Secrets lurk beneath -- and on -- the surface

PORTFOLIO

January 07, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

When you look at a painting, what do you see? Do you focus on the details: the thickness of the paint, the brushwork, or, if the work is older, the tiny cracks in its surface? Or do you simply stand back and revel in its entirety? Does one way of looking preclude the other?

These questions came up when I was reading a recently published book titled, "How to Use Your Eyes" (Routledge, 2000) in which author James Elkins makes a fine case for the notion that many of us look, but few actually see.

Elkins, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, invites us to look -- really look -- at the world around us. In one chapter, he describes at length how to view culverts, or the tunnels that allow water to flow beneath roads. In others, he tells us how to see moths' wings, a face, an Egyptian scarab, a shoulder, sand.

In a chapter called, "How to Look at An Oil Painting," Elkins gives instructions for deciphering cracks in Old Masters paintings. Citing a method devised by Spike Bucklow, a conservator at the University of Cambridge, the author outlines how to "read" the cracks in paintings -- or the craquelure -- for clues to their origin, makeup and age.

Perhaps someone bumped the back of a canvas while moving it. It might cause a spiral of cracks in the paint. What if someone scraped the canvas? The cracks would be concentrated along the injury.

Bucklow dubs cracks caused by the contractions of paint as it hardens, "drying cracks." These look like the fissures you see in a riverbed during a drought.

Cracks caused by movement in the background materials -- usually wood paneling or a wooden frame that supports the canvas are called "brittle cracks." These resemble a shattered windshield.

Elkins urges readers: "Don't look at the paintings in the ordinary way. Stoop down so you catch the glare of the lights, and look up at the paintings."

I decide to take his advice.

And to cheat a little, too.

I walk to the Walters Art Museum, where I have arranged to meet Eric Gordon, head of the museum's painting conservation department. My plan is to follow Elkins' instructions, then ask Gordon to check my results.

I choose two paintings; the first is "The Annunciation," an early 15th-century depiction of the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel by artists Bicci di Lorenzo and Stefano di Antonio. My second choice is Englishman Briton Riviere's "Syria, the Night Watch, 1880," a moody painting of lions prowling amid ruins.

"The Annunciation" looks amazingly good for a 560-year-old. Created in Florence with tempera and gold leaf on wood panel, it shows Mary and Gabriel beneath golden arches. Behind them a door is open, revealing a bed with a vivid red coverlet.

According to Bucklow, cracks in an Italian painting on wood from the 1300s and 1400s often have a predominant direction; are perpendicular to the wood grain; have small or medium-sized centers; and sometimes have a secondary network of cracks.

Indeed I find all these characteristics. Cracks cross the painting horizontally -- apparently running perpendicular to the grain of the panel. They have easily visible centers, but there's no secondary network.

Now Gordon takes a look.

Conservators these days don't rely on vision alone to decipher cracks in paintings. Gordon typically has at his disposal an arsenal of techniques including X-rays, chemical analysis and microscopy.

Nonetheless, "You start with experience," he says. "You come to the painting with a background in art history, chemistry and studio art. By the time you arrive at the painting, you've already looked at a gazillion other paintings."

He immediately spots four long and, to my eyes, barely visible vertical lines in "The Annunciation." In Italy, artists typically painted on panels made of poplar trees, he says. In northern Europe, they used oak. These lines were probably caused by the four segments of poplar wood that make up the background panel.

"In pictures of this age, what you don't see determines the crackle pattern," he says. "This painting is probably done on four panels covered with a fabric. If you look here, you can make out four panels, about the width of a tree."

We move to the next gallery and stop in front of Riviere's "Syria, the Night Watch, 1880."

In this large oil-on-canvas painting, six lions, their shoulders hunched threateningly, prowl abandoned marble ruins in the desert. A male lion in the foreground trains his yellow eyes upon unidentified quarry. Behind him, shadowy marble columns loom against a sunless blue sky.

A scan of the painting reveals more than one kind of crack. In the upper right corner, large linear cracks curve toward the center. Using Bucklow's criteria, I pronounce these "drying cracks" and speculate that they were caused by the contractions of drying paint.

Toward the center, against the pale blue sky, I see a vast web of smaller cracks that resembles a shattered windshield. Aha! I think: "brittle cracks," probably caused by a warping canvas.

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