Physicists and X-ray help solve Picasso mystery

By Ted Gregory, Chicago Tribune

Some call the collaboration between the Art Institute and Argonne National Laboratory “Picasso CSI.”

It lacks a heart-pounding chase scene of a TV drama, though, and nothing explodes in flames. But there is a love story, cutting-edge science and a piece of equipment likened to the gun of adventurer Lara Croft, tomb raider in a tight outfit. And there’s eBay.

The end remains unwritten, but the partnership has produced an answer to a heated topic that has vexed the art world for decades: Pablo Picasso was the first artist to use common house paint in his work and spread that practice widely, Argonne said.

It also has drawn the two historically distant worlds of cultural heritage experts and scientists together for what the museum’s art sleuth calls “a paradigm shift in art historical circles” with the capacity to rewrite art history.

A new look at some of that history will be unveiled at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Illinois Institute of Technology, as part of Chicago Ideas Week. Art Institute paintings conservator Allison Langley and the museum’s conservation scientist Francesca Casadio will show for the first time in public X-rays of a number of Picasso’s most beloved paintings.

The endeavor that led to the conclusion about Picasso started in 2006, when the Art Institute was preparing for a Picasso installation. Administrators challenged the museum’s department of conservation science to get to the bottom of the nagging question of whether the iconic artist used paints he might also have slapped on his bedroom walls.

Casadio, a chemist who directs the Art Institute’s conservation science department, traveled throughout Europe, tracking down a somewhat obscure paint company. Surfing through the French version of eBay, she found and bought the company’s old paint stored in attics, among other places.

She also visited several museums featuring Picasso pieces and wielded a handheld X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, a device about the size of a blow dryer that can detect inorganic elements in a variety of objects, including paintings. Casadio refers to the device, called XRF for shorthand, as her “Lara Croft gun,” a reference to the action film series featuring Angelina Jolie.

“Airport security’s not always happy to see it,” Casadio said, “but I tell them it’s a fancy hair dryer to do paint testing.”

The tale took a significant turn in 2010, when Casadio’s colleague Gwen Gautier was talking with her boyfriend, Argonne National Lab scientist Jerald Kavich, about the saga of tracking down the house paint answer. Kavich said Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source, which produces extremely bright, intense X-rays that allow scientists to see particles at the molecular level, might be helpful.

It was. Starting in the summer of 2010 and continuing through the summer of 2011, Argonne APS physicist Volker Rose and Casadio collaborated, analyzing five or six Picasso paint samples and about 15 made by the company, all about as small as a grain of salt. Their analysis of the samples, removed from Picasso’s pieces by using micro-manipulating tools on errant drips, was critical in finding that, indeed, Picasso used the first commercial house paint made by the Ripolin company, as early as 1912.

The famously prolific Picasso’s affinity for house paint sparked an upheaval in the use of traditional art materials, while creating a legacy of glossy paintings with clean edges, defined brush strokes, marbling, even paint drips that the fast-drying enamel and later acrylics allowed. The theory is that Picasso used the enamels because he could produce paintings faster — experts say the artist created more than 10,000 paintings — with those instead of conventional tube paint.

The APS, which provides the brightest X-ray beams in the Western Hemisphere, is used in nearly every scientific field to analyze the structure and function of materials at a molecular level. Its findings are applied widely — to combustion engines, microcircuits, pharmaceuticals and nanotechnology, the lab’s website states. An estimated 5,000 scientists worldwide have worked in the APS.

In an intriguing twist on science and history, the zinc oxide at the heart of Picasso’s house paint a century ago also is a very “hot topic” in applied physics today, Rose said. The material is being used in transistors for displays, ultraviolet light emitters, even as a semiconductor in chemical sensors, he said.

“What physicists don’t know is that they are studying Picasso’s paint,” Rose said.

On the arts’ side, the use of extremely intense X-rays is revolutionizing the work of cultural historians, Casadio said.

“We understand in a different way what (artists) were thinking and what they were interested in,” she said.

No longer must historians depend only on original documents, which can be challenging to find, or rely on years of studying an artist’s tendencies to theorize what he or she may have done, Casadio said.

Now, cultural historians can go to the X-ray machine. And a more certain and specific knowledge of an artwork’s makeup gleaned from the machine can improve greatly its treatment, preservation and restoration, Casadio said.

“It clarified a lot,” she said.

And the partnership helped both sides professionally.

Casadio noted that the work may have aided the Art Institute, in a project with Northwestern University, to secure a $500,000 National Science Foundation grant last month. That work will focus on bio-based, non-petroleum paint and coatings that may be used on cars, she said.

Rose called it “a very refreshing collaboration” in which he has “learned many new things that I can also translate into more conventional scientific research.”

He has also been invited to speak at cultural heritage gatherings.

The relationship helped him “jump-start new work,” including an effort with the Smithsonian Institution analyzing early photographs known as daguerreotypes to understand how materials composing them are made and how to preserve the images, Rose said.

“I very much enjoy working with cultural heritage scientists,” he said. “And let’s be honest, it’s so much easier for me to talk to my neighbors about Picasso paints than quantum gravity theory.”

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