Five Stolen Paintings Go on Display in Virtual Reality

The exhibition displays artworks that were taken from museums around the world

Pictures of art on a dark background
The VR gallery allows people to see virtual versions of artworks up close.  Courtesy of Compass UOL

In a new virtual reality exhibition, five missing masterpieces are now on view in stunning detail. The Stolen Art Gallery is not a physical gallery space; it is an app, which users can download and explore from anywhere in the world. Created by the Brazilian company Compass UOL, the gallery displays famous paintings that were stolen from museums over the last 50 or so years. The app is now available on smartphones, though its creators recommend using a VR headset.

“Initially when we thought about the environment of the museum, we thought about building something similar to a typical museum: [a] fancy building with a lot of content around the art pieces,” Alexis Rockenbach, Compass’ CEO and co-founder, tells Fast Company’s Steven Melendez. “We ended up choosing a completely different approach, a minimalist approach.”

Wearing a VR headset, standing in darkness, “the only thing you really are paying attention to is the art piece,” he says.

Some of the interactive elements are similar to what users might expect to find in a museum. For example, audio descriptions accompany each piece, Artnet’s Dorian Batycka writes. While users have the option to view the art privately, they can also join a public session where they’ll see other people’s avatars.

Other elements, however, diverge from the museum experience. Users can make notes or sketches that are visible to other users, and they can get far closer to the art in a VR setting than they would ever be able to in the real world.

“It felt very emotional to be in front of those pieces,” art student Alejandra Alfonso says in a video for the app.

The five stolen artworks currently on display are Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990), Caravaggio’s Nativity With St. Francis and St. Lawrence (stolen from the Oratory of Saint Lawrence in 1969), Édouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni (stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990), Vincent van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers (stolen twice from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in 1977 and 2010), and Paul Cézanne’s View of Auvers-sur-Oise (stolen from the Ashmolean Museum in 1999). In the future, Rockenbach hopes to expand the collection.

Compass is just one of the many companies combining art and VR. Earlier this year, the Art Newspaper hosted a panel of experts who discussed their favorite examples of art in the metaverse. Some of these were galleries that exist in virtual spaces, similar to the Stolen Art Gallery, while others were quite different. In a performance last year, for instance, dancers on opposite sides of the Atlantic wore motion capture suits in order to dance together in the virtual world. 

“The metaverse will revolutionize the way we experience the internet,” Carole Chainon, co-founder of the extended reality studio JYC, tells the Art Newspaper. “Our tangible, physical world will become increasingly mixed with the virtual. It will impact industries just as the internet did in the early ’90s and, by extension, it will ​​impact the art world.”

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