By Dr. Jilleen Nadolny
While the importance of an artwork’s materials and techniques is a given for conservators and technical art historians, the same is now being recognized by the larger art world. As the value of such information is changing, players in the art market are taking advantage of the important contributions that can be made by material studies of artworks, which can be applied not only to their preservation, but which are also applicable in a much wider context.
Art Analysis & Research (AA&R; http://www.artanalysisresearch.com/), a private international art analytical laboratory and research company serves both the heritage community and the art market and has been working to facilitate this change in how material studies are viewed and understood. While a typical project most often involves the examination, materials analysis and technical imaging for an individual work of art, AA&R has recently engaged with a number of larger projects that have allowed our company to study groups of objects, noting patterns of practice grounded in the choice and use of materials, thereby providing new information to museums and foundations which can contribute greatly to their understanding of and subsequent preservation plans for these collections.
One such project involved the investigation of a group of paintings from Joseph Albers’ Homage to the Square series (this investigation was commissioned by the Albers Foundation, with results to be integrated into an upcoming catalogue raisonné). Another project recently published online (www.rarp.org.uk/2018/06/01/the-findings-analysis-of-larionov-and-gonchar...) presents AA&R’s work undertaken in collaboration with the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, with the support of the Foundation Ludwig, funded by a grant from the Russian Avant-Garde Research Project (RARP), a charity set up to further the understanding of Russian avant-garde art (http://www.rarp.org.uk/). The aim of the project was to study the fourteen works by the 20th-century Russian artists Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov in the Ludwig Collection using a variety of tests and intensive examination in order to significantly contribute to the understanding of the artists’ material practices. As the paintings needed to remain in the Museum, the work was undertaken on-site with Deputy Head of Conservation at the Museum, Petra Mandt, and conservator Verena Franken, assisting in the research under the overall project leadership of Art Analysis & Research.
This interdisciplinary study has provided new insight into the working practices of these artists, allowing for a richer and more nuanced understanding of their work. Goncharova and Larionov allow for a particularly fascinating study of artists’ practices. As an artist couple, their shared approaches influenced each other; the study provides insight into a close working relationship. As members of leading artists’ groups across Russia and Europe such as the ‘Jack of Diamonds’, ‘Moscow Futurists’ and ‘Blue Rider’, Goncharova and Larionov were also highly influential for 20th-century modernism; thus, information collected on their materials and techniques also provides wide ranging implications for the study of their early 20th-century contemporaries.
By using a broad spectrum of advanced technologies (carbon-14 dating, and 3D surface mapping) alongside more typical analytical methods (X-radiography, infrared—SWIR and FLIR IR—imaging, pigment and binding media analysis) and contextual technical art history, the groundwork has been laid in the preparation of a robust technical catalogue raisonné for the two artists.
Going forward, this study will also provide the cornerstone for attribution analysis and the identification of forgeries, the latter being a problem that has plagued the Russian avant-garde, especially Goncharova who currently ranks among the top 10 most expensive female artists at auction.
A clearer, more detailed picture of these two artists’ individual work and creative relationship has been obtained through this study, revealing their experimentation with paints, including their use of mixed media systems in addition to oils. This shows them to have been part of a movement among Russian avant-garde artists who were keen to explore their cultural artistic traditions, such as the use of Russian icon painting techniques, and also reflects the wider interests of early 20th-century painters in mat and mixed media paint effects.
The ways in which they developed their paintings, such as the previously unknown extensive use of preparatory drawing (largely in charcoal) were of particular interest in this study. As has been noted, it is often not possible to image such underdrawings successfully with IR in the context of Impressionist and Modern paintings due in part to the friability of the charcoal medium. Thus, patient surface study of such works under magnification can best document the use of this working method. The use of such sketches allowed the artists to concentrate on their brushwork, one of the signature aspects of both artists, which is often bold and spontaneous in appearance.
The radiocarbon or carbon-14 dating of a group of the canvas supports provided an interesting insight into the results that may be obtained from pre-bomb-curve canvases. As we often work with issues of dating, radiocarbon techniques have been a subject of particular interest for Art Analysis & Research and we have recently looked at the lead time between the date of the harvesting of the plant material to the fabrication of the canvas and their use by the artists. While in this case, the dates were not specific (as pre-bomb-curve radiocarbon results give multiple, broad peaks), the similarities in the results as a group were highly interesting and suggest that it may be worth conducting more comparisons of this nature in the context of a wider study. Equally, the use of this method, in conjunction with the study of pigments used by the artists provided the opportunity to refine the chronology of the works.
One of the exciting features of using technical imaging in this study was the extent to which both Goncharova and Larionov were found to have worked over abandoned paintings or to have simply flipped their canvas over and used the reverse side of abandoned compositions as the support for their next work; this practice was typical of many artists of the period. In early works, both artists were interested in developing particular types of hand-applied painting grounds before later switching to factory-prepared canvas supports.
Unsurprisingly, the study revealed substantial similarities and differences in the working methods and choices of materials employed by this pair of artists. Their move from Russia to France in 1919 provided an impetus for significant changes in their use of materials and techniques. Issues regarding the conservation and preservation of these culturally important works were also revealed in the course of the examination, and the availability of the results will hopefully provide a useful basis to inform conservators investigating these and related paintings.
Such studies of large groups of works by specific painters have the opportunity to provide hugely valuable insights into their works, as has been demonstrated in an exemplary fashion by studies conducted at the Van Gogh Museum as well as the Rembrandt Research Project, among others. It is hoped that such broad studies will be increasingly encouraged and will continue to build on the already available knowledge to enrich our enjoyment and understanding of our cultural heritage.
(for article with complete endnotes, download the "News in Conservation" issue 69, December 2018 here: https://www.iiconservation.org/publications/nic)
Dr Jilleen Nadolny is a historian of art technology and is the Principal Investigator with Art Analysis & Research, Ltd., London. Her research interests include art technology of paintings and written sources for the same, the history of scientific analysis of works of art and art forgery.