Van Gogh Museum 3D Prints Its Own Paintings

Van Gogh Relievos on view in the Harbour City mall in Hong Kong (image via Harbour City on Facebook)
Van Gogh Relievos on view in the Harbour City mall in Hong Kong (image via Harbour City on Facebook)

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has begun 3D printing reproductions of a handful of paintings in its own collection, taking art in the age of mechanical reproduction to a whole new level.

The limited-edition reproductions, called Relievos, are the result of a technology developed through a partnership between the museum and Fujifilm. The museum’s press release explains:

The special 3D technique, by means of which these reproductions are produced, goes by the name of Reliefography. This technique is a combination of a three-dimensional scan of the painting and a professional, high-resolution print. A Relievo consists of a faithful reproduction of the front of the painting, as well as of the back and comes in a frame. … Size, colour, brightness and texture are reproduced as accurately as possible to create a full-scale premium 3D replica of a Van Gogh painting. The final result has been approved by the curator of the museum.

The Relievos currently on offer are van Gogh’s “Almond Blossom” (1890), “Sunflowers” (1889), “The Harvest” (1888), “Wheatfield under Thunderclouds” (1890) and “Boulevard de Clichy” (1887). According to the Guardian, they cost £22,000 each (about $34,250).

Detail of a Relievo of van Gogh's "Wheatfield under Thunderclouds" (courtesy Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, via artdaily.com) (click to enlarge)
Detail of a Relievo of van Gogh’s “Wheatfield under Thunderclouds” (courtesy Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, via artdaily.com) (click to enlarge)

That’s a hefty sum for a reproduction, but it’s also a hell of a lot less than you’d pay for an actual van Gogh. (The artist shows up seven times on this list of the most expensive paintings ever sold.) The price also indicates the purpose of the Relievos, at least in part: to raise money for the museum’s renovation and collection upkeep. Somewhere between the gift shop and the gallery lies the Relievo.

The press release also gives education reasons for the new venture, namely that the “availability and accessibility of the works of art can be enhanced” and that viewers will be able to touch the Relievos, offering a new kind of museum experience, especially for blind people. While I sort of accept this, in particular its usefulness for those who can’t see, I also resist it: if you’re not offering the actual, original artwork for examination and experience, are you really increasing its availability and accessibility? In other words, will touching a fake van Gogh offer visitors something that looking at a real one can’t?

Anyway, education is all well and good, but tellingly, the Relievos collection was launched last month in a mall in Hong Kong. In a fine bit of journalism, the Guardian asked Axel Rüger, director of the Van Gogh Museum, if he didn’t think people would rather spend that amount of money on an original painting by another artist rather than a limited-edition van Gogh knockoff. He replied, “These are separate markets.”

Separate markets, indeed, and Rüger certainly knows his. Who needs originals when there are sanctioned fakes for sale?

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