The digitisation of Paul Steinberg’s murals ‘The Americans’ (1958)


Authors: Lies Van de Cappelle & Katrien De Geest (the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium – Digital Museum)

A huge amount of the works on paper that are collected within the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (RMFAB) were digitised during the DCA project. The ultimate goal was to record most of the works on paper that were created after 1945. Each work on paper has its own characteristics and for each artwork one has to find the best-adapted method for digitisation.

This case study will present the digitisation of an artwork that is classified within the Department of Modern Art as ‘work on paper’. Although the fact that the digitisation of several pages of a sketchbook can go quite fast, the same cannot be said for a colossal work such as, for example, the murals of Saul Steinberg. The huge murals cannot be shown easily in their entirety (see for example http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/images/detail/interior-view-united-states-pavilion-brussels-worlds-fair-focus-saul-steinbergs-mural-americans-14589 ), which is one of the reasons why it is crucial to have such a work digitised: to guarantee large public visibility.1

Through this example, the general digitisation workflow of the RMFAB will be illustrated. The goal is to digitise ‘once for all purposes’ with the accent on delivering files that are perfectly adapted to use in the publishing process.

1. Short description of the collection
The RMFAB were established over 200 years ago and house up to 20,000 paintings, sculptures, and drawings ranging from the 14th century to the present day. Throughout the ages several extensions were made and the RMFAB consist now of several entities, each characterized by the nature of their collection and their location in the city.

The modern art section was created in 1845. It includes artworks dating from the end of the 18th century until our present day. Only a selection of the Collections of Modern Art is on show today due to renovation work. Digitising those collections is now more important than ever to ensure their visibility.

More than 9,300 artworks are currently recorded within the online collection catalogue FABRITIUS (http://www.opac-fabritius.be). Ninety percent of the records are illustrated, almost half with digital born images (often several images per record). The cell Digital Museum is continuing, at a daily rate, to raise the amount of records. It also has an active policy of digitising artworks in order to offer online access to the RMFAB’s collections. Thanks to the project Digitising Contemporary Art, around 450 paintings, 100 sculptures and 4,000 works on paper have been able to be digitised.


2. The artist
Saul Steinberg (1914-1999), a Jewish Romanian-born cartoonist and illustrator, left his native country in 1933 to study architecture in Milan. During that time he published drawings in the satirical magazine Bertoldo. Even after he abandoned the strict cartoon-form, he never lost the sharp wit used in these humoristic drawings. After the introduction of anti-Semitic laws in Italy, Steinberg fled Europe to settle in the USA. From 1941 on, he published over 1,200 drawings, of which almost 90 covers in The New Yorker, which in 1942 sponsored his entry into the country. Throughout his long career he lifted the mundane world of graphics into the realms of fine art.

In addition to his illustrative work he was a renowned and admired artist. Three years after a one-artist exhibition at the Wakefield Gallery, in 1946, he was one of the Fourteen Americans whose works were exhibited at the MoMA.


3. The artwork
The Americans, the artwork that is the subject of this case study, was made for the US Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. It represents the artist’s vision on his adopted country, its people and culture. In order to save the murals from demolition in the wake of the Fair, the sitting director of the RMFAB decided to put the murals into its reserves. The original composition consists of 8 wooden panels with a total length of 240 feet (75m). By enlarging drawings of the artist to the scale of the murals on photographic paper a series of dioramas were pre-prepared on the panels. On this background Steinberg used several materials to draw in the figures, wrapping paper, ripped up magazines, empty packets of cigarettes and wallpaper. The texture of all the materials vary from slightly wrinkled to perforated. All 8 panels were cut up into 84 vertical boards (with a width of 44 to 90 cm) to facilitate transport and storage.

Five panels were digitised within the DCA project:

Inv.: 7407 The Americans - The road - South and West
- collage of wrapping paper, cut up or ripped illustrated magazines, cigarette wrapping, tape, oily pencil, pastel, on imprinted photographic paper, glued on cardboard and adhered to doubled plywood.
- in storage: 24 panels of 300 x 90cm and 1 panel 300 x 44cm
- in total: 300cm high and 2,204cm long

Inv.: 7414 The Americans - California, Florida and Texas
- collage of cut up or ripped wrapping paper, metal hooks, oily pencil, pastel, oil paint, on doubled painted plywood.
- in storage: 13 panels of 300 x 90cm
- in total: 300cm high and 1,170cm long

Inv.: 7411 The Americans - Farmers - Middle West
- collage of cut up or ripped wrapping- or wallpaper, oily pencil, pastel, Indian ink, oil paint, on imprinted photographic paper, glued on cardboard and adhered to doubled plywood.
- in storage: 8 panels of 300 x 90cm and 1 panel 300 x 83cm
- in total: 300cm high and 803cm long

Inv.: 7412 The Americans - Base-ball
- collage of cut up or ripped wrapping paper, oily pencil, pastel, Indian ink, on imprinted photographic paper, glued on cardboard and adhered to doubled plywood.
- in storage: 6 panels of 300 x 90cm and 1 panel 300 x 64cm
- in total: 300cm high and 604cm long

Inv.: 7410 The Americans - Drugstore - Small town
- collage of cut up or ripped wrapping- or wallpaper, oily pencil, pastel, oil paint, on doubled painted plywood.
- in storage: 8 panels of 300 x 90cm and 1 panel 300 x 83cm
- in total: 300cm high and 803cm long

The three other panels were the subject of a previous digitisation session:

Inv.: 7408 The Americans - Main street - Small town 
- collage of wrapping paper, wallpaper, cut up or ripped illustrated magazines, tape, oily pencil, pastel, oil paint, on imprinted photographic paper, glued on cardboard and adhered to doubled plywood.
- in storage: 6 panels of 300 x 90cm and 1 panel 300 x 65.5cm
- in total: 300cm high and 605.5cm long

Inv.: 7409 The Americans - Downtown - Big city
- collage of cut up or ripped wrapping paper, oily pencil, pastel, India ink, on imprinted photographic paper, glued on cardboard and adhered to doubled plywood.
- in storage: 6 panels of 300 x 90cm and 1 panel 300 x 64cm
- in total: 300cm high and 604cm long

Inv.: 7413 The Americans - Cocktail Party
- collage of cut up or ripped wrapping paper, oily pencil, pastel, Indian ink, oil paint, on imprinted photographic paper, glued on cardboard and adhered to doubled plywood.
- in storage: 6 panels of 300 x 90cm and 1 panel 300 x 64cm
- in total: 300cm high and 604cm long


4. Status
The five murals of The Americans that had not yet been documented with a digital image were able to be photographed thanks to the DCA project. This was just in time, because they were about to be taken to Cologne to undergo some minor restoration before being exhibited. The colossal mural-collage, over 70-metres long, was on show at the Museum Ludwig (23.03 – 23.06.2013) in its complete state for the first time since the Fair closed. The images taken recently documented the state of the murals before they were taken away.

Each of the 84 boards was photographed and can now be seen on the online database FABRITIUS (http://www.opac-fabritius.be). A record was created for each of the 8 composed panels. The boards from which the panels are composed are shown separately and stitched to give an impression of each mural.

The online databases’ management software is Vubis Smart, a software that initially was developed for libraries and that was already used by the Museum Art Library. In 2000, the year in which the FABRITIUS format was developed, this software offered an, at that time, exceptional advantage, as it was multilingual (French – Dutch - English). A real must, especially for a country like Belgium which has more than one official language. The metadata schema of the database is based on the Categories for the Description of the Works of Art developed by the Getty Institute.


5. Definition of the problem
The main goal of digitising a work such as the murals of Steinberg is access. All the murals, rarely exhibited, can be seen online now. To present an ensemble with a total length of 75 m, a huge exhibition space is needed. The same can be said of the space that has to be chosen for the photographic session. To find a big space with good climatisation, appropriate for a well-organised photo session (time is money) is one factor to take into account, while the availability of sufficient staff to handle the work is another.

Digitising The Americans from PACKED vzw on Vimeo.


6. Method to solve the problem
The main digitisation goals for the RMFAB are access, preservation and publication. To serve all goals it is very important to digitise once for all purposes. It is no use doing half the necessary work in creating images of mediocre quality just to put them online; half a year later one might need better images in order to make a poster or to publish a printed catalogue. That is why the RMFAB have chosen to treat every shoot with the same accuracy and to spend enough time getting the best chromatical result out of each reproduction. This standardised process was developed with the experienced repro photographer, Johan Geleyns (http://www.roscan.be), who has been working with the RMFAB for over 9 years.

Moving the murals from the depot to the relatively small photo studio at the other side of the building was not a practical option, nor one that was efficient time-wise. Luckily the panels could be photographed in a large and temporary unused exhibition room near the depot where the panels were stored. Panel by panel the 63 pieces were photographed, each piece moved one by one into the correct position towards the camera. Assistance was required to rename each file immediately in a correct way in order to facilitate the cataloguing and archiving of the digital files afterwards. To digitise means cooperation at every level of the organisation. The planning component therefore cannot be underestimated. To photograph those 5 murals a full day was needed. The post procession took at least another day.

For the shoots a multi-shot camera (Hasselblad H3DII - 39MS) was used. Such a multi-shot camera is able to produce more accurate reproductions of highly detailed artworks with, for instance, fine lines, complex tonal ranges, and complicated textures and details. It uses 4 shots to produce one photograph. Good quality studioflashes and softboxes (a Broncolor studio flash system) were used to create neutral daylight photographic conditions.

A resolution of 39Mpix multishot (4 shots x 39Mpx = 156Mpx) was applied to reach for an A2 size file at print resolution of 300 dpi. In this way the file could then be used for all kind of applications, even for creating posters or to select a detail from it with great sharpness. The 16bit colour depth/channel is used to do chromatic corrections. Afterwards the colour depth is reduced to 8 bit, since a CMYK 8 bit file is the offset printing standard.

The initial file is a TIFF RGB (colour space Adobe RGB 1998; A2 format at 300 ppi without interpolation, 16 bit depth/channel). It is considered to be the archival master file that the RMFAB save without any intervention. The colour corrections are afterwards made in a CMYK file (16 bit image/converted RGB file) for the following reason:

In most cases the reproductions of the artworks will be printed in (art)books and exhibition catalogues and that is why the photographer tries to simulate offset printing chromatically within the RMFAB. The aim is to deliver files that can be used for publication without any intervention (colourwise) of the publishing companies. Many printing companies in Europe and even some overseas who work for the European market have the ISO certificate 12647v2 for offset printing so during the photographic process the RMFAB also work following that standard.

To acquire such a standard the RMFAB need a computer and appropriate software for tethered photo shooting, for colour corrections and for printing. For the colour corrections a calibrated monitor is needed, a calibrated proofing printer (according to the ISO 12647v2), good quality proofing paper of 200g or 250g semi-matte paper (which is as close as possible to printing paper) and a viewing lamp with standard daylight (5000° Kelvin). The RMFAB used in this case:
- printer: Epson Stylus Pro 4880
- colour Card: Gretagmacbeth colorchecker/Qp cards v3
- calibrated Screen: Eizo ColorEdge CG241W
- calibration software: calibrator: X-rite with software for Eizo monitor
- daylight lamp: Kaiser 3425 Pro Vision 2.55 HF

Any colour corrections are done wherever necessary: colour cast, gradations, contrast, saturation, grey balance, selective corrections (to be applied to the entire image or, if necessary, only locally). The RMFAB compare the printed result with the original work under standardized viewing conditions to avoid all effects of metamerism. Therefore lamps of 5000°-5500° Kelvin are used, with no other light sources around. The original and the printed proof are kept at the same distance from the light source. If needed, other corrections are made. All this results in what the RMFAB call the CMYK production master file. A final print on the calibrated printer documents the final result, which is approved by the responsible conservator and kept in the dossier of the work of art for consultation.

From this production master file, derivatives are made for different use. The digital files are catalogued and archived together with the technical metadata and the digital reproductions are made accessible via internet. The RMFAB have signed a contract with SABAM, the Belgian Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers, to contribute to the system of copyrights in order to use the reproductions in a legal way. Artists or rightholders who are not associated to SABAM were contacted personally to stipulate an agreement about the use of the images. This resulted in signed contracts between both parties.


7. Results
At the end of the process 5 files have been realised and archived.

The archival master file:
- size: A2 (594mm x 420mm or 7,016 x 4,961 pixels if horizontal; 420mm x 594mm or 4,961 x 7,016 pixels if vertical)
- resolution: 300 ppi
- bit depth: 16 bits/channel (48 bits)
- ccolour space: Adobe RGB
- colour profile: Adobe RGB 1998
- file format: TIFF
- storage: external hard disk, server storage

The production master file, with an approved digital contract proof simulating European offset printing of the highest quality, according to the ISO 12647-v2 standard:
- size: A2 (594mm x 420mm or 7,016 x 4,961 pixels if horizontal; 420mm x 594mm or 4,961 x 7,016 pixels if vertical)
- resolution: 300 ppi
- bit depth: 8 bits/channel (24 bits)
- colour space: CMYK
- colour profile: ISO 12647v2
- file format: TIFF
- storage and management: external hard disk, server storage, digital asset management software Cumulus

Another RGB tiff file derived form the CMYK file for overseas (American and Asian printing standards) customers who prefer to work with this version.
- size: A2 (594mm x 420mm or 7,016 x 4,961 pixels if horizontal; 420mm x 594mm or 4,961 x 7,016 pixels if vertical)
- resolution: 300 ppi
- bit depth: 8 bits/channel (24 bits)
- colour space: Adobe RGB
- colour profile: Adobe RGB 1998
- file format: TIFF
- storage and management: external hard disk, server storage, digital asset management software Cumulus

For intranet use:
- size: A5 (210mm x 148mm or 2,480 x 1,748 pixels if horizontal; 148mm x 210mm or 1,748 x 2,480 pixels if vertical)
- resolution: 300 ppi
- bit depth: 8 bits/channel (24 bits)
- colour space: Adobe RGB
- colour profile: Adobe RGB 1998
- file format: JPEG
- storage and management: external hard disk, server storage, digital asset management software Cumulus

For publication on the internet:
- size: A6 (148mm x 105mm or 1,748 x 1,240 pixels if horizontal; 105mm x 148mm or 1,240 x 1,748 pixels if vertical)
- resolution: 72 ppi
- bit depth: 8 bits/channel (24 bits)
- colour space: Adobe RGB
- colour profile: Adobe RGB 1998
- file format: JPEG
- storage and management: external hard disk, server storage, digital asset management software Cumulus


8. References
- Jean-Philippe Theyskens, Een Amerikaan in Brussel, Saul Steinberg en het Paviljoen van de Verenigde Staten op Expo 58, in: Hedendaagse Kunst op de Wereldtentoonstelling Expo 58, Brussel, Uitgeverij Snoecks, 2008.
- the Saul Steinberg Foundation, http://www.saulsteinbergfoundation.org/index.html
- Fabritius, online catalogue of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, http://www.opac-fabritius.be/nl/F_database.htm
- website Ludwig Museum, http://www.museum-ludwig.de/
- Smithsonian Archives of American Art / James S. Plaut papers
- Rony Vissers, Interview with Pierre-Yves Desaive (the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium), http://www.dca-project.eu/documentation/detail/interview_with_pierre_yves_desaive_the_royal_museums_of_fine_arts_of_belgiu


9. Contact details of the author
Lies Van de Cappelle: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


10. Documentary photographs
- http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/images/detail/interior-view-united-states-pavilion-brussels-worlds-fair-focus-saul-steinbergs-mural-americans-14589
- http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/images/detail/interior-united-states-pavilion-brussels-worlds-fair-eyelevel-view-saul-steinbergs-mural-americans-14593
- http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/images/detail/interior-view-united-states-pavilion-brussels-worlds-fair-focus-photo-tower-and-streetscape-14594
- http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/images/detail/interior-view-united-states-pavilion-brussels-worlds-fair-fashion-show-progress-14592


11. Footnotes
1 For the first time since the 1958 Brussels World Fair all murals can be seen again together at an exhibition in the Ludwig Museum in Cologne (23.03 – 23.06.2013).

 

 


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