On July 2nd, 2017 we learned about

Protecting artwork for posterity when it’s made from materials prone to dilapidation and putrefaction

In the last week, I’ve had the pleasure of going to an art museum with eight- and four-year-olds, once at the four-year-old’s request. They especially enjoyed the modern and contemporary pieces that felt more open-ended in how they could be interpreted (protip: kids like Nick Cave.) The biggest concern for our visits was reminding everyone that these objects, even the stuffed animals sewn into a suit composed largely of fishing bobs, weren’t there for us to touch. In order for people two thousand years in the future to be able to see these new pieces the way we were able to see an Egyptian sarcophagus, we all needed to do our part to keep things as pristine as possible. This challenge extends beyond kids’ fingers though, as non-traditional materials used in contemporary art are posing huge challenges for art curators.

Replace and repair

Synthetic items like fishing bobs and stuffed animals seem like the should be easy to preserve. Plastics famously take ages to break down, but manufactured goods don’t always hold up the way you expect. A plastic bob might get cracked during transport, or lost as some of the knitted yarn that holds it breaks down. The question then becomes how to repair the piece— if the original item can no longer be purchased, do you find a substitute? How much change can a piece of art accommodate before it’s no longer the same creation? This has been an issue in some art purposely built from manufactured goods, like florescent tube lights in installations by Dan Flavin. In that case, Flavin knew the lights couldn’t be replaced forever, forcing the piece to change over time.

Responding to rot

Some materials turn sculptures or paintings into what amount to performances. Food has been incorporated into art for thousands of years, but when that food isn’t just presented as an image, things can get messy. Dieter Roth embraced this in his biodegradable art, covering photos in cheese to see how they’d change over time. Jim Victor and Marie Pelton sculpt butter in refrigerated cases, knowing that each piece has a short lifespan from the start. When the eventual decomposition isn’t intentional though, art conservationists have a bigger problem. Janine Antoni has made a few copies of a piece called Lick and Lather, each consisting of self-portrait busts made of chocolate and soap. Over time, chocolate pushes some fatty lipids to the surface, adding white, chalky texture to the otherwise brown surface. The soap versions actually prove to be more difficult to preserve, and curators have worked with Antoni reformulate the exact soap formula so that future replacements can hopefully survive the test of time a bit longer.

Recuse from the light

Of course, even traditional materials need special care to hold up over time. While the effects of heat and humidity might be more obvious, even light can damage an oil painting. Ultraviolet light can damage pigments in paint, breaking up specific molecules that end up changing the painting’s colors. Museums therefore do their best to avoid bright light on paintings, but even darkness can cause changes. Linseed oils used to make the oil paint more malleable tend to darken and yellow in darkness, although that particular change is eventually self-correcting after a painting is exposed to light again.

All these changes mean that a lot of planning, thought and even physics and chemistry are needed to keep art objects in good shape over long periods of time. Collectors are now having art appraised not just for their vision and value, but also for how durable the piece may be. In some cases, the solution is to plan ahead and build replacement parts with an original piece, but other times the answer seem to be accepting that change is inevitable. Even if something doesn’t end up looking like the artist originally intended, there’s still a good chance it will be valued and appreciated for generations to come— just ask those Greek sculptors who might barely recognize their own work now that the paint and arms have fallen off.

Source: How Do You Conserve Art Made of Bologna, or Bubble Gum, or Soap? by Jacoba Urist, The Atlantic

On March 16th, 2017 we learned about

Among manipulated mouths, study participants see happiness in the Mona Lisa’s smile

It’s fairly safe to say that the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world. The image of a woman sitting in front of a distant landscape isn’t conceptually unique, but the details of its execution have made the the subject of great, enduring fascination with artists, historians and even engineers since it was painted. Mysteries abound, with one of the weirder questions apparently focused on one of the central points of the painting— the woman’s smile. Interpretations of the smile cover a wide range of emotions, but a new study involving digital manipulation and detailed response tracking seems to have found new consensus about what is being portrayed. She’s smiling because she’s happy.

Seeing emotion on a spectrum

It’s easy to scoff at such a finding, but there’s more to it than simply pointing to a smile and declaring “happiness.” Closer examination shows a number oddities in the subject’s face, from a lack of eyebrows to an ambiguous tension in the cheeks that make identifying a “true smile” difficult. This has prompted speculation about the the portrait possibly portraying a smirk, hidden sadness, or even… disdain? It’s a lot to unpack, but this latest study tried to tease out what people saw in the Mona Lisa’s face by changing it.

Participants were shown a black and white reproduction of the original painting, as well as eight variations that had subtle changes to the mouth. Some variations were more upturned, and rated as ‘happier,’ while others were more downturned and thus, ‘sadder.’ When compared to this wider range of expressions, the original was still identified as happy 97% of the time. To see how much context may change things, participants were also asked to interpret eight variations that were nearly all on the “sad” side of the emotional spectrum, with the original painting being the most positive option. Again, the original was rated as happy, and in the process a clue was revealed that may help explain people’s reactions.

Slower to see sorrow

When rating the emotional content of each face, people routinely responded faster to happier expressions. While the overall context did seem to shape people’s opinions, possibly shifting the center of what it meant to appear happy, this timing may indicate that there is a neurological bias that anchors us around happy faces. Whether or not this settles anything for the art community isn’t clear, but researchers want to continue the experiments with people with autism and other psychological disorders to see if there’s any difference in how the faces are interpreted. The suspicion is that psychological disorders may involve a gap between sensory input and the ability to properly contextualize that information. Or maybe everyone is just distracted by the lack of eyebrows.

Source: 'Mona Lisa' Is Smiling, Really by Laura Geggel, Live Science

On February 28th, 2017 we learned about

Significant sophistication seen in carved and painted Stone Age slabs

A European painter has been turning heads recently thanks to their innovative use of materials, and how those materials influence the overall composition of their imagery. Animals are rendered not in fine lines, but in bold spots, carved out of stone slabs. The shape of the stone ‘canvases’ play a role too, with natural edges being incorporated as part of the subjects’ silhouettes. There’s enough to these depictions of natural landscapes to arouse our curiosity, but sadly, we’ll never be able to fully know the motivations of the artist, or artists, because they’ve been dead for 38,000 years.

Life drawing in limestone

We do know that whatever drove the creation of these images, their creator worked hard to make them. Making these images probably required first rubbing down the surface of the ‘canvas’ rock to flatten and smooth it out. Then a second tool was used to scrape out each individual cupule, or divot-like mark that made up the various animals depicted. This was as many as 60 individual cupules in a single animal, and more likely took hours to complete. That might not sound like the biggest commitment, but considering this task was being accomplished in a time of hunting and gathering, it shows a decent commitment to a project that didn’t directly increase your lifespan.

Aside from the technical demands of carving in stone, there is a degree of sophistication worth noting in these depictions. As described above, an image of a mammoth is carved in profile, with the top edge of the stone slab being used as the animal’s silhouette, complete with shoulder hump and convex neck curve. The cupules don’t seem to be used as random ornament, but are instead used on animals’ bodies, possibly to suggest the texture of their fur. These techniques were also found at multiple archaeological sites from around the same time period, suggesting that they were not flukes, but part of the local cultural repertoire. Basically, art was enough a part of these people’s lives that they spent time and energy to develop it.

Space for art in the stone age

In a world saturated with images and iconography, that might not seem that unusual. However, the Aurignacian people who created these images hadn’t really been out of Africa for terribly long by the time these caves paintings were created. Their world was one of rocky shelters among snow, ice and glaciers, and so there were probably many aspects of basic survival to be concerned about. Nonetheless, involved cave paintings, carvings, bead and clay figurines point to an early need or desire to create and record the world as the Aurignacian’s saw it, which in an era of selfies and customization, is actually pretty relatable after all.

Source: Prehistoric Pointillism? Long Before Seurat, Ancient Artists Chiseled Mammoths Out of Dots by Lorraine Boissoneault, Smithsonian

On July 24th, 2016 we learned about

Toilet Culture Park teaches the importance of our most paramount plumbing

As a nerdy parent, I’m often pretty excited about taking my kids to a new museum. Places with big dinosaur skeletons, or colorful aquariums are understandably easier for them to engage with than collections of 19th Century American landscapes, but a museum in South Korea may turn out to have the most relatable collection of artifacts in the world. The city of Suwon is home to the Toilet Culture Park, which, comedic value aside, is intended to attract attention to the important role modern toilets play in human health around the world.

Lifelong love of lavatories

The park is thanks to the hygiene interests of a one Sim Jae-duck, who was once mayor of Suwon, as well as the owner of a successful manufacturing business. Sim’s concern with toilets supposedly started at birth, as he was said to have been born in his impoverished grandmother’s outhouse. In his lifetime, Sim saw the rise of modern toilets and the health benefits that accompany them, which motivated his interest in promoting the importance of modern commodes in Korea and elsewhere. In 2002, Sim took on the unglamorous, but important, job of providing bathrooms for World Cup fans flocking to the games in South Korea.

The current park features a cross-section of toilets from around the world, and goes into the history of these crucial devices. There’s also a fair amount of more sculptural pieces, ranging from Rodin’s “The Thinker” seated on stone toilet to bronze statues depicting people in the middle of using a squat toilet.

International interest

The Toilet Culture Park is not alone in its mission of toilet-awareness, as Japan is also home to a toilet museum. In that case, there’s a bit more self-promotion, as TOTO, a toilet manufacturer, has created a collection that includes some toilet history, but with a focus on the plumbing innovations that this “Apple of toilet tech” has developed in its nearly 100-year-old history, starting with “sanitary ceramics.”

Source: World's first toilet theme park opens in South Korea, The Telegraph

On April 3rd, 2016 we learned about

Francesca Caccini’s life as a sixteenth century (female) composer

“What about your girls?” asks Elizabeth, the young pianist in Mr. Bach Comes to Call, “Didn’t you write any music for them?”

The spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach, who has been happily sharing his life story, has to sheepishly explain to his young audience, “Well, Elizabeth, you see in those days, girls were different…” Of course, it would have been much more accurate to say that the way society treated girls was different, especially, in Bach’s case, since his life was actually strikingly similar to one of the Baroque period’s premiere female composers, Francesca Caccini. While Caccini’s music hasn’t been preserved and celebrated as much as Bach’s, she had a long and at times monumental career in her own right.

Born into music

Caccini’s early years aren’t well documented, most likely because most women’s lives weren’t expected to be of historical significance, as the aforementioned spirit of Bach eluded to. Like Bach, Caccini had a musical family, her father being a composer and her mother being a singer. Born in 1587, she appears to have been well educated, and was trained as a singer, keyboardist, guitarist and harpist. Her first performances as a singer were with her younger sister and her stepmother Margherita, who was also a singer.

A composer’s career path in the early 17th century generally revolved around finding a patron to fund ongoing composing, singing and teaching. Caccini started working as part of her father’s ensemble with the Duke Ferdinando I of Tuscany, but was eventually recruited to work for the de’ Medici family. That patronage bestowed a salary and, in a deviation from the experiences of her male counterparts, a dowry, allowing her to marry the singer Giovanni Signorini.

A most inspiring opera

Unfortunately, only one major opera by Caccini has survived the last 500 years, but it was an important piece. La Liberazione di Ruggiero was the first published opera written by a woman, and it was thoroughly appreciated in its own time. The comic opera involving magic and dragons was performed for the visiting Prince Władysław of Poland, who reportedly loved it enough to build a new opera house back home, inviting Caccini to write new music for its opening performances.

Arts to aristocracy

Unlike Bach, Caccini’s relationship with music waned slightly over time. Her daughter with her first husband became a singer, but her mother didn’t want her appearing on stage. After her husband died, she remarried, but to an aristocrat rather than another musician. The family relocated to Lucca, where Caccini had a son. She continued to compose music even after her husband died left her with a comfortable inheritance. However, requests for her daughter to perform on stage were repeatedly denied, as Caccini did not want to risk the family’s reputation with such appearances.

In the end, Caccini slipped out of any remaining limelight. While her life was clearly dominated by writing and teaching music, unlike Bach her death wasn’t directly recorded, much less publicly mourned. We are left to fill in the gaps, with her death likely being correlated to her son becoming the ward of her brother-in-law in 1645, four years after retiring from the de Medici court.

Source: Francesca Caccini, Music Academy Online

On March 20th, 2016 we learned about

Casting doubt on kids’ role as cave painting collaborators

While many ancient cave paintings depict strikingly recognizable humans and animals, some still trip us up. Perhaps revealing a bit of cognitive bias, an 8,000 year old cave painting in the Saharan desert included what was assumed to be human hands, both young and old. It was only upon further analysis that the tiny “baby” hands, tenderly located within the palm area of some adult hands, aren’t from babies at all, or at least, not human babies. Instead, it’s likely that these adults were paired with desert monitor lizards (Varanus griseus), shaking up how to interpret the overall composition.

Dubious digits

Anthropologist Emmanuelle Honoré actually noticed the non-baby hands upon her first visit to the cave. They seemed too small, with strangely long fingers. What’s more, while some images on the cave wall were rendered by the artist’s imagination, the hands were the result of stenciling, where somebody’s hand was held up on the wall while darker pigments were applied. The long fingers didn’t come from stylization, they came from some very specific anatomy. However, since stenciling with animals wasn’t known in this part of the world (compared to practices in Australia or South America,) Honoré had to prove that these weren’t babies as others had assumed.

She started with measurements of her nieces, and then moved to a French hospital to ask parents for measurements of their children’s hands. Many parents were happy to pitch in, and the accumulated data showed that human infants have very different proportions than those depicted on the wall. Instead of long fingers, baby fingers are usually around the same length as their palms. With this established, the search for a better-matching hand model commenced.

Reasons for the reptiles

At this point, the best bet is the monitor lizards, although a second phase of comparisons is under way to check on young crocodile feet. Aside from being consistent shape, monitor lizards have symbolic value as protectors by modern nomadic tribes. It doesn’t explain the image entirely, but it does seem like a thread to start explaining the stencils. It also begs the question of if the lizard hands, where were also used in a pattern alongside human hands in a sort of frieze, were live contributors, or simply body parts used as painting tools. If it was the latter, it seems that the ancient artists agreed with W.C. Fields about avoiding working with children or animals.

Source: 'Baby Hands' in Cave Paintings May Actually Belong to Lizards by Kristin Romey, National Geographic

On January 3rd, 2016 we learned about

MoonArk aims to put a microcosm of culture on the Moon

Much of what we’ve left in space has been done out of practicality. Used pieces of spacecraft, lost satellites, and even dune buggies and garbage don’t get returned to Earth because it would be too difficult or energetically costly do bring it home. Not everything we’ve relocated to the cosmos was a leftover though, as many people would like to make a more proactive statement about our species than just being messy. A project in development now seeks to put a bit more of human culture on the Moon beyond our equipment and sun-bleached flags.

Menagerie of mini-monuments

The MoonArk is slated to travel to the Moon on a future mission funded by the Google Lunar XPrize. Rather than carry the usual array of drills, sensors and broadcasting equipment that usually get carted out of our atmosphere, this small capsule will carry more culturally significant items, intended as examples of our humanity for possible extra terrestrial visitors, as well as conceptual art for those of us remaining on Earth. The contents of the small capsule would likely be slightly confusing removed from their original context, but will hopefully add up to a picture what the human race is capable of in 2016.

The contents of the MoonArk are now being finalized, all meeting the requirement that they’re tiny to fit within their allotted six ounces. Projects include drops of blood from genetically modified goats to blood from 33 different artists mixed together. There are tiny murals made of photos from text messages, as well as delicate, platinum-engraved disks with illustrations of flora and fauna found on Earth.

Sharing through satellites

The MoonArk isn’t the first time humanity has tried to explain itself to possible alien observers. In 1972, NASA launched Pioneer 10 and 11 to explore a path past Jupiter and towards the star Aldebaran, 68 light years away. They’re both fitted with small, gold plaques describing homo sapiens, and where to find Earth. In 1977, Voyager 1 and 2 were launched, and are currently leaving our solar system. Each satellite carries a golden record, engraved with images, maps, explanations and even musical selections, the selection of which was overseen by Dr. Carl Sagan. Since they’re based on analog LP technology, instructions and a stylus for playing the record are helpfully included.

Source: An Artistic Time Capsule Prepares To Hitch A Ride To The Moon by Irina Zhorov, NPR

On November 18th, 2015 we learned about

Authenticating art with a DNA database

While some folks claim to be unable to draw even a straight line, plenty of painters posses the skill necessary to recreate renowned paintings of such quality they’re indistinguishable from the original work. In some cases new art is created that mimics the style and technique of a painter, opening the possibility that it’s a long-overlooked masterwork, finally discovered. For dead artists, neither situation is such a big deal. For art lovers, it’s a bit more convoluted, since each new painting accepted as genuine rewrites art history to a degree, changing the cultural value of the original body of work. When that cultural value also motivates monetary value, collectors become concerned, and have been looking for ways to fight back against forgeries in the art market, even involving two million dollars of new DNA encryption technology.

Finding the fakes

Authenticating a painting usually involves both forensic tools and expert opinions. For older paintings, the materials can provide clues like carbon-dating canvases or chemical analysis of pigments. If the materials aren’t the purported age of the painting, chances are it’s a fake (or at least mislabeled.) Experts are often asked to verify stylistic details in paintings, comparing the everything down to individual brush strokes to see if they match the craftsmanship seen in other pieces by the same artist. The assumption is that each artist paints slightly differently, leaving an unintentional signature in the image simply by how they apply the paint. The problem with these methods is that, especially for potential forgeries of newer paintings, collectors and museums are left with the subjective opinions of experts without many ways to verify their assertions. With multi-million dollar prices on some paintings, people want to be sure they’re buying the history they think they are.

To solve this, a group of developers and bioengineers at the Global Center for Innovation at the State University of New York are trying to create embedded security tags for art. Encrypted key codes would be recorded in secure databases, to be matched against the code found in the art being verified. Do ensure the code was sufficiently complex and durable, the team is doing the embedding with synthetic DNA. The DNA would be provided by the developers, not the artist to ensure the system remains closed, plus saves the artists the trouble and potential privacy risks of sharing their own DNA.

Constructive copying

Even with all this effort to stop forgeries in the commercial art market, there’s no doubt that people will continue to make copies of famous paintings and drawings. In fact, there’s a good chance they’ll be asked to do so, as this practice has been considered a standard teaching method for artists for hundreds of years. The close study of every detail can be very informative, as artists often feel they’re seeing through the original creator’s eyes. In this way, they have to consider nuances to a painting that you’d otherwise overlook. Some painters were even known to make copies of their own work, either for sale or simply for practice and refinement. The ethics of these copies only comes in to question when people try to present them as something their not. Most painters and collectors agree that a copy is fine as long as it’s labeled as such. It’s only when something is being presented as the most valuable original that we feel the need to start tagging them as such.

Source: Art Forgers Beware: DNA Could Thwart Fakes by Tom Mashberg, New York Times

On October 14th, 2015 we learned about

The cryptic compounds of Egyptian blue pigments

Blue is the most popular color in the world, despite the fact that it’s historically been one of the hardest colors to manipulate. Minerals used in paint (and pigments in animals) are most often in “earth tones” such as browns, reds, and tans. There are naturally occurring blue minerals, such as lapis lazuli found in Afghanistan, but that hasn’t always been readily available to the world. Ancient Egypt found a way around this difficulty though, creating a blue compound that has been lighting up the art world ever since.

Building their own blue

By 2600 BC, Egyptian artists had come up with their own recipe for blue pigment. They didn’t record it directly, but an account from a Roman writer in 100 BC described it as sand, copper and natron. The natron was a source of sodium, like sodium carbonate, and the sand likely provided some lime for calcium. The big catch was that these ingredients had to be cooked at 1472 to 1652º Fahrenheit while maintaining the correct levels of oxygen in the reaction. That probably was no small feat in a time where modern thermometers weren’t even available, although by 1500 BC Egyptians were working with both heat and chemistry to develop glassblowing, so cooking some pigment wasn’t an impossibility.

Shining bright under red light

The pigment created was widely used, eventually being shared with other cultures. In addition to its use in Egypt, the same blue formula has been found on Greek and Roman sculptures, as well as in paintings as recent as 1524 by Giovanni Battista Benvenuto. While creating the pigment wasn’t easy, finding it has been much simpler thanks to one more key property of this blue: it’s extremely luminescent under near-infrared light.

The combination of durability and infrared luminescence has put a new spotlight on Egyptian blue. Aside from its contributions to art, it may also prove useful in future engineering efforts, including biomedical imaging and security inks.

Source: Egyptian blue: more than just a colour by Paul Brack, Chemistry World

On August 26th, 2015 we learned about

How to patch pained and punctured paintings

In college, one of my student jobs was to stand guard in the campus art gallery, politely reminding people not to use flash photography or get too close to the paintings and sculptures. It always felt slightly silly, but this week’s incident in Taiwan was a good reminder as to why vigilance is important to the safety and preservation of art. The 12-year-old in Taiwan was clearly just unlucky, and warnings from guards might not have made a difference in sparing the still life from having a fist-sized whole punched through it. What’s a more valuable lesson is how delicate a 350-year-old oil painting can be, and the rather extreme lengths necessary to save them for future viewers.

Weathering moderate wear and tear

Even oil paintings that have been well cared for are likely to start cracking over time, due to the way the paint drys. While it takes many years (or maybe decades) for the oil to dry, it will eventually oxidize, leaving the pigment layers behind on the canvas. The cracks occur when the outer layers of paint dry before the lower layers, and one ends up being more flexible than the other. So if there’s a change in temperature and humidity that changes the tension and surface area of the canvas, wetter paint can still flex, but those tiny expansions or contractions will crack the dry paint.

Like anything else, paintings also have to content with getting dirty. Depending on the environment where they’re stored, a 200-year-old painting is likely to have dust, smoke particulate, bits of pollen, etc. all covering the surface. Most amateurs generally make things worse when they try to clean old paintings, hoping that “oil and water don’t mix” will mean soapy water will just drip right off an old canvas. Re-oiling and vacuuming also risk causing more harm than good, as you risk removing flaking paint in the process. Professionals with experience and specialized materials are really the best option.

Fusing flayed fibers

If the canvas itself is damaged, such as with the fist-sized hole punched through Paolo Porpora’s Flowers in Taiwan, the canvas needs to be mended before the paint can be restored. For smaller budgets, you can glue a patch on the back of the whole or rip, then paint along the rip to try and match the strokes and texture of the original image. Flowers is likely to receive a more pain-staking process, where threads in the canvas will be individually aligned and fused with a sort of heat gun. Once the rip is closed, a backing or lining is usually applied to the whole canvas to help bear the weight and tension of the painting. Experts can then try to match the original painting in both color and sheen, as mismatched varnish will be obvious under most lighting conditions.

The goal of such repairs is usually to ensure the painting can still be viewed and enjoyed in the future, versus being completely indistinguishable from the original in order to trick potential buyers. In some cases, that may not even be a problem— developer Steve Wynn put his elbow through Picasso’s Le Rêve, but still managed to sell the painting for $155 million. Still, it’s probably best to just watch your step and give the art some space the next time you’re in a gallery.

Source: Boy trips in museum and punches hole through painting by Oliver Holmes, The Guardian