InterCommunication No.15 1996

Feature


ART AND SCIENCE

The traditional museum can be seen as the keeper of concepts of time expressed throughout human civilizations. Such concepts are overtly and formally conveyed by aesthetic tendencies evident in an art museum such as the Louvre, but time also leaves a legacy of covert imprints within the very fiber of the works. In keeping with Louis Pasteur's declaration at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1865, where he prophesied a "possible and desirable alliance of Science and Art", new analytical technologies are now fully operative in the investigation, authentification and expertise of art works. Perez and Mainini, the Argentinian physicians who created the Laboratoire de recherche des mus仔s de France (LRMF) in 1931, are thus worthy successors to Pasteur in many respects. Housed in new underground facilities in the Louvre palace precinct, the LRMF is constantly shedding new light (notably ultraviolet, fluorescent, infrared) on objects that have fascinated man for centuries. Its team of physicists, chemists, art and archeology specialists uses state-of-the-art tools such as the particle accelerator AGLAE (Acc四屍ateur Grand Louvre d'Analyse El士entaire) to obtain non-invasive, optimum precision, differential analysis of materials entering into the composition of an art work. The LRMF enjoys privileged links with the Centre national de la recherche scientifique, the Commissariat l'始ergie atomique, and foreign counterparts including the Canadian Conservation Institute, the Conservation Analytical Laboratory of the Smithsonian, the Getty Conservation Institute, and organizations based in London, Oxford, Heidelberg, Mainz, Amsterdam, Brussels and Rome.

One of the most spectacular recent uses of LRMF techniques in art restoration was the 66 square meter X-ray of the Veronese painting, Les Noces de Cana, which served as an inestimable analytical tool for identifying modifications to the original (color changes in garb, later addition of characters, etc.). By exhibiting both the X-ray version and actual painting in a single space over a period of several months, the Louvre gave its visitors a disturbing vision of the latent Veronese, lurking just beneath the surface of an ultimately deceptive image, which was nevertheless vehicled with unquestioning faith by countless reproductions.

Specific needs arising from the art history community have capitalized on major imaging breakthroughs. For example, the "one-to-one" relationship that is an essential feature of radiographic imaging has been exploded by powerful tools like Thomson's Very High Performance Scanner (VHPS), which ensures high-speed, precision scanning of up to 6000 x 8000 points and adopts a special mode for monochrome X-ray photographs, providing high resolution data amenable to massive enlargement without any loss of detail, as though in a fractal universe. Hence, paradoxically, radiographic data initially developed and esteemed in the medical context for its scalar fidelity, proves extraordinarily useful in the art world when analogous scale is outstripped in the quest for microscopic features.


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