First Visit To An Art Museum: A Case For Live Experiences With Art

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston MA

My relationship with art has always been a complicated one. I have never appreciated the paintings. I like other forms of art, such as music and poetry, but paintings have always felt like a sign of the limitations of a person’s ability to describe his imagination accurately. Other people would talk about how a painting makes them feel, but that never happened to me. I always wondered why paintings never spoke to me in the same way as they did to others. What made them so expensive even? I went in search of answers. I wanted to see the value in them that can sometimes fetch millions of dollars.

A couple of years ago, I was browsing the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) website, and a painting, The Seventh Plague of Egypt by John Martin (Fig. 1), caught my eye because it resonated with its religious theme. On the screen, it was just a cold picture, but I was impressed by the artist’s imagination. I did not really feel any excitement and urge to go to the museum to see the actual painting with my naked eyes, but the moment I stepped into the MFA, which happened to be my first time in a museum, my whole view on paintings changed. I was shocked! They were alive, alive. Paintings were alive. I always assumed that they were old, primitive, and long gone, but they were there and alive. I felt their presence and enjoyed the moment. That day, I switched from “only an unreasonable opulent person could spend money on a painting” to “I would give all I have to take one with me.”

Clearly, a live experience can be the difference between appreciating paintings or condemning them and the artists. An image of a painting on a screen does not capture the dimensions, colors, and resolution of an actual painting and the lack of these elements creates a cold experience compared to a live experience within a gallery or a museum. Let’s take a look at the similarities and differences between an image of an exquisite and well-made Romantic painting, The Seventh Plague of Egypt by John Martin, and its digital reproduction.

Fig. 1. Martin, John. Seventh Plague of Egypt. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/grainstack-sunset-32189

In this painting (Fig. 1), John Martin, one of the most renowned English Romantic painters of the 18th century, recreates a moment in history known to Jews, Christians, and Muslims as the Plagues of Egypt. In the Bible, Pharaoh refuses to grant freedom to the enslaved Israelites, and God decides to release ten Plagues onto Egypt. John Martin captures the seventh of those plagues, where Aaron stretches his rod, and the Lord unleashes chaos with hail, thunder, and fire on Egypt. It is probable that John Martin was fascinated by the drama of the scene, as he purposefully creates a horrific image, shown in the faces of the Egyptians, and a moving frame, seen through the captured frame of some of his characters. He organizes the setting with beautiful, straight buildings, pyramids, blocks with hieroglyphics on them, and a long river, which all comes together to inform the viewer that this is the old Egypt. He also captures thunder with a glowing white in seemingly dark moving clouds. The above-mentioned elements are captured by both the image of the painting on a screen and a live experience. I did not need to go to the MFA to know what the theme of the painting was, as it is self-evident. So, what are we not seeing this picture on the screen? What’s the difference between the painting and its digital reproduction?

To begin with, the image of the painting is a miniature version of the actual painting. The image was made to fit a screen of an average computer, which is more than 10 times smaller than Martin’s canvas. The actual painting is huge. Its dimensions are 144.1 x 214 cm, 3 squared meters in area, whereas the screen of a computer is around .23 squared meters. Clearly, an online image does not capture dimensions, but that would be tolerable if the image was posted with some sense of scale. That is to say that large paintings would be shown to be large compared to small ones on the MFA website. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Looking at all images on the MFA website all pictures appear to be of the same size. A viewer cannot tell whether they are to imagine a picture of what size. For instance, Grainstack (Sunset), a painting of Monet (Fig. 2), is about twice smaller than Martin’s painting, but they appear of the same size on the website. In short, online pictures strongly affect the size aspect of a painting, which plays a big role in shaping the experience of the viewer.

Figure 2: Monet, Claude. Grainstack. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/grainstack-sunset-32189

Apart from size, an online picture of a painting and an actual painting differ in resolution. The naked eye captures more than an average camera in terms of pixels. A human eye has a resolution of 576 megapixels (“Clarkvision Photography — Resolution Of The Human Eye”), while an average HD camera has about 13 megapixels. Looking at the dimensions of John Martin’s painting, it would be practically impossible to capture the details in this well-detailed painting unless a photographer takes pictures of small areas and then combine them later. When you zoom in on the image on the MFA website, the image becomes blurry. Are there any important elements of the painting that are lost in the translation to low-resolution imaging technology?

Generally, details are lost, and they might contribute much to the experience of a person in front of an image of a painting. In this case, the loss of details takes away significant parts of the painting. For instance, when you look at the actual painting at the MFA, you notice that the geometry of the buildings is sophisticated. It looks as if John Martin was using a ruler to draw every single line on the building, but the online image does not capture the straightness of the lines. Another significant difference appears in the hieroglyphics. I felt compelled to attempt to read them in the actual painting, I do not know whether they have any meaning, but I felt as if they were calling me to read them, and I did. On the screen, the hieroglyphics were slightly blurred and so I did not even try to read them. It felt not as important as it was in the museum. Certainly, many details were lost in resolution, but is that really bad?

Losing details is bad, but the painting still retains its story and beauty. A painting is about paints. It is about color. I felt that, as long as the camera captures colors accurately, the image holds as a good-enough copy of the painting. At some point, the online image was still fine to enjoy, until I realized the difference in color. Color saturation is clearly low in the image as opposed to the warmth of the colors of the actual painting. When I entered the section of the MFA where this painting is located, the painting caught my eye as a whole. I could not see the minute details, so I drew closer. When I settled, my eyes landed on the fire ports. Their brightness claimed for my attention, and my eyes quickly turned to them. I do not recall seeing this brightness in the image. Even now, when I look at the image, the fire port close to the center is not that bright, and it does not ask for my attention even though it is one of the elements close to the center of the picture. Unfortunately, the fire port is not the only element whose color is distorted. The glowing cloud is not as saturated as in the actual painting. John Martin’s painting also has some sort of reddish atmosphere around the buildings, excluding the sky, but it disappears in the online image. I got curious to know the reason why these colors lost their saturation. Comparing both the image and the actual painting carefully, I found out that low resolution led to low color saturation. However, I also found out high-quality camera lenses (Fig. 3) at the same focus can give different color saturation, which means that it is hard to trust any eyes of a camera. Thus, I can argue that the image of a painting is not actually a good copy of the actual painting.

Fig. 3. Dibble, Tom. “How Does Your Lens Affect Color in Photos?”

Now that I have analyzed the similarities and differences between the image of a painting and an actual painting, I can safely conclude that an image of a painting and an actual painting are superficially the same but fundamentally different. They are superficially the same because the theme of the painting and the key characters are kept, but they are fundamentally different because important elements that shape our experience and perception of the painting such as color, size, and details are lost while taking a picture. Talking about the experience, let me switch now from what I saw to how it made me feel. For the rest of this essay, I want to compare my two experiences, what I felt looking at my screen and what I felt when I was looking at an actual painting, and you will clearly see that sometimes the reason why people do not appreciate art is that they see cheap, low-quality versions of exquisite paintings online. When I was looking at the image online, it did not strike me emotionally. When I entered the MFA and looked at the actual painting, I felt strong feelings: the painting was alive compared to the cold online image, it made me feel great admiration for the painter, and the details created horror and terror, which are the emotions strongly conveyed in this painting and many more other paintings of the Romantic era.

In my two very distinct experiences described above, the environment, my surrounding, and details played a key factor in my feelings. When looking at paintings online, the experience closely resembles that of trying to meditate at a hard rock concert. While on the web, your browser is full of distractions of all kinds, the mood of the environment degrades the experience. On the contrary, the moment you enter a gallery or a museum, your heart and mind turn to paintings and other forms of art present in their majesty. They talk to you, and you listen. When I was looking at the image online, it seemed not to exist. It was the past. However, when I saw it at the museum, it was there. It was real. I could take a close look, look from different angles, and even feel the material it was painted on. Questions were running through my mind. How could it have stayed intact for 195 years? All pictures around it were also old and beautiful. It was the past in the present. These paintings were time travelers. Their painters died, but they are still there. I was in awe. In this moment, my fondness of old paintings grew because they are a living past in the present. On top of that, being at the museum I was able to clearly see the details of feelings the characters felt such as terror and horror. The same feelings grew in me. At some point, I caught myself imagining myself being one of those people running for their lives. This connection that I never thought I would have with a painting made me feel happy and fulfilled. Thus, being there at the MFA and seeing all these paintings in the same place came together to increase my appreciation of art in general.

On the same note, being in this environment full of art did not only make me see the life of paintings but also appreciate the painter. Within the image of the painting, I could not see brushstrokes well. However, when I was standing in the presence of the painting, I could see them, where they passed. I could not help but think of the time it took John Martin to paint all those hieroglyphics, to make sure those buildings were straight, and to mix paint to create the glowing fire port or the bright sky. Moreover, the painting was enormous. It certainly took time, but it also took a lot of talent to make. I cannot really explain why I could not think of these questions while I was in front of my computer. Possibly, it is because the environment was not suitable for admiring paintings. Online, I was distracted, but when I stood in front of the painting, my respect for the painter grew. He was gifted and probably hardworking. I appreciated him more and other painters in general. They take their time to devise plans to make us viewers have memorable experiences.

Overall, we have seen that a copy is no way near the actual painting in terms of size, resolution, and coloring. I have also explained that these differences made a difference in my views about paintings. I changed from a hater to a lover of paintings, especially old paintings. These two viewing experiences made me question the effectiveness of using the internet to give access to artworks. my first-time experience in an actual art museum changed my perception of art in general. I understand that not everyone can get access to the museum, and how important it is to use technology to give access to people, but the web and average cameras will not do it. To improve the experience of online viewers, based on my experience, I would suggest better cameras that capture high-resolution images. I would also suggest working on giving a sense of scale when presenting pictures on the web, as I have shown how size affected my experience. Finally, I would recommend creating websites that aim at creating an environment that gives respect to art, a web experience that takes away all distractions. With all that done, it is hard to say that an online experience will ever replace a live experience.

Works Cited

Monet, Claude. Grainstack (Sunset).1891. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/grainstack-sunset-32189. Accessed 7 Nov 2018.

Martin, John. Seventh Plague of Egypt. 1823. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/seventh-plague-of-egypt-33665.Accessed 7 Nov 2018.

Dibble, Tom. “How Does Your Lens Affect Color in Photos?” 2018. Improve Photography, https://improvephotography.com/48493/how-does-your-lens-affect-color/. Accessed 7 Nov 2018.

“Clarkvision Photography — Resolution Of The Human Eye”. Clarkvision.Com, 2018, http://clarkvision.com/articles/eye-resolution.html. Accessed 6 Dec 2018

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