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Imaging Techniques Reveal Picasso’s Hidden History

Researchers are using noninvasive imaging technology to analyze the chemistry of the pigments used in the work of artist Pablo Picasso.| Musée national Picasso – Paris, (C) RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris), (C) Succession Picasso 2018

Researchers have uncovered two hidden layers beneath a Pablo Picasso painting from his Blue Period and traced the casting of several Picasso bronzes to “rogue” foundries operating in occupied Paris during World War II.

The discoveries were revealed using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (XRF) and other noninvasive imaging techniques, according to panel of experts during a Feb. 17 news briefing at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting.

The painting, titled “La Miséreuse accroupie” (The Crouching Beggar or The Crouching Woman), was painted by Picasso in 1902 and is currently on exhibit in the Art Gallery of Ontario. It has long been known that an “underpainting” existed under “La Miséreuse,” said Marc Walton, research professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University. Walton also is co-director for the Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts, a partnership between Northwestern and the Art Institute of Chicago known as NU-ACCESS.

A tell-tale sign of underpainting is found in paint textures that do not match the visible image on the work’s surface and Picasso is known to have painted over other works during his Blue Period.

Applying X-ray radiography to the painting reveals a hidden landscape, the lines of which Picasso incorporated into “La Miséreuse,” with the concealed cliff echoing the contours of the crouching woman’s back, Walton said.

To gather more information, researchers used an X-ray fluorescence spectrometry device, which produces grayscale images of the chemical elements of the underlying paint that are characteristic of the pigments used. Knowing the elements enables researchers to create a recoloration of the hidden work, helping art historians to narrow possibilities for the still-unknown landscape artist.

Researchers also uncovered an additional layer between the hidden landscape and the finished work: an earlier version of the woman in “La Miséreuse” painted by Picasso. In the earlier version, the woman’s right arm and hand are visible, unlike the finished work, in which Picasso covered the woman’s hand and arm with a cloak.

“This sort of information allows us to get inside the mind of Picasso, to understand his creative stances, to be able to get a better sense of his working style at this really critical period at the beginning of his career,” said Walton.

A member of the research team was able to connect this element to another work by Picasso that recently sold at auction. That same arm and hand are featured in a watercolor called “Femme assise,” which was painted 1902, the same year as “La Miséreuse.”

XRF has also been central to an unprecedented study of Picasso’s sculptures. The research seeks to understand when and where the works were cast, said Francesca Casadio, the Art Institute of Chicago’s executive director of conservation and science and co-director of NU-ACCESS.

Picasso’s sculptures were not exhibited until the 1960s, late in his life as he considered this work to be very personal, Casadio said. He designed and made comparatively fewer sculptures compared to his paintings and many were unique casts, she said.

Scientists have analyzed the alloy of bronze sculptures by Picasso using an “elemental fingerprinting” technique to uncover clues about how, when and where they were cast. | Musée national Picasso – Paris, (C) RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris), (C) Succession Picasso 2018

NU-ACCESS has analyzed 39 bronzes held by the Musée Picasso in Paris using XRF, which creates a “fingerprint” of the alloys, including the composition of the metals and their proportions of copper, tin, zinc and lead, Casadio said. By establishing the percent in weight of the metals and consulting foundry records and invoices, researchers can deduce when and where a particular work was cast.

Five bronzes were traced to the foundry of Emile Robecchi and determined to be cast in 1941 and 1942 when the city was under German occupation. At the time, the government was seizing metal – “your faucets, your handrails, your brass railings” – for the war effort, said Casadio. The most established foundries ceased operations during the war, but several “rogue founders,” including Robecchi, continued casting works in the outskirts of Paris using hidden metals, Casadio said.

Although commercial XRF devices are available, the researchers have created their own portable version that allows information about works of art to be more easily gathered, Walton said.

“We can go in storage, we can go in the galleries and do the analysis without these precious objects ever having to leave their home,” Casadio said.

The panel emphasized the collaborative nature of their projects, efforts that bridge and connect art, science and engineering. To replicate the image resolution achieved by a commercial XRF, for instance, researchers collaborate with computer scientists and apply signal processing to their work.

“Curatorial research needs a missing piece and the missing piece is really provided by the scientific studies,” said Casadio.  “We can write a richer story, a richer history of art that is enriched by scientific findings.”

[Associated image: Musée national Picasso – Paris, (C) RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris), (C) Succession Picasso 2018]