Exploring opposite ends of the artistic spectrum

In addition to the various schools and movements associated with art, it's worth remembering that there are also various objectives. In some cases, the artist's goal is to make you think about social issues. In others, to appreciate the beauty of nature. In still others, the goal is to make you buy chicken pot pies. And while there are those who would debate the claim that commercial art is 'Art' at all, it holds at least one thing in common with its highbrow siblings - that rarity and the passage of time seem to increase both public interest and monetary value. The following two sites have almost nothing in common, other than occupying positions at opposite ends of the artistic spectrum and featuring singular and vintage examples of their disciplines, but like gourmet and junk food, both have their merits and their pleasures.

At what most people would see as the gourmet, 'higher purpose' end of the scale, we have the National Gallery of Art's Online Tours page. With features dating back as far as 2000, Online Tours gathers NGA's assorted Web presentations into a single location, and provides centralized access to detailed surveys of the Gallery's collections, as well as more than 50 "In-Depth Study Tours." (The latter option offers closer examinations of selected artists, themes, and works of art.)

Collections Tours are fairly straightforward (but thorough) presentations created from the Gallery's holdings of more than 100,000 objects. (Over 5,000 high resolution images have been uploaded to the site to date.) Arranged by medium and school, the Collections Tours feature full-screen and detail images of their subject matter (eg., French and Italian 17th century paintings), complemented by curatorial essays and information about conservation histories and provenances.

While the Collections pages stick to a fairly consistent format (matching the layout of the Gallery's main pages), the In-Depth Studies step outside the pattern and present their content through a wide variety of delivery methods, with varying levels of interactivity. At the low end of the complexity scale, a virtual exhibit of photographs by André Kertész is little more than a slide show with links to information about the Spring '05 exhibition. Exploring Themes in American Art is similarly basic in terms of design, though deeper in content, as it introduces 10 common points of a painter's focus (including Landscapes, Portraiture, and Abstract art), and then explores each theme with a text overview, images, relevant artists and a glossary.

Exhibits get a bit more immersive with Pablo Picasso: "The Tragedy," and Edouard Manet: "The Dead Toreador" and "The Bullfight," as the Gallery uses infrared and x-ray photography to reveal images hidden under the surfaces of the well-known paintings. (The Picasso study also uses QuickTime animation to illustrate the various stages in the painting's evolution.) Jackson Pollock: "Number 1, 1950" adds more multimedia options, with video of the action painter at work accompanied by an audio track of Pollock discussing his methods, while The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt features RealPlayer video, narrated slide shows, and a QuickTime virtual tour of the tomb of Thutmose III. Still other tours use Flash, interactive zoom capabilities, and pop-up windows that compare contemporary works or examine individual paintings in greater detail.

The National Gallery of Art does not lack variety in its online offerings.

Below the In-Depth Studies, a collection of Architecture Tours introduce surfers to the Gallery itself, including the outdoor Sculpture Garden. Finally, a quartet of QuickTime Virtual Exhibition Tours guide visitors through such expositions as the works of Van Gogh and sculptures from Cambodia dating to the 7th century.

Compared to ancient Cambodian sculptures, the week's second online destination features works of a decidedly more recent - and theoretically, less permanent - nature. The collection at EphemeraNow is strictly 20th century (mid-20th century in fact) and as the name implies, these print ads, for products ranging from Hunt's Catsup to Douglas amphibious aircraft, were never meant for artistic immortality. And yet, though they were only expected to serve for the life cycle of a monthly magazine, here they are - resurrected by the Web, and standing ready to facilitate nostalgia and provide some art-related 'slumming.'

Online since 1999, EphemeraNow features large images, created from flawless scans and displaying a degree of color saturation that may actually exceed that of the original material. Constantly adding images and having recently improved its own looks through an almost site-wide redesign, EphemeraNow has also begun accommodating public demand for its images through the sale of poster-sized prints and T-shirts.

Commercial interests aside, the site is primarily here for your browsing pleasure, and vintage car lovers will be especially entertained. Of the seven categories of images, three feature various modes of automotive transportation (Cars, Wagons, Trucks) - and with today's online shopper accustomed to inside and out, select a color, 360-degree virtual tours of the latest models, these scans remind us that not long ago, favorites were chosen and dreams were born strictly on the basis of two-dimensional, hand-painted magazine ads. (How did our species survive?) We're also reminded that DeSotos and Edsels once rolled side by side with Chryslers and Fords, and that such features as fins, bumper bullets, fake fighter aircraft exhaust ports and "Futurmatic" transmissions were the things that made a car worth buying.

But there's more to this site than the finest in mid-century automotive engineering. EphemeraNow also features glimpses of post-war home Decor, and an extensive collection of consumer miscellany in its Advertorium. And while the art itself may be dated, certain aspects of the old ads only differ from current commercials in that the delivery is a bit more subtle today - at least when compared to women who are much too happy about their flatware, men who are much too happy about their pajamas, and children who are much, much too happy about their lunch.

Among Advertorium contents, surfers will also find a few incidental glimpses of the future (displaying varying degrees of foresight), with images predicting jumbo airliners, virtual shopping, and a twist on AAA that would have had some motorists hoping for a breakdown. And for dieters desperately trying to suppress their appetites, the collection is salted with wide selection of food ads that may prove invaluable. (How about some "Crispy, french-fried wieners" jammed into a cabbage head to put you off your food?) The two remaining sections contain period photographs, and a blog-like collection of the most recently scanned images.

Images are previewed through thumbnails (close to 100 per page) which reveal only a selected detail of each scan. While there is an Index of sorts on the left side of each page, the listings don't really make it clear which thumbnail they're referring to, so the simplest method of navigation for most visitors will be to simply dive into the thumbnails and see what pops up. Scans are frequently large enough to recommend a 1024 x 768 screen resolution, but the few of us still trapped in an 800 x 600 world can easily scroll around.

With something for brows both low and high, surfers can expose themselves to an impressive range of artistry and - perceived - legitimacy without ever having to stray from these two sites. As for whether "Chevy puts the purr in performance!" qualifies as 'Art,' that's a matter of personal opinion - but it's a safe bet that works from the EphemeraNow school would draw large crowds to a brick-and-mortar institution.

Perhaps the National Gallery might host a show.

The National Gallery of Art's Online Tours page can be found at http://www.nga.gov/onlinetours/index.shtm, with EphemeraNow at http://www.ephemeranow.com/.

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