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The art of CDs

CD-Roms bring paintings into the classroom with unprecedented detail but uneven information. Martin Child reviews some newcomers.

SINCE it is impossible to conjure up an original Rembrandt when you need one to show a student, a CD-Rom may be the next best thing. CD-Roms have distinct advantages over books and postcards, which are the reproductions teachers are used to using. They can enable you to find the works you need more quickly, and the quality of reproduction means details can be examined in close-up, without the flatness associated with the printed page.

This is certainly true of a new set of fine art CD-Roms from Thames and Hudson - you can see them at the Bett education technology show courtesy of Interactive Ideas (stand C14A). The quality of the reproductions is stunning, with enlargements that show the detail almost as well as the real paintings - better, in some ways, because the security guards would certainly object if you got that close to the works themselves in a gallery.

The simple interface allows no-fuss exploration which students will easily master. Refreshingly, each painting is initially shown without commentary (which can be called up when required, in text and audio), allowing students to form their own opinions about the works.

Five of the CD-Roms in the set feature Dutch and Flemish painters, showing Van Eyck, Bruegel, Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer. As the Age of I titles suggest, each artist is shown along with his contemporaries. Being able to scrutinise paintings so closely is especially useful with artists such as Bruegel and Bosch (featured on the same disc) because their work contains so much detail. Zooming in on Rembrandt portraits, for example, reveals the humanity he managed to convey in his faces with layers of colour. Vermeer's exquisite composition and quality of light can also be examined.

The sixth disc, about Rodin, takes a different approach. With video clips and detailed text, it provides a huge amount of information in a very user-friendly way. Along with images of all his major sculptures there are many of his drawings, as well as photographs of the artist, his contemporaries and work in progress. Of the six CD-Roms, this one offers the most serious platform for further study. As much of the imagery on these discs is allegorical, they are all appropriate for cross-curricular work, providing a springboard for creative work in English and drama as well as art.

ArtRageous, as the name suggests, is altogether whackier. I am not sure how much it adds to my understanding of the "Death of Marat", by David, to see the unfortunate Marat actually stabbed and then slump into the pose we all know, but I suppose it could bring the painting alive for some people. Rather than the dry and dusty approach of some museum-based CD-Roms, ArtRageous sets out to be friendly and fun. It is certainly entertaining and also surprisingly informative, with some excellent interactive explanations of composition, colour, mood, perspective and light.

ArtRageous is rather like a pop-up book. Its ingenious approach will interest students because of its construction as well as its content. However, when the novelty wears off you are left with some interesting explanations, demonstrated in a simple way with plenty of animation, music and commentary. To give key stage 3 pupils, especially those who are less well motivated, an understanding of the complexities of art, this CD-Rom is useful. It certainly combines information and entertainment at a bargain price. But some of the information is idiosyncratic: for serious research, students would need something more academic.

BETT Connection

Interactive Ideas stand C14A

The Age of Van Eyck, The Age of Bruegel, The Age of Rubens, The Age of Rembrandt, The Age of Vermeer and Rodin: a set of six CD-Roms for Windows PCs and Apple Macintosh, Pounds 29.95 each, distributed by Thames and Hudson Ltd,30-34 Bloomsbury St, London WC1B 3QPTel: 0171-636 5488; fax: 0171-636 4799

ABLAC stand 345

ArtRageous: CD-Rom for PC and Mac, Pounds 17 plus VAT. Tel: 01626 332233.

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