Sunday, July 11, 2010

New Technology Answers Questions of Creativity

Henri Matisse as he was painting “Bathers by a River” in 1913, which went through a seven-year evolution as the artist continued to make changes. These changes can now be traced using X-ray technology.

Photo courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester, NY.

In an evolutionary exhibit first shown at the Art Institute of Chicago the exhibition’s organizers, John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Stephanie d’Alessandro, the curator of modern art at the Art Institute of Chicago, have brought together 40 paintings, drawings and sculptures they examined with the latest digital imaging techniques, laser scanning, ultraviolet illumination and state-of-the-art computer software. The art curators also tested paint samples and studied fresh material unearthed from the artist’s family archives in Issy-les-Moulineaux, a Paris suburb.

Although art historians have traditionally been able to track the changes of an artists work by studying paintings in progression, without this high-tech approach they had no clear idea of exactly how those changes were developed: how much hands-on experimenting went into the new work and what formal processes of study, revision and rejection were involved. Now those mysteries have been largely solved, thanks to an extraordinary array of technologies deployed in putting together “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917,” an exhibition that July 18th at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Ms. d’Alessandro and Mr. Elderfield got the idea for the show after they started examining “Bathers by a River,” which Matisse worked on from 1909 to 1916. “Matisse said it was one of the most pivotal works in his career,” Ms. D’Alessandro said in an interview. “By studying the painting in depth we began to see a new chronology that hadn’t been seen before, one which explained what he meant by that statement.”

Henri Matisse. Bathers by a River. 1909–10, 1913, 1916–17. Oil on canvas. 102 1/2 x 154 3/16" (260 x 392 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection. © 2010 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

With this technology, the curators could see changes in the outlines of figures beneath the painting’s surface, revealing a constantly shifting landscape of figures, with stronger lines and more intense tones over time. “We were never sure” of the degree to which “he transformed the canvas,” Mr. Elderfield said. “He kept going back. Yet he always stopped before a work looked finished.”

Before turning to high-tech analysis, the conservators removed the varnish and previous restorations from “Bathers, ”which had yellowed over the years, obscuring the artist’s palette; as a result, the colors came through more brightly. They were also able to unravel the steps in the making of a suite of four large-scale relief sculptures depicting the back of a woman inspired in part by “Three Bathers,” a Cézanne painting owned by Matisse. The sculptures, which he began around the time he was working on “Bathers” and developed over 23 years, also grew more and more radical over time.

By implementing laser scanning, the process that went into the sculptures’ evolution became evident. The first, depicting a classical, round female body, was made in clay and then he cut two casts in plaster, one to make in bronze, the other to use as a starting point for the next sculpture. The scanning showed exactly how he used a cast from the previous sculpture for each of the four works, changing the surface of each succeeding figure until the overall form had a flatter surface and was quite stark and architectural, strikingly similar to many of his paintings during the same period.

Ultimately the curators were able to chart the course of Matisse’s thinking as he added or subtracted details, and juggling several works at once, borrowing from one, experimenting with another, never quiet satisfied. The result is a far more complete portrait of the artist during one of the least understood, yet critical, periods in his life. Read more here...

(c) 2009 - Ruth Mitchell - all rights reserved

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