It was almost 450 years ago that Pieter Bruegel the Elder passed away. He left behind the arguably most famous depictions of rural life in Flanders in the Middle Ages – and it is precisely these paintings that the Flanders delegation, the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (Museum of Art History Vienna, KHM) and Ars Electronica are presenting on October 4, 2018 with gigapixel images at the Deep Space LIVE “Inspired by Bruegel“. The new Bruegel exhibition at the KHM in Vienna opens in the same week.
For the Deep Space LIVE event, experts Geert Van der Snickt and Frederik Timmermans will travel to Linz to show the detailed works of the renowned painter at the Ars Electronica Center. In this interview, they told us more about Bruegel, his works and the upcoming Deep Space LIVE event.
Let’s start with a simple introduction – can you tell me about yourselves and your work?
Geert Van der Snickt: As a cultural heritage scientist, I’m specialized in the application of chemical analysis on works of art. My colleagues and I are developing so called ‘chemical imaging’ techniques that are particularly useful for restorers and art historians. The great advantage of these techniques is the fact that they collect chemical data on the objects and present the results in the form of images that can be easily understood by anyone. In particular these images show which materials were used by the artist and how these are distributed over the surface. As we can also see below the paint surface, we can visualize the changes made by the artists or even visualize compositions that were entirely overpainted.
Ghent Altarpiece, Closer to Can Eyck Website. Credit: Frederik Temmermans.
Frederik Temmermans: I am a researcher at the Department of Electronics and Informatics (ETRO) of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and IMEC. I am also co-founder of a small university spinoff company, Universum Digitalis. Our company develops mobile and web applications, mainly in the cultural sector. In particular we are specialized in applications that provide access to extreme high resolution image data. We developed the Closer to Van Eyck website (closertovaneyck.be) that documents the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece and since this year also other works by Jan van Eyck.
During the 2010 examination of the Ghent Altarpiece, the panels were documented using different image modalities such as macro photography, infrared and X-ray. The resolution and quality of the images was unprecedented at the time, but it was in particular unique to make all this this research data online accessible to the broad public via a web application.
This week, the first week of October 2018, we released the Inside Bruegel website (insidebruegel.net). The websites allows access to the recently captured image data of the twelve Bruegel paintings from Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien in super high resolution for several image modalities ranging from visual light to X-ray. The Inside Bruegel website and the behind the scenes work to will be the focus of my presentation at the Deep Space LIVE event.
Inside Bruegel Website. Credit: Frederik Temmermans
How did the Deep Space LIVE event “Inspired by Bruegel” come about?
Frederik Temmermans: I met David Maenaut, the General Representative of the Government of Flanders in Austria, at Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien when I was there to discuss the Inside Bruegel project. We talked about the extreme high resolution Bruegel images we were preparing to release online in context of the Bruegel exhibition. When David told me about Deep Space 8K at the Ars Electronica Center, we thought it would be a perfect match to present the super high resolution Bruegel images. It is in particular a fantastic showcase during the first week of the website’s public release.
Geert Van der Snickt: Since a few years, I have a collaboration with Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. As such, I regularly come to Vienna with my scanners to study the works of P.P. Rubens, another Flemish Master who is well represented in the collection of the Museum. However, at some point, conservator Elke Oberthaler drew my attention to a work by Bruegel on which she was working in preparation for the upcoming exhibition. Thanks to the support of the Flemish Government, I was able to scan this painting and made some interesting discoveries which I will discuss during the Deep Space LIVE event.
Can you guess how many times you have examined the works of Bruegel? And how does the viewing at Deep Space 8K now enhance the experience?
Frederik Temmermans: The Inside Bruegel project has been in preparation for several years. Although we can do lot of automated processing with the experience of VUB and IMEC, the production of the images is still a very time consuming task that also involves manual work and visual inspection. The image data always has its own particularities. This is a result of differences in the capturing setup, but also from differences of the painting’s physical properties and even the painter’s technique. For example, we could make use of cracks in the painting layers of Van Eyck’s paintings to match overlapping areas. This was much more difficult with the Bruegel paintings because the cracks are much more subtle. As a consequence, it is impossible to estimate how many hours I have spent behind a screen working with these images. Nevertheless, it is amazing that even after all these hours one can still discover new details. Now that our work is finished and we can present the results to the public, being able to present on the Deep Space 8K screen of course takes the viewing experience to the next level.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “Gloomy Day”
Bruegel’s work is very detailed – can you each name a little detail, a specific part of a painting or an interesting fact that you are very fond of?
Geert Van der Snickt: My favorite detail is definitely the now invisible burning city in the ‘Suicide of Saul’ that I was able to re-visualize.
Frederik Temmermans: There are many little details in the Bruegel paintings that are nearly impossible to spot when looking at the paintings from a typical distance in a museum exhibition. On the Inside Bruegel website on the other hand, you can get so close that you can inspect these details till the level of individual paint strokes. For me, this shows how complementary the website is with visiting the exhibition.
If I have to pick one example, I choose the castle in the The Gloomy Day. When you zoom in close, you can see so many little details such as the little windows and snow on the walls. These details are very hard to see in real with the naked eye. It is amazing how small these details are, constructed from just a few paint strokes. There even seems to be an appearance of a ghost, which is interesting in itself, because it might be subjective to the interpretation of the viewer. (You can find a direct link to this particular detail here.)
Dr. Frederik Temmermans is research manager at ETRO, an imec research group at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. He received his PhD in Engineering in 2014. His research focuses on image processing, interoperable access to image data and image search. He has been involved in several research projects in the medical, mobile and cultural domains. Frederik is an active member of the JPEG standardization committee (ISO/IEC JTC1/SC29/WG1) where he is currently involved in the Privacy and Security and metadata activities. Frederik is also co-founder of the VUB spin-off company Universum Digitalis.
Geert Van der Snickt received his Master in Conservation-Restoration in 2003 at the University of Antwerp. Shortly after, he affiliated with the Department of Chemistry of the same institute. In 2012, he successfully defended a PhD thesis entitled: “James Ensor’s Pigments Studied by Means of portable and synchrotron radiation-based analysis: identification, evolution and degradation” guided by professor Koen Janssens, head of the Antwerp X-ray analysis, Electrochemistry and Speciation (AXES) group. He is now active as cultural heritage scientist and holds a Chair on Advanced Imaging Techniques for the Arts within the same group. His work focuses on synchrotron radiation-based analysis and the application of newly developed chemical imaging techniques for non-invasive characterisation of paintings and art materials.
The Deep Space LIVE “Inspired by Bruegel” takes place October 4th, 2018, at the Ars Electronica Center. Find out more here. The images will also be shown at the Long Night of the Museums on October 6th, 2018.