Despite the pretensions of digital publishers, most fine-art CD-ROMs are little more than coffee-table books on disc: flashy, but nothing any self-respecting culture vulture would bother with. Now at least one developer, Digital Arts & Sciences Corp., is taking the medium a bit more seriously. Its Masterworks of Japanese Painting, one in a series of digitized art collections, may not be the most exciting CD-ROM you've ever seen, but its content is truly first-rate.
Based on the Etsuko and Joe Price Collection of Edo scrolls and screens--claimed to be the largest such collection outside of Japan--Masterworks of Japanese Painting contains images of more than 350 paintings from a unique period in Japanese history that occurred nearly 400 years ago. It was then that the Samurai leaders sealed off the island from the outside world, and for the next 250 years, a new Japanese artistic style flourished.
To start you off, there's a brief narrated slide show that explains how the artists rejected the symbolism of Chinese and Buddhist art in favor of more naturalistic subjects. Many of the scrolls and screens you'll see on this disc, for example, celebrate favorite subjects of the Edo period: cranes, roosters, tigers, and landscapes. The works are stunning, and the introductory notes by the collection's owner, Joe Price, are particularly engaging and unpretentious, often highlighting some of his acquisition hits and misses.
You can browse the collection by school, viewing thumbnails and selecting works as they appeal to you. Most paintings are linked to a commentary on the individual work. Jakuchu's Eagle on a Snowy Rock, for example, is described in detail, though associated keywords let you search for paintings in a similar style or with a related subject matter. Also linked to this are biographical notes about Jakuchu, which place the artist's work in context within the period's Eccentric school.
Masterworks of Japanese Painting lets you click through its gallery in various ways. You can search for a specific work, zoom in on details, and examine 800 different enlargements of particular details (thus avoiding the pixelation effect that occurs when you digitally zoom in). Moreover, the program enables you to store the images as a "project" or group for easy reference, as well as compare any two works of art side-by-side on the screen regardless of where they are located on the disc.
Flexible as the program is, the navigational tools still leave a lot to be desired. Returning to an image you've already looked at, using the search function, or finding an artist's biography can be difficult. Despite these limitations, however, Masterworks of Japanese Painting is a winner.
Masterworks of Japanese Painting:
The Etsuko and Joe Price Collection
Digital Arts & Sciences Corp.
1301 Marina Village Pkwy.
Alameda, CA 94501
Requires: 8MB RAM; 24-bit graphics card recommended; Windows 3.x or Windows 95
List Price: $79