Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Rembrandt’s Avatar and the Virtues of Creativity

Almost 350 years after the master artist’s death, a new Rembrandt painting has been unveiled in Amsterdam, and it’s creating quite a stir – because the painter this time was a group of art historians, software developers, scientists, engineers and data analysts, and their brush and canvas were an extensive database and a 3D printer.
The brainchild of Amsterdam-based ad agency J. Walter Thompson for its client ING Bank, “The Next Rembrandt” was an 18-month project that sought to answer the question, “Can the great master be brought back to create one more painting?” For this challenge, rather than attempt to raise the dead, the group undertook a remarkable scientific process to create a new painting based on a meticulous examination of Rembrandt’s style.
First the group studied the entire collection of Rembrandt’s work (over 300 paintings), breaking them down pixel by pixel through high-res 3D scans and digital files that utilized “deep learning algorithms to maximize resolution and quality.” Then, after a close demographic study of the subjects of Rembrandt’s works, the team settled on a representative subject: a portrait of a Caucasian male with facial hair, between the ages of thirty and forty, dressed in black with a white collar and a hat, gaze turned to the right.
The team designed a software system that identified and classified the most typical geometric patterns used by Rembrandt to paint human features. It reproduced the style to generate new facial features according to Rembrandt’s proportions. Data about the painter’s use of light was mined to add authentic shadows onto each feature.
To recreate the texture of a Rembrandt, the group created a height map using algorithms based on brushstroke patterns and layers of paint. That information was then run through a 3D printer that output thirteen layers of paint-based UV ink to mimic Rembrandt’s texture. The result is a portrait of a 17th century man that even an expert probably could not distinguish from the real thing.
But as groundbreaking as the technology is, it did not really create anything even though the painting is “new.” The technology simply imitated the original artist’s style to an extraordinarily precise degree, like an infallible master forger. That’s no small thing – it’s an impressive feat, no question, and there may be other important applications. But it is ultimately an imitation, not a creation.
Creation is the skillful manifestation of an artist’s vision. Sometimes it is wholly original; more often it is a synthesis of other creations that still produces something new. The “Next Rembrandt” painting produced by a 3D printer is not an original creation or a synthesis; it is at bottom a mathematical exercise. With all due respect to the team of technicians involved, they are not Rembrandt. No one is.
I’m reminded of a college art class I took in which my photography-obsessed fellow students simply could not, or would not, acknowledge my argument that there was a vast difference in the artistic skills necessary for painting and photography. We were comparing the sunlight created by Dutch painter Vermeer in “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” to the sunlight streaming upon Mt. Williamson in a photo by the American nature photographer Ansel Adams (who at the time was as celebrated for his environmental activism as his art). I argued that there was simply no comparison between the technique that enabled Vermeer to create the illusion of sunlight ex nihilo on a blank canvas, and the actual sunlight merely captured by Adams with his camera.
This is not to disparage Adams’ artistic eye. But those students – and the professor too, who was an amateur photographer himself – refused to see Adams as an artist of lesser skill, even though any one of us in that classroom could have snapped the same photo under similar conditions with the same camera, while not one of us could have reproduced the Vermeer sunlight with a brush and blank canvas. The world-changing technology behind the camera is ingenious, but in the end a camera can only capture an image, not create it. That image can be manipulated afterward, of course, but the camera can only reproduce what already exists – at the mere click of the shutter button.
As for Vermeer’s genius: French novelist Marcel Proust was so struck by it that he created an art critic in Remembrance of Things Past who literally dies after experiencing the aesthetic power of a tiny patch of sunlit roof in Vermeer’s View of Delft. It is difficult to imagine that Proust would be so profoundly affected by the sunlit mountainside in a photo Ansel Adams snapped.
To answer the “Next Rembrandt” website’s question about whether the great Dutch artist could be brought back to create one more painting, the answer, sadly, is no. Technology may be a brilliant apprentice, but Rembrandt is still the master.
From Acculturated, 4/12/16