The lost masterpieces being revealed

Nonetheless, there has been pushback on projects like these as some have questioned what claims to accuracy are being made or whether they have any value. One initiative by Google Arts & Culture to recolour Klimt’s Faculty Paintings, which were destroyed in a fire and are known only through black-and-white photographs, is thought by some critics to exhibit excessive artistic licence and reduce the works to “cartoons”.

Working already to correct for Lundens’ own artistic flair, Erdmann has aimed to limit human aesthetic input, and though the final reconstructed image was approved by expert curators, it was chosen by the algorithm, not hand-picked by the experts from an array of options. “What we were trying to do here is not say that this is definitively what the missing pieces would have looked like,” Erdmann says. “Rather, when the pieces were cut off it altered the composition in a meaningful way and we want the public to be able to temporarily suspend disbelief, in the same way as a good novel or movie asks you to suspend disbelief.”

“Facsimile helps people engage with the content or original appearance of works of art,” says Keith. He recalls visiting exhibitions decades ago that used projectors to similar ends. An even earlier example from the National Gallery is Francesco Pesellino’s Pistoia Santa Trinità altarpiece, which was taken apart in 1793. When it was reassembled after being gradually acquired by the gallery, a missing section was repainted in order to complete the composition.

“Now we have the ability to more convincingly reproduce missing constituents, it provides more curatorial opportunities to think about interpretation,” says Keith. “The question about how to present a picture remains unchanged, there’s just new technology brought to bear on it.”

Projects like these, which are upfront about their methods and clear about where the known work ends and the human or computer’s interpretation begins, offer the opportunity for us to explore how a lost masterpiece might once have looked. These efforts are part of a long tradition of historical reconstructions, but in recent years they have been created and often experienced digitally, avoiding any need to alter the surviving work. The best attempts are openly inconclusive, acting primarily as a starting point for our own imaginations to fill in the blanks. 

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