How Science Is Helping Bring Art to Life

Great paintings have often been debated and discussed by critics and historians, but the introduction of science has helped bring a new level of understanding about artists and their work.

By Kieren Puffett
Published 10 Jun 2018, 16:18 BST
Photograph by Art Gallery of Ontario AGO

Of all of Picasso’s paintings, The Three Dancers, is widely considered to be one of his greatest masterpieces. The artist painted this ‘dance’ of intertwined figures in 1925 following the death of a friend, which left Picasso devastated.

Picasso was already the most celebrated contemporary artist of his time and this painting became revered immediately. The story and composition were readily scrutinised by scholars, who generate a large volume of work detailing their analysis and insights.

With so much learning amassed about the painting what possible new knowledge could there be left to gain? Enter the conservator.

“Conservators perform technical examination and research on a painting, which basically means looking at the painting in as many ways as we can using technology as an aid,” reveals Annette King, paintings conservator at the Tate in London.

X-Ray image of the The Three Dancers by Picasso helps reveal new details concealed under the finished painting.
Photograph by Tate

King and her colleagues could take a new look at The Three Dancers using modern scientific techniques such as the latest digital X-ray imaging.

“The Three Dancers was incredibly rewarding because the x-ray was so revealingit told a different story to what we see on the surface,” says King

The new technical imaging revealed the final painting was executed rapidly and was the last of three paintings started on this canvas. Indeed, relating the x-rays to a now-lost Picasso painting–The Dance from 1923–has enabled scholars to explore the possible date and appearance of the earlier compositions that sit underneath The Three Dancers.

“I think The Three Dancers has been written about so much and with so many interpretations that I don’t think people had really thought about how it could have evolved over several years, and that it may have started in life as something different,” adds King.

The technical insights show that Picasso made changes to the painting over time with the pentimenti, traces of the earlier paintings, visible in X-radiographs and angled bright light (technically known as raking light). The earliest painting was possibly done in shades of grey (a grisaille composition), then a colourful depiction of three more conventional dancers, before it became this more traumatic and sinister painting.

Using different scientific techniques helps the conservator to discover new details not only about the painting but also the artist. In The Three Dancers you can see the varying paint textures using 'raking' or angled bright light.
Photograph by Tate

A conservator has a suite of techniques they can utilise on a painting from use of infra-red and UV light through to X-ray to be able to ‘peer’ into the painting. The conservator can also use more invasive techniques such as taking samples. Given some paintings are valued at many millions of pounds, the conservators have neat ways to do this without damaging the work.

“That’s your bottom line,” reveals King. “You would not cause any damage at all. You would only ever take samples from the edges that aren’t visible or from an existing crack but these samples are tiny – literally microns in size – they are the size of a tiny, tiny tip of a pin. We then view them at 100 or 200 times magnitude to be able to look at them.”

Thanks to so many reproductions, art posters and images on the web where people can view works of art very easily, how can scientific analysis help us appreciate the original work of art?

“We live in a society where everything is reproduced from poster size to thumbnail image on a computer, and people forget to look at the surface of the painting that brings out the uniqueness of the work and the hand of the artist,” says King.

“And I think technical analysis really brings you back to the fact that somebody made this and they have chosen the materials they use and they’ve arranged them in the way they have arranged them. And I think it is really important that technical analysis is done on as many paintings as possible to enhance the understanding of how it’s made.”

Micrograph showing losses in the white paint between the second and third fingers. The close examination also reveals there are two layers of white one before the black ‘fingers’ (from The Three Dancers) were applied and one after.
Photograph by Tate

King also believes that knowledge is only further enhanced when several pieces from the same artist are examined.

“It’s particularly rewarding to study paintings by the same artist – for example I’ve been really lucky to work on a few paintings by Picasso and you get the sense of progression and change, and you try to work out why they were using that particular implement or what using a palette knife brought to the painting that using a brush didn’t.”

“I also used technical analysis of our paintings and linked up with other institutions who did technical analysis of their paintings and it just gives you an amazing detailed picture of what he was doing in this period, and how he may have progressed.”

Underlining King’s detailed scientific understanding of Picasso’s work is also a consuming passion of what it can deliver and how it can aid our understanding of the artist too. “I think it gives you a much more intricate picture of the artist–it’s the evidence of what they have left behind. I think it can feed into art history–then they can talk more knowledgeably about what they knew the artist was looking at and influenced by at the time,” she concludes.

The Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy Exhibition continues until September 9th 2018 at the Tate Modern.

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