To Draw Museum Visitors, Vienna Turns to AI (and Cats)


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Jul 26, 2023

To Draw Museum Visitors, Vienna Turns to AI (and Cats)

From a pawesome rendition of Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” (1907–1908) to a purrfect

From a pawesome rendition of Gustav Klimt's "The Kiss" (1907–1908) to a purrfect remix of Egon Scheiele's "Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant," (1912) the Vienna Tourist Board is using artificial intelligence to generate feline spinoffs of classic Austrian artworks. The delightful images are part of a new marketing campaign meant to encourage tourists to visit Vienna and "see the art behind AI art."

The AI-generated cat versions of the famous works come at a time when programs like DALL-E and MidJourney face criticism from artists for potential plagiarism and stolen intellectual property. But rather than avoid AI, the board has instead decided to lean into the controversial technology and explore the ways it can be a fun, educational tool — see, for example, a version of Pieter Bruegel's "Tower of Babel" (c. 1563) that features a seven-tiered edifice covered in cats.

Alongside the AI artworks, the tourism board also released a cheeky video featuring art historian Markus Hübl. In the video, Hübl takes viewers through a few of Vienna's fine art museums to ponder some of the masterpieces (and their AI-cat counterparts) that visitors can see in real life in the Austrian capital.

In the Belvedere Museum, Hübl explains the meaning behind the intricate detailing in Klimt's "The Kiss."

"A man and a woman at the top of a little part of rock. These very strict hard forms symbolizing the male system and the very soft circles symbolizing the female system," he says, explaining the juxtaposition of the square and circular patterns in the iconic painting.

Then he turns his attention towards the AI version on a tablet. Like the original work, the cat rendition features two figures, each emanating opposite energies while entangled in a passionate embrace. Except instead of a human couple, this painting consists of two kittens.

"Cats are an ambiguous symbol. On the one hand for wildness. On the other hand, most of them are castrated and living in our flats. We are searching for both phenomena: softness and sweetness, and untamed wildness. Aren't those both not driving forces for creativity and art? What a metaphor," he jokes.

In the Leopold Museum, Hübl gives some backstory behind Scheiele's "Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant," pointing out the power in Schiele's direct eye contact and the cultural subcontext behind the self-portrait. He then turns to the AI rendition, which shows an angsty cat dressed in a black blazer.

"A mangy disheveled cat is going into direct contact with us — face to face. It is also a little bit morbid, one ear seems to be cut and the fur is muddy. The cat is looking not really happy, but can we really understand what's going on in his soul?" he asks.

"Maybe this cat, like all the other cats on the internet, wants to tell us: Look at me."

Maya Pontone is a Staff Writer at Hyperallergic. Originally from northern New Jersey, she studied journalism and political science at Emerson College in Boston, MA. She currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. More by Maya Pontone