How Tate Modern rebuilt the Paris studio of a doomed artist, using VR

The leaky, smoky garret of painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani has been recreated in virtual reality for a major exhibition.

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Modigliani's Paris studio, recreated in VR.

Image: Tate Modern

Once they've got most of the way around Tate Modern's new exhibition of works by Amedeo Modigliani, visitors can make a quick visit to the artist's last studio -- in Paris, in 1919 -- courtesy of a virtual reality tour.

In the studio, the rain is dripping through a hole in the roof into a bucket, a cigarette is still smouldering on the table; it seems as though the artist has just stepped out, and will return in a moment. While he is away, visitors can sit in the studio by his stove and examine items -- like a can of sardines or an empty bottle -- to find out more about his turbulent life, and then go on to see the rest of the exhibition.

"What's really stunned me is the number of people who came out feeling like they could feel the heat of the stove, we've had a lot of that, and feeling they were able to smell the dankness and the paints. There something really interesting about the brain's power to make you think you are where your eyes tell you that you are," said Tate's head of digital content Hilary Knight.

In a first for the Tate Modern, the VR room with nine HTC Vive headsets is positioned near the end of the exhibition. Visitors sit in chairs and put on the headsets, and find themselves seated in Modigliani's studio for the six-minute VR experience.

While listening to first-hand accounts from Modigliani's friends and commentary from Tate's experts, visitors can examine the objects in the studio to find out more about how the artist worked and details of his materials and techniques by looking at the white dots scattered around inside the virtual gallery, which when activated tell more of the story.

Although it's a seated VR experience (wise considering that for many it will be their first brush with virtual reality), there is an 'at-home' room-scale version available to Vive users via its Viveport VR app store.

Knight said initiatives like the VR experience can help audiences connect with art and increase their understanding. "We also want to be forward thinking, looking at the future of museums and how we can communicate with those audiences," she told ZDNet.

While visitors might be familiar with Modigliani's art, they may not know his story. Knight said the Tate wanted to use VR as a way of providing that kind of information in a way that visitors could feel, rather than read or hear with a standard audio guide.

The visitor doesn't have a virtual body in the studio experience, but floats like a disembodied spirit. None of the early testers really knew who they were meant to be in the world of the studio, but they didn't really mind that, Knight said. However, none of the testers wanted to 'be' Modigliani: "Nobody wanted to play the character, and part of that is that it makes it feel less authentic," she said.

Academic rigour

To build the VR models Tate had access to Modigliani's final studio, which is now a private home. The studio was chosen over other options such as a Parisian café.

"This is an opportunity to take people to a place they could never visit. This contains the story to him, it focuses it right down onto his work, whereas as café starts to disperse the story," said Knight. "We visited, measured it up and used that as a template for this. Being able to root your VR experience clearly in a place, in a point of reality, seemed to us to be incredibly valuable."

Building the interior took five months of mapping and historical research working from first-hand accounts by those closest to the artist. For example, this included looking at sketches by the artist's partner, including things like the studio's stove, which then led to a hunt for more images of stoves of the time to find a match.

"We've applied the same principles and requirements, academic rigour that we apply to the exhibition to the VR. There's no free pass because we are trying something new," said Knight.

And while some might see a splash of high technology like this as out of place in a gallery, Knight disagrees. "It serves the exhibition -- it's not bolted on, it's not whizz-bang. It's quite clearly there to give you another dimension and a moment in time to reflect and understand and make a connection. Because that is so clear, the question of whether this is too high-tech for a gallery has never come up."

There's some evidence that Modigliani, who died at 35 in 1920 of tubercular meningitis, was an enthusiast for cinema -- a new technology when he was painting and sculpting -- so it's perhaps fitting that the exhibition is augmented by VR.

"Artists are already working in VR, there are significant artists working with this technology to create artworks. It's one of the many directions that art is expanding into -- it's a tool, a material, as well as a platform for us to communicate," said Knight.

"Contemporary artists should be questioning the materials, forms, platforms and technologies of their age; this is of our age and we can use it to reflect back."

Modigliani will be open at Tate Modern until 2 April 2018.

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Image: Tate Modern

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