EW Staff
November 20, 1998 AT 05:00 AM EST

Face it: viewing art on a computer is like eating caviar through a straw. On a PC, paintings look even flatter, and thick brush strokes too often look like crayon scrawls. Still, the Web does offer a convenient way to sample the world’s museums — almost every major one now has an online presence — and let creative minds show off their masterpieces to armchair aesthetes. On Web hub Yahoo!, for instance, tens of thousands of art-related sites are to be found under more than 6,000 categories from Body Art to Egg Art to Guerrilla Art and beyond. We’ve looked at a range of sites to help you get a quick art fix without having to fly to D.C. or Paris.

The best way to sift through the muck is to head first to The Fine Site (www.kultur-online.com/finesite), run by German connoisseur Gerd Marstedt. Marstedt has a nice online gallery of contemporary artists, but his site’s real strength is its Cyberguide, reviewing the best Web stops for artists, museums, art history, and more. The Greatest Painters section links to recommended sites from Cezanne to Warhol, and the personal reviews beat search engines any day.

If you don’t have a ticket to see the Van Gogh exhibit in Washington or L.A. (and don’t want to try the day-pass line), the National Gallery of Art in D.C. has done a remarkable job of putting the Dutch collection online. In probably the most beautiful display ever on a U.S. government website (sorry, the Social Security site just doesn’t measure up), the Van Gogh’s Van Goghs Virtual Tour (www.nga.gov) includes zoomable views of all the paintings in the show. You can read the text you would see on the museum’s walls, and hear RealAudio streaming clips explaining such major works as The Potato Eaters. Even cooler, once you download and install Live Picture viewing software (a 1MB file), you can mouse your way through an immersive, virtual-reality walk-through, stopping to stare at paintings without camera-toting tourists breathing down your neck.

For a larger overview of classical European artwork, nothing can top Le Louvre in Paris. Its website (www.louvre.fr), however, exemplifies all that is good and bad about physical museums going online. The flashy Virtual Tour uses the QuickTime VR plug-in, which seems to take forever to download each of the 20 available galleries; and the zoom quality is so poor that you can barely make out details of many paintings. The better option is to go through the Palace and Museum from the main page, and on to the Collections, which highlight a few sculptures or paintings from, say, Egyptian antiquities or French master painters.

If Eurocentric art isn’t your bag, you might enjoy the Museum of International Folk Art (www.state.nm.us/MOIFAOnLine) in New Mexico. Highlights include intriguing online exhibits like the surprisingly detailed pano art originated by Chicano prisoners in the Southwest. Inmates use pens or colored pencils to fashion designs on squares of cloth (pano in Spanish), which they fold up and mail to their loved ones. The online museum offers some zoomable images as well as a detailed history of the genre’s recent commercializa-tion, including T-shirts hawked by area shops.

Of course, the Web itself has become a palette for artists. The Guggenheim Museum in New York City is in the midst of a year-long online project called Brandon (brandon.guggenheim.org), a meditation on gender identity in the brief life of Teena Brandon, a 21-year-old Nebraskan who was raped and murdered in 1993 after two locals found that she/he was a female anatomically but living as a man. There are evocative images of tattoos and a road trip gone bad, but you have to read the credits page to make sense of the melange. For even more out-there Web art, check out Erik Loyer’s Lair of the Marrow Monkey (www.thegrid.net/orion17). The L.A. Web designer uses animation to tell a strange sci-fi tale that draws in the casual viewer, whose cursor comes alive as moveable text swaying to the background music (the Shockwave Flash plug-in is required). Will sites like Lair make real-world museums obsolete? Maybe — but not until they can whip up some gift shops and bored virtual security guards. Fine Site: A- Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: A Louvre: C+ MOIFA: B Brandon: C Marrow Monkey: B+

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