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Ways of Seeing Art in a Pandemic

This article is the first in a special series on the Visualities blog exploring digital archives connected to modernism’s visual cultures. Over the next few months, contributors to the forum will introduce and model the uses of online resources spanning art, film, media, book history, print cultures, and more. In attending to specific visual artifacts from these collections, they will also reflect on issues of methodology raised by developing and using digital archives, including in times of crisis and remote working. Brandon Truett opens the series with his reflections on how Repensar Guernica enables new orientations toward modernist works of art. 

Alix Beeston

It is the image of the painting that travels now.

                                        ––John Berger, Ways of Seeing

For their final writing assignment in a course on contemporary art, my students were required to analyze a single artwork from the last sixty or so years. The point was to encourage them to apply the theories of visuality that we’d studied throughout the quarter, and the assignment had one nonnegotiable stipulation: the artwork must be accessible somewhere in Chicago, where our class was held.

We’d discussed Walter Benjamin’s 1936 account of how technological reproducibility shatters an artwork’s aura while also providing emancipatory potential through aesthetic strategies such as Dadaist photomontage, wherein the juxtaposition of reproduced photographs from mass culture takes on a political dimension. And we’d studied how Kara Walker’s ephemeral installation A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014) experimented with aura by provoking visitors to document their often problematic engagement with the hypersexualized Black female sphinx on social media; as Glenda Carpio has pointed out, “the dynamics and the critique thereof that the sphinx set in motion exceed the bounds of site and time, and extend into the field of reaction, which the sphinx, even after its destruction, gathers, consumes, and redistributes.”[1]

Considering all this talk about aura, it seemed important that my students peruse collections of art in situ. Rather than log on to Google and retrieve a reproduction of David Hockney’s American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman) (1968), for example, a student should see the artwork in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute in Chicago––to sit with the large canvas for some sustained period of time, to apprehend its scale and saturated colors, to jot down in a notebook or an app whatever ideas came to mind, and maybe even reproduce it themselves with their camera phones for later study. This assignment was a practice in description, one that entailed slow and intimate attention to a visual object in space.

Along with three colleagues, I taught this course last year when mobility had not been curtailed by shelter-in-place orders and guidelines for social distancing aimed to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. These days, our experience and navigation of space has drastically changed; just as we’ve adjusted to digital substitutes for social interaction through a number of videoconferencing platforms, so too have we begun to improvise with modes of engagement with objects to which we might otherwise have limited to no access. Due to the shuttering of museums and cultural institutions around the world, and the restrictions on travel to physical archives at museums and libraries for the indefinite future, scholars, teachers, and students who work with art objects and other visual materials must make do with reproductions on screens and collections that have been digitized.

The use of digital archives in modernist studies and beyond has, of course, become more and more commonplace in recent years.[2] Importantly, the digitization of archives, as Séan Richardson explains, has been essential for precarious scholars of modernism in the United Kingdom (and elsewhere) without adequate research support to travel to archives in the United States. Digitization has also been crucial for curators who are seeking to radically expand access to art beyond the walls of the museum. We as scholars and curators increasingly rely on the digital to carry out our work during the pandemic, and we’re presented with questions about the critical modes through which we describe and analyze digitally reproduced objects. What opportunities and challenges for seeing do digital archives pose for scholarship and pedagogy?

The Aura of Digitized Artworks

As evidenced by the many posts collected under the trending hashtag #MuseumFromHome on social media, curators have been quick to develop innovative strategies to keep their collections open to the public over these last few months. These strategies rely on digital reproductions of specific artifacts.

For example, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia publishes short videos on YouTube through a series called “Barnes Takeout: Your Daily Serving of Art” in which their curators, researchers, and educators carefully explain and analyze a range of art objects, from oil paintings and works on paper to decorative objects like handblown glass. Many of the videos begin by showing the location of artworks in the gallery and within Albert C. Barnes’s idiosyncratic ensembles, thereby responding to—and reproducing—a desire for the physical space of the museum.

In one of the first published videos, Martha Lucy, the Barnes’s deputy director for research, interpretation, and education, discusses Pierre-August Renoir’s The Luncheon (1875). Speaking from a thumbnail video in the corner of the screen, Lucy begins by providing historical and biographical context of the artist and then, digitally zooming in on details of the painting, focuses our attention on Renoir’s dynamic brushstrokes (fig. 1). She shows how a single flick of white paint on a knife discloses the amorphous character of the depicted object world.

Screenshot of YouTube video of Martha Lucy, deputy director for research, interpretation, and education at the Barnes Foundation.
Fig. 1. Screenshot of video in which Martha Lucy, deputy director for research, interpretation, and education at the Barnes Foundation, uses her cursor to draw attention to the use of color for the soup tureen in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Luncheon (1875).

By digitally presenting The Luncheon at different scales, Lucy accommodates various vantage points on the work. She seeks to restore what is lost to us when we’re unable to access the museum’s physical galleries: a sense of embodied closeness to the work of art––what we might call the painting’s presence. As the daily videos accumulate, however, there emerges a method that grasps at the presence of paintings from afar; conceived as an archive, the YouTube feed—alongside the Barnes website—materializes a kind of digital Barnes Foundation, one that expands access to art in ways that exceed the boundaries, classed and otherwise, of the brick-and-mortar, pay-for-entry museum (fig. 2).

 Your Daily Serving of Art” YouTube Feed.
Fig. 2. Screenshot of “Barnes Takeout: Your Daily Serving of Art” YouTube Feed.

We’ve all begun to improvise pandemic methods, if you will, that carve out pathways for continuing with work that seems irreparably ruptured and stymied by a feeling of stuckness, inertia. And the virtuality of some of these methods has necessitated novel ways of seeing art through digital reproduction. The pandemic led University of Chicago professor Rachel Cohen to new forms of experimentation with her existing digital archive of artworks. Cohen has been logging daily entries on her blog, the Frederick Project, which pair photographs of paintings with ekphrastic descriptions. In an article for the New Yorker, Cohen describes how in 2011 she began to assemble this digital archive—her own “personal, remembered museum”––by photographing various aspects of a painting, from snapshots of brushwork to close-up images of isolated figures. Cohen had previously refrained from photographing works of art because she preferred to see the originals, but she came to appreciate how “[p]hotography accelerated seeing, magnifying areas of paint, cutting away context and concentrating on details.” The layout of her blog resonates with collage to the extent that the juxtaposition of word and image generates an analysis of the chosen painting.

Although we generally accept the fact that, as Benjamin proclaimed, “what withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art is the latter’s aura,” Cohen’s digital archive harnesses the power of reproducibility through photography in order to see beyond the here and now of the original.[3] Her practice of photography and ekphrasis—in the digital context of her blog—disperse the aura of an original painting by proliferating many different ways of seeing it both virtually and in memory.

Digitizing the Histories of a Twentieth-Century Icon: Repensar Guernica

Of course, the digitization of the museum and art collections is not new. Before the coronavirus outbreak, curators had been employing cutting-edge technology to create virtual environments in which the public can engage the museum’s collection from home. Notably, in 2017, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid launched Repensar Guernica (Rethinking Guernica). The project allows users to track the many different routes through which Pablo Picasso’s antiwar painting Guernica has traveled since its debut at the 1937 Spanish Pavilion in Paris during the Spanish Civil War. Benefiting from over two years of collaborative work across various departments at the museum, and including over 2,000 digitized documents culled from a transnational collection of “120 public and private archives, libraries, museums, institutions, and national and international agencies,” Repensar Guernica reveals and participates in the history of Guernica’s global reproduction, distribution, and circulation for diverse political purposes.[4]

Not only forging a virtual environment for Guernica through the optical enhancements of the “Gigapixel” feature, which manifests the painting through visible light, ultraviolet, infrared, and x-ray photography, Repensar Guernica offers rich ways of seeing one of the most widely reproduced artworks of the twentieth century as refracted through its manifold histories. The digital both provides increased visibility of the painting through a range of photographic methods (similar to Cohen's project) and facilitates the user’s virtual mobility in time and space. Indeed, the “Chronology” section of the site arranges the digital archive along an interactive timeline that spans 1936 to the present, inviting the user to hover over a specific date or period and retrieve a snapshot of various archival documents from that time, including correspondence, photographs, exhibition files, and other ephemera (fig. 3).

Screenshot of “Chronology” from Repensar Guernica.
Fig. 3. Screenshot of “Chronology” from Repensar Guernica.

If the user places the cursor over the years of the United States’ violent occupation of Vietnam in the late 1960s, for instance, she discovers a digital reproduction of a 1967 request from the “Angry Arts” collective of American artists petitioning for the painting’s removal from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City—and so learns how Guernica’s presence at MoMA became the site of antiwar protest (fig. 4). If the user moves forward to 1981, she finds information about Guernica’s controversial repatriation to Spain during the country’s transition to democracy, whereby the painting attained new cultural value. The installation of Picasso’s painting at the Casón del Buen Retiro in Madrid was heralded by some as a symbol for national reconciliation; viewing the painting, Spanish Republican orator Dolores Ibárruri (also known as “La Pasionaria”) proclaimed, “the Civil War has ended.”[5]

Screenshot of the “Angry Arts” protest petition
Fig. 4. Screenshot of the “Angry Arts” protest petition as it is digitally reproduced on Repensar Guernica.

The interactive timeline fosters an experience of discovery that serves a clear pedagogical function, making it well suited for placement on syllabi in art history courses that seek to think through the reproducibility of modern artworks. By visualizing the digital archive of Guernica synchronically, Repensar Guernica directs our attention not to the singularity of the painting hung on the wall of the Reina Sofía but to the complex assemblage of historical moments that the global distribution of Guernica’s image has made possible. Acknowledging the fact that the image of Guernica circulates via its reproductions on t-shirts, mugs, and posters, this virtual environment curates a digital experience of the artwork as occurring anywhere at any time. By allowing the user to follow the artwork’s reproductions and histories through time and around the world, Repensar Guernica suggests that an artwork is irreducible to its material singularity. Unlike, for example, the Barnes Foundation’s YouTube feed, this digital project makes the prospect of seeing the painting in the museum—travelling there in person, navigating the crowds, peering over others’ shoulders to catch a fragmentary glimpse of the mural—seem somewhat beside the point.

Object Lessons of a Pandemic: Museums and Precarity

While we continue to find new ways of seeing art during the closure of museums and cultural institutions, we would do well to avoid the nostalgic tendency to yearn for the singular artwork, for the resurrection of its aura. In her report on how furloughs and layoffs have disproportionately affected the already precarious segment of temporary and contracted workers in American museums, Dana Kopel reminds us that “not everyone was able to be present in the gallery in the first place.” Indeed, at the end of her article, Kopel—who is herself a precarious worker—provokes us to consider a different set of questions that are nonetheless inextricable from the ways we experience art that is housed within institutions: “What does art look like when ‘uncertainty’ reveals the systemic insecurity of the workers who make, install, and help us understand art?”

It is now impossible and even irresponsible to sidestep questions of access and economic inequality that have long beleaguered the art world—and the academy. The pandemic has only clarified the fault lines that separate workers in arts organizations from their insulated, well-compensated boards of directors and, at once, those that separate scholars with secure employment and adequate funding for research and those without it. As we seize on the digital in expanding our sense of what constitutes the work of art, we might also take the opportunity to reckon with how ideas about the singular presence of the artwork have underwritten—and in some cases limited—our methods of art-historical description and analysis.

No doubt institutions of all kinds will emerge in altered forms on the other side of the pandemic, and many, including myself, are worried about the further neoliberalization of the arts sector and of higher education. I’m reminded of the contradiction identified by the German digital video artist Hito Steyerl as fundamental to the violent history of museums as imperialist institutions of wealth accumulation: “art requires visibility to be what it is, and yet visibility is precisely what is threatened by efforts to preserve or privatize it.”[6] When museums reopen and we’re again seduced by the presence of paintings and sculptures, we should not forget the period when their absence prompted us to think critically and imaginatively about how those institutions might be materially reconstituted.



[1] Glenda R. Carpio, “On the Whiteness of Kara Walker’s Marvelous Sugar Baby,” ASAP/Journal 2.3 (2017): 551–578, 569.

[2] On the implications of this, see the special cluster of essays edited by Shawna Ross for Modernism/modernity Print Plus, “From Practice to Theory: A Forum on the Future of Modernist Digital Humanities.”

[3] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility [First Version],” trans. Michael W. Jennings, Grey Room 39 (2010): 11–38, 14.

[4] Repensar Guernica joins other ongoing research projects like art and design historian Nicola Ashmore’s Guernica Remakings, which digitally archives various initiatives across the world that remediate the politics of Picasso’s painting. Ashmore’s project includes a twelve-part documentary about the creation of the fifth Keiskamma Guernica (2010), a large tapestry that addresses the suffering wrought by the HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa.

[5] Cited in Gijs van Hensbergen, Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), 307.

[6] Hito Steyerl, Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War (New York: Verso, 2017), 7.