Carol Perkins

I work on developing and managing our brand as Brand Executive and Senior Creative at Australia's Science Channel. In between, I get to find out about too many aspects of science to list here and practice the dark art of screen printing. Occasionally I exhibit my work.

The history of art is enriched using X-ray technology.

La Misereuse accroupie (The Crouching Beggar) Pablo Picasso

La Misereuse accroupie (The Crouching Beggar) Pablo Picasso, credit: Art Gallery of Ontario

Until recently the circumstances surrounding much of the early production of Picasso’s sculptures, as well that of sculptures cast during World War II, have remained unclear. Although relatively few exist compared to other mediums, the question of how Picasso could have so many of his plasters cast in bronze when non-ferrous metals were a rare and strategically important commodity in occupied France is of great interest.

Researchers complete first major survey and study of Picasso’s bronzes

Using an x-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry, a research team from Musee national Picasso-Paris and the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS) have collaborated to complete the first major material survey and study of Picasso’s bronzes. The team analysed 39 bronzes (cast between 1905 and 1959) and 11 painted sheet metal sculptures (from the 1960s) held in the collection at the Musee National Picasso in Paris.

Tête de femme de profil 1931, bronze sculpture, Musée national Picasso.

Scientific analysis of metal alloys, coupled with archival information, revealed that five of Picasso’s bronzes created between 1941 and 1942 without a foundry mark, were made at the foundry of Emile Robecchi. In their research the team discovered Robecchi’s alloy compositions varied significantly between 1941 and 1942, possibly because of the scarcity of raw materials, German appropriation of non-ferrous metals for the war efforts, and re-use of scrap metal from brass objects in everyday use. Analysis of Picasso’s sheet metal sculptures of the 1960s shed light on the productive relationship of Picasso with craftsmen in the south of France, revealing the use of silver to render fine details on painted cast iron sheets.

Using the technique of x-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry, a non-invasive analysis of elements used at a work’s surface, the team have created the world’s largest art database of alloy ‘fingerprints’ for early 20th century fine arts bronzes, which includes the composition of the metals and their proportions of copper, tin, zinc and lead. This technique is often used in the elemental and chemical analysis of metals, glass, ceramics and building materials, and for research in geochemistry, forensic science, archaeology and as in this case, art.

Related: Working in Art – Picture Conservation

How using x-ray fluorescent spectrometry uncovers the makeup of Picasso’s work

By measuring the fluorescent (or secondary) x-ray emitted from a sample when it is irradiated by short-wavelength x-rays or gamma rays, each of the elements present in the material sample emits a characteristic fluorescent x-ray (a ‘fingerprint’), unique for that specific element. In this way, researchers have been able to determine the percent of the weight of metals present, and checking against foundry records, have been able to deduce where and when the bronze work was cast.

This x-ray technology has also been put to use in another study of Picasso’s,”La Misereuse accroupie” (The Crouching Beggar, 1902). In an international partnership of the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS), the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., the team used multiple modes of light to uncover  details hidden beneath the visible surface of his painting. The hidden painting is thought to be most likely by a Barcelona painter, whose forms Picasso used to influence parts of his final composition.

Regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso was exceptionally prolific, creating an enormous body of work during his lifetime. As an artist and innovator, he is responsible for co-founding the Cubist movement and is also credited with inventing constructed sculpture. Born in Spain in 1881, Picasso spent most of his adult life working as an artist in France, creating an estimated 50,000 artworks including paintings, prints, ceramics and sculpture, theatre sets and costumes during his life.

These discoveries will help to not only understand Picasso’s sculpture-making process but also uncover the history of artists, dealers and foundries in the production of modern sculpture and painting.

Both of the research was presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting.


Working in Art – Art Conservation

Working In Forensics – Art Forensics

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