A boat with a broken mast floats by me in the sky. At the front, a man bends over himself, his upside-down face poking out at me from under his butt. A giant, spiked fish is biting the back of the boat, which is being lifted by a mutant manatee. I turn my head to see a bearded man in a robe inscribed with the letter T. He’s pressing his hands together like he’s praying. What for? Probably for the creature next to him to stop beating him in the face with a fish.
Discerning art viewers may recognize this scene as a snippet from the 16th-century painting, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” by Hieronymus Bosch. However, most may not remember St. Anthony’s fish slapping because they did not see the painting as I did, recreated through a virtual reality headset.
This 360° VR recreation of “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” was on display at the French Institute’s first ever Animation Festival in New York this past weekend. The impetus for the festival was to showcase France’s animation lineage, with funky classics like Fantastic Planet and new beauties like The Red Turtle. The VR exhibit felt like an unusual addition but it ended up being my favorite part.
Before going to the Animation Festival I had only seen images of Bosch’s “Saint Anthony” painting online, so, to be fair, I can’t compare my VR experience to the real gold-framed masterpiece. But I can say the VR interpretation was the most fun I’ve ever had with a painting.
The video began with me floating through a flat rendering of the Bosch painting. On the other side I emerged in an aqua-blue land where the occupants of the painting live and breath, taking their cues from the poised actions Bosch left them in. Nothing really looks painted — it’s more like an unfinished video game — but perfect 3D recreation isn’t the point. Instead of digitizing every one of Bosch’s brushstrokes with backbreaking accuracy, the video replicates the painting clearly enough so I can experience its details in an intimate environment. In a museum, there’s the “DO NOT CROSS” barrier tape between me and the artwork, as well as scrutinizing security guards and my own self-consciousness stopping me from scrunching my nose up into a painting and really digging into the details. Inside a VR headset, I’m completely alone with and within the art.
The voiceover narration reminds me of a museum audio guide, except it’s more effective because the whole time I’m listening my eyes are always on the artwork. Whereas in a museum I might be (and definitely am) tempted to distract myself with a spot on the wall or a stranger’s funny hat, in a VR art experience, I can only distract myself with something else in the art itself. I may not have absorbed every narrated detail as I swiveled around, mouth agog at flying fishes, burning churches, and a cave with a human buttocks for an entrance. But I felt exhilarated by every second of it.
For the past few years, VR artists have been reinterpreting works by canonical painters like Pieter Bruegel and van Gogh, and for the forward thinkers, Google built a virtual paintbrush. Bosch has previously been virtualized as well, but “Saint Anthony” is one of the first VR fine art experiences to include a narrated guide. Earlier videos, which use music instead, suggest particular moods for viewers to experience the work. Virtual “Saint Anthony” goes beyond simply impressing and tries to educate.
Carlos Franklin, the video’s creator, told me over the phone that he chose Bosch’s “Saint Anthony” because its weirdness was a natural fit for VR. “Nobody understands why Bosch is so weird,” Franklin said. “This painting explains why he was weird.”
Franklin explained that people in Bosch’s lifetime commonly suffered ergot poisoning from eating bread made with infected wheat, and one of the symptoms was hallucinations. “People were having hallucinations about monsters. Everywhere you’re looking is where I was trying to recreate that in the painting. You are seeing what those people were seeing,” Franklin said. “Going into virtual reality is so weird, but Bosch is weird, so I can interpret this painting into this weirdness.”
The biggest hurdle for VR painting experiences is making a virtual world that feels worth temporarily substituting for the real thing without abandoning it for something newer and shinier. “A painting is flat, but you have to think of it as a continuous succession of events happening,” Franklin said. For me, Franklin’s “Saint Anthony” achieves that balance. It adheres to the story inside Bosch’s while also adding a perspective that opens it up to digitally oriented and perhaps impatient viewers.
When I told Franklin I wished the film was longer, he said spending too much time watching VR can make people sick. “When people watched [VR] films longer than six minutes, they got very ill,” he said. But for a painting inspired by fungus-induced hallucinations, wouldn’t recreating that sickness be the ultimate enhancement?
The French Animation Festival took place at the French Institute (22 East 60th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) February 2–4.
You can experience the video on your mobile phone here.