Inspired by the Delaware Art Museum’s collection of Pre-Raphaelite Art, artist collaborators Troy Richards and Knut Hybinette developed the Museum’s first virtual reality (VR) experience. The artists re-imagined the world inside the richly layered Victorian painting La Bella Mano by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. La Bella Mano (1875) features three female figures in a Victorian-era home with a circular mirror that reflects an adjacent room. The seeing glass, on view November 18, 2017-January 14, 2018 in the Museum’s Pre-Raphaelite galleries, transforms the painting into a three-dimensional waking dream with lavish décor and decaying displays of flowers, fruit, insects, and skulls.
“The Museum has such an incredible collection and La Bella Mano offered unique opportunities for using the elements in the painting as inspiration,” says Richards. “This is a physical experience that feels real but is out of reach, much like an intangible dream world.”
La Bella Mano is an example of the ‘art for art’s sake’ concept where a work of art becomes a multi-sensory experience instead of relating a specific story.
“At a moment when artists are intensifying their explorations of VR technology, the Museum is able to offer rich subject matter as inspiration for this exciting experimentation,” explains Margaret Winslow, Delaware Art Museum’s Curator of Contemporary Art. “The Museum is home to the largest and most significant British Pre-Raphaelite collection outside of the United Kingdom. The seeing glass is a unique and engaging approach for our visitors to be digitally immersed in Pre-Raphaelite art and Victorian history and see this world through the eyes of contemporary artists.”
Like the painting La Bella Mano, there is no linear narrative to the seeing glass. Instead, the viewer is absorbed in the virtual world with the possibility of finding meaning in the symbolism of its objects. The symbols do not add up to a specific message but instead allude to ideas, making connections to historical still life painting and the concept of momento mori–a warning or reminder of death.
“As the visitor moves through the space, objects become blurred and time speeds up, transforming fruit from green to rotten in a matter of seconds,” says Winslow. “The seeing glass allows viewers the opportunity to become absorbed in a virtual reality of historical painting and witness the artificial passage of time.”
The pairing of La Bella Mano and the seeing glass allows a unique opportunity to view the creations of artists working almost 150 years apart employing a similar approach towards art making. “Duration is a possibility Rossetti could only imagine conveying with the limited technology available to him,” adds Margaretta S. Frederick, Annette Woolard-Provine Curator of the Bancroft Collection, “Rossetti would surely be envious!”
The VR artwork uses the Unreal Engine, a highly successful gaming program developed by Epic Games, and will be installed directly in the Pre-Raphaelite galleries. Once inside the gallery, the viewer will be guided to put on the VR Oculus Rift headset and will initially find themselves in a Victorian-era room, filled with ornate furniture, potted plants, and elaborate wallpaper. Soft music and a breeze stir the air in the background and occasionally there are sounds of movement as though someone else were in the room.
“It was also exciting to work with the inherit limitations of the VR tech,” explains Richards. “VR allows space and time to be easily manipulated and we can create our own rules for the two-dimensional painting to develop a new, dreamlike world.”
The seeing glass is a timed-entry viewing experience. Timed appointments can be scheduled onsite at the front desk the day of a visit for one person at a time.
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Delaware Art Museum
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