The digital revolution transforms art history

The world is full of great art the vast majority of people will never see. Even the world traveler who tours Chicago, New York, Paris, and St Petersburg several times over, will not see all the collections in great detail, much less a single painting. Any visitor to the Louvre will undoubtedly want to see the Mona Lisa, but he is not likely to see it in any detail, without a crowd urging him to move on, or a curator keeping him from examining the detail too closely. Once viewed, the image of a painting fades quickly from memory, with postcards, coffee table books, and even high quality reproductions offering a poor substitute for the original.

I can’t speak for other art admirers, but to me, a painting is ultimately just information. For me, the canvas is just an imperfect container for the data. It is valuable only insofar as it represents an irreplaceable source, from which all copies and memories must come from. It’s a very imperfect source – fragile, singular, and inevitably decaying in time, destroying its precious cargo as it slowly succumbs to entropy.

Imagine however, if we could clone the canvas – and not only clone it, but create a superior container for that information, one that not only does not decay over time, but reveals more information than the original source. A perfect digital representation of a painting could contain not only its state at the time of its digitization, but the record of its lifespan, including its original state, as well as the creative process itself. With a global network, such a representation could be accessed instantly from anywhere in the world. It would not be like seeing the original – it would be better than the original, representing far more information than merely viewing the canvas can provide.

Lumiere Technology is a company which hopes to do just that. They intend to digitize the world’s art and make it available (for a price) to art students and fans worldwide. Their multispectral scanning process captures images in more detail than ever before, not only in terms of resolution, but in 13 wavelengths, from ultraviolet to infrared. (45 min YouTube video.) Their digital restoration process can strip away faded varnish and hundreds of year of wear to show images in their original color. It can highlight certain wavelengths for the colorblind, or look beneath the painting in infrared.

Lumiere’s scans are certainly not the last word in digitization, but they might be the harbinger of a revolution. I can already imagine the day in which the motivation to see the original artwork is a curiosity, done for bragging rights rather than a means of studying it. Undoubtedly, a small but vocal minority will persist in silly claims that there is something to be gained from seeing the “warmth” of the original.

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