It used to be you had to load up on bulky books to see art reproductions. But lately CD-ROMs have emerged as a good alternative. The best of the new art CD-ROMs pop into either a PC or Macintosh and start right up. Before you know it, you're cyber-strolling down digital museum halls and stopping to look at paintings. You can home in on details with a "magnifying glass" and read about the work, the artist, and related themes. CD-ROM reproductions are less detailed than those in the best art books, and they're certainly no substitute for seeing the originals. But they're a good way to get to know artists and their works before heading to a museum or gallery.
Some of the very best new art disks have been produced by Corbis, which was started by Microsoft's William H. Gates III. For instance, if hearing about the landmark Cezanne exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art has piqued your interest, you'll want to check out Corbis' marvelous new CD-ROM on the painter's career and works. I plugged it in at 11 o'clock one evening for a quick look and was so fascinated that two hours went by before I knew it.
The disk is packed with information, not just about Paul Cezanne's paintings but also his life, contemporaries, and artistic antecedents. You can start out looking at the paintings, either by taking a digital "tour" or by choosing them by name from an index. And as you click on links to related subjects, you may end up reading about anything from the novelist Emile Zola (a school pal of Cezanne's) to the birth of photography and its effects on painting. In checking out influences on Cezanne, I discovered some wonderful Pissarro landscapes and a Goya self-portrait I didn't know about.
NOW, VOYAGER. The graphics on the disk are imaginative, and the hybrid product worked with few glitches on both a Macintosh and a PC running Windows 95. A Passion for Art, a Corbis CD-ROM about the Barnes Collection of Impressionist and Postimpressionist art near Philadelphia, is equally well done (it comes in separate Macintosh and PC versions). Corbis plans to release a new disk later this year on Leonardo da Vinci.
Another company putting out some beautiful products is Voyager, based in New York's SoHo art district. Van Gogh: Starry Night is a lecture by University of California at Los Angeles art history professor Albert D. Boime that takes as its point of departure Vincent van Gogh's famous painting of the night sky at Saint-Remy, France. Boime's main point is that van Gogh, who was in an asylum in 1889 when he painted the work, was far from the "mad" artist of legend. Rather, by showing everything from selections of the artist's letters to astronomic analyses of his starry night depictions, Boime argues that van Gogh was a disciplined craftsman with a lot of down-to-earth good sense.
Painters Painting, another Voyager product, is partly based on a documentary film about such New York School artists as Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning and traces the school's development from the 1940s on. With Open Eyes: Images from the Art Institute of Chicago is a disk for kids about the famed museum. It features wacky icons (you click on giant red lips to hear a gloss on each artwork) and sound effects. All the Voyager disks are hybrids that run on Macs and PCs with Windows.
HUGE COLLECTION. It doesn't take a special exhibit or special effects to make a CD-ROM rewarding. Le Louvre, a new disk from BMG Interactive Entertainment, is an example. The Louvre's huge collection can be daunting to visit, but the CD-ROM helps narrow things down. The historical and aesthetic analyses of paintings are quite good, and you can click on museum maps to locate the ones you don't want to miss. For instance, I've seen The Cardsharper with the Ace of Diamonds, a 1635 painting by Georges de La Tour, at the museum but never knew much about it. The disk told me where to find it again and explained the painting's unusual lighting and the allegorical meaning of the card game depicted. Voyager also has a Louvre CD-ROM in the works, this one for kids.
Another renowned museum with myriad treasures is the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Hermitage Art Treasure Tour from Cascade Marketing International (509 664-0323, $49.95), is less polished than the others and doesn't run on Macs, plus I found it confusing to use. But getting a glimpse of the Hermitage's extraordinary antiquities and well-known paintings was worth the trouble. The disk can be viewed in English or Russian. With all the great museums around the world, there should soon be an art CD-ROM for every taste.