AUTHENTICATING THE RUSSIAN AVANT-GARDE – Science and Art History

I have been privileged to have been shown many paintings by Russian Avant-Garde artists since 2006, with most of those I saw from 2007 having been locked up in storages in Russia from around 1930 when hard-line Stalinists were proclaiming that the art of the Avant-Garde was not supporting the aims of the new regime. With Stalin’s 1932 decree, On the Reconstruction of Literary and Artistic Organisations, all the arts in Russia became instruments of State propaganda with the consequence that avant-garde works in museums and artists’ studios were removed to safe places – museum reserves, church vaults, even prison vaults. There they were held in not always ideal conditions over the 60 years of the Soviet regime. These reserves and vaults were opened in 1991 and thus began the discovery of the vast creativity of the Russian Avant-Garde.

This was not to last for long. The euphoria of the 1990s soon gave way to the gradual tightening of restrictions on researchers for access to archives and the closure of museum reserves by the early years of 2000. During these years, works from the storages that were not reintegrated with museum collections were being sold, dispersed in a few Russian collections and purchased by several Western collectors and dealers. If inventories had existed they were now inaccessible, as are records of sales.

In wanting to verify the authenticity of their works, several collectors and dealers began to seek assurance that their works were old and not modern reproductions, and they wanted not only confirmation of who the artist was but also the place of a work in his or her artistic development. These collectors and dealers thus addressed scientists and art historians.

The new and highly sophisticated scientific instruments, most of which came out of the medical field, could provide reliable information about the pigments used, about what lay under the visible painted surface by way of underdrawings or painting-out, and about what could be seen on the surface but which was not visible to the naked eye – recently applied signatures disappear under ultraviolet light, for example. Most significant of all is that an experienced scientist can establish if a work is evenly and well polymerised, by which is meant that the binding materials have bonded uniformly with the paint, a process that takes at least 60 years, if not more (depending on the pigment). This also means that false ageing can also be detected.

An old painting can therefore be distinguished from a modern reproduction and, if old, becomes a trustworthy object which the art historian can begin to investigate.

This was a great moment not only for art history but also for the authenticating of works of art because connoisseurship and stylistic analysis as the only means for verifying a work would now be reliant on the work being genuinely old. The contributions of science make possible a more thorough understanding of the artistic work as such – what pigments were being used and what the choices might mean, information about brushwork, about the laying-in of paint, and so on, all of which add enormously to our understanding not only of how a painter works – and may help to identify an artist – but also to historical factors such as dating a work. In the scientific field this is being called “technical art history”, acknowledging that when technical information contributes to stylistic and historical information a much richer understanding of the history of an art object and of artistic trends can begin to manifest. It is a more thorough history of an art object.

Thus was the beginning of an interdisciplinary exchange between science and stylistic analysis and a great advance not only as a new methodology for art history generally but also for the authenticating of works of art. There are very few art historians who practice this simply because it is so new. The fact remains, however, that to express an opinion about the authenticity of a work of art on the basis of stylistic analysis alone is no longer sufficient. Without scientific analysis, such stylistic opinions today are simply worthless.

 

No database on the PIGMENTS used by Russian Avant-Garde artists has so far been published but scientists who have examined a number of such works have their own databases. The range of pigments listed in THE RUSSIAN AVANT-GARDE PAINT BOX represents the most common pigments found although less frequently used pigments may not yet be included in their lists.

The findings of modern scientists, including those from Aristotle University in Thessaloniki who have published on works from the Costakis Collection, are complemented by the pigments listed in two contemporary manuals, those by D. I. Kiplik, Techniques of Painting of 1928, and F. I. Rerberg, An Artist on Pigments – A Painter’s Manual, of 1932. Both authors were painters and they point out in their introductions that their publications were the culmination of years of experimentation in their studios with the pigments – which date from antiquity to the early 20th century.

Important in Kiplik’s manual is that he classified the pigments using the classical manner, first of all according to materials from which pigments are derived – minerals, metals, vegetable, animal, synthetic – and secondly according to the methods of deriving the pigment – natural, artificial (manipulations with artifice or skill such as roasting as with the blacks), and synthetic (in the laboratory – although some of the copper pigments had been manufactured synthetically). Such classification provides a guide to the relationship between the materials and the content where, for example, an 18th century Spanish still life of earthenware jugs would be painted in the earth and ochre pigments.

For his part, Fedor Rerberg had first published on pigments and the craft of painting in his 1905, Paints and Other Materials. Of especial importance in Rerberg’s books is that many artists learned the craft of painting in his Moscow, Art Institute, from around 1904 to 1910 including Kazimir Malevich, Ivan Kliun, Aleksei Morgunov, Mikhail Larionov, and others. Rerberg’s manual of pigments would represent the basic palette of these and many other painters from the beginning of the century.

The pigments included by the two artists – which are largely the same – represent the basic pigments available to Russian artists from the early 20th century (and certainly before) and, therefore, to painters of the Russian Avant-Garde.

 

The ARTICLES listed above outline the instruments and procedures used by scientists and address the question of how science contributes to a new art history.

 

The CASE STUDIES – EXPERTISES demonstrate the application of the contributions of science and the new methods resulting from them.

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PIGMENTS

 

ARTICLES

 

CASE STUDIES – EXPERTISES