ART CONSERVATION AND AUTHENTICATION
How to detect, analyse and interpret the physical evidence of an artwork? A conservator’s perspective.
Redivivus employs specialised equipment to provide non-destructive and sample-based methods for material analysis. The equipment available aids in the research of materials, artist's techniques, authentications, and condition assessment of artworks and equally important, the decision making process for treatment. Research questions that normally guide us (conservators) throughout the investigation are:
What steps did the artist take to create the surface?
Which materials did he use and where did they come from?
What did the painting look like originally, and how has it changed?
Over the past months, two interns at Redivivus, Alexandra Taylor and Myrto Despotopoulou under the supervision of Gwendolyn Boeve-Jones and Bianca Gonçalves, analysed the stylistic and material features of a work of art purported to be by Alexej Jawlensky. The work, hereafter titled ‘Red face’ appeared at auction with no record of provenance or material history attached. What was clear to begin with however, was that visually, the pictorial image and signature are not representative of Jawlensky. However, the hopeful attempt to present the painting as authentic with the use of labels and newspaper articles pasted on the back made it intriguing.
The painting presented a good opportunity for the interns to be able to use the technical imaging equipment in pursuit of questions surrounding authorship. Frequently, it’s not so simple as “fake” or “real”, rather there are many gradations: for example, what is a purpose-made forgery, and was a painting made by a follower of a famous artist at about the same time or is it from a later date?
Through this project, we developed an objective and critical understanding of this painting with the use of equipment available at the studio: high-definition imaging in normal light (NL), UV induced fluorescence (UV), digital X-Radiography (XR), Infrared Reflectography (IRR), Polarizing Microscopy and Hirox Microscopy.
It is important to note here that authenticity is a complex idea as it links both the tangible and intangible aspects of an artwork . As conservators, our interests remain in understanding the materials and techniques used for the work and the comparisons with other works in possible relation to those of the purported artist, not necessarily to question the legitimacy. In the end, the information gained clearly pointed towards a follower of the artist. And although the technical imaging and analysis did not reveal any material evidence to discard the artwork as a Jawlensky, the whole study helped to clarify why it is not by the artist.
JAWLENSKY: INTRODUCTION AND CONTEXT
Between 1906 and 1914, the artist worked, affiliating himself with the artistic group De Blaue Reiter  as well as Fauvism, Constructivism, Pure Abstraction and Expressionism movements. The resulting wide-ranging stylistic output is one of the reasons why Jawlensky’s paintings are frequently challenging for authentication and examination. After WWI, Jawlensky’s increasing abstraction and spiritualisation led to an overall reduction of recognisable forms in his compositions, subsequently ending with the simplified, geometric renditions of the human face. Bearing this in mind, it needs to be stated that Jawlensky is a heavily forged artist.
Key features in the Meditations
The painting examined at Studio Redivivus appears to be influenced by Jawlensky’s early abstractions of heads and the Meditation series. This series was the focus of much of his artistic output towards the end of his life.
At a glance, the faces in the Meditation series appear stripped to the barest essentials; structured yet with limited brushwork. Quick dashes indicate the nose, mouth, eyelids, and brow; the generic assemblage of a human face.
The artist painted over a thousand of these Meditations and many of them were no larger than 18 x 13cm. Furthermore, every painting in the series appears framed by a dark black border, clearly intended to draw the viewer's gaze in towards the center of the image . Compositionally, the top third of all Meditations paintings have three identifying features: the eyebrows taper towards the edges; the marks forming the proper right side of the brow interconnect to form a triangular shape; and every painting includes a highlight in the center of the forehead, always within the triangle – a singular dash most often directed to the left.
In the 1920s, arthritis forced Jawlensky to paint with two hands, further simplifying the compositional linework of his Meditations series. All seventeen examples in the catalogue from Museum Boijmans-van Beuningen’s  display a bold use of brushwork and emphatically contoured relatively pure use of color which make his palette sophisticated and distinguishable.
Another key feature in the Meditations series is the artist’s signature. In this later period, Jawlensky usually signed his artworks in the bottom left or right corner with the abbreviation ‘A.j.’, and not with his full name, possibly the result of an arthritically weakened state. In all seventeen examples in the Museum Boijmans-van Beuningen catalog, Jawlensky also inscribed the date in the right bottom corner.
TECHNICAL IMAGING AT REDIVIVUS
The technical investigation of artworks, based on material analysis and technical imaging, can aid in the attribution and authentication of artworks. At Redivivus we utilise various cutting edge devices to capture and analyse objects with non-invasive techniques, including UV- and IRReflectography as well as X-Ray digital photography and High definition microscopy. Furthermore, we can undertake X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) measurements for elemental analysis, and carry out the analyses of microscopic cross-sections to better understand the stratigraphy of the ground, paint, and varnish layer. Some of these techniques were explored by the interns during the Red Face study.
HIGH DEFINITION PHOTOGRAPHY
Digital photography is a way to record and document the state of the artwork: cameras create high-definition images that allow comparison and better identification of details that are not perceivable with naked eyes. However, high-definition photography requires a specific environment with proper light and a neutral background.
Comparing Red Face stylistically with the key features of the Meditation Series cited in the previous chapter, inconsistencies are noticeable: there is no dark border, the painting is approximately 52.5 x 38.5 cm, which sits outside this sizing bracket and, all the three stylistic features from the composition have discrepancies. Firstly, the eyebrow is split into two indistinct segments: there is a triangular shape in the top third of the composition, but this is “filled in” and on the opposite side to all known originals. Red Face also has several highlights haphazardly constructed in a variety of colors and directions located above, between, and below the brow (see figures bellow).
Added to all the above, the characterisation of the signature does not feature in the painting we examined which is signed in the sgrafitto technique in the left corner into the wet paint, using the full name Jawlensky. This is more evident in the UV-radiation photography and IR-reflectography .
UV- RADIATION PHOTOGRAPHY
Invisible to the naked eye, UV radiation has wavelength beyond the visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum for humans. Materials at the surface of an artwork may exhibit fluorescence in characteristic colors when placed under UV radiation. Their fluorescence is visible to the naked eye and can be documented photographically.
UV light photography shows different fluorescences on the Red Face surface. Retouchings appear as dark spots under UV light and a milky fluoresce is visible over the whole surface, which confirmed the presence of a varnish.
INFRARED REFLECTOGRAPHY AND X-RAY IMAGING
Our Apollo Infrared Camera, from Opus Instruments, represents the latest standard for high-quality infrared examination. The result is high-resolution images with an unparalleled level of clarity and detail. Infrared can be used to study various aspects of a painting, from underdrawings and pentimenti in the work to underpainting and transmission of pigments at different wavelengths.
X-Ray digital photography is useful for issues concerning canvas or panel support structures as well as for revealing compositional changes, and underlying paint layers. This type of imaging can help understand the construction of textile and wooden objects. We employ a digital x-ray device to capture images instantly.
With these two images we can see that the mark-making in Red Face, is somewhat random; the lines are confusing and irregular, layered in thick daubs – an unskilled attempt at expressionism. Taylor and Despotopoulou did not observe any under drawings or preparatory sketches in this painting. As seen in the infrared image below, there are no traces of drawing or sketch beneath the paint. This, however, is not a verifiable indicator that a drawing was not made using medium or pigment undetectable to IRR.
IR imaging allowed, however, to take an in-depth look into the layering technique of the painter and compare it with the results from the x-ray imaging and microscopy analyses . In fact, according to Fischer et al. , Jawlensky applied paint with straight, but variegated brushstrokes in no more than two layers. Immediately, these techniques are not observed in Red Face. The paint is clearly mixed in the background, indicating that the layers were mixed wet on wet and not allowed to fully dry between coats. This is indicated by the mixing of paint but also the imprinted texture of the open woven textile used for the creation of Red Face (see X-Ray photo bellow)
Around the cheeks and forehead, lighter pigment are seen, applied in sweeping gestures through the still wet black paint. This is interesting, as Jawlensky once complained at being dissatisfied with the working properties of certain binding materials, voicing concern at his own experiments to prepare painting media because his paints had not dried within 24 hours . Jawlensky was known to actively thin the paint out to avoid layering, sometimes leaving the ground perceptible.
MICROSCOPIC ANALYSIS OF PAINT LAYERS
Hirox Digital Microscope
Our Hirox microscope performs intricate 3D studies of paint surfaces. Magnification from 35x to 5000x allows us to explore details and visualize and distinguish pigment particles. The Hirox has the capacity to take high-resolution photographs and videos, creating detailed documentation of materials, techniques, and conditions.
The Hirox is used daily at the studio, it is a good observation tool that can be used examine the painting layer or use for microscopic sampling for cross-sections. In this last technique, a microscopic sample is taken from the edge of the painting or an area of paint loss and mounted in a transparent resin. This allows us to examine the combination of ground, paint, and surface layers as they were applied by the artist. The sample can be observed in the Hirox or with our new acquisition: the polarized microscope with reflected and ultraviolet light.
Hirox observations confirmed that the direction and build-up of the composition of the Red Face as inconsistent with the basic features of Jawlensky’s technique as mentioned in the IR analyses. It was possible to verify that the first layers of paint were applied wet on wet. In the figures bellow several hues are smeared together in an amalgamation of layers and directions.
Microscopic analysis of the cross-section, showed poor adhesion between the ground and paint layers, as seen in cross-sections which contain a powdery, chalky ground layer. Clumps of a bright green fluorescence might indicate the migration and use of a binding material, adhesive, varnish, or some glue-based medium used in the paint –which would be consistent with Jawlensky’s experimentation with various mediums. This is backed with sample 1 (image bellow), which shows the integration of this resinous mixture through the paint layer. The top surface of the paint samples also displays fluorescent material, indicating an applied varnish layer. This is supported by the pooling of a varnish-like material in the dips of the paint texture.
As indicated with ultraviolet fluorescence and x-radiography, further analysis using the Hirox microscope identified several areas of retouching – purposefully smothering filled areas over age-cracks. A 3D image of the most prominent retouched area has been included below (image bellow). The heavy, tinted fill appears smudged into the paint surface, as if applied like a putty. The retouching medium is glossy and stands out against the surrounding matt surface. These areas appear to be a clumsy attempt at conservation, but do not prove or disprove whether the artwork is authentic. The fact that these later additions were applied over cracks indicate that the painting’s materials had aged before the application of the retouching.
In conclusion, this project facilitated an objective and critical understanding of analyses and authenticity judgements with the use of high-definition equipment available at Studio Redivivus even though no conclusions were made regarding the paintings’ authenticity that weren’t already visible at a first sight. In the end, the information gained clearly pointed towards a follower of the artist. The technical imaging and analysis aided with material evidence to discard the artwork as a Jawlensky, but the stylistic comparison exercise revealed the importance of performing basic stylistic comparisons as well. As mentioned in the beginning of this study, authenticity is a complex proposal and, as a paintings’ conservator, our focus is in understanding the materials and techniques used for the artwork in consideration of treatments that the painting may have been subjected to. All art professionals have different perspectives when analysing an object, and paintings’ conservators, especially during a treatment, have a special one: time in front of a painting and our trained eyes can be of value with other forms of authenticity analyses. There is no doubt that technical imaging and material analysis can indeed aid in ascertaining an artwork’s authenticity and it is clear that experience in interpreting the data is of great value. Studio Redivivus is unique in its disposition as a private conservation studio with the tools and equipment necessary for in-depth material and technical analysis and the interpretation of the data. This project highlights the studio’s ultimate potential as a place for critical examinations into any given artist’s working processes.
 Magdalena Grenda-Kurmanow, ‘Stills and Touches: Merging Concepts of Authenticity between a Paperconservator, Artists and Curators in Aprivate Art Gallery’, in Authenticity in Transition: Changing Practices in Contemporary Art Making and Conservation, ed. by Frances Robertson Erma Hermens (Archetype Publications, 2014), p. 62
Fischer U, Stege H, Oggenfuss D, Tilenschi C, Willisch S, Winkelmeyer I (date unknown), ‘…I came to understand how to translate nature into color according to the fire in my soul’: Alexej Jawlensky’s Painting Technique in his Munich Oevre.’ Sourced 11.04.2021, p. 49
Museum Boymans-van Beuningen (MBB) (1994), Alexej von Jawlensky, preparation exhibition and catalogue.
Museum Boymans-van Beuningen (MBB) (1994), Alexej von Jawlensky, preparation exhibition and catalogue. pp. 249-2
Fischer U, Stege H, Oggenfuss D, Tilenschi C, Willisch S, Winkelmeyer I (date unknown), ‘…I came to understand how to translate nature into color according to the fire in my soul’: Alexej Jawlensky’s Painting Technique in his Munich Oevre.’ Sourced 11.04.2021, p. 52
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