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Science and Art: The Painted Surface

by Antonio Sgamellotti, Brunetto Giovanni Brunetti, and Costanza Miliani, Editors
Royal Society of Chemistry, London, UK, 2014
553 pp.  Trade, £49.99
ISBN: 978-1-84973-818-7.

Reviewed by Brian Reffin Smith
Coll¸ge de 'Pataphysique, Paris, France

I know next to nothing about art conservation, beyond the fact that every so often the Mona Lisa is removed from its frame in the Louvre to be cleaned and checked, and that a colleague of mine persuaded a certain curator to move the painting, during this operation, a fraction of a millimetre to the left in a celebrated pataphysical act. But I am not reviewing this book of case studies, written by scientists, art historians, conservators and archeologists, in the light of its contribution to conservation, but rather as a source of art ideas, which I guessed it might provide. For art is often, surely, about absence, about filling a space, inventing what 'should' be there. It is often about layers, visible and invisible, about codes, conundra, secrets, questions of the authentic and the meretricious. And of course art restoration is, inter alia, also about precisely these matters.

In Science and Art: The Painted Surface, we see art quite literally on the edge. Some of the almost archeological investigation is targeted at transversal slices through the layers of paint. At other times we are shown underpainting or other hidden details revealed by synchrotron x-ray analysis, infrared reflectance, spectroscopy or fluorescence. Paintings are examined using the whole spectrum of visible and invisible electromagnetic waves. Sometimes, as in the examination of Mondrian's 'Victory Boogie Woogie' in the Netherlands, the work is done in full public view, albeit behind glass, almost as a performance. It feels as if those working on the paintings are somehow contributing to the art making process.

There are questions about works of art that can be asked and answered by specialists without recourse to examination of the actual object. But there are others which necessitate physical examination of the work, and whose answers feed back into our knowledge of the artist and his or her work: what was the genesis of the work, and how was that done? What materials and techniques were used, how was it conserved, what was done to it? When paintings are not finished, they yield clues, for example marks, lines, bits of extraneous material, about the process of making such works.

The specification of an artwork by reference to the above, to its chemical and physical properties, and to its reaction to invasive and non-invasive probings, to how the pigment was bound, how the support was constructed...all these open up a wide range of possibilities for reverse-engineering, as it were, and perhaps making art considering only these characteristics, or at least including them deliberately. We quickly come to conceptual painting, naturally, but perhaps there are other thoughts that emerge, in non-painting fields, from such considerations. From early Christian paintings to contemporary drawings, via Far Eastern murals, Van Gogh and John Hoyland's acrylics, though it may well not have been the first intention of its publishers, the Royal Society of Chemistry, this rich series of papers offers a visual, academic and conceptual way in to a markedly different way of thinking about art and its palimpsests. As I write this review, there is discussion in the press about the apparently inevitable loss of digital data, as it becomes unreadable. This too, and all the digital art, videos, still images, interactive pieces or installations using it, will have to be restored in some sense, if it is not to disappear; that is to say, someone, somewhere, will actually have to care about it.

Last Updated 2nd Mar 2015

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