Rossetti’s La Bella Mano Meets Virtual Reality

October 3, 2017

the seeing glass, 2017. Troy Richards (born 1969) and Knut Hybinette (born 1972). VR simulation, 5 min. Courtesy of the artists. © Troy Richards and Knut Hybinette. Music by Clint Borzoni.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s La Bella Mano (1874–75) offers a multisensory experience, combining painting and poetry into a single work of art. Representing a major change in Rossetti’s approach, it reflects his assimilation of the tenets of the Aesthetic Movement. Breaking with convention, the composition offers no narrative, instead proposing a series of thoughts and ideas for the viewer’s contemplation. The addition to the Museum’s Pre-Raphaelite galleries of the seeing glass, a virtual reality piece created by Troy Richards and Knut Hybinette (November 18, 2017 – January 14, 2018) inspired by La Bella Mano, adds yet another layer to Rossetti’s intention.

The pairing of La Bella Mano and the seeing glass offers allows a unique opportunity to view the creations of artists working almost 150 years apart, but employing a similar approach toward art making. The appeal to the senses is a common thread that provides a window into shared cultural concerns. For Rossetti, the creation of art was an escapist remedy for the disorienting technological developments manifested in the Industrial Revolution. Correspondingly, today’s VR movement utilizes advances in technology to create escapist fantasies.

La Bella Mano, 1875. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882). Oil on canvas, 62 x 46 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935.

Richards and Hybinette have created a panorama of symbolic imagery. Like the painting, the VR has no linear narrative. Rossetti’s hothouse fantasy, in which the faint sounds of water droplets and the scent of lemon evoke a dream-like atmosphere, is transformed in VR to a space of reverie with soft music and a gentle breeze.

The mirror in Rossetti’s painting suggests a neighboring bedroom, placing the viewer within the richly ornamented interior. Similarly the VR experience engulfs the participant in a romantic and occasionally unsettling environment, within the room depicted in Rossetti’s mirror. It is a technology that allows sensory perceptions to expand beyond the two-dimensional. Whereas Rossetti could only invite the viewer into the room, Richards and Hybinette can offer full, but untouchable, immersion. Rossetti would surely be envious!

the seeing glass is a timed-entry viewing experience. Timed appointments can be scheduled onsite at the front desk the day of a visit for one person at a time. The VR artwork uses Unreal Engine, a gaming program developed by Epic Games, and will be installed directly in the Pre-Raphaelite galleries. Once inside the gallery, the viewer will be guided to put on the VR Oculus Rift headset and will initially find themselves in a Victorian-era room, filled with ornate furniture, potted plants, and elaborate wallpaper.

Margaretta S. Frederick
Annette Woolard-Provine Curator of the Bancroft Collection



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