Replicas of art masterpieces have been around for ages, serving educational or commercial purposes, yet the difference between these and the original is always obvious, even to the untrained eye. If a replica presents the finished product in high similarity to the original work, the production process is clearly distinct and unreproducible: the creative drive, artistic sensitivity, and genius of the artist cannot be summoned in these individual or mass (re)productions, and no one would dare attempt it. Until now: the creators of The Next Rembrandt attempted the impossible, and appear to have succeeded.

The group of computer programmers and art historians at J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam has developed a sophisticated software able to gather data and analyse the style and the content of the great Dutch master, looking for the algorithm behind his exceptional technique. Winner of two Grand Prix awards at the 2016 Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, the project´s creative potential is only equalled by its ambition; truly a technological masterpiece. According to Adweek, “the resulting painting was 3-D printed in some 14 layers. It consists of over 148 million pixels based on 168.263 painting fragments from all 346 of Rembrandt's paintings.

3-D scanner collecting data on Rembrandt's original artwork. 

3-D scanner collecting data on Rembrandt's original artwork. 

The viewers are faced with an entirely new portrait, apparently very similar to the one of the master painter, but actually really different. The Next Rembrandt is the complete opposite of a real Rembrandt. Firstly, because of its utter absence of humanity, replaced by the trace of an undeniable, yet cold, mechanic intelligence. The programmer sought to teach a computer to be more flexible, raising categoric questions on the future of creativity. Are we to enter a new era of creative production, working with new definitions and expectations for it, that render the human component rather useless? Will coding and programming the machine replace creativity altogether? Can creative output emerge out of a space of relative creative austerity?

Data analysis on facial features in Rembrandt's artwork. 

Data analysis on facial features in Rembrandt's artwork. 

Thinking of The Next Rembrandt, it’s impossible to ignore the possibilities that technology offers in preserving a work of art and the ever-increasing influence of technology across creative sectors. If we think of art as somehow still a mirror of reality, a mimesis, if we were to return to Plato, then digital art is simply evidence of a world that is becoming progressively governed by digital technologies. Should art, as part of life, not bow to this new master of our existence?

The spirit of this project is fully contained by its very title: this is not another Rembrandt, or a reworked one, not even a revisited Rembrandt, but The Next. This lexical clue implies progression, an advance, a move towards a point that we see and acknowledge, but we haven´t yet touched. This is the plot of our current love story with technology: it will take us there, to the milestone in sight and beyond. Our contemporary drive towards a permanent next feeds the speed of our development and designs our transition into a constantly better future. Technology does that: it uses the present as a source and evidence of incompleteness, of backwardness, to build its promise for a desirable, better future. In many cases, this is accurate: the 2.0 version of anything will bring improvement. In other cases, it becomes a rhetorical move, a trope necessary to explain and legitimise this speed in our lives. Perhaps our next move is to know the difference between the two.

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Words: Veronica Mafolino

Copy edited by Elena Stanciu