CSI Modigliani: How the Tate Modern recreated the artist's studio in VR

A new exhibition of the Italian painter features a surprisingly subtle Vive experience
Modigliani's studio comes alive in VR

The final studio that painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani worked in, up until his death in 1920, is now a swanky Parisian B'n'B and - of course - a pop-up Modigliani themed supper club.

I'm sat inside, looking at a portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, canvas leaning against smoky windows. The studio as it was in c.1919 that is, not the supper club. As part of the Tate Modern's big Modigliani exhibition, open from 23 November to 2 April 2018, the gallery worked with the new Vive Arts program and VR studio Preloaded to reconstruct the space as accurately as possible.

At just six to seven minutes long, that means approximately one month of meticulous research and digital recreation work per minute for The Ochre Atelier experience. And it shows.

In the studio

VR headset owners may expect whizzes and bangs from this high profile collaboration but visitors, most of whom Tate predicts will be new to virtual reality, get quite the opposite. Situated after most of the rooms of Modigliani portraits, then "shocking" nudes and sculptures, this is a slow, reflective piece for the HTC Vive that keeps you in the art appreciation frame of mind.

Looking closely at objects, using your imagination, being still. As Hattie Foster, head of strategy at Preloaded, says: "Understanding its relationship with that art, and the visitor's journey and expectations, has allowed us to create something that enhances the exhibition with a new layer rather than distracts." In other words, this isn't supposed to be the star of the show, meaning less gimmicky interactions - the Tate version doesn't even use the Vive's handheld controllers - and more focus on the details.

CSI Modigliani: How the Tate Modern recreated the artist's studio in VR

Just because it's whizzy, there's no artistic license, you don't get a free pass

"It was like CSI Art," says Hilary Knight, head of digital content at Tate. "There are no photographs of the interior of the studio, only the exterior, and the team visited the studio and measured it up, the dimensions are absolutely right."

Tate's curatorial and digital teams spent months researching the size, materials, objects and artworks in Modigliani's studio, sharing original source materials with Preloaded who built the CG experience.

"There is one photo of Modigliani moving studios, very early in his career, with a cart piled high with his possessions," explained Knight, "so analysing that, you can look at the chairs, which are piled on the cart. OK, he had these chairs. There's a very light pencil sketch of the studio that includes a stove so we worked with a historian in Paris looking at stoves from that era, being as close as we possibly can to forensic style detective work."

Both the studio and the gallery shied away from any sensational additions, as Foster explains: "We worked with historical researchers to validate every object that tells a story within the space. Uncovering new, previously unknown details, was pretty exhilarating."

Ideas that were pitched included a CG Modigliani character, which the Tate team felt could not be authentic as there is no footage of how the artist moved or walked, or even a recording of his voice, just still images. "There's a huge uncanny valley - we really didn't want to go there," says Knight. "Just because it's whizzy, there's no artistic license, you don't get a free pass."

Artworks in VR

One idea that was entertained by the Tate Modern and Preloaded was a reconstructed Parisian cafe, populated by contemporary artists, poets and writers. In the end, though, the focus remained on the paintings. Just as much attention was given to the recreated artworks - unfinished sketches on the walls and two portraits, one of his lover Jeanne Hébuterne and one a self portrait, of the artist with his palette, from 1919.

As the experience begins, I sit in one early 20th century chair, then another in the small but charming studio of the increasingly impoverished and ill painter. I'm directed to gaze at digital cues overlaid on objects - his wooden palette, papers, matches, brushes, a book, a burnt down candle - to unlock audio performances of the artists' friends discussing how he lived and worked. But mostly I am transfixed by the VR recreations of the paintings, the real versions of which are saved for the final room of the exhibition, after the Vive VR room.

CSI Modigliani: How the Tate Modern recreated the artist's studio in VR

You can see the bumps in the canvas, you can see where the paint has built up

"We used X-Rays of the canvasses, analysis of the pigments and photography using different light to look at the texture of the canvas," says Knight. "We handed over all that material to Preloaded to reconstruct the artwork. When you go up close to those two in particular, you can see the bumps in the canvas, you can see where the paint has built up."

The ambition here was for visitors to have an emotional connection to these works, having seen them in situ in Modigliani's studio, where his subjects would have sat for their portraits. There's even a mirror situated next to the easel where the self portrait is displayed. The sense is - this is where it all happened.

And in fact the detective work extended to the frame - conservation teams in London and Sao Paolo consulted on what the frame and stretcher (back of the canvas) would have looked like as the work has been reframed since.

"We investigated where he got his materials from," she continues. "Some of his previous works are stamped with a particular stamp from a supplier, all of this cross referencing was done to help Preloaded. When you go behind the canvas, we think it's exactly what it would have looked like."

The patronage of Vive Arts

Modigliani's only solo show while he was alive upset a police commissioner, on account of the "confrontational" nudes, not wholly original but ahead of their time, and was shut down.

The exhibition's curator Nancy Ireson thinks that the painter would have enjoyed The Ochre Atelier as "he loved new media", specifically 1910s cinema. There's also an argument that VR as a medium is at risk of being misunderstood in its own way as a technology solely for gamers.

Victoria Chang, director of the multi-million dollar Vive Arts & Culture program, is on a mission to expand the ten or so cultural experiences already on the Viveport app store via partnerships with institutions around the world. "They're rare and we want more, this is just the start," she tells me. "For Vive, non gaming content is even more important, it's so important for developing the ecosystem. Partnerships like Tate Modern help us to attract more high quality educational and artistic content onto Viveport."

CSI Modigliani: How the Tate Modern recreated the artist's studio in VR

The Ochre Atelier will go live on the store in December, with the ability to walk around the space (the Tate experience is seated) and use the controllers to pick up objects in the studio. Vive hasn't announced the price yet or if it'll be included in the subscription service.

Chang says Vive's approach is to find out what institutions want to achieve then her team of VR producers consults on how to make that happen. The Tate partnership kicked off when Tate's Nancy Ireson attended its Vive X accelerator Demo Day in Taipei last year - "they already knew they wanted something innovative for Modigliani so we were lucky to show them what the technology can do."

Coming up there's a VR experience at Paris' Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, which is "educational in focus" and a return for Vive to the Royal Academy in London, for its From Life exhibition this December, after last year's Virtually Real experiment with artists producing works using the Tilt Brush app.

Back to the Tate Modern and Ireson says that working on the VR studio project has even informed the rest of the exhibition for instance, choosing to present nine sculptures so that visitors can walk around from every angle. "We're used to seeing things from one angle," she says. "It's fun in terms of our experience with virtual reality, now how can we think of things in the round? This collaboration has challenged our thinking in different ways and I really feel that this is important for museums, that we allow disciplines to integrate and create this kind of questioning environment."

Beat that, Modigliani themed supper club.

Images throughout: The Ochre Atelierfor Modigliani at Tate Modern on HTC Vive (Courtesy of Preloaded).

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