The smoky term “artist’s impression”

One of the most powerful pieces of writing on the subject of reconstructions of the Classical world, in my view, is a thesis penned by Jonathan Westin in 2012, entitled “Negotiating ‘Culture’, Assembling a Past”. Westin delved into arguments about how we view reconstructions of the Classical world, what we as observers have come to expect from them and the power of information exchange through this form of visual communication. For those interested in the subject, it’s a must read.

One striking image he produced for the publication (below) powerfully illustrates different shades, depths and implications of the reconstruction of Classical cityscapes. The section on the left of the image represents the most uncertain reconstruction, replete with humans, inclement weather conditions and construction activity. The section on the right is the most certain, and as Westin argues, the one which we have come to expect: a fine sunny day, bare marble and precise architectural forms. Of course the image to the left is the most powerful in its narrative, but we find ourselves immediately aware that this level of ‘filling in the gaps’ has broken our suspension of disbelief: how can the artist be sure of all those details? The image on the right, while more austere, perhaps gives us more confidence in the archaeological reality and research behind the image.

Indeed, the “artist’s impression” is a tough balancing act. These reconstructions for many viewers may be the only source of information about an ancient site or building, and this is especially true for those who visit museums, read a book on the subject or look at on-site information boards. Ultimately, I think that Westin’s thesis and image serve as fascinating talking points on the usefulness, dangers and responsibilities we have when producing reconstructions. Needless to say, these questions come to the forefront when creating virtual reality environments, where, because of the immersive nature of the experience, our reception of visual information is greatly heightened.

Simon Young