A digital artwork in an unexpected setting brings a classic still life to life
Yesterday, an immaculate replica of Ambrosius Bosschaert’s Vase with Flowers in a Window (ca. 1618) appeared to come alive at the Frick Collection. Like a talking painting from Harry Potter, the flowers swayed with the wind and the daylight in the background grew brighter as time passed. Morning dew on the flowers evaporated. The water level in the vase slowly diminished. A snail in the lower-right corner of the composition emerged from his shell and leisurely inched his way out of the frame.
The work, titled Transforming Still Life Painting (2012), is a looping, 3-hour animated film by British artist-duo Rob and Nick Carter. The first digital artwork to ever be shown at the Frick, Transforming Still Life Painting simulates the effects that 24 hours of real-life elements—water, sunlight, wind—would have had on Bosschaert’s flowers. The film depicts the scene through a modern lens, just as Bosschaert’s original materials reflected his own time. “Computer-generated imagery is our form of reality,” says Nick. “This is what we see everyday.”
The piece is being presented in conjunction with the Frick’s new exhibition “Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis.” The show opens today and features a selection of paintings on loan from the Mauritshuis museum in the Hague, which is temporarily closed for renovations. The loan includes such treasured Golden-Age artworks as Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (ca. 1665) and The Goldfinch (1654) by Carel Fabritius.
To complete the film, the Carters enlisted the help of MPC, a visual effects company whose recent projects include the films World War Z and Life of Pi. First, the team created a 3D model of Bosschaert’s composition based off of a high-resolution scan of the original painting. Then, they began the animation process.
To get the effects just right, the artists and digital animators studied time-lapse videos of growing plants and moving insects, and created many of the animations by hand. In total, the work took more than 3 years and 5,000 hours of labor to complete.
This film is not the Carters’ only foray into old-master imagery. The Fine Art Society in London is currently presenting “Rob and Nick Carter: Transforming,” an exhibition of the couple’s recent works that use cutting-edge technology to re-imagine iconic, art-historical images.
Along with an edition of Transforming Still Life Painting, the show includes another animated sequence called Transforming Vanitas Painting. Also a collaboration with MPC, the work is inspired by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Younger’s 1630 oil painting Dead Frog With Flies. As the title suggests, Bosschaert the Younger’s original work features a dead frog lying on its back. Several flies swarm around the frog’s body, but its skin still bears a light sheen, as though it died only recently. In keeping with the vanitas tradition, the work is a reminder of the fleeting, fragile nature of life.
The Carters’ piece takes this macabre message to a new level. Their 3-hour film depicts the frog at various stages in the end of the cycle of life—from the creature’s final few moments to its decay and decomposition.
The subtle changes, meticulous details, and cleverly crafted movements in these animations invite viewers to look closely and experience the pieces over time. “In museums, people spend more time looking at the labels than the paintings,” explains Nick. “We want to bring them back to the work.”
This idea of looking slowly is what attracted Frick director Ian Wardropper to the Still Life film when he first saw it at the TEFAF Maastricht art fair two years ago. He hopes the work will encourage viewers to take their time when looking at art. “We want people to slow down,” he says, “to look deeply into a painting and discover more and more the deeper you look.”