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January 19, 2006

Caravaggio: una mostra impossible exhibition installation photo

Caravaggio: una mostra impossible Exhibition, Loyola University Museum of Art. Photo by Mark Beane/Loyola University Chicago

There’s a discussion buzzing on the Eye Level backend about Caravaggio: una mostra impossible, the “impossible” Caravaggio exhibit at the Loyola University Museum of Art in Chicago. The exhibit features 57 backlit digital reproductions of works by the artist—masterpieces, all, that surely could never be seen together in any one place at any one time. Some of us are quite critical of this exhibit, while others are ready hitch a ride to Chicago to see the show and buy the T-shirt.

Kriston’s reaction to the idea of a show solely featuring reproductions might fairly be described as a mild epileptic seizure. Chiaroscuro by way of backlighting? Posters standing in for paintings? The exhibit’s creators describe it as an example of the “democratization” of art, but the point he makes is that there is no actual art being democratized!

We all agree that there are educational benefits to a show like this. A religious/educational institution (such as Loyola’s museum) can claim a legitimate interest in emphasizing the narrative and historical aspects of Caravaggio’s work over its formal characteristics, while we can imagine that more conservative institutions (you know who you are!) just wouldn’t go there. And the exhibit’s organizers own up to its unconventional focus up front, likening it to a life-size catalogue and acknowledging that it is no substitute for the originals.

We also agree that in some circumstances copies can be just as good as real things. As a reference point Kriston and Jeff have highlighted Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which discusses the way that the advent of mechanical technology (i.e., photography and film) changed the nature of the aesthetic experiences we used to associate only with original things. For example, one doesn’t think of a single film reel as being the “authentic” film; in a similar vein, one doesn’t expect that the aura of a theatrical performance is lost through the mediation of film.

But like the mechanical revolution, we see that the digital revolution only promises to hasten the trend away from the collective, “ritual”-based experience of art—paintings in caves, frescoes in cathedrals—toward venues and processes that are accessible, convenient, and immediate for each individual viewer. St. Louis-based art conservator Phoebe Dent Weil describes the Caravaggio show as a “wonderful second-best thing,” and that drives at the aspect of the show that makes some of us feel uncomfortable. If you consider museums to be the champions of aura and authenticity, then you can’t help but argue that this show displaces both.

Or to sharpen the argument being made: art museums, ultimately, primarily, are repositories of the real thing. No other type of institution plays that role; therefore, even an educational exhibition that provides an unprecedented, exciting, even impossible degree of access will be found lacking by those who look to museums to facilitate the experience of aura and authenticity.

A surprising aspect of our internal debate is that some of our museum professionals—those whom we would expect to be conservative about of the sanctity of Art Museum Traditions—think the Caravaggio exhibition is a perfectly legitimate experiment in exhibition-craft. Perhaps it’s because they get to see the benefit of museum education day-in and day-out, or because they have to struggle with the challenges of actual physical works of art (SAAM traveled 14 exhibitions to 100 stops while the building has been closed for renovation), or because they know how hard it is to turn even great artwork into beautiful and exciting exhibitions. Plus they know that so many museums depend on admission fees and merchandising to fund the thankless (and expensive) tasks of collection stewardship.

Regardless of how we feel about the show’s concept and impact, we’re pretty sure that reproduction Caravaggios won’t do the Loyola University Museum of Art any long-term harm, and it just might open some eyes to the charms of a great master.

Posted by Michael Edson on January 19, 2006 in American Art Elsewhere


Thank you for the interesting post. If nothing else, this exhibition will foster many conversations about the use of digital reproductions.

I have to take issue, however, with your statement that "one doesn’t expect that the aura of a theatrical performance is lost through the mediation of film." I personally feel that watching a performance on TV or on film takes away most, if not all, of the magic of being at a live performance. Furthermore, there is a vigorous debate in the ballet community over the issue of how to film a performance. Does one only shoot from a wide angle where the entire stage is on view? Or is it better to show details of individuals? Obviously there is no right or wrong answers to these questions, but they do show that the "aura" of a performance is manipulated through film.

It is also interesting to note the changing roles of museums. In the nineteenth century many museums were filled with copies of important artifacts. Want to have the Rosetta Stone in your lobby--why not? I wonder if we are returning to an era where an emphasis on the original is substituted for didactic reproductions.

"No other type of institution plays that role..."

It's hard to imagine any other venue that would host such a comprehensive collection of large-format reproductions other than a museum. In addition, only a museum provides a unique venue for concentrating on and thinking about art. So the museum is an appropriate venue, even if the exhibit is not the best-case scenario. It is what it is, and on the whole it does some good. Obviously it will never replace that weird enchantment one feels when viewing original classics.

There's a lively debate over at Winkleman on this subject.

I actually managed to see this show yesterday and was impressed by how not striking the backlit reproductions were.

I can't help thinking that the "sacredness of the original" is an affectation. If we say of the Mona Lisa (for example) "Ohhhh - awesome - here is a piece that Leonardo's hands have touched", we might just as well exhibit one of his salt-shakers (and not a Cellini (anachronism aside)).

If we make a faithful copy - which can be done these days, indistinguishable from the original) - must we be less moved by the rendition and the subject than when we see the original?

The presence of so many artful (and artistic) forgeries - some even now undetected - seems to prove my point.

I propose a close analogy: music. Today we hear what Albinoni or Mozart wrote, even though it is hardly "the original".

As a side note, I believe that all the world's great art (painting, sculpture, the works) should be digitized. Only in that way will it be preserved through flood, fire, and famine.

It's that damned aura thing again, isn't it?

It's not necessarily just about the autographic authenticity of an original (though that definitely enters into things). The bottom line is this: while we can certainly make a photographic copy that is "faithful" in important respects to an original painting, it is technically all but impossible to make a photo that is "indistinguishable" from it. I can't think of any clearer evidence of this than the very exhibit in question.

For the sake of education and scholarly interests at a distance, the fidelity of key pictorial details and the true-to-life scale are probably quite helpful, though the color reproduction leaves a little more to be desired. In terms of aesthetic appreciation, though, the reproductions simply don't pass muster.

The value one ascribes to these reproductions depends ultimately in the nature of your interest in the work.

On the subject of forgeries and the analogy to music, by the way, see Section III of Nelson Goodman's Languages of Art ("Art and Authenticity"), in which he discusses these very questions, and to your last point, I'd hope such digitization might prove to be one of the key ancillary benefits of this project.

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