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Did Neanderthals Produce Cave Paintings?

This cave art was made around 37,300 years ago, when both Neanderthals and humans inhabited Europe. Credit Pedro Saura.

It may be time to stop using the word Neanderthal as an insult for people we think lack culture, intelligence and any concept of aesthetics.

Or at least that’s what Spanish Neanderthal expert João Zilhão would argue. He’s just published a paper in Science that identifies Neanderthals as possible artists for three paintings in Spain’s El Castillo and Altamira caves.

The work suggests stereotyping Neanderthals as “dumb” may be incorrect, Zilhão says. “From what we know of Neanderthals, there’s no reason to think they didn’t have the capacity” to be creative artists.

Zilhão and his colleagues used an interesting method (more on that later) to date the cave art to between 35,600 and 40,800 years ago…  a time when both Neanderthals and early humans likely coexisted in Europe. (They also dated some 47 other cave paintings, whose younger ages finger humans as the artists.)

This is not the first time Zilhão has found evidence suggesting Neanderthals in Europe were neither cognitively inferior nor less creative than their Homosapien contemporaries in Africa. Continue reading →

Finding The Culprit For Van Gogh’s Darkening Yellows

Van Gogh's Vase with Sunflowers is getting a pigment check-up this week. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Sunflower still-life series is possibly Vincent van Gogh’s most famous work. Unfortunately the warm yellow hues that make the paintings memorable come from pigments that don’t have a long life-expectancy.

During the 19th century, chrome yellow pigments came in to fashion among painters and then quickly went out again, as artists realized that the vibrant yellow color was unstable and would lose its vibrancy when exposed to light.

For example, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir both steered clear of the chrome yellow pigments. But van Gogh threw caution to the wind and continued to use chrome yellow until his suicide in 1890—a tragic hint, perhaps, of his own instability and imminent breakdown.

This week, conservation scientists at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam have been taking a closer look at chrome yellow pigments in Vase with Sunflower, and a few other paintings, to learn more about the degradation problem.
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Drilling Holes In To One Painting To Look For Another. Hmm…

Drilling into a Vasari painting to look for a da Vinci. Credit: National Geographic.

This blog devotes a lot of digital real-estate to cool experiments on art and artifacts that are non-invasive, or at least minimally so.

So I’ve got to admit that I was not particularly overwhelmed by the breathless reports last week in a myriad of media about a project to drill 14 holes into a Vasari painting in order to search for a possibly hidden da Vinci below.

The articles were subsequent to a press release by National Geographic on March 12, which was presumably trying to raise interest in a documentary about the project airing a few days later (March 18).

Yesterday the well-respected Art-Info published an interesting take-down of the drilling project, entitled “The Search for the Lost Da Vinci Fresco: Serious Science or Irresponsible Hype?”

The piece pointed to a protest-petition against the project signed by 530 members of the museum community, including high-profile curators at the Met and the Louvre.

According to the Art-Info article, none of these critical folks got face-time in the National Geographic Channel documentary. This is how the writer Kate Deimling put it:

    “”Finding the Lost Da Vinci,” which aired on the National Geographic Channel on March 18, certainly looked like an infomercial for the project. The program’s narrator describes opposition to the drilling as a “media feeding frenzy” and an “attack from the press,” but none of the experts opposed to it is interviewed or even mentioned by name. Instead, scientists in lab coats decry the opposition to their work and are then seen boring holes into the painting while dramatic music plays.”

The Art-Info piece also voices criticism from the conservation science community, namely that the pigments detected by the drilling project might be from brick instead of paint.

Another criticism is that non-invasive analytical equipment (such as newer radar technologies) should be used instead of destructive drilling.

Rare Aztec Document Gets A Check-Up

The first page of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, a rare Aztec document painted on deer-skin prior to Cortez's conquest. Credit: Liverpool World Museum.

In 1521, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish invaders, who burned libraries and destroyed most of the manuscripts pertaining to Aztec history, religious rituals and economy.

The Codex Fejérváry-Mayer is one of just two dozen or so Aztec texts to survive the Spanish invasion.

It’s also just one of just six screenfold books that were penned before Cortez started his conquest of Mexico’s indigenous people.

So suffice to say that it’s a pretty exceptional record of the pre-Spanish Mesoamerican world.

This codex is called a screenfold book because Aztec scholars would literally twist and fold the 22-page, double-sided document to cross-reference a particular date to two calendar cycles: the yearly cycle of 365 days and the sacred cycle of 260 days (called tonalpohualli).

Joanna Ostapkowicz, a curator at the World Museum in Liverpool, which hosts Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, explains it in this way:

“In the hands of ritual practitioners and other high-ranking individuals, the codex became a guide for people’s actions. The screenfold’s internal reading structure is right to left and is determined by the number-and-sign sets of the calendar: how the images and symbols cross-referenced each other was then interpreted by the reader, who was well versed in the significance of the various icons. Although an object of great respect, the codex was also a tactile, malleable reference tool: a user could consult both sides simultaneously by folding parts of the codex onto itself. Reading it offered guidance on appropriate days to travel, to celebrate a deity’s beneficence with sacrifices, to plant crops or to name a child.”

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Think You Can Identify A Van Eyck?

Three Maries At The Tomb by a Van Eyck brother, or possibly both.

Many art historians have eyed Three Maries At The Tomb and agreed that it’s a Van Eyck. What’s debated is whether Jan painted the artwork or whether it was his older brother Hubert. Or more likely, whether the painting was a sibling collaboration.

For example, the brothers both worked on the famous Ghent Altarpiece: An inscription on the back says it was started by Hubert and finished by Jan, six years after Hubert’s death.

However, art historians debate which brother had a greater influence on the paintings in the Ghent Altarpiece. Did Jan humbly follow his older brother’s stylistic lead or did Jan turn the artwork into a masterpiece with his own artistic flair? Continue reading →

Post At Newscripts On Lavoisier Portrait

It’s not exactly conservation-related, but I’ve added a post to the Newscripts blog that may appeal to Artful Science Readers. It’s about the fascinating provenance of an iconic portrait of pioneering chemist Antoine Lavoisier and his wife.

Christians Artists Embellished Spain’s Muslim Paintings

The interior paintings of Granada's Madrasah Yusufiyya in Spain date from 1349. Credit: Carolina Cardell.

For nearly 800 years, the Islamic Moors occupied Spain, building extraordinary buildings that still draw hordes of tourists today. Case in point: the Alhambra.

Less well known is the Madrasah Yusufiyya of Granada, the only Islamic university from the Moorish era left standing in Spain. It was built in 1349 and operated for about 150 years, until the Christians conquered the region in the late 1400s.

The lovely Madrasah Yusufiyya was then used extensively by the Christians, most likely as administration buildings, says Carolina Cardell a conservation scientist at the University of Granada.

In fact the Christians liked the building so much, Cardell says, that in the last 500 years they have done a lot of touching up, repainting, restoring and embellishing of paintings covering the stucco and wooden interior walls of the Madrasah Yusufiyya.

Yet art historians haven’t really known the extent of these interventions. So over the past few years, while the Madrasah Yusufiyya has been under restoration, Cardell and her team of scientists took a closer look at the paintings with a suite of analytical technology. She’s just published a paper in Analytical Chemistry about the interventions to the Madrasah Yusufiyya over the past 500 years. Continue reading →

When Acrylic Paints Get A Spa Day

Andy Warhol's acrylic portrait of Brooke Hayward needed the surfactant that had exited the painting to be cleaned off. Conservation scientists used surface imaging technology to monitor the cleaning process. Credit: MOLAB.

When acrylic paint was introduced in the late 1940s it was a boon for artists with a penchant for instant gratification: Acrylics dry within hours, compared to the weeks and sometimes months it takes for oil paint to completely harden.

But few things in life are perfect, and acrylic paint is no exception. In order to keep pigments stable in the acrylic polymer base, paint makers had to include additives called surfactants. Unfortunately, after a few years or decades, the surfactants get itchy feet and rise out of the paint to the surface of the artwork.

Once there, these surfactants can leave a white film on priceless paintings and they can also be sticky, attracting dirt and grime to the artwork.

In this week’s C&EN, my colleague Celia Arnaud digs deep in to acrylic paint chemistry and talks with conservation scientists about what they do to remedy the problem of wandering surfactant.

Unfortunately, many existing solvents that might be used to clean off the surface of acrylic artworks tend to make the paint swell… This makes museum staff nervous because it’s not clear what long term consequence come from this swelling. Another problem is that solvents that don’t cause acrylic paints to swell aren’t typically good cleaners.

That’s why researchers at the Tate Galleries in London, the Getty Conservation Institute in LA and the DOW chemical company have teamed up to try and find a solvent that cleans but does not swell acrylic paint. At the same time researchers at the University of Delaware are working with Golden Artist Colors, a paint company, to work out good cleaning conditions for acrylic paintings.

If these researchers hit paydirt, acrylic paintings around the world will finally get that facial treatment they’ve all been needing.

Keeping Visitors Out To Keep Cave Paintings Safe

Guest post from Carmen Drahl, a C&EN’s Associate Editor and Haystack blogger.

Overview of the best preserved area of the famous Polychrome Chamber in Altamira Cave. At the end are members of the research team and micro-environmental monitoring station. © MNCN-CSIS, Spain

Growing up, I spent every summer in northern Spain, living in my grandmother’s Oviedo flat and wandering the city and surrounding villages with distant cousins. One of my greatest regrets is never having taken the 3 hour drive to what my grandma called “las Cuevas de Altamira”, the storied caves and UNESCO World Heritage Site that house some of the world’s most striking examples of Paleolithic art.

The caves have been closed to visitors on and off since their discovery in the late 1870s. But they’ve been shuttered indefinitely since 2002, because microbial colonies encroached on the priceless scenes of bison and deer on the stone ceilings. Government officials in Cantabria, the Spanish autonomous community where the cave is situated, would like to reopen Altamira to tourists. Today, in a policy forum in the journal Science (DOI:10.1126/science.1206788), researchers led by Cesareo Saiz-Jimenez from the Spanish Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), argue that would be a bad idea. The team, which has been dealing with the microscopic invaders firsthand, says that letting visitors back into the cave’s fragile ecosystem would quickly undo any good that the closure has done and could cause irreparable damage. Continue reading →

Using A Digital Light Projector To Restore Mark Rothko Paintings

Different versions of the same painting. Left: the Rothko painting in its faded form. Middle: The ektachrome photo that had turned too red with time. Right: The painting color-corrected back to 1963. (Apologies for the distorted shot. I was sitting off-center from the PPT projection.)

One of the coolest talks I saw at the ICOM-CC conference in Lisbon last week came from Jens Stenger, a conservation scientist at the Harvard Art Museums in Boston. He had the tricky task of figuring out what to do about five paintings by Mark Rothko in the museum’s collection that were so damaged from sunlight exposure that crimson paint on the canvas had turned to blue.

If just a tiny corner of the paintings were light damaged, museum staff might have considered retouching the artwork with a little paint. But a massive fraction of the massive panels were seriously light-damaged.

And these days the trend in art conservation is to minimize interventions on art, especially contemporary art. So a team of curators, conservators and scientists decided that, “repainting was NOT the way to go,” Stenger said.

But everyone thought museum visitors would want to know how the artwork had looked before the light damage. So what to do?

The solution Stenger came up with is pretty cool: Figure out the exact coloration of the originals. Display the artwork as is, but set up a digital light projector that can cast an image on to the canvases. This projected image temporarily makes the paintings appear as they did when Rothko finished them in 1963. Switch off the projector and the paintings are returned to their current-day states. It’s effectively restoration with an undo button. (And as an aside, the amount of light delivered by the projector is not sufficient to continue to harm the painting.)
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