The web has expanded the reach of art, but nothing beats standing in front of a Picasso

The web has expanded the reach of art, but nothing beats standing in front of a Picasso

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It has been more than 30 years since I saw Pablo Picasso Guernica face to face, as it were, in the Prado Museum in Madrid, shortly before it was moved to the Reina Sofia Museum, where it is still exhibited today. Painted in 1937 to protest the German bombing of the Basque city of Guernica at the behest of Francoist nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War, Picasso had refused permission to host him in Spain until the return of democracy.

I had seen dozens of pictures of the painting. But nothing could prepare me to stand in front of him. There was, in the first place, its overwhelming dimension, something that no image can portray. Guernica it is more than 3.49mx 7.76m. You don’t look so much at the painting as the painting wraps around you and you are drawn to its emotions and intensity.

The compression of the space, the ambiguity of the perspective, the chipping of the bodies, all seem much more pronounced when viewing the work in real life. Painted in black and white and muted grays, the absence of color, again, looks much more visible in the gallery than in any reproduction. I saw details that had otherwise escaped me: the third bull’s-eye looking directly out of the canvas; the tension in the arm of the dismembered man holding a broken sword; the dove barely visible, half obliterated. Standing in front of Picasso’s masterpiece, I was overwhelmed by a sense of dislocation and horror that no reproduction could convey. Thirty years later, the visceral power of Guernica still lives with me.

I saw Guernica in the period in which a new way of seeing art was emerging: the Internet. Over the past 30 years, museums and galleries from the Metropolitan Museum in New York to the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, from the National Museum in New Delhi to the tiny Lynn Museum in Norfolk, have put much of their collection online, making them available to millions of people, a cultural treasure that would otherwise be denied them.

However, the growth of online collections has also generated a heated debate on the virtues of the physical museum versus the virtual one, on how the digital should relate to the real. Last week, that debate received a new twist when New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) announced it would be auctioning off 29 of its physical paintings, including masterpieces by Picasso, Monet, and Bacon, to help ” establish an endowment for digital media and technology “. What this means in practice is not clear. What the MoMA move has done, however, is to revive the debate on the merits of the real and the virtual.

Standing in front of Picasso’s masterpiece, I was overwhelmed by a sense of dislocation and horror that no reproduction could convey

The idea of ​​a virtual museum is not new. Fifty years ago, long before the birth of the World Wide Web, the French novelist, critic and minister of culture André Malraux wrote about a “museum without walls”, which housed the ideal art collection of each person.

Writing decades before the Internet, the technology Malraux imagined could make this possible was primitive. The ability that the Internet offers museums and galleries to put their collections online brings us closer to a museum without walls; a museum not confined to physical space or opening and closing times, but which allows any number of people to access the collection at any time. Online collections also allow us to access information about the object or painting, place it in a historical and social context, and connect to stories about it, in a way that no physical museum can do.

And yet, just like no number of Picasso images Guernica it could prepare me for the actual painting experience, so no degree of sophistication of a digital experience can reproduce the actuality of seeing a work of art in front of you. In part, it stems from physical differences, the importance of texture and size, qualities inherent in a physical object but not in an image on a screen.

More important, perhaps, is what American curator Ann Mintz calls a “metaphysical” quality in the visualization of a real object that is absent from a virtual reproduction. One relates to a physical work of art in a different way than a virtual object. Studies have shown that people spend more time looking at a physical object in a museum than that same object online and often have an emotional response to it in a way that rarely happens in a virtual space.

This is a distinction not confined to art. There is a similar difference between listening to music at home and experiencing it at a live concert or opera house. Music would undoubtedly be much better sonic at home, but there is an inexpressible quality to watching music produced and performed live, and in the company of others, that no record or CD or stream can imitate.

Or take the distinction between watching live sports and watching on TV. There is a lot to be said about television sport; not only the comfort of your sofa, but also the camera’s ability to capture moments and details that you would never have seen in a stadium. Yet, nothing can take away the emotional charge of watching a game in real life, of seeing Mo Salah or Venus Williams perform their miracles in that moment, filled with thousands of others engaged in the same quest.

Or even, in its own way, consider the importance for so many people of the ritual and physical connection that we saw last week. All of this tells us something about being human; of the significance of the materiality of our world for our appreciation of it. Furthermore, the importance of the social context in which we deal with the world, of being able to involve ourselves not as individuals but as part of a crowd or a collective.

The internet has transformed our lives and democratized our relationship with art. But in doing so, he also revealed the significance of the physical and the real. He showed us how, paradoxically, the materiality of life embodies an ineffable quality that the virtual cannot match.

• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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