Presented at 2022 SXSW, the second episode of (Hi)story of a Painting celebrates the life and art of Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi, using an approach that makes art history more accessible and interesting especially for younger generations.
A few days ago I was at the Tate Gallery with a friend and we were discussing a strange piece of art (strange to me, as I am hardly an expert on the subject) and of course I ended up saying something very clever along the lines of “Oh, I think I painted something similar to this when I was in high school. But mine had more colours” (add sarcastic laugh here).
Yes, I am a bit ashamed of myself now.
Because my friend – who is actually an art scholar – started a rant about the meanings of the work, emphasising the artist’s point of view on what art is, and linking the work to events in the artist’s life and in the specific historical period that greatly influenced what we were looking at and gave meaning to what a naive observer lacked of.
If you have never shared a comment like mine on a work of art, you are definitely better people than I am. I see the artists among you shaking their heads resignedly in reproach: know that I understand you.
But I have always felt that there is a great lack of proper art history out there. And living in a country, Italy, that is overflowing with art, this becomes a particularly glaring problem to me: not only does art for many of us sometimes seem like a distant thing, but in some cases the inability to understand it robs us of possibilities of understanding ourselves and the society we live in or come from.
So, after Il Dubbio by Matteo Lonardo (here our interview), (Hi)story of a Painting, with its first two episodes – “What’s the point?”, dedicated to the “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat, and “The Light in the Shadow”, currently being presented at 2022 SXSW – stands out as another possible solutions to bring art in an accessible and stimulating form especially to younger generations.
The series speaks their language made up of images and connection. As written on the official website, “the style of each episode echoes with the style of the artist’s artwork”, which is an interesting way to immerse us in the artist’s worldview without taking us inside the painting as VR often does. And while (Hi)story of a Painting doesn’t require much interaction, the ability to visually activate story bonuses and some tiny details that you feel proud for noticing (yes, I’m talking about you, rat), makes this piece one that would work well in an educational context and can open users a window into and can open a window to an art world that suddenly seems much more approachable.
But (Hi)Story of a Painting also has the merit of identifying those aspects of an artist’s story that most speak to today and are understandable to us as human beings. This series gives human depth to two very well-known artists and for me this was particularly relevant with regard to the second episode and Artemisia Gentileschi. A BAMF! woman (apologies for the phrasing, but it fits) who was still part of a society but went out of her way to dictate her own life. It reminded me that no matter what era we live in, humans are still the same: there is always someone out there who is ready to defy expectations because they believe that a better world is possible and they have enough self-confidence to prove it to others.
We discussed the piece with directors Quentin Darras and Gaëlle Mourre and here’s what they told us.
Behind the world of Artemisia Gentileschi
AGNESE – Congratulation for the selection at SXSW! So, tell me, where does this VR series come from? And why these two specific artists – Georges Seurat and Artemisia Gentileschi?
Gaëlle has a background in history of Art, and as soon as she heard about VR, she had this concept of exploring paintings in a 3D space. It all became very real at the beginning of the very first lockdown in 2020, when we heard about a grant for XR projects. We had only a week to elaborate from a vague concept to a concrete project, and a few months later, we began.
Seurat was our pick for the first experience. It had two major advantages: it was iconic and so super recognisable yet not actually well known in terms of what it represents technically and content wise, and it was copyright free. So, it was a very interesting piece from a technical point of view, but for our second episode, we wanted to explore a painter who not only was extremely skilled technically, but who also had an extraordinary life and… who wasn’t a man because we wanted to highlight that women have been part of the art canon for a long time.
A. – Before going into the details of this experience, can you tell me something about your and Gaëlle’s collaboration on this project?
As in every project, collaboration is key. Luckily, we have very complementary skills. Gaëlle is an accomplished screenwriter and had already directed projects in VR, while I am an established 3D animator and generally tech curious and savvy. But we were both intricately involved in each step of the project, and all creative decision had to be approved by the both of us. It led to long and passionate discussions as every project is made of thousands of little decisions. We were talking about it every day for months, but I’m glad to say it went very smoothly!
A. – Gaëlle, I loved how your narrative manages to convey the strength of Artemisia as a woman. She is even more admirable as a person if you think about the period in which she grew up. What kind of research did you do on her and her art?
GAËLLE MOURRE – I’m really happy you saw strength in the narrative! I was consciously working to do Artemisia justice without wanting to lay it on too much because the way I imagine she was is that she just got on with things – she was monolithic really in the way she led her life and pushed boundaries. She wasn’t the only woman of her time to do so, mind you, but she is the most famous one on an international scale. As a person, she’s an extraordinary artist and human being and it’s not impossible to project that the strength she shows in her portraits also comes from within.
In terms of research, Quentin and I actually did that very collaboratively – we both needed to be as familiar as possible with her life and work in order to come together in our respective roles. But we also surrounded ourselves with art historians and pedagogues – Quentin’s mum is a retired art teacher and was instrumental in guiding us in our approach to make Artemisia’s extraordinary life and ordeals accessible.
We also worked with established art historians, whom we can’t thank enough (Katie Hauser, Christopher Moock and David Jaffé) who helped us tighten our research as it’s tricky to create a quick overview of such a complex time in art and history! It took a lot of research, discussions, feedback and revisions to get to the final version we settled on because we wanted to ensure that whatever we put forward was receivable on an educational front, whilst making the story engaging and accessible.
Balancing repeatable and new elements
A. – Episode 1 and 2 are very different but at the same time, I could definitely recognize the common thread in the structure you created, the voiceover, etc. Looking specifically at The Light in the Shadows, which offers the audience several styles of animation, could you tell me more about your choices in relation to visual design and animation?
When creating a series, you have to find the balance between the repeatable elements, so people know what to expect, and the new elements so it doesn’t get repetitive or boring. This episode is a lot more focused around the personal life of the painter Artemisia, so we knew we were going to need a lot of characters. Mixing puppets and 3D characters is a good way to remind the viewer that we are not doing a historical re-enactment of history. Artemisia’s story is too complex to be summed up in 15 minutes, so even if we fact checked all the information presented, it is still only a summarised version of her life.
But we have to admit that the mix of flat figures and 3D characters was also a technical consideration, as flat characters are less demanding for the headsets. This constraint actually fuelled our artistic decision – we decided that Artemisia and later her daughter, Prudenzia, would be the only 3D characters in the main story line as Artemisia is our protagonist and Prudenzia was, if we can see it that way, her personal legacy.
The little puppet figures of the story bonuses is actually our exploration into what perhaps all our story bonuses will look like – we’re exploring whether this will be one of our repeatable elements. They’re cute and fun and allow us to explore difficult themes in a more universal manner.
A different gaze on art and art education
A. Reading the credits, I noticed that, Quentin, you are also responsible for the pedagogical aspects of this piece. What was your work in this regard?
QUENTIN DARRAS – That’s actually my mum, not me! Both my parents were teachers, and my mom taught history of Art in high school. Teaching methods have always been something discussed while I grew up: what was the best approach for complicated or sensitive topics, how to engage with students and make things fun… With VR, I got to apply some of what my parents practiced, as it was clear that the best way to understand something was to feel involved in it.
A. – Awards to your mum then! You mentioned the scenes activated by users’ gazes. It seems an appropriate choice as far as art is concerned, considering that it is often our gaze that somehow brings a work of art to life in our imagination. Is this something we will continue to see in your work?
Gaze activation is always a little tricky in VR, as it can be imprecise or unpractical, but we both felt that it is also very intuitive. VR is still new to a majority of people, and controllers can be a bit overwhelming for a first try. And like you said, our gaze is how we interact with Art in general, so it will remain the core mechanism of our series. It is very fun to explore all the possibilities of gaze tracking. In this particular piece, the gaze is such an important part of our story, between Artemisia’s own gaze towards us, the viewer, and her gaze as a woman, something even more pertinent today as we see more and more female gaze stories coming to the fore.
A. – You are artists yourselves – and I imagine that, as it happened for Seurat and Gentileschi, your life experiences, opinions and who you are strongly influenced the creation of (Hi)story of a Painting. How did this work influence you?
When making the first episode on Seurat, we realised the more we learned about the artist, the more biased we were becoming when considering the artist himself. This is probably because Art history itself is often biased by who and when it was studied. So we tried to remain as objective as possible. But for Artemisia’s story, we felt a little differently. As we try to remain as objective as possible, there are great parallels between what we know of Artemisia’s life and today’s historical context, and it is a great opportunity to reflect on what has changed, what hasn’t and what should. It is very probable Artemisia never aimed to become the feminist icon she is today, but it doesn’t mean that her story cannot be an inspiration for everyone.
A. – I have seen VR used in different ways in relation to art and I liked how your focus is on teaching art in a way that is accessible especially to the younger generation. How do you envision this work in this regard?
(Hi)story of a painting isn’t just aimed at the younger generation, but to everyone who feel new to Art history. At the moment, we feel like Art history is made by connoisseurs for connoisseurs, and accessibility is rarely their preoccupation. The only people who were sceptical about our project were actually among those people. But so far, the reception has been overwhelmingly positive by the public, and the reactions are often similar: they didn’t know anything about the subject, and feel like now they understand it much better. Now if they want to dig deeper, they know where to start. This project doesn’t aim to replace how Art History is taught, but simply to help those who would like to start.
As for what’s next post festival run – we are working on organising exhibitions of our episodes and will be sharing more news on that soon!
(Hi)story of a Painting: The Light in the Shadow is one of the 11 projects presented in 2022 SXSW XR Experience Competition. More information on this series and the team of artists behind it can be found on the official website at this link and on its XRMust Database page.