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Is It Still Art If It's a Reproduction?

The inaugural exhibit at the new Loyola University Museum of Art in Chicago is raising questions about art and the value of copies of art. The show features early 17th century Italian painter Caravaggio, but has none of his original paintings on display. Instead, the exhibit consists entirely of high-quality reproductions of his works.

Loyola University Art Museum's cultural affairs director, Pamela Ambrose, acknowledges that not showing original works of art is "a little bit provocative." She said this controversy is clear to her when she talks to museum visitors. "I have found that the response has been extremely good, extremely receptive, on the part of the general public," she said. "A few people have sort of shook their heads and said to me, 'I do not understand this. Why are you not showing real art?'"

The show's title is Caravaggio - an impossible exhibition. Ms. Ambrose said there are only about 70 authenticated Caravaggio paintings in existence in the world. Bringing nearly all of them together, she said, would have been difficult, if not impossible. "The premise behind it was that, more and more frequently, the world's great masterpieces are unable to leave their homes," she noted, "whether it is a museum or private collection, due to fragility and the cost of shipping, the cost of insurance."

Ms. Ambrose said the 57 Caravaggio images on display at the museum are from high-quality photographs that have each been enlarged to the same size as the original paintings - from one to six meters high. "It is quite amazing, because the whole image, which is printed onto a sort of mylar, a thin plastic, is back-lit by neon tubes," she explained. "And so, when you are looking at the photograph of the painting, you are seeing this luminosity that allows you to see all sorts of small details that it is actually very hard to see in the paintings."

Seeing new details in the old Caravaggio paintings is one of the positive features pointed to by art historian and conservator Phoebe Weil. She compares the exhibit of reproductions to original Caravaggio paintings she has seen. "There is a painting of a lute player that is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," she said, "and, in the upper left corner, there is a little detail of a bird in a cage. And, in the Metropolitan Museum, looking at the original, it is very difficult to see the bird in the cage."

She said she had never really noticed the bird in the original painting before, because it blended in with the painting's dark background. "But, in the digital reproduction, you can see it very clearly," she said, "and the whole different balance of the tonality of the paint of the colors, and being able to walk right up, put your nose practically on the digital reproduction, as opposed to the painting in the gallery, where you have to stand back a certain distance, you can see many things in the digital reproduction that you can't appreciate very well in the painting itself."

Ms. Weil says the exhibit has great benefits for students and artists, who can compare life-size Caravaggio paintings, all in the same place. But, at the same time, she emphasized her preference for seeing the real things. "My bottom line is that there is no substitute for the original," she said, "and there is no substitute for really understanding the materials and techniques - the paint, the pigments, the way an artist puts paint down, the way an artist handles paints, the way, in the 17th century, you had to get pigments and grind them in an oil medium, and all of this whole business of process, and the whole living thing of the original."

Ms. Weil says she hopes visitors to the exhibit will not come away thinking they have seen Caravaggio's art. Instead, she said, she hopes the exhibit will serve as a bridge to get more people interested in the artist and in going to see some of his original paintings.

The museum's Ms. Ambrose agrees. She says she believes the technology is just a tool to make the world's art treasures more accessible. "In some ways, this exhibition has a very post, post-Modernist lean to it, in that it would not be hard to argue a case about using this type of technology in a post-Modernist context, in that, 'it is art, if I say it is.' But it is not," she noted.

The Loyola University Museum show was organized by the Italian broadcast agency, RAI, and has already been shown in Europe. There are no definite plans for its future after it finishes its run in Chicago in February.