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Art in VR: Exploring the Process instead of the Product

If you see an artist’s work in VR, chances are you will start in a museum: in the headset you view a painting on a wall (Woofbert, Louvre) in a museum or go “into” a painting that is on the wall (The Night Cafe, Dreams of Dali).

Personally, I have never understood what the fascination is with placing someone in a museum to view artwork in VR. While I enjoy going to museums myself, I do so to see the real work – the thickness of the paint, the breath of life captured on canvas. Even so, I find exhibitions of art tend to distance me from the art and the artists – whether I’m in VR or wandering around MoMA. The artwork hangs arms lengths away, untouchable, spotlit. I want to dig in, surround myself, explore the mind and influences of the artist.What was their inspiration? What was in the cultural zeitgeist at the time? What tools were available and being used? Where was the artist in his life? I want to be immersed in the world of the artist – the world that was a catalyst for the masterpiece now isolated on a crisp white wall.

Since we can not experience the actual, tangible work of art in a virtual environment, we aren’t there to see the real deal. So why replicate the real world constraints of museums in virtual reality? Why not go into the mind of the artist, go to their source of inspirations, and witness their creations being made?

This is what I attempted in the proof of concept “Monet in Giverny: The Later Years”, being released today on InceptionVR.

Claude Monet started sketching and painting in a time where realism was held in high regard and working in studios was commonplace. But Monet sought to capture the essence of the subject rather than to precisely replicate it, and what continued to fascinated him throughout his career was how objects and subjects changed as the light changed. To explore that, he hauled his paints and canvas and easel outdoors to spent hours painting en plein air. As he aged, he built his gardens around him and his home in Giverny, France. The water lilies, rose gardens, a Japanese bridge, and a water pond, would be the source of many of his most famous paintings. Indeed, Monet thought of his garden itself as his greatest masterpiece.

This would be our starting point for the Monet VR experience. The source of inspiration. We would not take our audience to a museum, we would take you to Giverny.

The day before filming in Giverny with the InceptionVR team, I walked the gardens alone. Even crawling with tourists, there was a peaceful explosion of inspiration.The vivid colors, the fragrant smells, the sounds of the birds and breeze. I found the specific locations that were viewpoints for certain familiar paintings and watched the light evolve the landscape as the sun rose above me.

For the proof of concept, I chose to explore Monet’s “The Artist’s House from the Rose Garden”painting rather than some of his more iconic waterlily works for several reasons. First, because VR allowed us to do what couldn’t be done in other mediums: see the world through his eyes. When this painting was created, Monet’s eyesight was failing; cataracts were effecting how he saw the world and the color palette of his paintings. We could transition from the natural blues and greens of the garden to the red-yellows he was limited to in his vision, and experience how it changed his work. Second, having Monet’s  house and studio in the background while being underneath a canopy of trees allowed for a foreground/background that played into the stereoscopic footage of the Ozo. And finally, because both nature and architecture were in the painting and yet Monet blended them into a single cohesive moment.

Only once the landscape and the artist’s point of view are established, do the streaks of color appear, accompanied by Monet’s own thoughts. Stroke after stroke, the painting comes into being. We worked closely with InceptionVR, analyzing Monet’s painting style and replicated his techniques in the creation of the animation. We tested having a canvas present, which ultimately distracted and obscured the landscape we wanted to be able to see. The layers of broad colors that are then continually refined, growing more and more specific.

Merwin Foard, a Broadway veteran, voiced Claude Monet beautifully. Every word he spoke in the VR experience was collected from interviews with and letters from Monet himself. This can be difficult to string together and make fluid. Merwin did a masterful job of both embodying the artist and his emotions and connecting those with the paintings in the piece.

By starting with the artist and his inspiration for “Monet in Giverny: The Later Years”, we explore art as a process rather than a product. Expanding beyond museum walls, we can breathe new life into familiar masterpieces and reinvigorate conversations around the works and how they came to exist. We can inspire audiences and artists not with the results but with the magical confluence of art, vision, and circumstance. Like Monet expressed the essence of an object by painting his impressions of it rather than the object itself, virtual reality is capable of so much more than just replication.

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