X-rays reveal Picasso’s secret

By Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory Medill News Serivce

Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” hides a past life of a former painting.

The Art Institute of Chicago x-rayed the painting to reveal the menagerie image underneath of a woman, child and animals.

The Illinois Institute of Technology, in conjunction with the Chicago Council on Science and Technology and Argonne National Laboratory, hosted a crossroads event Wednesday, bridging the art and science of understanding Picasso.

Art Institute of Chicago conservation scientist Francesca Casadio and painting conservator Allison Langley combined art analysis and scientific techniques to bring to life Picasso’s creative methodologies — secret pictures hidden beneath familiar masterpieces and the mystery of his artistic mediums.

“The Picasso project is part of a big initiative at the Art Institute to catalogue the collection and study its materials and present it to the public,” said Casadio after the presentation called “CSI Picasso.”

For instance, Picasso used an industrial paint mixed with oil paint to create some of his unique colors.

Langley familiarized the audience with the Art Institute’s Picasso collection and provided a brief background about art conservation to recount how pieces such as Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” were found to hide other paintings. X-rays and infrared spectroscopy revealed the past works.

In this way, she introduced a crowd of art enthusiasts to the science behind investigations into Picasso’s work.

“Conservators are essentially art restorers,” explained Langley during the presentation. “We take care of the physical aspects of the collection.”

That can mean carefully controlled temperature and humidity. But revealing hidden paintings requires some science.

A quick glance at the original “Old Guitarist” shows an elderly man tilted meditatively over his guitar, legs crossed in what almost resembles prayer. He is a stark transformation of the image beneath: the silhouette of a graceful woman accompanied by a child and animals.

The inevitable rush of possible reasons behind Picasso’s abandonment of the original painting does nothing to distract the audience from the awe induced by science’s ability to give the orphaned work new life.

Casadio shared personal details of the quest to identify the chemical structure behind Picasso’s so-called “Ripolin” paintings that use Ripolin industrial paint. Combining advanced methods of chemical analysis provided by a partnership with Argonne National Laboratory and document research (a letter found within the artist’s belongings suggesting a combination of a normal type of artistic paint with Ripolin), Casadio and Langley’s team solved puzzles about Picasso’s materials and proved him to be an early champion of industrial materials for the creation of fine art.

“The Ripolin project became an international project to track down this particular paint that the artist used and so we visited many collections to try and descend the usage over time,” said Casadio.

According to Casadio’s presentation, conservators had used clues such as shopping receipts found in Picasso’s belongings to track down the precise paints and materials used to create his works. This line of investigation led them to conclude that he’d used paints manufactured by Ripolin, a French paint brand, in order to create the works in question. Casadio explained that the mystery behind the medium came when they realized that some of the colors Picasso used were not produced by Ripolin.

Casadio received a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry before her love for art led her to pursue a career in conservation science. Langley studied studio art in college and volunteered at museums before taking the plunge into graduate conservation studies in London.

“I cannot claim I’m an artist,” Casadio said. “There’s creativity in science as well, in posing the question and trying to find the answers and in applying scientific means to understand the materials of an artist, I feel I get a connection with the artist and I get to know them better.”

Casadio said she hoped the event brought people behind otherwise-sealed laboratory doors.

According to Langley, “an artist is someone with the creative drive to make things.”

If knowledge, awareness and the insight to combine art and science in the same breath can be called things, then these women have succeeded.

“To me, there’s no left brain or right brain,” said Casadio. “It’s really all together.”

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