History and Memory: Modern Creativity Embraces Its Classical Roots
Faulkner was evoking the American South when he said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But the same could be said for this moment in visual arts. For our Visual Trend, History and Memory, we’re looking at how designers, artists, and brands are bringing history into the present by using classical art as inspiration and combining old-world techniques with new technology. (See History and Memory at work in our curated gallery of Adobe Stock.)
This emerging fascination with history may have a lot to do with our current moment — the past has so much to offer in uncertain times. When we connect to the work that came before ours, we gather clues about how we arrived here; we glimpse the arc of history, and we can imagine where it might be curving.
At the same time, we’re in a period of unprecedented access to art and art history. You don’t have to travel to galleries around the world, enrol in a university course, or even head to the library for a weighty art-history tome. The internet is an instant connection to the works of the masters. It’s an open invitation to reach back and draw classic artifacts into the present. And museums, brands, and artists are taking on this project in thrilling, thought-provoking, even humorous ways.
Museums and the digital moment
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has been a pioneer in digitising and democratising classic art. Their digital archive contains hundreds of thousands of paintings and objects from the 17th and 18th centuries, including jewels of the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, and Vermeer’s Milkmaid. Rijksmuseum invites global visitors to download the high-resolution images for free. To date, the museum has had more than 5 million downloads, many from people who have never had — and likely will never have — a chance to visit the gallery in person.
When the collection first came online six years ago, museum leaders were focused on stimulating new kinds of interactions. Specifically, the team was interested in reusing and remixing, as well as new riffs on classical themes. This, ultimately, led to the creation of the Rijksstudio Award, an innovative contest that seeks to blend old and new. “We wanted to get people looking more closely at the work, and seeing what the old masters were doing,” says Linda Volkers, marketing manager at the museum. In the coming year, Adobe will team up with the museum to sponsor the Award and help expand its reach.
“Mixing the old and the new is powerful, but of course it’s not new. Even Rembrandt was inspired by others, such as Caravaggio,” explains Linda. “But now, in the world of digital art, it’s easier and more visible. You can tap into the collective memory of art and then share your creations right away.”
Video source: Lem / Adobe Stock
Several more museums have jumped on the trend, welcoming patrons to download collection images for creative use. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art offers 80,000 images online of which 20,000 can be downloaded for free. The National Gallery of Art has 50,000 images available for free.
An art-history twist to pop culture
Like museums, artists and brands are finding unique ways to pull the past and present together. Portraits Completed, a history-inspired ad campaign for Kiwi Shoe Care, won big at the Cannes Lions festival this past year. The clever campaign imagines footwear that exists just out of the frame in classical works — think simple heels on Mona Lisa to the Girl with a Pearl Earring’s elegant blue slip-ons.
The 2017 film Loving Vincent is another great example of filling in the “missing” pieces by combining new and old. Chronicling the mystery of van Gogh’s death, the film is rendered in the artist’s signature artistic style, using hand-painting over live-action footage to produce a colour-saturated, deeply sensual and modern homage.
In yet another project combining digital technology and the old masters, a team assembled by ING used technology to create The Next Rembrandt. The creative team developed a database based on the artist’s works and then used statistical analysis to define the features and proportions of his style. From there, they deployed AI to create a new work in the old master’s style, complete with 3D printing to define the texture of each brush stroke.
Stock, in the classical style
In stock imagery, we’re seeing a trend toward pieces that evoke the moods, colours, and compositions of classical art. This summer we invited two of our favourite photographers, whose styles are inspired by history, to add to this growing collection. Milou Dirks’ work captures beautiful, classic images of children. They’re approachable, but a bit mysterious, with a timeless look that’s reminiscent of Dutch portraiture. In a completely different take on the classics, French artist Thibault Delhom’s photographs feature trademark Greco-Roman drapery with a modern fashion twist, and an elegant nod to classical sculpture.
Takeaways for brands and designers
In our digital world, it’s easier than ever to connect with art of the past, and to tap into the comfort of our shared visual culture. Whether it’s for humour, or a desire to find patterns, meaning, and structure, people are engaging with classical art. This, combined with a growing toolset and access to free digital versions of old masterworks, means brands and artists may find growing opportunities for history-infused creative.
Adobe’s own Hidden Treasures of Creativity campaign looks to the past to create new tools for the modern artist. Last year, we teamed up with The Munch Museum and Kyle Webster to create seven digital versions of original paint brushes used by Edvard Munch and most recently, we unveiled new Bauhaus fonts developed from historical sketches.
For all of us, a dip into history may provide a much-needed grounding in tumultuous times. “History cannot give us a program for the future,” wrote novelist and critic Robert Penn Warren, “but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity so that we can better face the future.”
Check out our curated gallery here, and be sure to follow us in September and October as we talk to artists whose work draws the past into the present.