A new approach to lighting paintings by the Old Masters

About Old Masters and young kids in museums…

By Joachim Ritter

The way that a painting is lit can open up new horizons for interpreting the work of art. The question is: why are lighting designers and curators not more creative when it comes to applying new techniques? Are curators and lighting designers blind to anything new, or not bold enough to try it?

No way would I like to presume I am able to assess art, and in particular the works of the Old Masters. In this regard, I see myself as being at around the same level as roughly 95 per cent of all gallery visitors – most of whom are tourists… What is it exactly that we hope to gather in the way of an “art experience” by drifting quickly through the rooms in an art museum? From a neuroscientific point of view, we at least feel something when we view art, and sometimes go as far as to say we find a specific work beautiful. That is fine for most of us. But shouldn’t we consider how we can enhance the delight we feel and gain a deeper, lasting impression of what we perceive?

I am open to learn. Getting to know more about art seems to be comparable to understanding the qualities of red wine. Only when you have tasted truly good wine are you able to surmise what tiny – and enormous – differences there are between wines. When I take my time to view a work by an Old Master such as Rubens or Albrecht Dürer in detail I begin to understand that a painting can comprise a mass of stories, a true narrative of what supposedly happened millennia ago. But this narrative, or parts of it, is lost when the painting is lit uniformly or inappropriately. By accentuating parts of the work and applying different luminous colours it is possible to emphasise otherwise forgotten details or parts of the story the artist wished to portray.

If we take this a step further and consider what opportunities lighting technologies now offer, it makes you wonder why we don’t opt to provide a sequence of different accentuations in one painting to reveal the various stories the work actually contains.

I purposefully avoided using the term dynamic installation, because this tends to give rise to associations with lighting concepts featuring fast-changing luminous intensities and colours. Try to forget this for a moment, and slowly but surely get used to the idea that a painting can actually demonstrate the complexity of its contents in a very systematic way, almost without anyone noticing. Is that not a modern approach to viewing art that is rich in content and otherwise difficult to make accessible to our modern world of Facebook, Twitter and display screens?

The problem with art is that you need the time and peace to truly appreciate it. The digital media generation and the 140-character generation find it hard to adapt to this kind of behaviour. Peace and quiet is regarded as a virtue that appears to apply only to older generations (up to and including the retired). And yet is must be possible to apply design to give young people the chance to comprehend and interpret the works of Old Masters.

Within the framework of the “Immersive Art” workshop in the Kunstmuseum in Vienna Francesco Iannone and Serena Tellini worked together with 20 international participants to test these ideas in practice.

Back to the idea of getting to know red wine: we need time to develop our taste and adjust to a new way of thinking – and understanding what is good.

Photos: Francesco Iannone

AT PLDC in Paris Francesco Iannone and Serena Tellini from Consuline will be part of a modereated discussions session to discuss about their latest findings in lighting art and neurosience.