At Art Daily there is an article about an unusual Rembrandt exhibition at the Berlage Exhibition Center in Amsterdam. What makes this exhibition unique is the fact that it contains the entire body of Rembrandt’s work, totaling 317 paintings and 269 etchings. Yet, there is a catch – the entire exhibition is made up of digital reproductions of the works. As the article explains:
Never before has the complete body of works by an artist of Rembrandt’s stature been exhibited together. Nor have reproductions been taken so seriously. The importance of this collection of Rembrandt’s entire oeuvre in reproduction form lies in the fact that each of his works is a significantly unique creation. In the case of Rembrandt, therefore, there can be no such thing as a representative selection.
This is an interesting event to ponder, especially in light of a previous post on this blog about digital printing. Will exhibitions of the future, at museums like GMOA, feature pieces from a museum’s collection alongside a substantial number of digital reproductions? Will there come a time when digital reproduction is so widely accepted that museums no longer feel the need to risk displaying the actual works in their collections? These questions bring to mind Walter Benjamin and his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin writes:
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. . . . the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.
Issues of art and reproduction have been discussed for almost the entirety of the 20th century. Benjamin was one of the first theorists to point out the huge perceptual shift caused by the rise of reproducible art. Benjamin termed the unique nature of an original piece of art in time and space its “aura.” Though Benjamin primarily discusses mechanical reproduction in terms of film, it is also an important philosophical question in terms of printmaking, a medium (which makes up a large part of the GMOA collection) based upon the idea and mechanics of reproducibility. As digital reproduction reaches a point of sophistication that allows for an entire exhibition of Rembrandt reproductions, it is essential that we as a museum again consider the role and the value of the “aura” of an original painting or sculpture, as so much of our identity is founded upon our physical collection.