From Canvas to Screen: Digital Documentation and Art History

Janice Franklin is a graduate student in European history at IUPUI. She is currently working on her master’s thesis, which will analyze the artwork of German Expressionist Painter Gabriele Münter. In this essay, Janice argues that digital documentation of historic artwork may pique the interest of those who want to learn more about art history. Yet she also suggests that looking at artwork on a computer screen cannot recreate the “impact” of seeing artwork in person. For this reason, preservation of material artifacts is still vitally important in our efforts to study and understand the past.

Gabriele Munter - Woman in Stockholm (The Future)

A lone woman sits motionless in her seat, gazing at her admirer as though surprised by this unannounced visit.  Her mouth unfurls into a sheepish grin; she does not admonish her viewer for sneaking into her dwelling place.  However, she does nothing to welcome her guest into her space, a domestic environment teeming with the trappings of household comforts: luxurious curtains, a cozy chair and a bouquet of beautiful tulips, swirling elegantly from their vase.  A gleaming sunset casts looming shadows against the façades of the buildings just beyond her window.  The golden glow on the right side of her face suggests that a second window resides beside her, just out of sight.  As she continues to stare, her viewer moves on.  However, she will endlessly remain immobile.  To see her once more, all we must do is turn on our computers and seek her again.

This woman is the solitary figure in Gabriele Münter’s iconic painting Woman in Stockholm (The Future), completed in 1917.[1] Nearly one hundred years since its creation by the artist, the painting is still beautifully preserved, and also available for viewing on a number of Internet search engines.  In modern society, it seems mundanely commonplace to “just Google it”, but we must stop and analyze the vital importance of this method of artistic preservation.  Not only does this form of digital documentation preserve an image of the masterwork, but it may also access a broader audience of all ages.  Digital documentation may even inspire interest in the field of art history by accessing media-savvy, museum-wary viewers, curious to see the works they love onscreen first-hand.

Digital preservation also serves a unique purpose in worst-case-scenarios, such as the alarming October 2012 art theft from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam.  Recently, the crook’s mother, Olga Dogaru, claimed that she incinerated the stolen pieces to destroy evidence of her son’s thoughtless thievery.  Among those stolen were pieces by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Lucian Freud, and Meyer de Haan.  According to The New York Times, the head of Romania’s National History Museum, Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, called the supposed burning a “barbarian crime against humanity.”[2]  While Dogaru has since come forth and denied her original claim of burning the masterworks, the art world may be forced to brace itself for the worst: the priceless pieces loved by so many may be lost permanently.  However, digital documentation of these images provides a way to continue to access these remarkable works long after they disappear.  While nothing can ever replace the genuine artwork, a digital replica may be a suitable and enduring substitute that may be enjoyed for years to come.

The study of art history is changing rapidly with the increasing desire to digitally document works of art for historical preservation purposes.  Recent innovations in modern technology have aided in the photographic documentation of visual imagery, both two- and three-dimensional.  The Google Cultural Institute has created the Art Project, a website that features more than 40,000 images of world-renowned works of art, available to everyone from the casual art viewer to the passionate scholar, all in supremely high definition. So precise are these images that one may zoom in so closely on Vincent van Gogh’s legendary Starry Night (1889) that traces of canvas can be seen through the impasto paint strokes.  To be so close to the genuine image would likely earn the viewer a hearty reprimand from the museum.  With digital documentation, however, it is possible to explore these magnificent works of art at one’s leisure and in superb detail.  I believe this form of digital documentation allows a broader audience to enjoy subtleties of iconic images in an uncommonly intimate way.

Despite these modern innovations, it is imperative to stress the importance of preserving the art itself.  No digital image can ever fully recreate the impact a masterful painting or beautiful sculpture can make upon its viewer, perhaps in the same way that a photograph of a departed loved one may offer comfort but not as much as the real immediate presence of the person would.  While digital documentation plays a crucial role in advancing art historical research, it is necessary to remember to preserve the original piece to allow later generations to savor the beauty of the art firsthand. – Janice Franklin

[1] Münter, Gabriele. The Future (Woman in Stockholm).  (Current location: The Cleveland Museum of Art). 1917.

[2] Higgins, Andrew. “Romanian Denies Burning Stolen Art.”New York Times. (2013): n. page. Web. 2 Aug. 2013.



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