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A Pair of Japanese NamBan Screens

Student Evaluation of the
Usefulness of Computer Images
In Art History and Related Disciplines

Charles S. Rhyne
Reed College


Note: This article was published in Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, Vol.XIII, No.1 (1997), pp. 67-81. It was based on an assignment in the introductory art history course at Reed College.

In the published article, the five illustrations of the Japanese screens were printed in black-and-white. They are here make available in color. This web site also makes available the 42 additional images of the screens that were studied by the students for comparison with the original works of art.

This article may be used freely for non-profit educational purposes. All other uses must have the written permission of the author and publisher. All other uses of the images must have the written permission of the photographer, Portland Art Museum and Reed College.

Under a grant from Mellon Foundation, I have the past two years begun investigating the usefulness of high quality digital images for the study of art, partly through making computer images available to students under as near ideal conditions as I can manage and then discussing with them the ways in which they find the images useful or not.(1)

       To properly interpret student responses and my own, I have found it essential to distinguish the different types of material for which the computer images are being substituted and therefore compared. Where no photographs or published reproductions of a work of art are available, even low quality digital images are of course more useful than no images at all, though one must view every aspect of such images with reservation. At some institutions students use Caramates or other viewing mechanisms to review lecture slides. Because of fading, duplicate slides or slides photographed from books are generally used, and of course these vary greatly in quality. For preparation for class discussion, reports, or papers, the images most frequently used are reproductions in books. Because of the marked improvement in the quality of such illustrations in recent years, reproductions in books are increasingly useful for serious study. However, high quality illustrations are available for only a small percentage of the world's art, and multiple copies of these publications, needed for assignments in large classes, are often prohibitively expensive. Moreover, for sculpture, architecture, and large paintings, the number of published views and details of individual works of art is woefully inadequate for any attempt at comprehensive or detailed study. Except in the case of the popular masterpieces of world art, the expense of publishing makes it almost certain that this situation will continue. Occasionally, especially for graduate seminars, students are given access to high quality original slides, which provide the closest parallel to high resolution computer images made from such slides.

       Of course, original works of art themselves provide the most reliable basis for the study of art. Where these are available, it is questionable whether images of these same works of art have any value at all for student study. In order to examine this question with some care, I invited fifty-some students in an introductory art history class to study computer images of a pair of Japanese screens a few months after they had turned in research papers based on first-hand study of the original screens. Such a comparison provides the most demanding test of the usefulness of computer images.

       As an assignment in an introductory art history class, I had asked students to write a paper of at least ten pages plus three pages of diagrams and sketches, based on study of a pair of six-fold screens in the permanent collection of the Portland Art Museum and on display there this past year (Kano school, Edo period; acc. no. 64.13 a, b). The paper was based also on a reading in one book on Japanese screens and on a brief description of the pair of screens they were studying in a publication of the Museum.(2) The screens are a traditional seventeenth century type known as "namban byobu", representing the arrival of the Portuguese in Japan. The students were asked to pay special attention to the overall composition of the screens, how the narrative was conveyed, the means by which different types of people were distinguished, and to the conventions used by the artist for representing animals, people, trees, clouds, water, ships, and buildings (Color Plate 1).(3)

       Although, when I assigned the paper, I had not thought of making digital images of the screens available, I decided at the beginning of the next semester to invite students who had written the paper to study high quality digital images of the same screens and to tell me in what ways they found the images more or less useful than studying the screens themselves. Those students who volunteered were scheduled to study in pairs for a half-hour, using the high quality work station purchased with funds from the Mellon grant. The images are viewed on two side-by-side, high quality 21 inch monitors, on which high resolution images can be opened and manipulated with ease (Figure 1).

       The digital images were produced using original 35mm color slides taken directly from the pair of Japanese screens, digitized onto Kodak Photo CDs. Thumbnails and the 1024x1526 resolution images were then copied onto the harddisk, sharpened and corrected in Adobe Photoshop for color balance and brightness, through comparison with the slides and the screens in the museum.

       The sixty-four images made available to the students included images of the pair of screens together (as currently displayed, on a slightly raised platform, the two screens slightly separated and partially folded in their normal standing position; and, in other images, as displayed over a decade ago, mounted flat on a wall with the ends of the two screens butted together), images of each of the standing six-fold screens individually, from a variety of angles, separate images of each of the twelve vertical panels, and details of many of the vignettes of people, ships, buildings and landscape out of which the narrative is composed. Students could open any of the sixty-four thumbnail images, could enlarge the images one-zoom further to fill the full 21 inch screens, and could make side-by-side comparisons using both monitors. Students were given a numbered list of the images, in the same order as the thumbnails on the computer screen, with brief descriptions, on which they could take notes.

       After the student volunteers had studied these images, I discussed with them their impressions of the digital images in comparison with viewing the screens themselves. Almost unanimously the students objected that the size of the computer monitors did not allow them to experience the size of the screens, which are five and a half feet tall and each twelve feet long. Many students also noted the odd substitution of a computer screen for the physical presence of the original work of art. On the other hand, nearly all students were astonished by the clarity of the many details, which allowed them to make discoveries they had missed in front of the screens themselves. Also, they found that the ease of studying the images while seated comfortably at a computer workstation and the ability to put various details side by side encouraged more careful and extended looking than they had engaged in at the museum (Color Plate 2).

       Following our discussion, I asked two very able, interested, and properly skeptical students, by then sophomore art majors, Paul Dickow and Rachel Perkins, to study the computer images, to return to the screens themselves, and to write out for me their comparative observations. Paul and Rachel have given me permission to reproduce the following nearly complete texts of their comments.

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Following approximately one-half hour studying the computer images, Paul wrote this comparison.

7th Sept. 1996

Overall I noticed one major advantage to using these computers: being able to follow up on details in the actual screens later on--side by side and close up (Color Plate 3). In my paper I tried to contrast different perspectives used on objects in Screen A, panels 5 and 6; using the computer I was able to place these literally side by side and equally proportioned so as to get a more accurate account of the discrepancies. . . . I used this to reexamine a lot of similar points I made in my paper (concerning lack of foreshortening, comparisons of depictions of the Portuguese traders, etc.).

       Another general advantage to viewing a sequential piece such as this on computer is that in fragmenting the piece into selected details, one gets a better idea of 'sequentiallity.' . . . .

       The computer to me may have an advantage in terms of research capabilities. In my paper I mentioned briefly that I found the horses to be "dragon-like," but I didn't have the time or resources to verify that and expand on that. With the computers in the library, one could combine library research with the computers so one wouldn't have to haul books of Japanese dragon design into the art museum for the sake of comparison. I can see that a combination of research from printed reproductions and text with supplemental computer images would be an excellent research opportunity.

       I noticed many details in the computer images which slipped through the cracks during my museum research. Things such as patterns and print on clothing, the painting on the back of a chair in Screen A, the fine markmaking in depicting trees and bushes, and the elders playing Go were all overwhelmed by the rest of the screens when I went to see them. The second, more detail-oriented examination using the computers helped to emphasize these details.

       However, my main complaint about these images as seen on a computer is that the viewer doesn't truly experience them spatially. I believe that one would have to see the screens in actual life to understand them as screens--otherwise they take on a much more "painting" quality about them. . . . In this case I think the "architectural" or spatial experience of these objects is what will make the later, more detailed examinations on the computer more meaningful.

Paul Dickow

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Following approximately one-half hour studying the computer images, Rachel wrote this comparison.

7th Sept. 1996

Keeping in mind applying the images on your computer to the assignment in Intro Art History, I found them to be wonderfully useful. Although, as you say, nothing can duplicate the impact of being in the physical presence of the actual work, the computer images had very few other "drawbacks" when compared with my experience in the museum. In fact, in terms of the assignment especially, I feel they have distinct advantages.

       The images were clear and distinct, and often at one magnification as much detail was visible as I recall seeing at the closest range in the museum (Color Plate 4). Individual brush-strokes were apparent, which in addition to attesting to the high resolution of the images helps grant them some of the attributes of the physical experience - allowing the evidence of human craftsmanship to come through as it may not in reproductions in books. I doubt strongly that viewing the screens face-to-face has much if any advantage as far as seeing detail.

       Manipulation and location was easy and enabled side-to-side comparisons impossible in the museum. The diverse options of views and angles provided were more than adequate. In the museum, I never even thought of looking at the screens from many of these viewpoints, and if I had, could hardly have appreciated them in the same way or as thoroughly as I did when they were isolated. In addition, the sheer logistics of exploring them fully from every angle was impossible in a crowded room. I noticed the gold pattern on the back for the first time as I browsed the image file.

       The focused, isolated format of these pictures brings an astonishing amount of previously unnoticed details to the fore that could hardly be appreciated in one short visit.

       I could enumerate a few specific examples in my argument, to demonstrate the usefulness of this program. When I had in mind a specific section of the screens that I felt displayed an important aspect of the artist's use of perspective, I doubted initially that the images provided would show this as clearly as it appeared in the museum since it entailed comparing the scale of people depicted on the edges of two adjacent screens. After isolating and comparing several views of this area, I found that I could in fact see exactly what I wanted. Perhaps I was unfairly advantaged by knowing beforehand where and what to look for, whereas a student who hadn't seen the screens themselves first might not notice this specific example while looking at the pictures on [the computer].

       Overall, I believe that the advantages of this program are overwhelming. The scanty hour of frantic sketching and note-taking in a crowded room has few advantages over these clear, beautiful, easily maneuvered and compared images which students can investigate individually.

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The following two sections were written by Rachel after further consideration and some discussion of the relative experiences of studying the pair of screens in the museum and on the computer monitors.

25th Nov. 1996

In reviewing the computer images in preparation for revisiting the museum, I was struck by the variation in lighting among them. It seemed to me that such a range of effects of light would hardly be possible over the course of a single museum visit, and gradual transitions would render any variation that did occur almost unnoticeable. My worries were confirmed when I got to the museum - the light was very dim and grey throughout my visit. . . .

      [ In the museum ] the light was not the best that could be hoped for, but I was still able to appreciate and observe details at a very close range. Perhaps because of the lighting, the colors appeared much more muted than in the computer images. I noticed "flaws" more sharply (such as stains, flaking). One decided advantage of observing the screens themselves is appreciating the textures of paint, gold leaf, and fabric border. I could move and observe how light played over the surfaces rather than being limited to one rigid viewpoint.

       As I expected, the very largeness of the screens' presence to some degree limited one's ability to appreciate the interaction of individual areas. However, getting an overall impression was somewhat difficult in both the computer images and the museum. The very nature of the work inhibits processing it as a complete image [because the screens stand partially folded and combined are 24 feet long], so perhaps this area is not a serious concern. . . . [On the computer] the small scale of the images made appreciation of the interactions between areas of panels and whole screens hard. . . .

       An exposure to both [the museum display and computer images] might prompt students to consider how these two experiences differ from, for example, the artist's experience in creating the work and the intended use and arrangement the screens were made for. Using both brings to one's attention the contexts of art in general - as presented in static reproductions, the mode most familiar, accessible, and available for study; or in museum settings with their somewhat artificial arrangements, literally placed on pedestals, and their strange, constructed environment, often quite alien from that for which the work was originally produced.

6th Dec. 1996

Both the computer images and the actual art help bring to the viewer an idea of the creator's view - allowing an appreciation for both the physical and mental process of production. Seeing the screens in these two different contexts draws attention to the many ways they can be seen - from the eyes of the artist and even the interesting and envy-inspiring idea of the kind of view the original or later owners of the work might have had. This view is both strange to us and a significant aspect to consider, since the work was not made to be put in a museum, but to be bought and kept in a home (Color Plate 5). The owner's less reverential position, with freedom to touch and even to destroy this work of art at a whim, is one which creates a whole new perspective, and which is awakened by the experience of seeing the screens in more than one way.

       The computer allows for a very private view of the work, akin to both the artist's and the owner's, but necessarily limited to a few areas of importance which the viewer is trapped with and has no control over, unlike the absolute control of the artist or owner.

       In conclusion, if both options are available, my preference would be to combine a shorter visit to the actual displayed art for the impact and overall impression it can provide, followed by access to the computer images for extended study, contemplation, and an exhaustive pursuit of the problems and concepts introduced at the museum. In addition to their usefulness in study, the images provide new problems and issues by their focused format and different lighting and environment. My recommended combination of the two ways of viewing this work is analogous to studying a piece of music by first listening to it in concert, then studying it more minutely in written form and recordings. . . .

Rachel Perkins

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Rachel's reference to "the scanty hour of frantic sketching and note-taking in a crowded room," necessitated because the museum was mounting a major exhibition at the time, makes clear that this was not a balanced, controlled experimental situation. Given an initial morning or afternoon with the screens under normal gallery conditions (the situation for most other assignments at the museum), presumably students would have discovered some of the details they later discovered in the computer images. But Rachel returned to the museum, this time without the constraint of other students or limited time, and still concluded that the computer images facilitated certain important types of study unlikely to have taken place in the museum. These conclusions were reached by students from an introductory art history class in which they are carry out several in-depth projects on original works of art and, at various stages in the course, discover the pervasive inadequacies of reproductions.

       For students, the interplay between studying original works of art and images of them is comparable, on a smaller scale, to that for scholars conducting advanced research. If we reflect on our own experiences in research and writing, we acknowledge the many insights that take place studying photographs and slides in the privacy of our studies, with the opportunity to compare images, images with texts, and most of all to consider questions and possible answers without interruption for extended periods. High quality digital images provide a new, significantly improved opportunity for doing this. At the same time, each return to the orignal work of art reminds us how artificial these reproductive images are and how neceesary it is to restore the sense of authenticity and balance that only the original can provide.

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1. In November 1995 Reed College received a three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to "enhance opportunities for independent student scholarship through the use of information technology, principally in the areas of arts and humanites." In the section of the College's proposal in which I described the art history digital image project, the first sentence reads: "This project proposes to make available to students digital images of art and architecture of such high quality that they can be studied in detail, in a process of free exploration paralleling that of art historians when conducting first-hand research on works of art." Although the Mellon Foundation has made information technology grants to other colleges, I have not been able to discover other computer projects providing for in- depth study of art in this way.

Although it is not part of this report, I have been interested also in potential uses of high quality digital images for advanced research; for which see the extensive endnotes in my article, "Computer Images for Research, Teaching, and Publication in Art History and Related Disciplines, Visual Resources (XII, no.1, 1996), pp. 19-51; a shortened version of which was published under the same title as a separate report by the Commission on Preservation and Access (January 1996).

[June 1999. Now, nearly four years later, most images of works of art on the web remain useless for anything other than identification, but an impressive number of museums and other institutions have begun making available large, high quality images, that provide a major new resource for the study of individual works of art.]

2. Miyeko Murase, Masterpieces of Japanese Screen Painting: The American Collections (New York: George Braziller, 1990), pages 7-9 of the "Introduction." Donald Jenkins, Handbook of the Asian Collection of the Portland Art Museum (Portland Art Museum, 1981), pages 39-45. Students had previously discovered the fascination of conventions of representation through readings in Gombrich's famous Art and Illusion (New York: Pantheon Books Inc., 1960).

3. This consists of a Power Macintosh 7500 computer with a 1GB internal disk and a 4GB APS external hard disk, two 21 inch Nokia Multigraphic 445X monitors, each connected to a #9 Imagine 128 video card with 8MB of video RAM. With virtual memory turned off, the speed of the video cards, combined with massive RAM, enables the high resolution images to appear at the click of the mouse. An Iomega Jaz drive and 1GB cartridges are used to store image assignments not in use.

4. My thanks to Donald Jenkins, Curator of Asian Art at the Portland Art Museum, for permission to photograph and to reproduce the images in this report. Photographs were taken by diffused natural light using Fujichrome Sensia 100 daylight 35mm film. A Canon A-1 camera was used with Canon macro FD 50mm and Canon zoom FD 80-200mm lenses. Because time and funds were limited, the slides were scanned onto Kodak Photo CDs by a competent local firm. Throughout the project, high quality equipment, material and personnel were used, but none of this was the top-end professional equipment and photo labs used, for example, by local advertising agencies. With the rapid improvement in technology, computer images of this type should increasingly be affordable at most colleges and universities.

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