The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and Fujifilm recently partnered to create three-dimensional reproductions of some of Van Gogh’s most well-known works, including Almond Blossom (1890), Sunflowers (1889), The Harvest (1888), Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds (1890), and Boulevard de Clichy (1887). The Van Gogh Museum and Fujifilm have an exclusive three-year partnership, so we can probably expect more works in the near future.

The reproductions, called Relievos, are touted as very closely resembling the original works, and will be produced in limited numbers. The Relievos are created through a technique known as Reliefography, which involves a three-dimensional scan and a high-resolution print. The process is slow; it took seven years to develop it, and only three reproductions can be made in a day. The original frames and the backs of the paintings are also carefully reproduced, and each reproduction is subjected to strict quality control procedures and numbered by the museum. Special attention is paid to replicating colors, brightness, size, and textures in the original works. The end result is probably close enough to fool you and me, but there seems to be little question that experts will be able to distinguish the reproductions from originals.

The series launched in July in a Hong Kong shopping mall, and some purchases were reportedly made on the spot. Priced at about $35,000, the reproductions certainly broaden access to Van Gogh’s works, but also provide a new source of revenue for the Van Gogh Museum. Part of the purpose of the Relievos was to raise money for its renovation and upkeep. While educational uses are also planned, other museums are intrigued by the possibility of opening up a new market for sales somewhere between standard prints and original works.

This development has caused commentators to wonder what these sanctioned copies of original works mean for our understanding of what constitutes artwork today. As one person has suggested, perhaps our ability to create exact reproductions of artworks means that the artist’s name and brand is what provides authenticity to artworks.

It seems that these developments also challenge the foundational choices the law makes regarding when, how, and why we protect artworks. Presumably, the technology will only continue to improve and its usage will spread, meaning that three-dimensional reproductions of a large variety of original works may become commonly available. Does this seem fair? Does it matter how the revenue is spent? What new issues might follow from this advancement in technology? What can we learn from how the Van Gogh Museum and Fujifilm have handled their partnership?

–Emma Stephens

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3 Responses to Van Gogh for Cheap

  1. Andrew says:

    Jeff, I think one point you made is particularly relevant here with this new technology. Aside from the clear ability of this technology to be used to reproduce such works of art, I think its best use is in archiving such works for the future. Not to say that Van Gogh’s paintings aren’t old, but the ability to use this technology to make archival copies of works of the old masters or other works of art that are many centuries old would be a very welcome use. Given the composition of old works of art, the elements may take a toll and these works are constantly degenerating. While all is fine and well for museums to use this technology to create duplicate works of art, I think its best use is in preserving these works for future generations to enjoy as the best quality reproductions that we can currently create.

  2. Erin Frankrone says:

    I would love to see one of these reproductions in a museum, but it carries more appeal for me as a technological advancement rather than an artistic development. Does this technique create 3D reproductions, or does the 3D scan result in only a 2D print? This difference is particularly important when copying some oil painting and other media that that is often raised from the canvas, as in many of Van Gogh’s works. While and unprecedentedly high-quality print is quite impressive, the inability to reproduce paintings’ 3D texture could remove mush difficulty in separating the original from the reproduction. This technology will likely still command high prices, however, because of it’s novelty and otherwise extremely accurate portrayals.

  3. Jeff says:

    That’s an interesting development, Emma. It seems that Amsterdam’s museums are taking varied approaches to increasing access to the art in their collections.
    http://www.jetlaw.org/?p=15927

    Even if the original and the Relievos reproductions are indistinguishable from the perspective of the average museum patron, I expect there would still be a thrill from encountering the original article. The museum visitors probably couldn’t tell if they were looking at the nineteenth century originals or the twenty first century doppelgangers, but it seems that the belief matters. Part of the wonder of tangible art is the physical connection to the past. The technology is impressive, and I think it’s terrific that they can reproduce (and presumably archive in digital format) these artistic artifacts, but when I get back to Amsterdam and visit the Van Gogh Museum, I hope they still have the originals on the walls.