If there is really nothing new under the Sun then what is the reason behind the non-stopping evolution of our civilization? Changes in society, art and economy may be suggesting that we are perusing new forms and models of existence on Earth but in truth their mechanisms are all based on the same set of few primal aspects of human nature: curiosity, the need for comfort and a bit of entertainment. So-called interactivity in art is no exception: it is as old as the art itself.

Here are some examples to support that statement.

1. Lascaux Cave. Prehistoric artists were the first programmers of total works of art. They incorporated a holistic approach to their works because of the circumstances they were working in. Not only did they create narratives in space (by covering all available surfaces of cave’s walls and ceilings) but their paintings were animated thanks to the light of fire. When walking next to a wall of an uneven surface with a torch in hand, a viewer could experience the illusion of wild animals moving. The move of the viewer and the movement of the fire itself combined with the shadows on the walls – made it possible.

2. Chinese scrolls. The scroll is a specific type of canvas determined by the philosophy behind its composition. Chinese painting does not have one point of view. Instead it has multiple perspectives (completely opposite to Renaissance European painting), which are revealed throughout the process of watching the scroll. The narrative is programmed by the artist while the pace is completely up to the viewer.

3. Realistic Ancient Still Life. According to Pliny, the first true painter-superstar was Zeuxis. He had a contest in realism with another celebrated painter – Parrhasios. Zeuxis painted grapes so convincingly that birds were attracted by them and tried to eat the fruits. He almost hailed himself a winner when notices that Parrhasios’ work was still covered under a cloth. When Zeuxis tried to unveil it, he realised that it was an illusionist painting instead. This tale exemplifies an important feature, that successful interactivity is based not only on technology but on a good, adequate to the circumstances concept too.

4. The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. People who lived in Renaissance Europe were acutely aware of death: it was a much more visible phenomenon than it is today because of numerous epidemics. As a result, Christians felt a need to exercise their souls and incorporate memento mori aspects into the art pieces they were living with. The Ambassadors’s most significant deathly sign is the unmissable anamorphic skull that stretches across the painting’s bottom center. Its skewed perspective renders the skull largely unreadable when viewed straight-on, that is why, the painting may have been originally positioned beside a doorway in a private chateau, so that a viewer walking past from the side would be confronted with the grinning face of death.

5. Monet’s water lilies. Many of the famous water lilies paintings are like abstractions when examined from a small distance. Monet was making them while being almost blind. Regardless, he knew exactly what he was doing, as he had years of experience in watching his garden and how it was changing thanks to the light throughout the course of a day and the seasons. His experiences are translated into the way the paintings are displayed: in the rooms with natural light. Daylight animates them, as if with each gaze you see a slightly different painting. The visual capacity of Monet’s paintings makes them one of the most interactive yet subtle works of art of all times.

Which of the above examples is your favourite? 

Below: This is an illusionary fresco from 1473 by Italian painter Andrea Mantegna. According to famous French historian of art Daniel Arasse, Mantegna was one of the first artists to introduce “montage” into landscape painting and by extension invent a modern way of storytelling (renaissance version). This tondo was designed for the ceiling in the bedroom of Ludovico Gonzaga in Mantua. If you look closely you may see a hidden feature which is a self portrait of the painter made out of clouds.

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