didn't really know enough about the art market to realize that they were unsalable and that they panicked and stashed them somewhere like in some damp basement, or, worse still, just destroyed them.

GRILLOT: I'd like to see if both of you can answer a question about contemporary attempts to digitize works of art, and share them more broadly outside of museums, so establishing kind of digital, or video presentations of art exhibits. Do you see that happening often? And particularly, you, Mr. Shawe-Taylor, in your exhibit, the Queen's work, are these things available to see more broadly on the internet, for example?

SHAWE-TAYLOR: Yes, we are at the moment engaged in putting as much of the collection as possible online. Certainly now, all paintings have a record online, so you can see that they exists. They don't necessarily have a photograph, but they will. And the rest of the collection, we're working through it. So that's hugely important for us. We've realized, really, that once you commit to that, and once there is the quality of photography available, and when it's digital, it really does last forever. I think we've really recognized the scale of the enterprise, so give us a bit of time and we will be there. And, as an advance, it's unbelievable because this is just making it available to everybody.

SOMERS COCKS: And, Desmond, there's a very nice thing that the raw collection does, which is that it lets scholars reproduce works of art from the collection without charging a fee for that, which is a very positive development in museums lately. It started off with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and now the Met does it, and I think MoMA, and the British Museum, because it has become terribly expensive for people to reproduce works of art in academic books. And they've realized that, and they've waived it. And the other project, which I think is wonderful and I only started using it the other day, is the Google Art Project, where they have entire collections of museums online in very, very high resolution images, so that you can zoom right in as though you had your eye one inch away from a ceramic. So you can practically have the experience of holding it in your hand. I was looking at a medieval capital from a column this way, and I got so excited. I thought "My goodness me, this has got over the problem that you can't ever in a museum get really close enough to something."

GRILLOT: But doesn't it still change the experience in some ways? I mean, it's a trade off, right? You get to see it that up-close and personal in your own time and your own space, and it makes it all the more accessible as you were suggesting, but then is there something very, very fundamentally different about seeing something digitally as opposed to seeing the actual work of art?

SHAWE-TAYLOR: Sure, one trades off the other. I think every work of art exists in a hundred different manifestations. So if you think of a piece of music, you would completely accept that you would have it as a CD or electronically, as well as something that you could play or something that you could go hear other people play live. That's, I think, the essence of a work of art. It's soul is released from the actual object, but then you go and see the object and you get the physical experience.

GRILLOT: So it lives beyond that actual physical space. Well, I'm curious, I mean, we're talking about art, and, in particular the work that you're doing in the developed world. What do you see developing in developing parts of the world in terms of art and museums and an appreciation for that kind of art, for example in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan? I mean, are we seeing an increase and an interest in art and art museums in some of these parts of the world?

SOMERS COCKS: Yes, very much so. I'd say not Afghanistan, poor things, they're having such a bad time, also they are, quite honestly, living a couple of centuries behind us. Anything that happens there, in the artistic way, is, in a sense, a kind of colonial, not exactly an imposition, but a kind of graft on. But we forget that Iraq actually had a very thriving art scene in the '50s and '60s, which was completely smashed up by the war and is coming back to life now, and is beginning to actually have galleries and so on. The driver of the art scene in the Middle East has been the Gulf. The Arabs of the Gulf, of course, until recently, were dirt poor and had nothing. I mean, really, practically, you know, they lived in tents or sort of huts, but now they have become interested in art and they're having these museums being built, and a little art market is beginning to develop there. And they are deliberately trying to favor art of the Middle East. So, for example, in Qatar, which most people know because it produces Al Jazeera television, there is a museum devoted to Arab art of the Middle East from all over the Middle East. It really needs very little to get an art scene going, and encouraging people, and they have art colleges there, as indeed they have art colleges in Egypt, and Jordan, and so on. And it's a good way of expressing political feeling without incurring the wrath of the authorities, because, generally speaking, the authorities can read, but quite often they can't really interpret art. So that's one thing. And, of course, Africa is definitely a coming art scene. There are some galleries there, but there are Westerners who are interested in the art. There's a man called Johnny Pigozzi, for example, who never goes there himself, but he actually sends a curator down there who gives artists paints, and so on, and encourages them and buys their work.

GRILLOT: Well, I think it goes without saying that art really is, and should be for everyone. So it's interesting to hear about the developments in other parts of the world as well. Well, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Anna Somers Cocks, thank you so much for being with us on World Views today.

SHAWE-TAYLOR: Great pleasure, thank you.

SOMERS COCKS: Thank you very much.

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