The disappearance of the artist's hand



With every year that passes, more artists are using the latest technology to fabricate their work. But for some traditionalists, digitally printed, projected, broadcast and/or machined art does not hold all of the rewards of traditional painting, prints, photographs and sculpture.

What's missing are the details.

When a piece of art is shaped by hand, there is visible evidence of just how that hand created. In paintings, for instance, there are many strokes, and details within them, that you may not see at first - but which, when you step up close, are there. Observing them offers rich rewards.

Take, for instance, two artworks at the Walters Art Museum.

In the medieval art collection on the third floor of the Centre Street building is a wood altar frontal from the Catalonia region of Spain (c. 1250). It's covered in stucco and tempera paint. The center has a vivid Byzantine-like image of Christ in Majesty, but the observer might be drawn to the border pattern of alternating roundels of stylized lions and geometric flowers. The lions were all white, but the paint is quite abraded while the dark background is not. Why was that? It seems that before the paint was applied, the lions were built up with stucco, creating a low relief. Then these roundels were painted black with heavy applications of white on top. This thick layer sitting on a raised surface was subject to more wear than the lower areas with thinner paint.

White paint was also applied over black on the geometric flowers but has survived better. This is probably because these areas were not built up with stucco and the white was painted in single, thin strokes that are translucent along the midsection of the stroke and whiter at the beginning and end.

On the second floor of the recently rehung Charles Street building, witness another example: a small triptych, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints by the Master of Panzano from Siena, Italy, active c. 1380-1400. Above the figures, also painted in tempera on wood, the surface is covered in gold leaf. On inspection you see the gold is patterned with tiny indentations that help delineate halos and the architectural shapes of the three small panels. And then you realize that these indentations are composed of repeated sets of dots and arcs similar to, and probably produced in the same way as, those on tooled leather bookbindings. These articulations were made by tapping metal dies onto the gilt surface.

Why is seeing all of this detail such a reward for some? Because, although the overall work of art is the fruition of an artist's intention, the details and finishing touches reveal the artist's working methods and invite a closer appreciation of his skill - the paint strokes, the chisel marks, even planned erasures - and the dexterity with which he executed his intentions. In short, the details expose how the artist used his hands.

To imagine the artist deciding what to do with his hands is to be that artist at the moment when those rich details are provided.

But what happens when gallery visitors are lured closer and closer to an attractive digitized image on paper, a projected image on the wall or a bank for video monitors? They see less and less, until the image dissolves into a sea of dots. At the most intimate level, there's nothing there of the artist's work or intentions. The artist evaporates, without a trace, leaving no fingerprints.

One can look at artwork from the most distant human past and, seeing the detailed work of hands like one's own, be right there at the moment of its execution. Concomitantly, much artwork of the present has broken that continuity. The hand is disappearing, one mouse click at a time.

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