So Realistic It’s Almost Artistic

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Marriage at Cana, Veronese, 1562-63 — The Louvre

But not quite. It seems that the Venetian Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, where Veronese’s great Marriage at Cana was housed until Napoleon’s troops carted it back to the Louvre as war booty in 1797, has commissioned and installed a full scale digital reproduction. The New York Times reports this morning that a Spanish company, Factum Arte, has produced “a stunningly accurate replica” of the massive 1563 painting, a Late Renaissance version of Cinemascope.

I have nothing against the digital reproduction of art. It can be invaluable as a way to study and disseminate works, or as a way to preserve at least the surface appearance of art that’s later lost. Who doesn’t wish there was a “stunningly accurate replica” of Mantegna’s Ovetari Chapel frescoes in Padua, which were nearly all destroyed by a bomb during World War II. What we have instead are black and white photos.

St. James Led to Martyrdom, detail, Mantegna, 1453-55, destroyed. Photo: Anderson—Alinari from Art Resource/EB Inc.

But I’ll take the unfashionable view that to hang a digital copy of a painting as though it were the thing itself is to lose sight, literally, of what makes art mysterious. To fully equate the work with its “appearance” leaves the human touch out of the equation. The value of painting is that it stands against the ever widening dominion of reproduction. In a world made up increasingly of images, and images of images, it insists upon the palpable thing itself. And yes, I know, that with his “readymades” Marcel Duchamp long ago did away with the “aura” of an artwork. But his dismissal of the idea of unique art objects only works in a world where most art is unique. The same goes for later works, like Donald Judd’s boxes, that deliberately eliminated the human touch.

It’s also true that there are already reproductions in many museums, things like the Rodin bronzes cast (with his permission) after his death or the multitudinous Warhol silkscreens that Andy may or may not have had much of a hand in producing. But those reproductions are already for that reason a bit suspect to me as works. And yes it’s true that overzealous cleaning and retouching of the original Marriage at Cana in the Louvre has left us with an “authentic” canvas that in fact is subtly different from the one Veronese painted. So it’s in some ways a simulation too. I’ll still take that original, or what’s left of it.

Somewhere Walter Benjamin is laughing.