Sunday, March 7, 2010

What Technical Studies Can Reveal about Original Works--Cummings





Bringing the sculpture's head and patterns on the helmet to life.


This week’s readings make us look at the connection between science and art. Podany and Scott use the “Getty” kouros to show how science and knowledge of ancient artistic techniques were essential to discovering the art’s authenticity. Sheldon mentions the importance of teaching inexperienced art historians the value of technical analysis and the ability to communicate and display their findings to the public. Will the new hybrid field of technical art history change conservation? What can we learn about a piece using current technology and how much do we really want to know? X-ray chromatography, infrared spectroscopy, and microscopic analysis can reveal everything from the origin of the piece to its original appearance.

The "real" Mona Lisa through Pascal Cotte's 240-megapixel Multi-spectral Imaging Camera.

Photo from www.lumiere-technology.com/.../Mona-5-steps.jpg

The knowledge gained from this technology is both stimulating and valuable, but is only one part of the process. How do museums display their findings? Does presenting this extra data distract from or enhance the experience of the art? Should exhibits present the technical details as irrefutable facts? Brinkmann states in both articles how hard it is to look past our prejudgments of ancient sculptures, especially from Greece and Italy, and accept their painting as its own art form. Blansdorf and Yin indicate that we know ancient Chinese sculptures were painted before and after the terracotta army, yet we still have trouble imagining them fully painted. Even without remnants of pigmentation, scientists and art historians can recreate more truthful representations of art like “Augustus of Prima Porta” and the entire terracotta army. From the readings, it is apparent how imperative cooperation between scientists and art historians is. Art conservation could not thrive without both. It will be interesting to see how future generations will accept the information we are finding today and what new technology will reveal about art.

Pigment remnants on a terracotta army warrior.

Photo from chinapictures.org


9 comments:

  1. I agree that art can and should be examined through both a technical and aesthetic/historical lens. Jerry Podany and David Scott cite certain cases where science has not aided the conservation and detection process, and their points that modern society is consumed with technology, machines must be handled by knowledgeable individuals, and the difficulty for museum professionals to keep abreast with all the scientific discoveries and nuances hold truth. However, science such as with the Terracotta Soldiers and Greco/Roman statues has given the world a new understanding of these objects like coloration, the types of adhesives, and the manner in which they were decorated. This additional information can only help our generation get a sense of foreign and ancient cultures not destroy our appreciation of these objects in their present state. Human critique is obviously very important, but Libby Sheldon in her article "Access to Technical Analysis: Visualizing the Invisible" presents two scenarios where X Rays have shown different compositions under the paint revealing that the human eye is not infallible either. Thus, it is important and possible to address art in both an historical and technical fashion. Sheldon is correct in lamenting the lack of practical application these art history students had experienced. While training does not necessarily mean scientific experimentation, it does emphasize that students should practice their skills and apply their knowledge for art, as this week's reading has demonstrated, is an ever-changing medium and discovery.

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  2. I think it is important to consider what Podany and Scott wrote about the conflicting results from scientific analysis and art historical analysis. In some instances, the science was shown to be inaccurate, while the "connoisseur" art historian had a better perspective. Conversely, in other cases scientific discoveries have completed changed how one views a work of art. Therefore, I think that museums should be careful about presenting any new findings as fact, because it could later be proven false. Rather, the museums should present a complete view of the leading theories or discoveries, and let the viewers decide for themselves. Recent technology has enabled scientists and conservators to dramatically increase our understanding of art, and it is important to make the public aware of these new finds. Art historians, conservators, and scientists must work together in the future to continue to dispel myths and incorrect ideas about works of art that have become a part of the mainstream.

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  3. Carambelas: In relation to Cumming’s question above—how much can we learn about a piece using current technology and how much do we want to know—I want to point out a situation mentioned in the Brinkmann article. Although the technique of UV-photography has been widely used to show areas of lost color on marble, the reason why it does is not completely understood. I found this fascinating, perhaps because it feels as though the art conservators are one-step ahead of the scientists (not that there’s any competition…). It’s clear what we can learn from this procedure, but—getting to the second part: how much do we went to know, in this case about the procedure—could this be harmful to the artwork? I know the field of conservation cannot progress without such trial-and-error occurring, but at what point can a treatment or process be declared safe or unsafe?

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  4. After spending some time with the readings for this week, I have come away with the feeling that while science has contributed a great deal to art conservation and art history we should not blindly accept all scientific and technical studies as objective truth. Podany and Scott write about the Getty Kouros as an example of an advanced technological study being misinterpreted and leading to even greater confusion about the authenticity of the ancient stone sculpture. To date, even after years of studies and debate, the Getty Kouros is still exhibited with an uncertain museum label: "Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery."

    I am still really enthusiastic about the emergence of the field of "technical art history" and I believe that it is possible to use technical studies to expand our knowledge of artist's materials and techniques as well as the changes wrought on objects over time. Through the analysis of ancient Greek sculpture discussed in "Gods in Color" and the studies of the terracotta sculptures at Qin Shihuang's Burial Complex, it is even possible to begin to imagine the ancient artist's original intent.

    Today's art conservator provides a good central point of contact for the art historian and the scientist. But such interdisciplinary collaboration would be even more advantageous if each field had greater overlapping academic training.

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  5. As Cummings noted, I think it was especially interesting the ways in which even a conservator-scientist is prone to personal biases and can therefore be wrong in his or her analysis of a work. Sheldon and Podany discuss the misconceptions of the reliability of scientific tests in evaluating objects, but I especially found Brinkmann's perspective interesting: that "the traces of painting reveal themselves only to someone prepared for the unexpected." That the person performing the tests is fallible not only in executing the test but in interpreting it as well is of significant importance, especially when dealing with objects about which people have such strong preconceived notions. This raises the paradox of wanting a conservator-scientist with knowledge in the field so to be able to catch glitches in technology, but also neutral enough to the subject matter to be open to new details and the subsequent interpretations.

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  6. Maggie,

    I really liked that quote from Brinkmann as well! The scientific method fails if the scientist succumbs to the his/her own bias and preconceived ideas. It is so important to have the conservation community communicating. Checking and double checking hypotheses using different types of blind tests, publishing and peer review can help prevent the mistakes of individuals getting out there.

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  7. Novik: Looking at art through a scientific lens is just another critical way of studying art work. In many cases like those of Greek sculptures, scientific methods can reveal insight previously unknown. However, in cases such as investigating the identity of the painter in a Renaissance work, digging through family records is often more conclusive than any scientific test. The science in art history should not be overlooked or hyped up; it should serve it purpose to the best of its ability. A large part of this purpose is revealing the methods employed on art to the public. In a ever-increasingly technological world, innovative new methods will not only attract a larger variety of people, but also a younger generation who understands the works in a different way. Although it would be an obvious mistake to overshadow the work with gizmos and gadgets, there is no reason scientific methods can't highlight it.

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  8. Novik raises a great point -- society as a whole is becoming more and more dependent on technology, and it is important to take this technological centralization into consideration.

    While we expect art historians and scientific conservators alike to take the time to learn about the other side of conservation and keep an open mind, we must recognize that the general public will not (nor can it be expected to) be as well-equipped to approach art from such a well-developed view. Since technology is at present the most accessible approach for us (the public), I think it is definitely important for the scientific research done on a piece to be included in its display.

    However, while a museum should definitely present the data it finds, I agree with Spiegal that the public should be left to draw their own conclusions instead of having the results presented as absolute fact. Podany and Scott talk about how “the conservator and the scientist have as much to gain from their interaction as from their individual expertise and strengths. One cannot always answer the other’s questions, but may ask questions which lead both to solutions.” Why shouldn't the public do the same? If people are better able to analyze a piece of art through its technical analysis, shouldn’t the museum give them every technical tool it can? Combine that with the actual art on display, and an average person will be able to recreate the “dialogue” that Podany and Scott highlight as being so important to conservators and scientists (granted, on a smaller/less-specialized scale) and come to the most accurate conclusion.

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