Untrue Colors: Hues Are Shady Characters

Gene Davis's
Gene Davis's "Narcissus" may look fine as printed here, but the reproduction pales in comparison with the real thing at Osuna gallery. (By Brendan Webster -- Webster Photography)
By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 2, 2006

A warning to the reader.

The accompanying photograph -- of "Narcissus" by Gene Davis -- is completely unreliable. "Narcissus" doesn't really look like that at all.

The canvas is all stripes, precisely colored stripes, and there's the problem with the photograph: The colors are all wrong. And it isn't just this photograph, to some degree it's all of them. Next time you see a painting on a poster or a postcard, in the pages of an art book, online, or in a catalogue, don't entirely believe it. The colors aren't right.

The 10-foot-wide canvas, now on view at Ramon Osuna's gallery, 7200 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, is named for the Naricssus who, in Mediterranean myth, fell in love with his reflection because he couldn't tell the difference. But in paintings, as in life, the difference matters hugely.

When it comes to painted canvases all reproductions lie.

Even smart people forget this. When Microsoft's Bill Gates built his billionaire's mansion on a lake near Seattle, he didn't bother buying paintings. Instead he'd program screens set into the woodwork. "You'll be able to call up," he wrote, "portraits of presidents, pictures of sunsets . . . or reproductions of High Renaissance paintings."

Already he'd arranged access to great art. Through his company called Corbis, Gates, on his own dime, had bought the right to digitize the pictures in fabulous museums, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. His options were immense. He could tap on a few buttons and the Hermitage's Leonardo, the great "Benois Madonna," would show up in the room. Or, if perhaps he wished to see the best thing in the Barnes, Cezanne's mighty "Bathers," he'd just tap a few more.

Of course it didn't work. It was a really dumb idea. Gates's Leonardo wouldn't look like a Leonardo. It would look like a Leonardo on TV.

Screens will never cut it. They're the wrong shape (the Leonardo has a rounded top), and the wrong scale ("Bathers" is seven feet wide; Gates's screens were 40-inchers). And video displays never get the colors right. Technology can't solve this. Pixels aren't paint; canvases are not packets of digitized information -- they're complicated objects, changeable as wine, getting older every day.

There's a moral to this story. Colors: You can't trust them.

* * *

To test this proposition: When next in a museum, first buy yourself a postcard, then go and find the painting it pretends to reproduce, and compare them side by side. You'll see. The card will be demolished by the real thing.


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