Virtual views: a review of the Uffizi’s Miraculous Healing and MSK Gent’s Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution

After weeks of IG scrolling and tiktok video viewing, Diderot, art critic extraordinaire, and Clio, eternal muse of history, are in need of some intellectual stimulation. They decide to visit some museums, virtually, hoping to lift their spirits and stimulate their minds. 

Van Eyck : An Optical Revolution. Museum of Fine Arts (MSK) Gent

Miraculous Healing : Disease and Divine Intervention Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Rembrandt in Southern California : A Virtual Exhibition


Which exhibition made the deepest impression on you?

Diderot – In terms of presentation, I was definitely struck by the MSK’s Van Eyck because it was like playing a video game.  The whole setup was very engaging (if a little confusing) and time consuming (both a pro and con, I think).  It also crashed my computer.  But that’s not to say the content of the van Eyck wasn’t interesting.  It’s van Eyck, and how often can you see so many of his works grouped together in one place?  I appreciated the intermedial approach, with the presentation of sculpture, drawing, tapestry, manuscript along with the painting, since a lot of modern viewers don’t realize how interrelated these arts were.  We tend to think of painting as the most important and prevalent art form, but that was not the case, especially in the 15th century.  I also enjoyed the inclusion of works from Italy to illustrate the artistic networks of exchange.  

Clio – I found the Uffizi exhibition surprisingly personal and emotional. I didn’t expect such a personal framing in an institutional setting. The objects–and their accompanying texts–were so relevant, and deeply moving. But it was also the most traditional presentation, more like a book that happened to be online. It had contemporary texts and historical images. I think, in comparison with the rich media of the van Eyck exhibition, “Miraculous Healing” missed out on a chance to present a richer, more dimensional past.

Diderot – What do you think of the selection of works for the Uffizi exhibition?  There were some unusual choices– I’ve never heard of Livio Mehus before– and some of them weren’t of the high quality you would associate with an institution like the Uffizi.

Livio Mehus, St Zenobius restores the sight of a blind man, c. 1665. Oil on canvas. Pitti Palace, Palatine Gallery, Berenice Room, Poggio Imperiale 1860/1216

Clio – The Uffizi exhibition felt like it was largely focused on the visual history of Catholic miracle culture. European curators — in my experience, especially in Italy and Austria — often have a more historical approach than Americans, and “Miraculous Healings” seems to follow in that vein, choosing a selection of works that both illustrates change over time (the show begins with a fourteenth-century altarpiece by Pietro Lorenzetti, and ends with a St. Sebastian from 1943, painted by Giovanni Colacicchi), and also a particularly Florentine tradition of representing miracles of faith and healing. Almost all of the subjects and artists in this presentation are Florentine or have some strong tie to Florence–for example, the Livio Mehus painting was probably chosen for its representation of St. Zenobius. St. Zenobius, according to Florentine tradition, provides the people with protection from pestilence and plague. But these curatorial choices probably also made the Uffizi exhibition less resonant for viewers without an interest in either Catholic culture and history, or the finer points of Florentine history. To really get stuff out of the Uffizi show, beyond the basic but relevant part that people have long looked to supernatural powers to heal them or save them from disease, you have to be an insider.

Diderot – I think I felt that, as a godless Northernist at heart.  I thought the show was interesting, but was puzzled by some of the choices.  Although van Eyck’s works are all religious in nature, somehow they seem more accessible. 

Clio – The framing of Van Eyck’s contributions as ‘optical’ seems to open up a broader range of interpretive possibilities for the layperson? 

Diderot – I found this ‘optical’ approach problematic.  I think it was necessary to point out to the public how different and important van Eyck’s modes of representation were, especially in their detail, coloring, and use of perspective;  focusing on the ‘optical’ emphasizes vision and close looking.  However, it’s very thin because the sections of the show are organized primarily by imagery (ex. Fall and Redemption, Saints in a Landscape, Mother and child, etc.).  Yes, the wall texts do talk about how van Eyck created new or particularly realistic representation for these themes (this is most present in the Word of God section), but the curators never go into depth about optics or the technical art history that made van Eyck’s paintings possible.   For example, there is very little or no discussion of different perspectival modes, Christian devotional practices that encouraged visions or mystic ways of “seeing,” or even the invention of oil painting and how that allowed for much finer representation than tempera.  But in any case, I felt like the show worked overall and the presentation of works flowed in a logical way although I definitely forgot at times that the ‘optical’ was the unifying theme.

How do you think these shows work as virtual exhibitions?  

Clio – Starting with the Uffizi’s “Miraculous Healing,” I think the show’s strengths are also its weaknesses. It is a straightforward essay, much like any essay you might find in an art history book, and it uses objects largely to progressively build on themes and arguments from the show’s introduction. The design of the show doesn’t really exploit the internet’s possibilities. They could have used each object as a starting point to open up broader investigations into other forms of media, other aspects of culture–for example, audio recordings could give viewers a sense of the rituals and experiences that would have been part of a fourteenth-century Florentine’s interactions with Lorenzetti’s St. Humility altarpiece.

Pietro Lorenzetti, Saint Humility and scenes from her life, c.
1335-1340. Tempera on wood, gold background. Uffizi, Room 3.
Inv. 1890 nn. 6120-6126, 6129-6131, 8347
Sandro Botticelli, Virgin and Child enthroned with the saints Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Alexandria, Cosmas and Damian, c. 1470. Tempera on panel. Uffizi, Room 10-14, 1890, no. 8657.

The accompanying texts for Botticelli’s Virgin and Child Virgin and Child enthroned with the saints Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Alexandria, Cosmas and Damian (c.1470) mention the material culture of medicine, and it would have been interesting to show viewers actual examples of “the instruments of the medical profession,” or offer links to contemporary medical texts.

I liked the small snippets of music used in the Van Eyck audio tour. They would be more effective if they were contextualized, especially in relation to the objects in the exhibition, but I thought it was a clever use of a multimedia presentation.

Diderot – I completely agree with you.  Given how flexible these formats are, it would have been nice to have other objects introduced into the Uffizi show, even if it’s just through a hyperlink to an object page.  With virtual exhibitions, you can easily present so much more information that you wouldn’t be able to in real life.   As the Uffizi show was conceptualized as a response to the pandemic, and was virtual from the very start, I’m surprised they didn’t expand their object list to include relics or religious accessories.   Curatorially, the issue of gallery space most often determines the organization and inclusion of objects, as well as cost that goes into the loans, preparatory work, design etc.   But when you remove those constraints, you have so many options.  I’m  interested in seeing how museums adapt to these conditions and take advantage of the flexibility of the internet; I would love to see institutions working with one another to put together shows that would be prohibitive in cost to mount in person, but possible as a virtual show.

The van Eyck exhibit is a bit different, since this was an in-person show that was closed early because of the pandemic; because of this, it was interesting to see the actual installation of the exhibit and to be able to “walk through” the rooms, although sometimes this was confusing.  I found myself searching for the main wall text or looking at things out of order.  The only other technical issue I had was how the works were presented once you clicked on them; sometimes it was difficult to zoom in to see detail, and certain images, especially manuscript pages, were cropped.

But both the Uffizi and MSK’s  shows have come really far from previous virtual exhibitions, like the Rembrandt in Southern California exhibition that was launched in 2008.

Clio – That’s very true! Though I wonder how much of that comes from changes in technology, and how much of that difference derives from the impetus behind the virtual exhibition? It seems to me that the reasons behind the making of the current crop of virtual exhibitions are quite different from the ones that prompted the creation of the 2008 Rembrandt virtual exhibition. That show feels scholarly to me, almost like a catalogue raisonné for Rembrandts located in Southern California. 

Diderot –  I think the Rembrandt show came out of a larger, multi-institution research project that was spearheaded by the Rembrandt Project.  Because the show was not generated from a single institution, it feels like it’s more scholar based.  It’s definitely geared towards people who are actively seeking information about Rembrandt, rather than a general audience, for example,  a member of the public who is casually wondering what shows are up at the Getty.

But as for the format, it’s definitely old-school.

Clio – The layout and experience of the Rembrandt in Southern California website reminds me of online shopping, all these objects laid out in a grid for me to pick and choose at will. 

Diderot – There isn’t much of a narrative; it’s a very straightforward presentation of Rembrandts, although the accompanying PDF does address the works thematically.  Overall, the show  is interesting because you would never in reality see all these works together at once (due to cost and loan restrictions), even though they are all in the same region.

What role do you think virtual exhibitions will play in life after coronavirus?

Clio – I’ve really enjoyed the transportive aspect of the virtual exhibition, that I can ‘visit’ works from lockdown in my living room. But what role will virtual exhibitions play in the future, when we are no longer locked down in our respective homes?

Diderot – There’s no substitution for seeing works of art in person, but I hope institutions continue to post online versions of their exhibitions.  Personally, I would definitely look through a virtual exhibition in my free time.  They’re also good for scholarship, since not everyone has the time or funds to travel to see shows.  

Additionally, the digital humanities have become an  important field and are increasingly funded, particularly in academia; museums have been ramping up their social media presence, but I’d like to see curatorial departments play a more active role in creating online-specific material; I think virtual exhibitions should be included as a regular part of curatorial work, rather than being a last-ditch option because of pandemic limitations.  They can also be a great way for museums to advertise the lesser-known parts of their collections, or even things that are in storage. 

If you had the opportunity to create a virtual exhibition right now, what would you do?

Diderot – An exhibition of Joseph Vernet and Greuze paintings.  Just kidding.  In general, I hope that institutions continue to be creative in their presentation of material, and use the flexibility of the internet to put together some unusual exhibitions.  For example, I would be interested in a show that presents iconic Old Master works (like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and other major works that generally don’t travel) along with contemporary artist responses to them.   

If I were to curate my own virtual exhibition, it would be called “Weird Renaissance.”  It would present a series of drawings, paintings, sculpture and decorative arts from Renaissance Italy and France, with a focus on mannerist aesthetics (which often feature strange looking bodies and crazy compositions) that are very different from the classicism of the high renaissance. 

Clio – Maybe I have pandemic brain, but I would love to do either a show that is all about celebration and sociability – something that combines music, dance, and visual/material culture — famous Renaissance couples and their weddings? 10 ways of celebrating the Christmas season? Baroque feasts and festivals? I’m imagining something that takes me through the process of preparing for the event — the tailors and seamstresses creating new costumes, the goldsmith setting jewels, the kitchen busy with new recipes–and ends with the event itself. I think we’ve reached a point where it’s possible to bring together material from different museum departments–and different disciplines–in virtual space. And it’s possible to embed audio and video, so exhibition visitors don’t have to imagine the music or the dance. They can experience something like it, through contemporary interpretations. 

Or, going in a totally different direction — your comment about works that don’t travel also reminded me that it’s possible to create online exhibitions of architecture, as well. The internet seems ideal for creating exhibitions that explore relationships between site-specific ensembles. This could be where virtual reality really shines? 

Read more about virtual exhibitions in an age of pandemic:

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2020/apr/08/art-virtual-reality-coronavirus-vr

https://www.sleek-mag.com/article/online-exhibition-artists-curators-digital-art-covid-19/

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/arts/design/best-virtual-museum-guides.html

https://www.aam-us.org/2020/03/25/4-ways-museums-can-successfully-leverage-digital-content-and-channels-during-coronavirus-covid-19/

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