Controversial and Drooping Art
Last week I bemoaned the fates of two of my baseball haunts,
Shibe Park and Forbes Field. At the time, I didn''t realize that
both were built in 1909 and both were abandoned by the Major
Leagues in the same year, 1970. By that time Shibe Park had
been renamed Connie Mack Stadium. Forbes Field not only
hosted the Mazeroski 9th inning home run in the seventh game of
the 1960 World Series to beat the Yankees 10-9, but also, in one
game, the last three homers of Boston Braves'' Babe Ruth''s
career. (I apologize to Mets fans for mentioning a 10-9 score.)
In contrast to the above venues, I have never been to the
Brooklyn Museum of Art, which currently hosts a different kind
of cultural endeavor, a British import titled "Sensation". This
Sensation exhibit has been a major topic for weeks in the New
York media. Mayor Giuliani''s crusade against spending public
money on a painting of the Virgin Mary with an elephant dung
breast, not to mention a cross-sectioned cow embedded in plastic,
has been praised or decried as common sense morality or as a
strictly political move.
Whatever the answer, it''s not the first time that the Brooklyn
Museum has been in trouble. Consider the Museum''s painting
"Forest Scene with Brook", a century-old work of the American
artist Ralph Blakelock. According to an article in the April issue
of Discover Magazine, this painting never dried! Over the years,
the brook and its surroundings slowly slid toward the bottom of
the painting. They even tried hanging the picture upside down
but failed to rectify the problem and, according to the article, the
scene has moved off the canvas onto the frame! Needless to say,
this is one painting that will not bring millions of dollars at a
Sotheby auction. Perhaps I shouldn''t be so hasty. Billy Crystal
just paid a couple hundred grand for a much younger piece of
worn leather. Admittedly, the wearer was one Mickey Mantle
who, incidentally, hit his 500th home run in my presence.
Back to the droopy painting. The reason for the flow was due to
the use of a pigment known as Van Dyke brown. This pigment
retarded the drying process responsible for the relative
persistence of other paintings in maintaining their original
structure over centuries. To be more accurate, paintings
generally do not really "dry" since they contain little or no water.
You''re right, I guess we do have to exclude watercolors. Oh, and
you caught me again when you said that Medieval painters used
as a medium egg tempera, made by mixing eggs and water.
However, Renaissance and later painters have generally mixed
their pigments with oils. Not olive oil, which stays liquid for
years and years, but rather oils such as linseed oils which "dry"
not by losing water, but by a process known as polymerization.
Polymerization is key to the memorable statement in the movie
"The Graduate" that Dustin Hoffman''s future was in "plastics".
When exposed to the right conditions, certain materials link
together to form chains and three-dimensional networks that can
be very sturdy, giving you everything from Saran Wrap to the
plastic mouse you used to arrive at this Web site. In the typical
oil painting the medium is something like linseed oil containing
molecules of fat, triglycerides which bedevil some of us at
elevated levels in our blood. When the paint is applied to the
canvas, some carbon atoms in the fat molecules latch onto
oxygen atoms from the air to form cross-links or bridges between
molecules. This results in a skin forming on the surface of the
painting and it feels dry to the touch within hours or days.
But the cross-linking isn''t finished quickly. The skin formed on
the surface of the painting restricts the flow of air and oxygen to
the interior and the polymerization process continues for years
and even centuries. In the process, the polymers become attached
to the fibers of the canvas; no drooping. A strange case of long
term polymerization is the painting "At the Concert" by Renoir.
The 1880 painting shows a rather attractive woman and a young
girl seated in an opera box. Today, if you look carefully, there is
a ghostly figure of a man in evening dress floating above the girl.
An infrared camera reveals the interloper in great clarity.
Why did the gentleman make his appearance over the past
century? Polymerization. To understand the effect you first
need to know that many artists paint over works that don''t fulfill
their expectations. In this case, the speculation is that Renoir
painted the man''s portrait but the guy didn''t pay for it. So, there
he is hiding in back of the two females, aching to get his revenge
for being painted over! In order for this to happen, the opaque
paint covering him has to become transparent.
When the paint was first applied and polymerization set in, the
oils and the pigment particles had different refractive indices.
The refractive index is a measure of how much a given substance
will bend light. An example of this light bending is the well-
known effect that when you look at a fish in a pond, the fish
actually isn''t where it appears to be. What happens is that the
light reflected from the fish travels through the water in a straight
line, then bends when it meets the air, with its different refractive
index. The light now travels on a different straight line into your
eye. In a painting, the pigment particles and the oils have
different refractive indices. The result is that the light gets
scattered and reflected off the pigment particles, making the
paint opaque and giving paintings their deep, rich colors. In the
Renoir, however, as polymerization continues, the refractive
index of the medium changes and comes closer to the index of
the pigments. Now the light doesn''t get reflected as much, but
goes through the topmost layer of the painting and gets reflected
off our revenge-seeking tuxedo-clad man. Voila!
Changing the subject slightly, last week we discussed the spit
ball, which was declared an illegal pitch many years ago. In the
art conservation and restoration world, however, it appears that
saliva plays a perfectly legitimate and constructive role.
According to the Discover article, cotton swabs generously
moistened with saliva are tools of the trade. For paintings coated
with accumulated dust and grime, the enzymes in saliva dissolve
surface proteins and grime, doing no damage to the painting
To determine exactly how a given painting can be treated safely,
the art restorer may invoke chemical analysis of tiny particles
removed from a painting. One method of analysis involves
infrared spectroscopy. Just as visible light can be resolved by
shining through a prism to separate the different colors
(wavelengths), so can light in the infrared region not visible to
the human eye. Another method that could be used involves
combining X-ray fluorescence with the scanning electron
microscopy (SEM) we considered in an earlier column. Here, a
small area of the tiny sample can be made to give off X-rays.
The characteristic wavelengths and intensities of the resulting X-
ray or infrared spectral lines can be used to identify the elements
or compounds present. These are just two of many techniques
for analyzing very small quantities of materials.
The analysis of the contents of a painting can also reveal much of
the history of a painting and in some cases indicate chicanery in
the art world. For example, the expert in art history will know
that certain pigments or media only came into use after certain
dates. If zinc is found in the pigment of a painting touted to be
of Renaissance origin, the painting is probably a fake since zinc
oxide was not employed as a pigment until the 18th century.
The July 18th New York Times magazine section had a very
interesting article on one of the greatest art frauds in history. A
con artist named John Drewe engaged a very talented painter,
John Myatt, to paint copies of various famous artists'' paintings.
These copies were so faithful to the originals that Drewe was
able to flood the art market for a decade between 1986 and 1995.
Even today, the extent of this conspiracy and its effect on the
world market remains uncertain. The sales were processed
through reputable dealers and through auction houses such as
Sotheby''s and Christie''s. At times, various individuals would
raise doubts about the authenticity of the paintings but Drewe
countered these doubts with a very clever ploy. He did thorough
research on the history and ownership of the original works of
art. He then fabricated superbly executed documents that were
provided along with the paintings to support their authenticity.
Surprisingly, the sophisticated analytical techniques available for
the detection of these fakes were not employed. Yet, Myatt told
the police after his arrest in 1995 that he used an easily detected
medium developed in the ''60s, many years after most of the
originals were painted. Even more astounding, he sometimes
used K-Y Jelly to make the consistency of his paints more
workable. Certainly a different use for that compound! Even
though over the years doubts were raised about certain paintings,
it took the daughter of the artist Jean Debuffet to bring things to a
head. She expressed doubts about some of her father''s supposed
paintings and a London art dealer named Waddington found
discrepancies in the signatures and dates on Myatt''s fake
Debuffet paintings. The conspiracy began to unravel.
The whole affair raises the question of how many fake paintings
for which millions have been paid are out there in the hands of
collectors? One conservator who did analyze a Myatt painting
came up with an "inconclusive" report, later saying that she
analyzed only the pigments and not the medium. She may have
missed the K-Y Jelly! Along the same line, there is increasing
publicity being given to the presence of a huge amount of
counterfeiting of sports memorabilia, notably baseball cards and
the like. It appears as though authenticity checks and balances of
another form of "art" have also broken down!
Speaking of breaking down, the Mets probably did their fans a
favor by losing the 6th game against Atlanta. The human body
can only stand so much stress before having a nervous
breakdown! I also need my sleep!
Allen F. Bortrum