Painting images on a flat surface is a pan-cultural artistic tradition going back tens-of-thousands of years, far predating the earliest known texts. In the previous century plus, still images have been augmented with movement, dimension (including sculpture, I guess) and, most recently, interactivity, but it’s had no obvious impact on the public consumption of and appreciation for the painted canvas. Virtual Reality, like film before it, is now beginning to turn a mirror on its own lineage by hosting applications able to feature masterpieces of fine art, so we might bask in some fraction of their aesthetic impact while learning about its origin, meaning, and public reception.
At the smallest scale, there is a VR application devoted to a singular painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, which is called Eye of the Owl. Within this experience, you share a historically accurate representation of Bosch’s studio where the completed triptych is on display. There are points of interest highlighted by blue information icons which, when pressed, give context for the depicted scene. For example, an icon in the right corner over houses which are ablaze initiates the retelling of a great fire that wiped out much of his home city when he was a young man. This formative event would then inspire the image of Hell featured in his seminal work. As a visitor, we are also given free use of magnifying glass, used to pick out details of the great painting or, if one prefers???, physical details of the artist himself. Having seen the original painting, I — nor, presumably, the creators — would claim the VR representation is equivalent to the material work. But I was no less in awe of the truly unique craftsman and I left the experience somehow fulfilled.
On a bigger scale, we can expect further applications that mean to simulate the museum experience. In film parlance, this product may called a “prestige piece”, which makes it a guarantor of success within the arenas of education and conscientious parenting. Already, there are VR and 360 experiences giving virtual tours of museums across the globe. Chosen at random, the Smithsonian National Postal Museum is one of many that gives a complete and immersive tour of their grounds.
The VR Museum of Fine Art, on the other hand, presents a case in which the collected works exhibited in VR do not share a common home in the material world. What’s collected here is a “dream collection” of world-heritage artifacts, such as Michelangelo's Davide, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, and Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. The masterworks are collected in one place, the informational placards are provided, and wandering the halls is somehow soothing, but again it doesn’t positively compare to the museum going experience. It’s true value lies in education and as a supplement to the non-VR-mediated experience. Anyhow, it’s free, so what’s your excuse?