When art tells us things

The day you find yourself just a few centimeters away from a piece of art, you start realizing the importance of the conservator-restorer’s job. No doubt, it is an emotional experience to have the opportunity to observe and perceive, or even to smell, for the first time an altar piece created hundreds of years ago, when you do so with the intention to preserve it from further deterioration. Not only in order to continue to enjoy it, but also because of the gratifying idea that the art piece in question will survive for many, many more years.

Centuries ago, someone did create the pìece. With dedication and craftsmanship. Possibly not with the intention that it would last forever, but nonetheless, today the artistic and emotional value of this specific piece is unique. And to have it so very close to you, is an exciting sensation.

You will agree with me that it is not the same to read a book electronically, compared to its printed version. For the same reason, the perception you get from a picture of a piece of art, cannot be the same as from seeing it in a museum. Or even better, in its original context. Can you imagine, e.g., that instead at its location in the old “Gotic” area, you would find the cathedral of Barcelona near to the Mediterranean Sea besides the Hotel Arts? Would you admire this work of art and perceive its old history, in the same manner? No, of course not. Nonetheless, and surprisingly enough, today you can find in the U.S.A. medieval cloister from European origin, transferred and rebuilt stone by stone, because not too many years ago – when this type of “business” still was allowed officially – some rich people could afford to acquire them…

The idea of my article is to offer you a first step into the world of information which a piece of art can provide us. Possibly, so far you never have realized that the piece itself can reveal us its history. Its origin and by whom and when it was created.

No doubt, you are more or less familiar (thanks to “crimis” like Crime Scene Investigation) with  the specific and delicate research to be done by the police investigators when trying to find out the circumstances under which a murder was committed. Well, I can assure you that very often the research that has to be done by a team of experts dealing with a newly discovered art-piece, is quite comparable. The amount of information detected by a team of restorers-conservators, historians of art, and chemists, can be astonishing.

So far, you possibly have thought that the answers to some questions are simple. When you’re asked for the painter’s name who created El Guernica, you would answer: Picasso.Simple, isn’t it? Especially when you can see his signature. However, there do exist pieces of fine art which by lack of a signature, in the past were attributed to a specific artist, which nonetheless were created, or partly finished, in the same studio by some of his assistants with a comparable technique. How can we verify if it is a “piece of the master himself” or not? Sometimes this results to be impossible. On the other hand, this is not always the most important question. From a historical point of view, it might be more interesting to know when the artwork was created, or with which materials. Or to examine if the piece in question was submitted to some modifications, in order to be able to distinguish between the original version and the later one.

How can we know when the piece was created if it is not dated? Well, in the case of a painting, we do know that some special colours only could be used from a certain period on. We know, e.g. that the “Verona Green” colour was used only by the Impressionists during the 19th century. Since afterwards it turned out to be toxic, they stopped using it.

In case of sculptures, e.g. the existence (or lack) of traces left by the tools, can help us to fix a possible date of their creation. How do you think the very oldest ones were made, when there were not yet any metal tools, hammers or chisels available? The tools could not leave behind marks on the piece itself, so, if you now see some, you can bet it is a copy.

Sometimes, however, it is really complicated to fix a date for a piece of art. It can happen that during its lifetime, some adaptations or modifications were done in order to complete the art piece’s lecture with the intention to sell it at a better price.

Here is an example of it. Just imagine a 90% deterioration, caused by water filtration, of a painting of the XVIth century from a private collection. Let’s suppose that two hundred years later, by financial need, the owner had to sell it, so he then had to find someone capable to repaint the white areas, copying the original style and colours from another painting of the same period. Today, looking at this painting, how can we know which part is still the original one and which part was restored? At the time, photographs did not yet exist!

Let’s also presume that nobody ever made a sketch, drawing or detailed description of the painting. Well, in this specific case we could make use of the so-called X-ray technique, similar to the one used in hospitals to make photographs of broken bones. Doing this, we then possible would discover that the various colours applied, are not from the same period, and that although for the human eye the “white” areas sometimes look similar, there do exist differences in shade when seen under X-ray. And different shades can mean different components and/or origins of the pigments which were used. So, we then would know from which period is each of the parts (although we still would not have the full composition of the original).

What to do when the painting was suffering from burning? How can we recognize the original colours? How can we find out if a specific colour we now see as “black”, originally was a so-called “blue azure”? We know that each pigment has its own chemical composition, and that at a given temperature some elements of the originals do change its characteristics and consequently do convert into a different composition. E.g., at 400-500ºC lead monoxyde (PbO) will transform into minium (Pb3O4); both components will show off very different colours.

It is thanks to this know-how and the help of some special techniques – which have such complicated names as the electronic microscope with elemental analysis, or the diffraction of X-rays – that we are able to identify the original colours.

I hope that I made clear to you that very often it results to be complicated to identify a piece of art, since this requires a lot of specific knowledge, analysis and experience. Nonetheless, did you ever think that the piece itself could provide us so much information? Possibly, the next time you find yourself in front of a painting, a sculpture, or a archeological piece of stone, you will observe it with much more attention and curiosity: they can tell you their own story!

Inés Legemaate

Inés Legemaate encabeza Geztio desde el año 2016. Diplomada en Arquitectura Técnica en Ejecución de obras y en Restauración y Conservación de bienes culturales, y licenciada en Ingeniería en Organización Industrial (especialidad edificación), es una persona tenaz, con sensibilidad por el patrimonio y con afán por los retos.