This story is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #117. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
This series of articles is made possible through the generous sponsorship of Epic’s Unreal Engine. While Epic puts us in touch with our subjects, they have no input or approval in the final story.
There is nothing like seeing a painting in person. Reproductions in books are fine enough, but standing in front of a masterpiece is a magical experience. It is something about the physical presence, the patina of age that disappears in the camera lens, the evidence of the creator’s hand in the brush strokes. Also, the size. When you look at paintings in books, it is easy to forget how big they can be. “The Starry Night,” is a little over two feet by three feet – you no doubt had posters on your wall in high school that were bigger. But confronted by it in person, with only small reproductions for reference, its thick swirls of paint seem vast and deep, like you could fall in.
The problem with seeing paintings in person, of course, is that there are a lot of them and they are spread all over the world. Human beings have been creating sublime paintings practically since we discovered fire, but even if you limit yourself to works created from the Renaissance on, you’re talking about an unbelievable body of art, created by thousands of people over seven centuries, much of which is stored in vaults or on the walls of private collectors or lost entirely thanks to war, natural disaster and misadventure. You’ll only ever bear witness to a mere fraction of humanity’s paintings in a lifetime.
Except, that might be changing. The Kremer Collection, a privately held collection of old masters paintings, has recently embarked on project that could eventually put the entire spectrum of human art right in your living room, thanks to virtual reality.
The Kremer Museum allows users to see 74 Dutch and Flemish paintings, on display in a slightly surreal digital space, so long as you have a VR headset. Virtual reality is, of course a simulation, so doesn’t quite replicate the experience of standing in the room with a Rembrandt, but my goodness, it comes so close. Far closer than I ever expected to be possible, thanks to the use of a highly detailed photogrammetry technique for digital modeling. You have to experience it to believe it, and once you do, you’ll immediately see the potential for art of all kinds to be collected and shared using similar methods.
We spoke to Joel Kremer, co-founder of the Kremer Museum and partner at Moyosa Media, the digital experience firm that built the museum, about this groundbreaking project.
Let’s start with the Kremer collection itself. I understand it is a fairly young collection. How did it come about?
Joel Kremer: George Kremer was ten years old when he visited the Rijksmuseum, came across Rembrandt’s “Jewish Bride,” and was completely mesmerized by that painting. He remembers that feeling to this day and get’s a spark in his eyes when he thinks back to this experience. So some 35 years later, when he read an article in a newspaper about an old masters auction, he was shocked, as he assumed most of those works would be housed in museums. He asked a gallery owner from Amsterdam if he could come by next time he was in the city and, when he did, he left there with his first painting. This was in 1994. From the Kremer Website:
“For me, however, it was an exciting purchase. I now had in my possession a work of art by a painter who had learned his trade from the great Rembrandt, and who in his own right was considered an important artist! The thought of owning a painting that was created 350 years ago by someone recognized as an old master, a famous name, was wonderful – until I lay down and started stirring in my bed. I couldn’t sleep that night: I had just paid a lot of money for a little piece of wood with some paint on it. That was how I felt then…
In retrospect, that decision was sort of a watershed. In a way, that first purchase was the biggest step I would take toward collecting.
Why the focus on Dutch and Flemish masters?
J. K.: I think it’s a combination of the above experience as a child, the fact that this type of art is one of the highlights of the history of the Netherlands (and we are Dutch) and the appreciation for the skill. I often find myself in a discussion about the difference in contemporary art and old masters or Impressionists. The main difference is that in the 1600’s, being an artists was a craft for which you had to study, whereas today, “anyone” can call themselves an artist (the good and the bad). The last thing I would say is that is is certainly also about taste; my parents simply caught the old master bug and love that period of painting. They also have a smaller collection of about 50 Impressionist paintings, but the focus always has been on the masters.
One of the things that strikes me about the collection is just the fact that this amount of 300+ year old art was still available to buy so recently – I’d have thought, well, that it was all in a museum at this point. Can you speak to the challenges of collecting this particular era of art in this day and age?
J. K.: So you and my father are aligned!It is certainly getting more difficult as,in the end, the amount of art produced in that period is (probably) finite. But . . . discoveries are still being made. People are still inheriting lockers, basements and attics, and find works of art which sometimes turn out to be significant pieces.
All in all, if you ask me, the collection that my parents have put together over the last 25 years is stunning and an amazing achievement. The formula has been teamwork, commitment, studying, traveling, and developing and believing in your own taste. We have incredible stories of discoveries of absolute masterpieces (i.e. a Rembrandt or an Aelbert Cuyp) which were bought not because of the name per se, but because my parents loved what they saw. And whether it was attributed to a big name or doubted or “circle of” was and is always secondary. And we are still making discoveries like that every year within the collection and with new purchases. Two of those discoveries will be revealed later this year . . . and they are significant!
Is there a way for the public to see the collection in the real world?
J. K.: Yes absolutely. Our paintings travel all over the world via our loan program. So whether it’s one piece for a show in the USA, or 30 for a show in Europe,we’re very busy operating and handling the collection with our team.
The collection as a whole is only viewable via the VR Museum at the moment. Maybe we’ll do a complete show again somewhere in the future (we’ve done four in the past, in Germany, the Netherlands and Paris).
How did the idea of presenting the collection to the public via virtual reality come about?
J. K.: The Kremer Museum was born out of a dilemma of a private collector: do I build a physical private museum to house my collection and build a brand for the family’s future, or are there other, more efficient ways to do this using new technologies. Besides being very expensive, the thought of a brick-and-mortar museum triggered many questions: where, who, how? So the idea came up to explore VR, because it answers or takes away many of those questions; it’s a scalable way to show the collection in a very realistic museum experience. Plus, it’s just really cool if you do it right!
Seeing a painting in real life is a specific sort of experience, seeing it in space, in a frame, being able to view it from an angle to see the texture of the brush strokes. The VR Museum does a startling job reproducing that experience – can you walk us through the process of translating both the paintings themselves and the experience of viewing them into the virtual space?
J. K.: Well, the honest truth is that I had no idea where to begin. I posted on LinkedIn saying that I was looking for a 3D architect for a new project. . . I got the weirdest replies (in hindsight). So after asking contacts in the US, UK, China and India, I ended up at Moyosa Media in Assen, a small city in the northeast of Holland, via a mutual business friend.
Those guys immediately understood my vision and suggested they build a proof of concept for me, which they came to present when we were in Dubai. And man did they get it! It’s a very powerful moment when you’re standing in a ballroom in a hotel in Dubai, looking at a very realistic reproduction of your own paintings in VR. Now mind you, this was nowhere near the final version we now have for the museum in terms of resolution or quality, but we were sold for a Version 1 and agreed to that on the spot. And then it went very quick: the same friend who introduced me to Moyosa also introduced me to Johan van Lierop from Architales, who was then working as a principal for Daniel Libeskind architects. After one lunch, one beer and only one creative “restriction,” two weeks later he presented us with his vision for a museum building in VR. And that is what you see in the design today.
In terms of the quality of the works in VR, Moyosa came up with the idea of using the photogrammetry technique to capture brushstrokes, craquelure and just very high definition details. So when all that came together, Version 1, which was 20 works, very quickly became the full version you see today: 74 old masters in a museum environment which can only exist in VR.
By the way, the only creative restriction I had for Johan was to not go M. C. Escher, because of the traditional art audience we would also be catering to; it needed to seem familiar enough to be a museum, but unreal enough to show that it is still VR. And I think he nailed it!
I think it is interesting that the virtual space of the museum is kind of magical, rather than hewing toward a more conventional museum-like environment. Does that architecture have any significance in the context of the collection?
J. K.: See above. Also, there are many elements from our paintings which come back in the museum design: the floor is black and white marble from our Pieter de Hooch interior painting, the backdrop behind the paintings has a texture and color which matches our Rembrandt painting, and obviously the golden structures of the museum building represent the Dutch golden age.
What kind of response has the VR Museum gotten?
J. K.: We have gotten such overwhelmingly positive responses from the art, tech and educational world. Most major US, UK and Dutch news outlets covered our launch and we are an example of how to go all in, in terms of VR in the museum world. I’m extremely proud of this, and super excited when I think about our future plans!
As VR becomes more widespread, how do you see projects like the VR Museum evolving? Is this a viable way of sharing other art collections and archives with the public?
J. K.: Yes I think it definitely needs to be. The first cracks in the traditional brick and mortar models are starting to show and it would be foolish for museums not to use extended reality technology as a whole to reach more people outside of their walls in meaningful, immersive ways. It is scalable technology and if you devise ways to use your core 3D assets across many different platforms and technologies, e.g. VR, but certainly also AR and mobile, cultural institutions will be able to start thinking in the 10’ or even 100’s of millions of visitors a year. All measurable traffic not only in ticketsales, but digital behaviour in your online environment and interaction with your assets…think about the difference with your traditional offline audience!
Also, and I shamelessly have to plug this, but VR is typically an amazing medium to engage the younger generations of digital natives. They just get it and think it’s fun. So when I bring or send headsets to schoolkids in India or Luxembourg through our Mighty Masters program, you see the amazing reactions of eight to ten-year-olds to 350 or 400 year old art. Through this program, we want to bring headsets to children all over the world to let them experience art they would (statistically) probably never see due to financial, geographical and political challenges. Check out the reaction of this 6 year old girl in Bahrain!
What do you hope folks will take away from the virtual museum experience?
J. K.: 1. A world class collection of old masters, put together by inspiring people, housed in an amazing digital environment. 2. A fun new cool way to experience art anda glimpse into the future of art consumption. 3. The tip of the iceberg for the way the Kremer Collection will be presented to a global audience.
Why did you choose Unreal Engine 4? Are there any unexpected benefits or challenges working with it?
J. K.: When we started developing in early 2017, the VIVE was our preferred head-mounted display and it just made so much more sense to go with UE4 because of the enormously graphical nature of our captures and plans, and the fact that our environment is rendered in real-time. We’ve always gotten a ton of support from UE, so a big shout out to Marc Petit and his team!
Did the Dev Grant allow you to do anything you otherwise would not have been able to?
J. K.: The dev grant was put to researching how to optimize our photogrammetry efforts even further and we were able to get an even higher resolution and level of detail out of the experience, as well as laying the foundation for a road map filled with exciting new content, games in the museum and much much more. So yes, it certainly catapulted us in those areas!
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