Wednesday, 12 January 2011

What Lies Beneath

Art historians have long been interested in the history and composition of individual artworks and with the advent of X-ray technology many works by the great masters have been examined and scrutinised with the aid of X-ray and particle imaging . Often this scientific study of painted works confirms the suspicions or theories of the art historians who have only been able to view the completed piece. They can see the result that the artist has arrived at yet remain just as interested in the working processes, revisions and blind alleys that have formed the masterpiece. 

When paintings are subjected to examination by X-rays, often an entirely different landscape is revealed. The canvas itself can be scrutinised and historians can pinpoint the age and geographical source of the canvas material to aid in identifying the provenance of the artwork. The quality of the canvas and the paints and materials used can be assessed too, giving an indication as to the original colours and strokes of the paintings thus helping to guage their integrity and resilience. The restoration of many artworks would not be possible without X-ray examination and most fascinatingly of all, there have been a number of amazing discoveries of works by the old masters that have been painted over or placed behind panels and which only the power of X-rays have fully revealed.

Fascinated by the process of X-ray  and fine art painting, Nick managed to avail himself of one of Van Gogh's  Sunflower images  and - no expense spared - treated the canvas to a long and powerful dose of ionising radiation.

The results were somewhat of a revelation. Each brushstroke and swathe of paint was exposed in fuller detail showing the densities and consitency of the media. Furthermore, the canvas material was vividly displayed with the weave of the fabric clearly discernible. The X-ray itself became a work of art.
This picture shows a detail from the Sunflowers painting of the earthenware vase. The broad, thick brushstrokes look hasty and rough but you can see the tremendous expression in each stroke as well as truly appreciating the thickness and application of the paint.

Stripped of all the expressive colour of the original the X-ray of the painting is eerie and looks colder and more austere. The over all impression that the X-ray gives is to take a familiar artwork (an icon of modern European art) and produce a distancing or alienating effect. We recognise the joyous, energetic original piece but the unfamiliar rendering that the X-ray process creates is unsettling and intriguing.

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