If art is among your full-blown obsessions or just a budding interest, Google, which has altered the collective universe in so many ways, changed your life last week. It unveiled its Art Project, a Web endeavor that offers easy, if not yet seamless, access to some of the art treasures and interiors of 17 museums in the US and Europe.
It is very much a work in progress, full of bugs and information gaps, and sometimes blurry, careering virtual tours. But it is already a mesmerizing, world-expanding tool for self-education. You can spend hours exploring it, examining paintings from far off and close up, poking around some of the world’s great museums all by your lonesome. I have, and my advice is: Expect mood swings. This adventure is not without frustrations.
On the virtual tour of the Uffizi in Florence, Italy, the paintings are sometimes little more than framed smudges on the wall. (The Durer room: Don’t go there.) But you can look at Botticelli’s Birth of Venus almost centimeter by centimeter. It’s nothing like standing before the real thing. What you see is a very good reproduction that offers the option to pore over the surface with an adjustable magnifying rectangle. This feels like an eerie approximation, at a clinical, digital remove, of the kind of intimacy usually granted only to the artist and his assistants, or conservators and preparators.
There are high-resolution images of more than 1,000 artworks in the Art Project (googleartproject.com) and virtual tours of several hundred galleries and other spaces inside the 17 participating institutions. In addition, each museum has selected a single, usually canonical work — like Botticelli’s Venus — for star treatment. These works have been painstakingly photographed for super-high, mega-pixel resolution. (Although often, to my eye, the high-resolution version seems as good as the mega-pixel one.)
The Museum of Modern Art selected Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and you can see not only the individual colors in each stroke, but also how much of the canvas he left bare. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s star painting is Bruegel’s Harvesters, with its sloping slab of yellow wheat and peasants lunching in the foreground. Deep in the background is a group of women skinny-dipping in a pond that I had never noticed before.
In the case of Van Gogh’s famous Bedroom, the star painting chosen by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I was able to scrutinize the five framed artworks depicted on the chamber’s walls: two portraits, one still life and two works, possibly on paper, that are so cursory they look like contemporary abstractions. And I was enthralled by the clarity of the star painting of the National Gallery in London, Hans Holbein’s Ambassadors, and especially by the wonderful pile of scientific instruments — globes, sun dials, books — that occupy the imposing two-tiered stand flanked by the two young gentlemen.
Google maintains that, beyond details you may not have noticed before, you can see things not normally visible to the human eye. And it is probably true. I could make out Bruegel’s distant bathers when I visited the Met for a comparison viewing, but not the buttocks of one skinny-dipper, visible above the waves using the Google zoom. Still, the most unusual aspects of the experience are time, quiet and stasis: You can look from a seated position in the comfort of your own home or office cubicle, for as long as you want, without being jostled or blocked by other art lovers.