When art tells us things / Quan l’art et parla. Diàlegs d’un restaurador.

The day you find yourself just a few centimeters away from a piece of art, you start realizing the importance of the conservator-restorer’s job. No doubt, it is an emotional experience to have the opportunity to observe and perceive, or even to smell, for the first time an altar piece created hundreds of years ago, when you do so with the intention to preserve it from further deterioration. Not only in order to continue to enjoy it, but also because of the gratifying idea that the art piece in question will survive for many, many more years.

Centuries ago, someone did create the pìece. With dedication and craftsmanship. Possibly not with the intention that it would last forever, but nonetheless, today the artistic and emotional value of this specific piece is unique. And to have it so very close to you, is an exciting sensation.

You will agree with me that it is not the same to read a book electronically, compared to its printed version. For the same reason, the perception you get from a picture of a piece of art, cannot be the same as from seeing it in a museum. Or even better, in its original context. Can you imagine, e.g., that instead at its location in the old “Gotic” area, you would find the cathedral of Barcelona near to the Mediterranean Sea besides the Hotel Arts? Would you admire this work of art and perceive its old history, in the same manner? No, of course not. Nonetheless, and surprisingly enough, today you can find in the U.S.A. medieval cloister from European origin, transferred and rebuilt stone by stone, because not too many years ago – when this type of “business” still was allowed officially – some rich people could afford to acquire them…

The idea of my article is to offer you a first step into the world of information which a piece of art can provide us. Possibly, so far you never have realized that the piece itself can reveal us its history. Its origin and by whom and when it was created.

No doubt, you are more or less familiar (thanks to “crimis” like Crime Scene Investigation) with  the specific and delicate research to be done by the police investigators when trying to find out the circumstances under which a murder was committed. Well, I can assure you that very often the research that has to be done by a team of experts dealing with a newly discovered art-piece, is quite comparable. The amount of information detected by a team of restorers-conservators, historians of art, and chemists, can be astonishing.

So far, you possibly have thought that the answers to some questions are simple. When you’re asked for the painter’s name who created El Guernica, you would answer: Picasso. Simple, isn’t it? Especially when you can see his signature. However, there do exist pieces of fine art which by lack of a signature, in the past were attributed to a specific artist, which nonetheless were created, or partly finished, in the same studio by some of his assistants with a comparable technique. How can we verify if it is a “piece of the master himself” or not? Sometimes this results to be impossible. On the other hand, this is not always the most important question. From a historical point of view, it might be more interesting to know when the artwork was created, or with which materials. Or to examine if the piece in question was submitted to some modifications, in order to be able to distinguish between the original version and the later one.

How can we know when the piece was created if it is not dated? Well, in the case of a painting, we do know that some special colours only could be used from a certain period on. We know, e.g. that the “Verona Green” colour was used only by the Impressionists during the 19th century. Since afterwards it turned out to be toxic, they stopped using it.

In case of sculptures, e.g. the existence (or lack) of traces left by the tools, can help us to fix a possible date of their creation. How do you think the very oldest ones were made, when there were not yet any metal tools, hammers or chisels available? The tools could not leave behind marks on the piece itself, so, if you now see some, you can bet it is a copy.

Sometimes, however, it is really complicated to fix a date for a piece of art. It can happen that during its lifetime, some adaptations or modifications were done in order to complete the art piece’s lecture with the intention to sell it at a better price.

Here is an example of it. Just imagine a 90% deterioration, caused by water filtration, of a painting of the XVIth century from a private collection. Let’s suppose that two hundred years later, by financial need, the owner had to sell it, so he then had to find someone capable to repaint the white areas, copying the original style and colours from another painting of the same period. Today, looking at this painting, how can we know which part is still the original one and which part was restored? At the time, photographs did not yet exist!

Let’s also presume that nobody ever made a sketch, drawing or detailed description of the painting. Well, in this specific case we could make use of the so-called X-ray technique, similar to the one used in hospitals to make photographs of broken bones. Doing this, we then possible would discover that the various colours applied, are not from the same period, and that although for the human eye the “white” areas sometimes look similar, there do exist differences in shade when seen under X-ray. And different shades can mean different components and/or origins of the pigments which were used. So, we then would know from which period is each of the parts (although we still would not have the full composition of the original).

What to do when the painting was suffering from burning? How can we recognize the original colours? How can we find out if a specific colour we now see as “black”, originally was a so-called “blue azure”? We know that each pigment has its own chemical composition, and that at a given temperature some elements of the originals do change its characteristics and consequently do convert into a different composition. E.g., at 400-500ºC lead monoxyde (PbO) will transform into minium (Pb3O4); both components will show off very different colours.

It is thanks to this know-how and the help of some special techniques – which have such complicated names as the electronic microscope with elemental analysis, or the diffraction of X-rays – that we are able to identify the original colours.

I hope that I made clear to you that very often it results to be complicated to identify a piece of art, since this requires a lot of specific knowledge, analysis and experience. Nonetheless, did you ever think that the piece itself could provide us so much information? Possibly, the next time you find yourself in front of a painting, a sculpture, or a archeological piece of stone, you will observe it with much more attention and curiosity: they can tell you their own story!


Un no és conscient del que significa ser conservador-restaurador fins que no és a escassos centímetres d’una obra d’art. És emocionant poder observar, olorar i percebre un retaule creat fa centenars d’anys i intentar preservar-lo del pas del temps, allargar-li els anys de vida. No tant perquè les persones en puguem seguir gaudint sinó perquè la peça pugui seguir existint. Algú la va crear, potser no amb la intenció de que perdurés durant segles, però el valor d’aquella creació és únic i mantenir-lo viu és una feina gratificant. Potser estareu d’acord amb mi que no és el mateix llegir un llibre electrònic que un llibre en paper, de la mateixa manera que no es percep igual una obra d’art a través d’una foto en un llibre que vista en un museu o, millor encara, en el seu context original. La lectura no és la mateixa. Heu pensat mai com veuríeu la catedral de Barcelona si enlloc de ser al barri Gòtic, estigués al costat de l’hotel de Les Arts? Creieu que l’entendríeu igual? Creieu que rebríeu la mateixa informació sobre la seva història? Sabíeu que podeu trobar claustres medievals originaris d’Europa, reconstruïts peça per peça en ciutats dels Estats Units perquè algú fa molts anys, quan encara era possible fer aquestes coses, va decidir comprar-los?

Aquest article pretén endinsar-se una mica en això: en la informació que ens proporciona una obra d’art. Potser no us havíeu plantejat mai que una peça pogués explicar-nos la seva història: d’on ve, qui la va fer, quan va ser creada. Potser a alguns de vosaltres us crida l’atenció la feina que fan els investigadors de la policia criminal quan han de descobrir en quines circumstàncies han assassinat una persona, i segur que molts esteu enganxats a sèries com la de Crime Scene Investigation. Doncs us puc assegurar que no té res a envejar a la feina d’investigació que un equip d’experts pot realitzar sobre una obra d’art. La informació que en poden extraure un grup de restauradors-conservadors, historiadors d’art i químics, pot resultar sorprenent.

Fins ara potser crèieu que era fàcil obtenir resposta a certes preguntes. Si us demanessin qui va fer El Guernica, respondríeu que Picasso. Resulta fàcil si l’obra és signada, oi? Doncs bé, hi ha obres que històricament s’han atribuït a certs autors perquè la seva signatura hi constava, però que en realitat van ser fetes, en part o totalment, per d’altres mans: ajudants de taller de l’artista en qüestió, per exemple, que dominaven tant la tècnica del seu mestre, que resulta gairebé impossible identificar si l’obra és feta pel propi autor o no. Com podem saber doncs del cert qui va crear l’obra? A vegades no resulta possible. Però a vegades tampoc  és el més important. Històricament interessa potser més saber: quan es va fer una obra en concret; amb quins materials; o si s’han realitzat canvis posteriors sobre la mateixa per a poder diferenciar què és original i què no.

Com podem saber quan es va fer una obra si no és datada? Doncs en el cas d’una pintura, perquè, per exemple, sabem que certs colors només apareixen a partir de certes èpoques: sabíeu que el verd Veronès, per exemple, només va ser emprat al segle XIX pels impressionistes, i que el seu ús s’abandonà perquè resultava tòxic? En el cas d’una escultura, poden ser les marques o l’absència de marques d’eines les que ens ajudin a establir la possible data d’una obra: com creieu que es devien fer les figures més antigues, quan encara no s’havia descobert el metall i no existien cisells o martells? No trobareu pas marques d’aquestes eines sobre elles, i si és així, potser hem de pensar que són una còpia.

A vegades no resulta senzill establir la data d’una obra. Sovint, al llarg de la història, s’han realitzat intervencions que pretenien recuperar la lectura d’una peça amb la intenció de vendre-la millor. Imaginem un quadre del segle XVI en una residència privada que es fa malbé degut a unes filtracions d’aigua, per la qual cosa es perd el 90% de la pintura. Dos-cents anys més tard es vol vendre per necessitats econòmiques, i algú hi pinta omplint els espais en blanc, intentant imitar un estil i uns colors originals, agafant com exemple un altre quadre de l’època. Com sabríem avui quina part és original i quina no? No hi havien fotos en aquella època! Suposem que ningú va fer cap dibuix del quadre, que ningú va fer-ne cap descripció. En aquest cas, una radiografia de raigs X, com la que ens fan per a saber si ens hem trencat un os, ens ajudaria a descobrir que els colors emprats no són de la mateixa època: dos blancs aparentment iguals, poden aparèixer diferent en una radiografia, un més fosc que l’altre, indicant diferent composició i origen. Sabríem que un és d’una època i l’altre d’una diferent. Seguiríem sense saber com era l’original, però sabríem quina part del quadre seria originària  del segle XVI i quina no.

I si la pintura s’hagués cremat? Com podríem reconèixer els colors originals? Com és possible descobrir que un color que ara veiem negre, originàriament era d’un color anomenat blau atzurita? Sabem que cada color té una composició química determinada, però a certes temperatures alguns elements poden patir transformacions i derivar en un altre compost. Un monòxid de plom (PbO) a uns 400-500 ºC es pot transformar en un mini (Pb3O4) i els dos compostos tenen colors molt diferents. Doncs és gràcies a aquests coneixements que podem intentar identificar els colors originals, i també perquè sabem que les partícules que composen els pigments canvien la seva forma quan són sotmeses a temperatures elevades, i aquesta forma és específica per a cada compost. Si les observem amb les tècniques adequades (tècniques que sonen tan estranyes com la “microscopia electrònica amb anàlisi elemental” o la “difracció de raigs X”), podem establir quins serien els colors originaris d’una pintura cremada.

Així doncs, veieu que la feina de reconeixement d’una obra d’art no resulta senzilla i que requereix de molts coneixements, experimentació i anàlisi. Havíeu imaginat mai que una peça us pogués donar tanta informació? La propera vegada que us trobeu davant d’un quadre, una escultura o una peça d’arqueologia, l’observareu amb més deteniment? Tindreu curiositat per allò que us pugui dir? Només heu de mirar-la amb deteniment!

Inés Legemaate

I like to receive inputs from what I see, hear, read, experience and talk about, and then recycle (or not) and express it through a writing, drawing or painting process.

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