I used VR to walk through a $10 million painting, and it was literally surreal

The floorboards creaked under my feet. A cruel wind blew through the open window to my left, billowing the pure white curtains out as I walked slowly across a room. This was all happening at a time when I wanted to be as quiet as a mouse, because in front of me was a huge, majestic lion, and from the sounds it was making, my presence wasn’t welcome. Yet I continued to move towards it. The lion raised its head, focusing its stare on me. I got ever closer.

No, I wasn’t trespassing at the zoo, I was immersed in a special virtual reality experience that put me squarely at the center of Magritte’s utterly fabulous Le Repas de Noces work. Lion and everything. It was the final scene in a collection of four vignettes, each set inside a famous surrealist painting, made to promote a unique auction at Sotheby’s in London. Magritte’s work is joined by Paul Delvaux’s Filles au Bord de L’eau, André Masson’s Hôtel Des Automates, and arguably the star of the show, Salvador Dali’s Moment de Transition, which alone is expected to fetch up to eight million British pounds, or nearly $10 million. And I’d wandered about in all of them.

Making a 360-degree experience

The result of five weeks intense work, the Masters of Surrealism: A 360 Degree Virtual Reality Experience is the first of its type for Sotheby’s, and was made to celebrate the coming together of such eclectic works of art. What’s fascinating is that after being transported into these pictures in VR, I couldn’t wait to get out and examine the pictures in person. I’m not an art connoisseur, so to have this reaction was unexpected and only emphasized the power and potential of virtual reality to open up new worlds to people in an unexpected, but very immersive way.

After being transported into these pictures in VR, I couldn’t wait to get out and examine the pictures in person.

However, VR is a 360-degree experience, and these works of art are not; so how do you bring them to life in this way while remaining true and respectful to the piece itself? The task was given to Nigel Hilditch, Sotheby’s Europe’s director of video, and Conrado Galves, creative director at film production company FGreat. Hilditch told Digital Trends he had been ready to work on a VR project for a while. “I was almost waiting for a Surrealist exhibition,” he laughed, “these are the paintings you want to be immersed in, where there’s so much going on.”

Working as a team, the two examined the pieces, picking out all the crucial details, then reconstructed it all in 3D, 4K resolution video. Textures used in the painting are repeated in VR, and the position of key elements are mapped out. Art experts were on hand to point out aspects that needed special treatment. For instance, in Dali’s painting, the cart can be interpreted as having a driver, or that we’re seeing part of the city in the distance through the opening. It’s an aspect subtly highlighted in the VR world.

First VR experiences

However, the paintings don’t show the entire environment around them, which meant the team had to use their own talent to fill in the blanks. Hilditch described it as, “Imagining what might be there, but keeping it simple.” Galves, who worked on the 3D environments, said, “The paintings tell you so much, we didn’t create anything new, just tried to imagine what would be off to the sides.” While only basic visuals were added to make a complete 360-degree environment, audio effects have been used very creatively. From the howling winds in Dali’s painting to the lion’s roar in Magritte’s work, it all fits with the surrealist style. Happily, audio was chosen over a spoken description. “You don’t need a voiceover from an art historian,” Hilditch told us, adding he was also mindful of people’s reaction to VR. “You can only take so much in,” he said.

This led to another important consideration in making the films. This may be the first VR journey taken by a substantial portion of the audience, which meant making slow, considered movements, while still adding the crucial extra dimensions VR provides. That didn’t hamper creativity though. Each painting neatly transitions into the next, and you leave Dali’s world by ascending towards the sky, giving first-timers a taste of VR’s disconcerting ability to fool the mind into thinking what you’re seeing is real.

I watched the VR film on an Oculus Rift immediately before I looked at the paintings in any detail, and before speaking to Hilditch and Galves. We talked about the project, and took in the paintings together at the time. As we talked about certain aspects, and little details were pointed out to me, I wanted to watch the VR film again to see how they had been converted over. It made me appreciate the art, and the work of the artists, in two different ways.

Different reactions

For me, walking through Magritte’s painting towards the lion was the most visceral scene, appealing to my love of intense VR and how it added an extra surreal element  — the window and the curtains, specifically — to the original painting. However, Sotheby’s head of European sales Isabelle Paagman had a different reaction. She didn’t like the liberties taken with the scene, arguably the most digitally augmented of the four, and preferred the purity of the still art, or to use her own imagination. It was her first time using VR, in the same way it was my first time enjoying surrealist art. Our differing opinions didn’t matter, because without the VR film, it’s highly unlikely we would have ever had the ensuing conversation.

Is Sotheby’s first experiment with VR a success? I came away feeling very positive about it. After all, it made me want to see the rest of the exhibition and learn more about the pieces on display. We can get caught up thinking VR is only about games, but in the right hands, it can expand our world in a fascinating way. The virtual reality movie is only the start for Sotheby’s too. It’s dedicated to using digital platforms to help people view and engage with art, and for Hilditch, the next stage is to use augmented reality to bring all aspects together. Gallery visitors could see the art, read accompanying texts, watch videos, and potentially even place bids in AR, he imagined. “This is in the future, though,” he added.

The four pieces of art talked about here, the VR film, and all the other pieces in the collection, are on display to the public at Sotheby’s London ahead of the auction on March 1. Potential buyers will need at least 15 million British pounds, or nearly $19 million, in their wallets to secure the four paintings featured in the film.

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