PAINTINGS TO BE READ, SIGHTLESSLY
Article by Jérôme Delgado, Le Devoir
Seeing with your hands is a major challenge, particularly in a world where the arts, they say, are visual or, in the pre-digital era, were plastic, and their exponents, plastic artists. It’s a sizeable challenge because, in a museum, as is well known, you are requested, above all, not to touch.
Now, however, there is a small revolution afoot at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, MBAM. Above a painting by Alfred Pellan, two Plexiglas plaques have been mounted … for touching. This exceptional creation, a tactile rendition of Pellan’s canvas, provides an opportunity to appreciate the shapes and colours of the work through an interplay of textures. For people deprived of the use of their eyes, it’s as if the doors of Art History are thrown wide open to them.
“A practical history of art,” explains the project’s initiator, Patricia Bérubé, digital artist, 3D animation specialist and holder since May of a master’s degree in Art History from the University of Montreal.
For her master’s thesis, titled “Towards a digital museography: 3D printing as a translation system for sight-challenged and blind publics”, the young woman developed two prototypes from Bannière’s painting in the Prisme d’Yeux (1948 – Prism of Eyes) exposition. One translates the shapes of the abstract painting, the other translates the colours.
“It’s like a numerical painting; it truly is,” says Patricia Bérubé. “You have a number and delimitated area.” She sees numerical painting as gateway like any other. “You have to start somewhere,” she maintains, convinced of her pioneering role. She proposes the tactile translation of colours, whereas until now, the modules offered in the world of art were limited to shapes, “to embossed flowers”.
The exception? The tactile palette patented in 2001 by a certain Marc Vankrinkelveldt, associating a colour with a shape.
“For a long time, the discourse of museums as well as the predominance of ‘visuality’ in approaches to art favoured access to a more general public physiologically able to derive benefit from a primarily visual meditation,” according to the summary of the memoir Bérubé defended this Spring. The researcher wished to change the perception of the term “non-public” to define the population excluded from the visual experience.
Patricia Bérubé cites for example the research of Elisabeth Caillet, for whom “the blind are not a special public”. Basically, Caillet says, “we all have to learn to see and the journey of the blind is at the heart of the approach that brings us to the museum.”
Bérubé’s work also points to the recent efforts by museums to open up more. Meditation tools for the sightless, such as descriptive texts in braille or embossed plans have made their appearance, as have multisensorial and tactile activities. However, the latter are related mainly to sculpture. Parisian museums such as the Louvre or the Tokyo Palace became pioneers when they set up their tactile galleries in the 1990s. For its part, the MBAM has been offering works by Rodin and Suzor-Côté for “viewing” by hand.
The pleasure of discovery
Patricia Bérubé wanted to widen the supply and enable the blind to enjoy discovery by themselves. The two-tiered reading she proposes was suggested to her by sightless people. Too much information all at once was the same as not enough.
The new graduate completed her research and prototypes in two years, but unlike Vankrinkelveldt, she isn’t thinking of the patent. “You need a complete charter to take out a patent,” explains the artiste, whose range is limited to the four colours of Pellan (black, white, grey and red). Above all, she adds, her tests were limited to a small group of Guinea pigs, none of them born blind.
For the moment, she just aspires to continue to deepen her research within the framework of a doctorate. Translating an impressionist painting, its shades of colour and details, are a totally different challenge.
The primary goal for this altruist by nature is helping people. In fact, her the subject of her master’s thesis came to her from a joke. “This could be Delacroix, she told herself, but he has been studied so extensively … In any case, there are some who don’t even see the colours.” She chose Pellan on the advice of her mentor, art historian Esther Trépanier. Patricia Bérubé was looking for a painting with clear contours. “You will be offering another reading perspective for a work that talks about the eyes,” Esther Trépanier suggested. Prism of eyes is also the name of the manifesto defended by Pellan, calling for the recognition, before the Montreal Automatists Total Refusal, of all artistic forms.
“My goal is to give back the pleasure of discovery,” concludes Patricia Bérubé, “a pleasure that you lose when you depend on someone else, on what he decides to explain.”