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Illuminating Objects: Observation, Connoisseurship and a bit of Detective Work

Illuminating Objects intern Natasha Gertler tells us about how her research is going. 

As previously touched upon in my last blog post (and frankly, contrary to my natural instinct to apply analysis to any given problem) identifying decorative stones, such as those in the Courtauld’s ornate frame, is actually more an art than a science.

Whereas geologists can use destructive techniques to analyse and accurately identify rocks and minerals from the field – smashing and slicing them to view under a microscope – this of course is not an option when considering valuable objects from a museum collection. Even most non-invasive analytical techniques are inappropriate as the majority of these aim to establish information about the chemical composition and arrangement of a sample but many materials, both natural and manmade, have essentially the same chemical make-up. For example, both quartz and glass are composed of silica (SiO₂) and so cannot be distinguished by such analysis.

Therefore, identifying decorative stones is normally achieved through a mixture of observation, connoisseurship and comparison to stones of known identity. Awareness of such stones, their appearance, uses and provenance, is hence essential for identification. However, this is rather a niche discipline as it lies somewhere between geology and art history but is never fully taught in either field, but instead gained through experience and exposure. There are only a handful of such experts in the UK.

Dr. Ruth Siddall, Senior Lecturer in Earth Sciences at UCL, along with her student, Nadine Gabriel, kindly came to the Courtauld to lay eyes on the frame and carry out a bit of detective work. Armed with a microscope and a wealth of decorative stone knowledge, Ruth corrected our prior suspicions of the inclusion of man-made imitations in the frame, reassuring us that all the segments of the frame were indeed rocks and minerals sourced from around the 17th century.

Ruth Siddall and Nadine Gabriel observing the frame

Microscopic camera taking images of the frame

Natasha Gertler and Nadine Gabriel looking at the microscopic images of the frame

Ruth’s certainty arose by comparing the stones in the frame to the extensive Corsi collection. Housed in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, it is composed of 1000 polished stone slabs of uniform shape and size (145 x 73 x 40 mm). By referring to the online catalogue, she identified the presence of various Sicilian jaspers in the frame.

In particular, Ruth identified what we initially thought was an imitation of tiger’s eye to in fact be a distinct variety of Sicilian jasper characterised by its yellow and black banded appearance. Shown below are images of the Sicilian jaspers in the frame (left) alongside the corresponding samples from the Corsi collection (right).

Corsi 764 © Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Corsi 745 © Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Corsi 776 © Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Ruth Siddall using the Corsi collection online catalogue for comparisonWith such an excellent resource on our doorstep, naturally our next step on the quest for identity was to contact Monica Price, Head of Earth Collections at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and author of The Corsi Collection website.

Read all about my collaboration with Monica Price and trip to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in my next blog post.

P.s. As the major contributor of information to the London Pavement Geology website, Ruth also pointed out to us the decorative stones used just on the doorstep of the Courtauld. These are Grey Oland Limestone and Red Oland Limestone arranged in a checkered pattern. Admittedly, I have never noticed these details, so next time you come and visit us make sure to spot the ancient fossils under your feet!

Illuminating Objects: More Than Meets The Eye

Our Illuminating Objects project for 2017 is now underway. In a series of blog posts postgraduate intern Natasha Gertler will share her discoveries as she chooses and researches the next Illuminating Object.

With an academic background in physics and an unwavering curiosity for crystals since, well, forever, it was only natural for me to choose the intricate frame bearing the double sided Aertsen painting for my ‘Illuminating Objects’ internship. Acquired by Count Seilern in 1969 from Alessandro Orso in Milan, the frame is beautifully inlaid in pietra dura with a multitude of semi-precious stones.

Or so we thought…

Upon initial inspection (which, by the way, was true love at first sight) and discussion with Sacha, Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts with whom I am working on this project, and Graeme, Chief Conservator, we had speculations of the material composition of the frame; that the central upper disc showing concentric red and white rings was pink agate, the two purple columns either side of the painting were amethyst and the several rich blue segments, lapis lazuli. But, as with most scientific investigations, things are not often as they seem and we needed to perform analytical experimentation to be sure.

In order to gain some insight into the constituent elements of the stones, we ventured down to the conservation laboratory of the Courtauld to use the X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) facilities, with the expert guidance of Professor Aviva Burnstock and Silvia Amato.

Having used spectroscopy many times in my undergraduate physics experiments (albeit on far less beautiful objects!) I felt quite at home and even a little nostalgic in the Courtauld’s lab. XRF works by shooting X-rays at a sample and then analysing the energies of the X-rays reflected back to the detector, which are characteristic to each individual element.

As expected, areas of red colour showed a dominance of iron (Fe) in their spectrum, and the dark blue areas exhibited the presence of Calcium (Ca) which is typical of lapis lazuli. However, many different stones as well as manmade materials also have several elements in common with each other. For example silicon (Si) is present in both agate and glass. Therefore, XRF cannot be used as a conclusive method of material identification, but rather as a further analytical tool.

Red, round element in the central upper area. Presence of silicon and iron.

Central blue segment below the painting. Presence of calcium.

Purple element, middle horizontal element below columns. Presence of silicon.

For that reason, we turned to visual analysis instead. Dr. Emma Passmore, a senior teaching fellow in Earth Sciences at Imperial College London with experience in object analysis for the British Museum, kindly came to the Courtauld’s depot to help us identify these mystery materials. She agreed with our initial theories and added that the mirroring light blue elements on the lower panel were also agate.

However, she also suggested that some of the segments might not be semi-precious stones at all, but rather synthetic imitations. These included for example the panels that look like tigers eye and the red ovals at the very bottom, as well the orange and purple coloured banners across of the top and bottom of the painting, respectively.

Professional geologists identify stones by smashing and slicing them to make slides which they can then analyse under a microscope to a very high degree of accuracy. However, in the case of historically important and valuable objects such as this unique frame, this of course is not an option and alternative, non-intrusive methods must be used instead.

Will we ever be able to know the materials present in the frame with absolute certainty? Perhaps. And so the quest for identity continues…

 

Illuminating Objects is a series of displays that shines a light on unexpected objects from The Courtauld’s decorative arts and sculpture collection.

A Kiss for Valentine’s Day

KISS (1961), Bridget Riley

Just in time for this year’s Valentine’s Day, The Courtauld Gallery will be displaying Bridget Riley’s famous KISS (1961), on loan from a private collection. Auspiciously coming to Room 14 on 14 February, the aptly Valentine’s themed named work will be available for the public to view at their leisure.

Bridget Riley is considered one of the leading abstract artists of her age, finding success from the 1960s onward, and creating works which have always been varied and ground-breaking. Often finding inspiration from daydreams and from setting her own criteria of what she wants from art, her works inspire and encourage artistic engagement.

After a series of emotional events in her romantic life, she began to paint in black and white, helping her to communicate messages as to exactly how she felt. This technique of using black and white brought her artistic success and recognition. One of these works was KISS and can be seen as her first definitive painting in black and white. Riley has detailed how her preceding black painting had failed, and thinking about why it had not worked led her to the realisation that there was no opposition with this completely black painting. By adding a flash of white, in such a way that suggests closeness and makes the black components look like they are almost touching, the title of KISS was born.

Don’t miss seeing this spectacular work at The Courtauld Gallery while it’s here, a perfect Valentine’s treat for those looking for a kiss.

Book tickets

The Courtauld Gallery Redevelopment – We want to hear your views!

The Courtauld Gallery, part of The Courtauld Institute of Art, is currently in the process of developing proposals as part of a £52 million Masterplan which will see the transformation of the building and its public offer.

Improving the in-Gallery experience and our public programming are key aspects of the redevelopment and we are keen to reflect the opinions of both existing visitors and potential new audiences as we develop our exciting proposals. We would be delighted if you could attend one of a series of informal focus groups being held by Jura Consultants at The Courtauld Gallery. All participants will receive £30 and refreshments will be provided.

Focus groups dates and times are as follows:

Previous visitors to The Courtauld Gallery (those who have visited in the past 3 years)

Date Time
 

Wednesday 22 February 2017

 

 

6.00pm – 7.30pm

 

Thursday 23 February 2017 3.30pm – 5.00pm

 

Those who have never visited/ not visited for over 3 years

Date Time
 

Thursday 23 February 2017

 

 

6.00pm -7.30pm

 

Friday 24 February  2017 10.30am – 12.00pm

 

If you are interested in attending please follow the web link next to your preferred focus group session. We have a limited number of places per group which will be allocated on a first come first served basis.

The focus groups will take place at Somerset House. Please report to The Courtauld Institute of Art Reception at The Strand Entrance of Somerset House (opposite The Courtauld Gallery entrance). A member of our team will accompany you to the focus group venue.

If you have any queries or would like any further information please contact Rae Morton at Jura Consultants on 0131 440 6750 or at rae@jura-consultants.co.uk.

We look forward to hearing your views!

A contortionist in the studio

Our Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement exhibition is now open. We invited Viola Bruni, Acrobat, Dancer, Movement Director and Teacher to write a blog from her perspective about the works on display.

rodin-movement-a-marketing

Fig 1: Movement A

Contortion is not an art that everybody can practice, but Alda Moreno was definitely gifted with the extraordinary flexibility necessary to practice
 this ancient technique. In the fascinating exhibition “Rodin and Dance: 
the Essence of Movement”, the French model and acrobat is captured on paper and in clay in a series of movements which demonstrate her ability to bend 
in extreme ways. When I look at these sculptures I can see that not all of them are realistic. To my eye, Rodin was playing with exaggerating movements by composing impossible poses. Nevertheless, some of the movements are also realistic, and look similar to movements of the circus discipline of contortion, of Yoga and of gymnastics.

Myriam Peignist in her article “Histoire anthropologique des danses acrobatiques” , suggests that Alda Moreno worked at the Opéra Comique in an environment where dance and circus melt to create the professional figure of  the danseuse-acrobat, a sort of hybrid performer in between dance and circus.

Rodin and dance

Fig 2: Movement B

 By taking part in a collaborative project led by the MA/MFA Movement: Directing and Teaching course leaders at Royal Central School of Speech & Drama, and exhibition curator Dr. Gerstein, it was interesting to note that many of the movements seem to be preparatory ones rather than finished poses. Having a circus background, it was clear to me when certain poses could lead to further acrobatic movements.  Differing art historians suggest that when embarking on a series 
of drawings Rodin used to watch carefully chosen models moving for hours. When he saw something interesting, he was quickly capturing it on paper. Most of the time he did this without interrupting the flow of the models’ movements by asking them to stand still in a pose. Being an acrobat and model for artists myself, I experienced being captured both in stillness and motion. If I imagine being one of Rodin’s models, with others moving around me for an indefinite amount of time, I know that I would reach a state of flow, being liberated from time constraints and the pressure to create a pose. Such a state enables one to find one’s own personal rhythms and ways of exploring movement. Maybe this also happened to Rodin’s models, allowing him to capture normally unseen movements, warm-ups, and transitions. In my experience as performer, these moments retain more intimacy and subtleties than a perfectly finished pose.

If we look closely at Movement A (fig. 1) we can see both hands catching the lifted feet. This pose could be finished in itself, or it could be caught at the middle stage of a ‘back catch’ or ‘leg in hand’ pose. If that is the case, the hands grasping the feet have the function of helping lift the leg until it reaches the maximum extension.

Acrobats Blog

Fig 3: Split with back catch

What makes Movement A interesting for me, is its versatility. Both the movement as Rodin portrayed it, and the final pose it could lead to can be performed in a variety of ways. This means that Rodin might have seen Alda Moreno performing Movement A in a number of different orientations: standing, lying on one side, lying on the chest, in a split (fig. 3).

Acrobats blog_V2

Fig. 4 Y scale pose

Movement A can also originate from Movement B (fig. 2): one arm catches the opposite lifted leg, creating a hole for the other arm to pass through it. If the flexibility permits, as in the case of a contortionist, the lifted leg can be rotated to reach a back catch pose, with the shoulder involved in the rotation and the knee of the floor leg bending then extending again to allow the movement.

Movement B could also simply lead to the pose in fig. 4 which is also part of the rhythmic gymnastic vocabulary. In this case, in order to reach the finite position, the shoulder of the free arm passes through the hole. It is then positioned close to the knee, so to lock the torso in a stable pose. The arm is then stretched on the side, and can potentially hold an object. For example a ribbon in rhythmic gymnastic, or be positioned according to various expressive functions.

Visit Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement, until 22 January 2016

Photo credits
Artist: Claudia Hughes
Photographer: Despina Photography