A 21st Century Transformation

According to researchers, the average time a viewer spends looking at a piece of art in a gallery is 3 seconds. For an old masterpiece that might have taken years to be painted, it is ludicrous to think that a viewer could fully absorb all its wonders in just a couple of seconds.

In an effort to solve this, Rob and Nick Carter bring traditional Old Master paintings to life by collaborating with one of London’s most esteemed production companies, MPC (Moving Picture Company). The Carters, a married couple of artists from West London, have always created artwork using digital techniques, and now they amaze audiences with their Transforming series that celebrates a marriage between fine art and digital animation.

Visiting the Carters’ gallery at the Mews, my friend and I are lead down to the basement where the Transforming works are hidden. On first glance, it appears to be a collection of classic oil paintings, exactly as you would expect them to look: Study for the Cornfield (c.1817) by John Constable, Vase with Flowers in Window (1618) by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, Sleeping Venus (c.1510) by Giorgione to name but a few. Each painting seemed to be slightly removed from the wall, and set within unusually deep frames.

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Still Life with Candle, Walnuts and a Mouse (1647) by Willem van Aelst.

I am gazing at Transforming Still Life Painting II (2014-7) — initially assuming it to be Still Life with Candle, Walnuts and a Mouse (1647) by Willem van Aelst — when suddenly my eye twitches and the candle seems to flicker. Blaming it on my mind playing tricks, I move on. Out of the corner of my eye, again I think I see something move. When I look back to the painting, sure enough, clear as day, the mouse is scampering about the candle, sniffing at the walnuts. I make my way around the room to the Constable and to my surprise, it is no longer day, but instead a nighttime scene, with slow-travelling clouds partially obscuring the full moon as it beams down illuminating the path through the woods. It feels like being in the world of Harry Potter, watching the paintings slowly come alive.

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Six frames from the Transforming Landscape Painting (2013-17) 2.5-hour looped film by the Carters, based on Study for the Cornfield (c.1817) by John Constable.

All around us, the paintings we initially believed to be innate were in fact transforming before our very eyes, once we took the time to see it. This is the Carters’ exact purpose with bringing the series to a new dimension. Too many people these days are removed from and unappreciative of art, due to film, TV and the high volume of fast, fleeting visual content broadcast through social media. By designing digital paintings that transform at a snail’s pace over the course of 1-3 hours, the Carters implore the viewer to gaze upon the artwork for a longer period of time in order to uncover its secrets. During each looped-film, only one frame matches the original paintings they have been based on.

“It is not uncommon now for people to move around galleries and fairs at a swift pace, with their phones out ready to capture artworks and maybe even the descriptions if they’re particularly interested. We therefore enjoy seeing viewers take a second glance at the Transforming works, taken aback with surprise when the content of the paintings move, encouraging them to examine the works in greater depth, for a longer amount of time. The Transforming series has been ten years and 65,000 man hours in the making”.

– Rob and Nick Carter

With the some of the pieces such as Transforming Landscape Drawing (2014-17), based on Windmills near a Body of Water (c.1648-50) by Jacob van Ruisdael, the movement is so slight that you do not necessarily notice unless you really look hard. With others, there is constant movement and a gradual story being told. 

The most fascinating piece of the series, is Transforming Vanitas Painting (2012-13), based on Dead Frog with Flies (c.1630) by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Younger. Played on a 2.5-hour loop, the picture begins with the frog alive, laying on his back, convulsing in pain. Soon after, the twitching subsides as the frog passes away. Flies gradually begin to swarm around his dead body and at this point, we see a glimpse of the original painting. Over the course of the next couple of hours, maggots disgustingly develop from the corpse, consuming the frog’s flesh and exposing his organs. This continues until the maggots have stripped the carcass leaving just a skeleton behind. It is a gruesome picture that demands disgust and shock from the viewers much like the initial painting did back in the 17th century. However only those that remain for long enough will be able to witness the whole scene unfold. 

Four frames from Transforming Vanitas Painting (2012-13) by the Carters, based on Dead Frog with Flies (c.1630) by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Younger.

My favourite piece of the collection is the Transforming Nude Painting (2013). The original painting, Sleeping Venus (c.1510) by Giorgione, is mesmerising as it is, deserving more than 3 seconds of attention already. The Carters and MPC cleverly worked with a live model, filming her again a green screen in order to place her into the painting with ease. Emulating the original painting successfully, the sleeping model boasts smooth alabaster skin that was well-favoured in traditional paintings.  Other than the day-to-night changes, the only other movements are equally subtle, such as the gentle rise and fall of Venus’ belly as she breathes. Occasionally she stirs from her sleep, lifting her head or stretching her leg, before returning to the composed positioning of her predecessor. The piece is so beautiful and peaceful, rewarding the viewer with constant awe anew as the progression of day to night alters the natural colours of the landscape.

Top left: Sleeping Venus (c.1510) by Giorgione, top right and bottom images: three frames from Transforming Nude Painting (2013) by the Carters.

As a traditional artist with a degree in 3D computer animation, I am absolutely in love with the Transforming series and appreciate the level of skill needed to pull it off. Harnessing the expertise of top animators from MPC, they have skillfully mapped high resolution images of the original paintings into a 3D digital landscape. In this way, the digital artists are able to manipulate and transform the painting, allowing CGI entities such as butterflies, maggots and clouds to come alive. The result is a stunning blend between 3D virtual life and 2D traditional art that brings magic to the paintings and engages 21st century audiences in a fresh way.

The series can be found at Rob and Nick Carter’s gallery at 5A Bathurst Street, London, W2 2SD.

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