Sunday, March 16, 2014

Painting with a bigger brush

Followers of this blog can be forgiven for thinking that my nerdery extends only to simulation games and miniatures. Those are, after all, the parts of my life that I share here. On several occasions, I have made posts about my military history classes, since I'm lucky to have a hobby that intersects with my job.  My passion for other areas of history finds outlets in other forums, mainly though my professional life.

My studies through my undergrad and graduate years had a very strong interdisciplinary cast, not because I couldn't make up my mind, but because I see history, literature, art, and archaeology as revealing, Rashomon-like, a vanished world.  I took a few Art History classes in college and grad school, but my real passion for it came when I served as a teaching assistant to Vincent Scully, a true evangelist for his discipline.

These days, I teach Art History as a senior elective.  Earlier this year, David Love, one of my colleagues in the Visual Arts department, suggested a team-up field trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where one of his friends, Mark Tucker, is the head of the painting conservation department.  I thought a behind-the-scenes look at the museum and the work they do would be a fantastic experience for my students, so I agreed in a heartbeat.

The kids had fun, and I pretty much had an artgasm. It's one thing to see paintings in the galleries, but to get up close to them in the lab was on a whole different level.  The PMA team was responsible for the restoration of Eakins' The Gross Clinic, a front-page story here in Philadelphia for several months. For all of our rude, blue-collar image, Philadelphia is a city that takes it's art seriously.  Anyhow, Mark focused most of our time on how they made decisions regarding that work.  He started with an analysis  of Eakins' technique in other works.  Like most Academic Realists of the mid 19th century, Eakins worked with both subtle and bold tonal differences to convey meaning through light and color. Unusually, he worked from a light base, adding darker shades as he worked out.  This came as a surprise to me, whose experience painting miniatures is to do the opposite, starting with a  dark base and adding successively lighter highlights.

Eakins' unusual technique led many well-intentioned but ill-informed restorers to strip off the dark outer layers of paint to get to what they thought were Eakins' "original" bright colors.  This left some unusual features (like the glowing red tunnel in The Gross Clinic) and undermined the original intent of Eakins. Anyhow, the detective story left a room full of enthralled students.  What a cool day!

These Renaissance panels depicting groups of religious men and women were inches from my elbow as I listened to Mark's talk about Eakins. "Don't bump them...don't bump them..."  They survived intact.

Mark's colleague Sarah shared this nativity scene by Hieronymus Bosch with us. Unlike most paintings by Bosch, there are no erotic elements or grotesque elements here, but the style is unmistakably his.  I had a poster of The Garden of Earthly Delights on my wall in grad school because I'm a sick puppy. Sarah thought she identified a signature on the sword of the knight, who is pointing to it. She smiled indulgently when I offered my Dan-Brown-conspiracy-theory that the sword is really a stand-in phallic symbol, and the the Bosch/knight figure was really indicating the earthly generation of Jesus.  I hope she knew I was kidding. Otherwise I looked like a real idiot.  Heh. 

I'm looking over one of my student's shoulder as he looks through a microscope at a "Near VerMeer".  I've seen my share of VerMeers, and I was more than willing to accept its authenticity.  I'm glad I don't have to make calls like this.

 Mark Turner, seated on the right, describes current projects to a group of students.  Chemistry teacher Jamie Anderson, standing in the rear, also found a lot to keep his interest.
Mark shows us some X-Rays taken of some of the works we discussed.  The detail from the Gross Clinic, above, demonstrates Eakins' technique, with shadowed areas actually appearing lighter than light areas due to the way he worked inward rather than outward.  Below is an X-ray of a Cezanne landscape, revealing how he had painted over a portrait of his wife.  When we went up to the public galleries at the end of the day, it was hard not to see the ghostly image of a sideways woman looking out at us from the sea and hills.  Does seeing things like like this enhance or cheapen the experience of looking at the painting? I suppose the answer lies in whether you would take the red pill or the blue pill.

Post a Comment