The Web has expanded the reach of art, but nothing beats standing in front of a Picasso | Kenan Malik

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Iit’s been more than 30 years since I saw Pablo Picasso Guernica face to face, so to speak, at the Prado Museum in Madrid, shortly before being transferred to the Museo Reina Sofia, where it still hangs. Painted in 1937 in furious protest against the German bombardment of the Basque town of Guernica at the behest of Franco’s nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War, Picasso had refused permission to house him in Spain until democracy returned.

I had seen dozens of images of the painting. But nothing could prepare me to stand in front. First was its overwhelming size, something no picture can portray. Guernica measures over 3.49m x 7.76m. You don’t see the painting so much as the painting wraps around you and you are drawn to its emotions and intensity.

The compression of space, the ambiguity of perspective, the bursting of bodies, everything seems much more pronounced when looking at the work in real life. Painted in black and white and soft grey, the absence of color, again, seems so much more visible in the gallery than in any reproduction. I saw details that otherwise had eluded me: the bull’s third eye looking directly out of the canvas; the tension in the arm of the dismembered man holding a broken sword; the dove barely visible, half erased. In front of Picasso’s masterpiece, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of dislocation and horror that no reproduction could convey. Thirty years later, the visceral power of Guernica still lives with me.

I saw Guernica when a new way of seeing art was emerging – the Internet. Over the past 30 years, museums and galleries in the Metropolitan Museum in New York at Museum of Islamic Art in Qatarfrom New Delhi National Museum to the very small Lynn Museum in Norfolk, have put much of their collection online, making it accessible to millions of people, a cultural treasure they would otherwise be denied.

However, the growth of online collections has also generated fierce debate about the virtues of the physical museum versus the virtual museum, about how the digital should relate to the real. Last week, this debate took a new turn when the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York announced that it was auction of 29 of his physical paintings, including masterpieces by Picasso, Monet and Bacon, to help “establish an endowment for digital media and technology”. What this means in practice is unclear. What MoMa’s decision has done, however, is rekindle the debate about the merits of the actual and the virtual.

The idea of ​​a virtual museum is not new. Fifty years ago, long before the advent of the World Wide Web, French novelist, critic and former Minister of Culture André Malraux wrote about a “museum without walls”which brought together each person’s ideal art collection.

Writing decades before the internet, the technology Malraux imagined could make this possible was primitive. The ability offered by the Internet to museums and galleries to put their collections online brings us closer to a museum without walls; a museum not limited by physical space or by opening and closing hours, but allowing any number of people to access the collection of their choice at any time. Online collections also allow us to access information about the object or painting, place it in historical and social context, and link to stories about it, in a way that no museum physics can’t do it.

And yet, just like no number of Picasso’s pictures Guernica could prepare me for the experience of actual painting, so no amount of sophistication of a digital experience can replicate the reality of seeing an artwork in front of you. In part, this stems from physical differences, the importance of texture and size, qualities inherent in a physical object but not an image on a screen.

Perhaps more importantly, there is what American curator Ann Mintz calls a “metaphysical” quality in the visualization of a real object that is absent from a virtual reproduction. One relates to a physical work of art in a different way than a virtual object. Studies have shown that people spend more time looking at a physical object in a museum than the same object online, and often react to it emotionally in ways that rarely occur in a virtual space.

This is a distinction that is not limited to art. There is an analogous difference between listening to music at home and experiencing it at a live concert or in an opera house. Music would undoubtedly be much better sonically at home, but there is an inexpressible quality to watching music produced and performed live, and in the company of others, that no record, CD or stream can imitate.

Or distinguish between watching live sports and watching on TV. There’s a lot to be said for televised sports; not only the comfort of his sofa, but also the ability of the camera to capture moments and details you would never have seen in a stadium. And yet, nothing can take away the emotional charge of watching a match in real life, seeing Mo Salah or Venus Williams perform their miracles in the moment, crammed in with thousands of others engaged in the same pursuit.

Or even, in its own way, consider the importance to so many people of the ritual and physical connection we saw last week. All this tells us something about the human being; the importance of the materiality of our world for our appreciation of it. The importance also of the social context in which we engage with the world, of being able to engage with it not as individuals but as part of a crowd or a collective.

The Internet has transformed our lives and democratized our relationship to art. But in doing so, he also revealed the importance of the physical and the current. She showed us how, paradoxically, the materiality of life embodies an ineffable quality that the virtual cannot match.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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