Digital Ancient Art: Technology Provides Glimpse Of What Was, What Might Have Been

The use of digital images is something that, if you think of it at all in an art context, is normally associated with Contemporary Art. We’ve all seen examples in the news of things being projected onto buildings, or weird images in exhibitions that exist only on monitors. Yet in an art history context, the use of digital images can provide us with an experience that is truly enlightening, by showing us things that no longer are, but once were.

Among the most dazzling examples of this is the projection of overlays showing what the original, painted decoration of a Gothic cathedral façade would have looked like. Far from the monochromatic, grey-and-beige faces which they now present to the world, many of these monumental structures were decorated in vivid colors both inside and out. In this, the Medieval Europeans were merely following the example of ancient cultures of the Mediterranean basin, including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, who lavishly (and indeed garishly) colored the statuary on both the inside and outside of their buildings.

Back in the late ‘90’s, restorers working at the 13th century Cathedral of Notre Dame d’Amiens, were able to determine what the original, painted color scheme of the West Front, the main façade of the church, would have looked like from remaining painted surface decoration. Amiens is the tallest complete Gothic church in France [N.B. Yes, Beauvais is technically taller, but it is half-collapsed], and its entrance is known for its host of sculptures, with multiple Biblical scenes and dozens of statues of saints. Using digital technology, the Cathedral projects overlays onto the West Front in the evenings during the summer and at Christmastide, which give visitors an idea of what the bright, colorful façade must have looked like in its heyday. You can see a spectacular video of the projection here.

Amiens

Another use of digital image technology that was recently announced for the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, about half an hour south of Paris. The luxurious castle, built for Louis XIV’s Minister of Finance Nicholas Fouquet, is one of the grandest private residences in France. The main interior element of the château was to be the ceiling of the grand salon, a domed room that is about 60 feet wide and 60 feet high, which was to be covered in an elaborate mythological tableau by the greatest French artist of the period, Charles Le Brun (1619-1690). The ceiling was never completed however, since in 1661 Fouquet fell from grace and was imprisoned for his mishandling of the country’s finances.

Today the visitor to the estate who enters the grand salon will see a ceiling painted with a simple blue sky and a soaring eagle. However, we know from Le Brun’s drawings and contemporary documents what he originally planned to paint on the surface of the ceiling. As reported in The Art Newspaper, current owners Alexandre, Ascanio, and Jean-Charles de Vogüé are now engaged in a fundraising campaign to create a digital projection for the ceiling which would represent, as close as possible, Le Brun’s original intended decoration for the space. Since a full set of engravings for the final plan exist, all the digital artists will need to do, essentially, is color them in; figuring out how to actually project them will be another matter.

LeBrun

Finally, there is the example of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, famously the site of the greatest art theft of the 20th century. The paintings are still missing, and the search to find them remains one of the great, fascinating quests in the area of art crime. Rumors ranging from their destruction to their being held as collateral by the mafia abound, and periodically various theories crop up as to what exactly happened to them, and, if they still exist, where they are today. The frames from which the paintings were cut still hang, empty, throughout the museum as a testament to their loss.

Now, a Boston-based technology firm has created “Hack the Heist”, which offers visitors to the Gardner the chance to see part of the museum as it was before the robbery. Using digital imaging, app users inside the museum can “see” some of the missing pictures placed back in the spaces where they once hung. Although not officially sanctioned by the museum, the app continues to keep alive public interest in solving this mystery, with the hope that, one day, the paintings will return.

Gardner

 

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Art Sleuthing: The Painting Beneath The Picasso

Thanks to modern technology, we are more accustomed to the idea that painters have re-used their own canvases to create different works later on, for various reasons. we don’t often appreciate that sometimes, an artist might reuse the canvas of another artist, as well. Such is the case with a new discovery made at Northwestern University in Chicago, after examining a painting by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) now owned by the Art Gallery of Ontario (“AGO”). That story is interesting enough in itself, but I hope to add some armchair art sleuthing to it, if you’re willing to bear with me.

“La Miséreuse accroupie” (1902) [N.B. which I would have translated as, “Crouching Beggar Woman”, but be that as it may] is a painting from Picasso’s “Blue Period” of 1901-1904, when many of his works were heavily blue in tone and indeed in subject matter. At the time, the young Picasso was both professionally frustrated and severely depressed, a combination that affected his palette and his outlook. He was also spending a great deal of time traveling back and forth between Barcelona and Paris, trying to make a name for himself, and painting in both cities. Alongside his friend the Catalan Post-Impressionist painter Isidre Nonell (1872-1911), with whom he shared studio space in Paris, he spent time observing socially marginalized people, such as the mendicants who sat outside of church doors and on street corners, begging for money or food.

Mendiga

Via a partnership between the AGO and the National Gallery here in DC, scientists at Northwestern were asked to closely examine the painting, since it was apparent that another painting lay underneath the surface that we currently see. Using infrared reflectance hyperspectral imaging and other techniques, they found that the present work was painted over a landscape painting, which had been turned 90 degrees, and elements of which were used by Picasso in completing the final image. It is not known who painted the landscape, and the article does not identify what the landscape depicts.

Underneath

However, gentle reader, while I cannot tell you who painted the landscape, I believe that I can tell you what that landscape depicts: in fact, I recognized it immediately, given the Barcelona context for the painting’s origin.

The round, temple-like structure at the center of the underlying image is almost certainly the pavilion dedicated to Danaë, mistress of Zeus and mother of the Greek hero Perseus, which is located inside the park known as the Laberint d’Horta (“Labyrinth of Horta”), in the NE end of the city. Named for its intricate maze of hedges, the garden was originally laid out in the late 18th century as part of a country estate, and was expanded by the same family over the ensuing decades. Eventually it became a major cultural meeting point, not only for high society, but for thinkers as well.

Horta (2)

Like many of the northern neighborhoods of modern-day Barcelona, Horta was originally a town located a few miles outside of the city. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the well-to-do began to build weekend homes for themselves in these areas, so as to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and more open spaces afforded by these neighborhoods in the foothills of the Collserola Mountains that ring the city. Antoni Gaudí’s famous Park Güell development project is perhaps the most famous example of how the Catalan bourgeoisie began heading to the local hills on the weekend, building Art Nouveau and Beaux Arts mansions for themselves. Over time, the city grew up to swallow the empty spaces that lay between these villages and the downtown core.

By the late 19th century, even though it was still privately held by the family who originally commissioned it, the Laberint d’Horta was functioning as a sort of mini-Bois de Boulogne, where fashionable people could go to stroll or sit outdoors, and sometimes to hear concerts or see plays. When Spanish kings and queens came to visit the city, receptions and entertainments were often provided for them there. Artists, architects, and writers from the Modernista movement, the Catalan equivalent of Art Nouveau, came up to the park to stretch their legs and think great thoughts.

Here, for example, is an 1898 photograph of Joan Maragall i Gorina (1860-1911), Catalonia’s greatest poet, along with the painter, critic, and architect Miquel Utrillo i Morlius (1862-1934), father of the French painter and Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955). The two men are shown standing just outside the park’s Danaë Pavilion, which (I believe) is shown in the original work beneath Picasso’s painting. Picasso knew and admired both of these men, as well as the others with whom they formed the artistic and intellectual avant-garde in Barcelona while he was an art student there.

Maragall

In fact, Miquel Utrillo was one of the first publishers to take Picasso’s work seriously. He not only helped to organize and promote Picasso’s first participation in a commercial art exhibition, at the Sala Parés gallery in Barcelona in 1901, but he also wrote about the young artist in magazines which he had either co-founded or published. Meanwhile, Maragall’s embrace of a kind of intellectual anarchism, combined with imagery of curving, undulating landscape being evocative of the female form in his poetry and essays, had a lifetime impact on Picasso’s work.

Given the fairly apparent relationship of the landscape painting to the appearance of the gardens around the temple of Danaë at Horta, as well as knowing something more about the importance of Horta as a location during the period of time when Picasso painted over this scene, I’m fairly confident that this identification is correct, as far as subject matter. As to who actually painted the landscape, there are various possibilities to consider.

Could the landscape have been the work of a fellow, struggling young artist in Barcelona, who was unsatisfied with his painting and about to throw it away, when the equally-struggling Picasso asked if he could take the canvas? Could it be a canvas pinched from Picasso’s artist father, José Ruiz y Blasco, who taught at the art school in Barcelona and, when not painting images of birds, painted somewhat conventional landscapes and seascapes? Or could it be an early, teenaged work by Picasso himself, left behind in the closet at his parents’ apartment, which he decided to repurpose rather than throw in the trash?

Perhaps science will be able to tell us, but for now, that’s one mystery solved, another to go.

Thought-Pourri: Artists In Action Edition

With apologies for no post on Mardi Gras – the day itself was rather fat with things that needed my attention – we return today with a curated selection of stories from the art world, since you don’t have to fast or abstain today.

Damien Hirst: Creating Canvases

While I derided him and his work for a long time, unlike a number of others who shall not be named from the Saatchi stable of regrettable British art, I find that Damien Hirst is becoming more interesting as he ages. Perhaps best known for putting dead animals in display cases filled with formaldehyde, in more recent years Hirst has been moving in interesting directions, even as the art press seems to like the results less and less. As famous these days for his bombastic personal statements as for his art, Hirst seems to be developing a new outlook on life, whether due to his becoming a father, or accepting middle age, or simply realizing that the legacy of his art matters; many observers have commented that even his Instagram account has become, dare one say it, more introspective.

I began rethinking my views on Hirst’s work back in 2013 with his monumental – and stunningly pro-life – sculpture installation “The Miraculous Journey”, a series of 14 monumental bronzes of a human baby at all stages of development in the womb, created for the grounds of a hospital in Doha. Then there was his fascinating but critically-panned “The Wreck of the Unbelievable” at last year’s Venice Biennale, centered around an entirely made-up story of finds from a shipwreck, which supposedly contained works of art from all over the ancient world. His latest exhibition, “The Veil Paintings”, which opens at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles on March 1st, features large, beautifully colored canvases inspired in part by the Pointillist period of Post-Impressionism, and also by the later Abstract Expressionist movement, albeit in a more cheerful, sunny way than the latter. Hirst being Hirst, he still creates works in the kind of bad taste that made him infamous, but alongside these more pedestrian pieces there seems to be a new seriousness in his work which, quite frankly, would serve his legacy far better.

Hirst

Antonio Banderas: Playing Picasso

Being perhaps the second most famous person to hail from the Spanish city of Málaga, it was probably inevitable that, at some point in his life, actor Antonio Banderas would be asked to play that city’s most famous native son, artist Pablo Picasso. Now, Banderas will be portraying his fellow Andalusian in not one, but two upcoming productions. For American audiences, Banderas will be seen as the older Picasso in season 2 of Director Ron Howard’s “Genius” on the National Geographic Channel, which begins airing on April 24th; you can check out the trailer here. International audiences will be awaiting the long-delayed “Picasso y Guernica” by Spain’s greatest living film director, Carlos Saura, which focuses on the creation of the most famous painting of the 20th century, and the rocky relationship between the artist and his then-muse, Dora Maar, who photographed Picasso’s work on the monumental canvas as it developed. No confirmation yet on who will be playing Maar, or Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was Picasso’s mistress at the time he began work on Guernica (and whom he left for Maar), but current rumors are that Marion Cotillard will be playing the former and Gwyneth Paltrow will be playing the latter. (Readers may not be aware that Paltrow is not only fluent in proper Castilian Spanish, but owns a home there; in fact, a colleague of mine ran into her on a plane to Barcelona not too long ago.)

Banderas

Leonardo Da Vinci: Discovering Drawings

With the buildup to the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death next year, you’ll be seeing all kinds of exhibitions related to the Florentine artist opening around the globe; the latest to be announced is “Leonardo Da Vinci: A Life in Drawing”, featuring works from the British Royal Collection. What is particularly interesting, from a technology perspective, is that in preparation for the show, a number of these drawings have been examined using methods such as infared light and high-energy x-rays to reveal previously unseen sketches from the master. The studies of hands shown below, for example, were photographed under ultraviolet light, to reveal drawings that can no longer be seen with the naked eye, because of the fading of the materials with which they were created. Much as I don’t personally care for Leonardo’s work, his hands really are a thing of beauty, and perhaps no artist other than Raphael ever paid such close attention to the careful study of the possibilities afforded for gestures in the human hand.

Manos