Google's window on the world of art


The new Google Art Project by the world’s favourite search engine isn’t everything – there are copyright issues, some of Ireland’s best artists don’t feature – but it is fascinating and addictive, writes GEMMA TIPTON

WHERE DO YOU start with “everything”? The idea of it is seductive, but it is also impossible to grasp. As the early promise of the internet was fulfilled, people discovered that “everything” is both exhausting and impractical to navigate. The success of a search engine such as Google lies in its filters, recommendations, and ability to learn from searches the type of things you like, so it can offer you more of the same, and so present you with your own, tailored version of everything. And now Google is turning its attention to art.

In one sense, art galleries and museums work like Google (or is it that Google works like art galleries?), making selections from the unimaginable volumes of objects and images, filtering them, and presenting them in more negotiable ways, backed up by archives that may never see the light of day, unless a particular search turns them up. What many people don’t realise, though, is that good art isn’t that rare at all: one of the best-kept secrets about art is just how much of the stuff there is.

In a world where the market trades on the illusion of scarcity, and galleries show just a tiny fraction of their collections, it would be easy to think that our art treasures amount to maybe a few hundred, possibly a thousand, precious pieces. But take a look at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) website,, and you’ll find each of its 34,000 works is catalogued and illustrated online – and that is only the tip of the art iceberg.

Launched in 2011, with just 17 art museums on board, the newly expanded Google Art Project now contains 32,000 works from every era and medium, and from the collections of 151 museums. There are omissions: Tate Modern simply shows a view of the Turbine Hall and directs visitors to its own website, while the Louvre, Prado, Pompidou and Stedelijk haven’t signed up at all. Neither has a single Irish art museum.

This isn’t just disappointing, it’s a missed opportunity. Browsing Google Art – which is made a little “interesting” by some glitches, including having artists’ names alphabetised by first name – I wound my way via the Reina Sophia, looking at haunting Spanish civil war photographs and a selection of work by Juan Gris, to a Chris Burden installation at the Los Angeles County Museum. This was alongside a West African divination board of unknown age, and then I went to a gorgeously wonderful 17th-century piece of woven silk from the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, and on to the Te Papa museum in New Zealand, which introduced me to a whole group of artists I hadn’t known of, but wouldn’t mind seeing again.

The lack of Irish participation is a missed opportunity to bring the work of Irish artists and the work held in our collections to the world. A spokesperson from the National Gallery confirmed it had been approached to participate last year, but rather oddly continued, “however, given that the NGI had just commenced refurbishment of two of its historic wings, it was not possible to facilitate the project as the full breadth of the collection would not be on show”.

The Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma), while celebrating its 20th anniversary, is working on cataloguing its collection for the web, and its spokesperson said that its online database will go live on“in staged phases in the coming months. As soon as this work is complete we will look at extending this resource on to Google Art Project.”

Google Art doesn’t yet let you search via an artist’s nationality, but having recently been one of the judges for RTÉ’s Masterpiece: Ireland’s Favourite Painting and seen the wealth of works we have, I felt irritated and insecure at the lack of national representation. I searched for some well-known names, and the results were telling. There is nothing by Paul Henry and Jack B Yeats, although Sean Scully is there, as is Francis Bacon (of course). The best representations of Irish art are at the Imperial War Museum London, with two very nice Laverys, and the Yale Center for British Art, which has two works by Nathaniel Hone, and five by James Barry.

Google Art isn’t “everything”. We can only see a fraction of what has been collected, and that is only a fraction of what has been made. Copyright is also an issue, to the extent that there are no works by Picasso on the site, nothing by Beuys, Duchamp or Braque, and no major Warhols. There is also something magical about rarity – perhaps it is the counterbalance to the alarming nature of “everything”. The Turner watercolours at the National Gallery, on view only in January, and Frederick William Burton’s Meeting on the Turret Stairs (also at the NGI), which is also on limited view due to its fragile nature, feel more special somehow because of that.

Equally, nothing can quite compare to seeing a work of art “in the flesh”, as the current Josef Albers exhibition at Cork’s Glucksman Gallery beautifully proves (there is one Albers on Google Art – from the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest). Also, as Albers, Scully and Mark Rothko’s paintings all demonstrate, size, scale, changing patters of light and architecture, all change how a work of art looks, even how it may feel. So Google Art isn’t perfect, but what it is, is fascinating, addictive, and a compelling window on to the world’s art treasures. It doesn’t always give you enough information on the artists, but so what? You can always go and Google them yourself.

Giving art the Google treatment

Europeana ( is an EU-funded site that aims to have “all public domain masterpieces” in Europe online by 2016. There are already 15 million items on the site, so what does Google Art have that Europeana hasn’t?

Eye appealDespite its glitches, Google Art has a much more attractive interface. Europeana feels like homework

Gallery viewA little like Street View, Gallery View lets you wander by mouse-click through some of the world’s great museums.

Video clipsSome museums have added video clips, so you can hear artists and experts discussing the work – or even take a tour of the White House with Michelle Obama.

GigapixelsSeventeen art works have been given the gigapixel treatment ­ meaning you can look at Botticelli’s Birth of Venus or Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors at a resolution of more than one billion pixels. Zooming in this close feels a little forensic, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.

Be your own curatorPull the world’s art treasures together into one gallery and see other people’s selections too. It’s addictive.