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Bruegel goes digital

15 September 2017

In a small, darkened room at the entrance to Brussels’ Royal Museums of Fine Arts, heaven and hell are waging a lively battle – and in surround sound, no less.

It’s a theatrical introduction to the Museums’ Old Masters wing, at once alluring and unsettling – a walk into a painting, virtually projected on the room’s three walls. The subject? Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s (1525–69) Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562), a cabinet of curiosities rendered in oil, filled to the brim with heroic and grotesque figures. Suddenly, they are alive and moving around the walls, newly animated joints propelling them like marionettes: Michael the Archangel wields his giant sword, a  puffer fish glides through the air, and butterfly wings, attached to a fish-like demon, rise from the depths of hell.

Welcome to ‘Bruegel: Unseen Masterpieces’, the Museums’ first foray into extreme digitisation. The tiny room, filled with a celestial soundtrack, is a taster of an ongoing collaboration with the Google Cultural Institute, which was launched in anticipation of the 450th anniversary of Bruegel’s death in 2019. It’s also a preview of what is upstairs: the painting itself, which is part of the second-largest Bruegel collection in the world.

The Old Masters collection at the Royal Museums has been home to The Fall of the Rebel Angels since 1846, when its attribution was still unclear. First thought to be a work by Bruegel’s son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564–1636), and later by Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516), Bruegel the Elder’s signature was discovered in 1898, previously hidden by the frame. The intricate, detailed scene, inspired by a passage from the Book of Revelations, now takes pride of place in the Museums’ dedicated Bruegel room, flanked by the artist’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1558) and Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap (1565).

The problem with Bruegel’s work is that, despite his worldwide popularity, it needs to stay put. Over 400 years old, the oil and large wood panels preferred by Flemish painters of the 16th century are now incredibly fragile, and in need of constant environmental monitoring. A 1969 exhibition in Brussels, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Bruegel’s death, anticipated today’s digital project in a more analogue way: with photographs. ‘Bruegel and His World’ displayed an ‘imaginary’ museum, uniting images and information from his paintings all over the world.

Today, the quaint, imaginary museum of yesteryear has been moved to the internet, under the auspices of an ever-present Google logo. Last year, the Google Cultural Institute launched ‘Bruegel: Unseen Masterpieces’ as a collaboration with the Royal Museums and seven other Bruegel-holding institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, and the UK’s Royal Collection. The amount of information available on the special web platform is astounding: not only are Bruegel’s works digitised with Gigapixel technology, but curators and specialists offer their insight into his themes and myth-making, influence and legacy. YouTube videos, 3D explorations of the paintings, and a corresponding app bring together works that can never be physically displayed side-by-side, allowing for scholarly comparisons and novice appreciation alike.

Inside the Royal Museums, the experience is slightly different – after immersing oneself in the 3D ‘Bruegel Box’, interactive screens with access to the Google platform can be found dotted throughout the Old Masters collection. In the room with nine Bruegel masterpieces, a screen is planted directly in front of The Fall of the Rebel Angels. While I was there, visitors, engrossed in the paintings themselves, barely interacted with it, preferring instead to peer at the details with their ‘naked eye’ – an experience Google’s Gigapixel technology likes to say it exceeds.

Could ‘Bruegel: Unseen Masterpieces’ change the way we experience art? Royal Museums director Michel Draguet is pleased with the reach of the project, and in a corresponding video, describes the way it allows anyone to ‘see Bruegel in detail, in every imaginable way, freely, how, when and where they want.’

From a scholarly perspective, the platform is a valuable resource, especially in light of the works’ many conservational considerations. Bringing Bruegel to the masses – what’s not to like? But in the museum, the platform confuses the visitor experience. When placed in the same room as the darkened, aged original, the luminous hi-res renderings provided onscreen encourage a double-take: could this be the same painting? Bruegel himself could have never dreamed of this sort of viewing context, nor the artistic liberties taken, his figures now animated and writhing. Does this new experience, enhanced by copyrighted Gigapixel technology, mean our encounters with Bruegel’s paintings surpass those of the past 400-some years?

The virtual exhibition also calls Google’s role into question, and the implications of what could be seen as an evolving cultural monopoly. Over the past six years, the company has developed their Cultural Institute, which now counts over 1,000 institutions in its stable, making artworks, archives, performances, and even street art available online; it also provides collection management, hi-res digitisation, mobile vision apps. A digital project filled with sloganeering and goodwill, the platform could eventually overtake the need for museum visits – though it is important to note that institutional partners handle any applicable copyright permissions.

Projects like ‘Bruegel’ are infused with scholarly checks and balances, and it may be slightly cynical to leave the monumental galleries of the Royal Fine Arts Museums questioning the motivations of big tech companies. But as technology rapidly changes the viewing experience, it is important to remember who decides how, why and where it is implemented. Call me old-fashioned, but for now, I prefer viewing 16th-century masterpieces with my own eyes to Bruegel a la Google.

‘Bruegel: Unseen Masterpieces’ is at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium until 16 March 2020.