Category Archives: Visual Art

Science and the arts: a science rap promotes civil discussion about science and religion; a science movie and a play; and a chemistry article about authenticating a Lawren Harris painting

Canadian-born rapper of science and many other topics, Baba Brinkman sent me an update about his current doings (first mentioned in an Aug. 1, 2014 posting featuring his appearances at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, his Rap Guide to Religion being debuted at the Fringe, and his Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the creation of an animated rap album of his news Rap Guide to Religion), Note: Links have been removed,

Greetings from Edinburgh! In the past two and half weeks I’ve done fifteen performances of The Rap Guide to Religion for a steadily building audience here at the Fringe, and we recently had a whole pile of awesome reviews published, which I will excerpt below, but first a funny story.

Yesterday [August 14, 2014] BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] Sunday Morning TV was in to film my performance. They had a scheme to send a right wing conservative Christian to the show and then film us having an argument afterwards. The man they sent certainly has the credentials. Reverend George Hargreaves is a Pentecostal Minister and former leader of the UK Christian Party, as well as a young earth creationist and strong opponent of abortion and homosexuality. He led the protests that got “Jerry Springer the Opera” shut down in London a few years back, and is on record as saying that religion is not an appropriate subject for comedy. Before he converted to Christianity, the man was also a DJ and producer of pop music for the London gay scene, interesting background.

So after an hour of cracking jokes at religion’s expense, declaring myself an unapologetic atheist, and explaining why evolutionary science gives a perfectly satisfying naturalistic account of where religion comes from, I sat down with Reverend George and was gobsmacked when he started the interview with: “I don’t know if we’re going to have anything to debate about… I LOVED your show!” We talked for half an hour with the cameras rolling and at one point George said “I don’t know what we disagree about,” so I asked him: “Do you think one of your ancestors was a fish?” He declared that statement a fishy story and denied it, and then we found much to disagree about.

I honestly thought I had written a hard-hitting, provocative and controversial show, but it turns out the religious are loving it as much as the nonbelievers – and I’m not sure how I feel about that. I asked Reverend George why he wasn’t offended, even though he’s officially against comedy that targets religion, and he told me it’s because I take the religious worldview seriously, instead of lazily dismissing it as delusional. The key word here is “lazily” rather than “delusional” because I don’t pull punches about religion being a series of delusions, but I don’t think those delusions are pointless. I think they have evolved (culturally and genetically) to solve adaptive problems in the past, and for religious people accustomed to atheists being derisive and dismissive that’s a (semi) validating perspective.

To listen to songs from The Rap Guide to Religion, you need to back my Kickstarter campaign so I can raise the money to produce a proper record. To check out what the critics here in Edinburgh have to say about my take on religion, read on. And if you want to help organize a gig somewhere, just let me know. The show is open for bookings.

On Sunday Morning [August 17, 2014 GMT] my segment with Reverend George will air on BBC One, so we’ll see what a million British people think of the debate.

All the best from the religious fringe,

Baba

Here’s a link to the BBC One Sunday Morning Live show, where hopefully you’ll be able to catch the segment featuring Baba and Reverend George Hargreaves either livestreamed or shortly thereafter.

A science movie and a science play

Onto the science movie and the play: David Bruggeman on his Pasco Phronesis blog writes about two upcoming movie biopics featuring Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking respectively, in an Aug. 8, 2014 posting. Having covered the Turing movie here (at length) in a July 22, 2014 posting here’s the new information about the Hawking movie from David’s Aug, 8, 2014 posting,

Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking are noted British scientists, well recognized for their work and for having faced significant challenges in their lives.  While they were in different fields and productive in different parts of the 20th century (Hawking is still with us), their stories will compete in movieplexes (at least in the U.S.) this November.

The Theory of Everything is scheduled for release on November 7 and focuses on the early career and life of Hawking.  He’s portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, and the film is directed by James Marsh.  Marsh has several documentaries to his credit, including the Oscar-winning Man on Wire.  Theory is the third film project on Hawking since 2004, but the first to get much attention outside of the United Kingdom (this might explain why it won’t debut in the U.K. until New Year’s Day).  It premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival next month [Sept. 2014].

David features some trailers for both movies and additional information.

Interestingly the science play focuses on the friendship between a female UK scientist and her former student, Margaret Thatcher (a UK Prime Minister). From an Aug. 13, 2014 Alice Bell posting on the Guardian science blog network (Note: Links have been removed),

Adam Ganz’s new play – The Chemistry Between Them, to be broadcast on Radio 4 this month – explores one of the most intriguing friendships in the history of science and politics: Margaret Thatcher and Dorothy Hodgkin.

As well as winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her pioneering scientific work on the structures of proteins, Hodgkin was a left-wing peace campaigner who was awarded the Soviet equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Order of Lenin. Hardly Thatcher’s type, you might think. But Hodgkin was Thatcher’s tutor at university, and the relationships between science, politics and women in high office are anything but straightforward.

I spoke to Ganz about his interest in the subject, and started by asking him to tell us more about the play.

… they stayed friends throughout Dorothy’s life. Margaret Thatcher apparently had a photo of Dorothy Hodgkin in Downing Street, and they maintained a kind of warm relationship. The play happens in two timescales – one is a meeting in 1983 in Chequers where Dorothy came to plead with Margaret to take nuclear disarmament more seriously at a time when Cruise missiles and SS20s were being stationed in Europe. In fact I’ve set it – I’m not sure of the exact date – shortly after the Korean airliner was shot down, when the Russians feared Nato were possibly planning a first strike. And that is intercut with the time when Margaret is studying chemistry and looking at her journey; what she learned at Somerville, but especially what she learned from Dorothy.

Here’s a link to the BBC 4 webpage for The Chemistry Between Them. I gather the broadcast will be Weds., Aug. 20, 2014 at 1415 hours GMT.

Chemistry and authentication of a Lawren Harris painting

The final item for this posting concerns Canadian art, chemistry, and the quest to prove the authenticity of a painting. Roberta Staley, editor of Canadian Chemical News (ACCN), has written a concise technical story about David Robertson’s quest to authenticate a painting he purchased some years ago,

Fourteen years ago, David Robertson of Delta, British Columbia was holidaying in Ontario when he stopped at a small antique shop in the community of Bala, two hours north of Toronto in cottage country. An unsigned 1912 oil painting caught his attention. Thinking it evocative of a Group of Seven painting, Robertson paid the asking price of $280 and took it home to hang above his fireplace.

Roberta has very kindly made it available as a PDF: ChemistryNews_Art.Mystery.Group.7. It will also be available online at the Canadian Chemical News website soon. (It’s not in the July/August 2014 issue.)

For anyone who might recognize the topic, I wrote a sprawling five-part series (over 5000 words) on the story starting with part one. Roberta’s piece is 800 words and offers her  account of the tests for both Autumn Harbour and the authentic Harris painting, Hurdy Gurdy. I was able to attend only one of them (Autumn Harbour).

David William Robertson, Autumn Harbour’s owner has recently (I received a notice on Aug. 13, 2014) updated his website with all of the scientific material and points of authentication that he feels prove his case.

Have a very nice weekend!

I know something about your mummy or an ion beam microscope analyses a sarcophagus scrap

“Bearded Man, 170-180 A.D.” from the Walters Art Museum collection, object #32.6

“Bearded Man, 170-180 A.D.” from the Walters Art Museum collection, object #32.6

An Aug. 14, 2014 news item on Azonano describing this image sparks the imagination,

He looks almost Byzantine or Greek, gazing doe-eyed over the viewer’s left shoulder, his mouth forming a slight pout, like a star-struck lover or perhaps a fan of the races witnessing his favorite charioteer losing control of his horses.

In reality, he’s the “Bearded Man, 170-180 A.D.,” a Roman-Egyptian whose portrait adorned the sarcophagus sheltering his mummified remains. But the details of who he was and what he was thinking have been lost to time.

But perhaps not for much longer. A microscopic sliver of painted wood could hold the keys to unraveling the first part of this centuries-old mystery. Figuring out what kind of pigment was used (whether it was a natural matter or a synthetic pigment mixed to custom specifications), and the exact materials used to create it, could help scientists unlock his identity.

Kathleen Tuck’s Aug. 13 (?), 2014 Boise State University (Idaho, US) news release, which originated the news item, describes the nature of the research and the difficulties associated with it,

“Understanding the pigment means better understanding of the provenance of the individual” said Darryl Butt, a Boise State distinguished professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and associate director of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES). “Where the pigment came from may connect it to a specific area and maybe even a family.”

For years, researchers were limited by the lack of samples large enough to be properly analyzed. But advances in the field of nanotechnology mean scientists now can work with fragments tinier than the eye can even register. Using a $1.5 million ion beam microscope at CAES, Butt — along with CAES colleagues Yaqaio Wu and Jatu Burns, and Boise State student researchers Gordon Alanko and Jennifer Watkins — is working with a sliver of the wood portrait smaller than a human hair.

The team transferred the fragment to a sample holder using a tiny deer hair called an “eyelash.” Their biggest challenge was to move it to the equipment without losing it.

So far they have extracted five needle-tip sized fragments 20 nanometers wide (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter), as well as two thin foils. From that, they have been able to analyze and map out the chemistry of the material in three dimensions.

Butt and his team are analyzing a speck of purple paint, which is significant because the blue used to blend the purple hue was a precious pigment back in the day, signaling a prominent individual.

This research is part of a larger project (from the news release),

Their data is being analyzed by researchers from the Detroit Museum of Art, where a companion to the “Bearded Man” mummy resides. It’s part of a project, titled APPEAR (Ancient Panel Paintings-Examination, Analysis, Research), a collaboration between 12 museums, including the British Museum in London and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

According to the news release there’s a personal aspect to Butt’s interest in this research, which may eventually have implications for Boise State University’s programmes,

“So far we’ve learned that the paint is a synthetic pigment,” said Butt, who as an artist in his own right often mixes his own pigments for his paintings. “These are very vibrant pigments, possibly heated in a lead crucible. People thought that process had been developed in the 1800s or so. This could prove it happened a lot earlier.

Butt got into solving art mysteries when he met Glenn Gates, a conservation scientist at the Walters Art Museum [Baltimore, Maryland] at a conference at Stanford University [California]. Both are officers of a new section of the American Ceramic Society — the Art, Archaeology and Conservation Science division.

“This research was a gamble that we [materials scientists] could do some really cool stuff,” Butt said, noting that he would love to branch out into analyzing pottery and other ancient artifacts.

While studying the provenance of Roman-Egyptian mummies is something new at Boise State, many researchers in the art, geology, history, anthropology and even English departments are involved in what Butt likes to call ‘reverse engineering’ of objects of cultural heritage.

“This particular problem, that is of understanding a particle of pigment from a 2,000-year-old sarcophagus, is a bit unique in that it highlights some of the amazing tools that we have at Boise State and at CAES that could shed new light on problems associated with understanding human history,” he said.

Butt hopes that these and similar transdisciplinary projects will open up external research opportunities for students, including creation of a “pipeline” of students who travel to various user facilities or museums to carry out interdisciplinary research.

“Envision, for example, art students studying works of art using synchrotron radiation and bright x-rays at a national laboratory, while science and engineering students use their technical skills to unravel mysteries of materials used by ancient societies in the field or held by museums,” he said.

The idea can sound far-fetched even for those who are participating in the research, although there is a certain, sound logic to transdisciplinary work between the arts and the sciences.

I was not able to find any reference to Butt’s art work online, find a published research paper or more information (website) featuring APPEAR ((Ancient Panel Paintings-Examination, Analysis, Research); admittedly, it was a brief search.

There are many techniques used to examine works of art and/or heritage. For a description of another technique, Raman spectroscopy, and its use in examining art pigments there’s my June 27, 2014 posting titled: Art (Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven), science (Raman spectroscopic examinations), and other collisions at the 2014 Canadian Chemistry Conference (part 2 of 4). Should you be interested in the entire series, additional links can be found in that posting.

Lawren Harris (Group of Seven), art authentication, and the Canadian Conservation Insitute (addendum to four-part series)

I recently wrote an exhaustive four-part series (links at the end of this posting) featuring Raman spectroscopy testing of an authenticated (Hurdy Gurdy) and a purported (Autumn Harbour) Lawren Harris paintings. During the course of my research, I sent a query to the Canadian Conservation Institute to disprove or confirm my statements regarding Canada and its database of art pigments,

.. According to some informal sources, Canada has a very small (almost nonexistent) data bank of information about pigments used in its important paintings. For example, the federal government’s Canadian Conservation Institute has a very small database of pigments and nothing from Lawren Harris paintings [unconfirmed at time of publication; June 18, 2014 query outstanding] …

Marie-Claude Corbeil, Ph.D. Gestionnaire de la Division de la science de la conservation | Manager of Conservation Science Division, very kindly replied to my query with this on July 10, 2014 (I believe she was on holidays [en vacances] when my query was received in June),

The Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) has been conducting research into the materials and techniques of Canadian artists (mainly 20th-century artists) since the early 1990s. Databases were created for each artists. At the moment CCI has no such database on Harris.

The CCI is the only institution in Canada carrying out this kind of research. I would add that European conservation institutes or laboratories have a long tradition of conducting this type of research focusing mainly on European art, basically because many were created long before North-American conservation institutes or laboratories were established.

… An important point to make is that scientific investigation is only one part of an authentication study. Authentication should start with stylistic study and research into the provenance of the artwork which are carried out by curators and art historians.

Regarding your question about Raman spectroscopy, I would say that Raman spectroscopy is only one of many techniques that can be used to analyse paint or any other material. At CCI we often use up to six techniques to analyse paint to obtain the full makeup of the sample including pigments, fillers and binding media. I should also add that analysis of material is carried out at CCI to answer questions related to a number of issues, including but not limited to authentication. Analysis is often carried out to understand the degradation of museum objects and works of art, or to provide information required during the course of a conservation treatment.

Thank you for this excellent explanation and for your time.

Art (Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven), science (Raman spectroscopic examinations), and other collisions at the 2014 Canadian Chemistry Conference

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

ETA July 14, 2014 at 1305 PDT: For those who want more information, Ms. Corbeil has provided some articles about the CCI and its Canadian Artists Painting Materials Research Project:

The Canadian Artists’ Painting Materials Project, 1992, J. M. Taylor. (PDF)

CCI 1992 Taylor

Detecting Art Fraud: Sometimes Scientific Examination Can Help, 1993. J. M. Taylor (PDF)

CCI 1993 Taylor
The Canadian Artists Painting Materials Research Project, 1995, Marie-Claude Corbeil (PDF)

CCI 1995 Corbeil

Art (Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven), science (Raman spectroscopic examinations), and other collisions at the 2014 Canadian Chemistry Conference (part 3 of 4)

Dramatic headlines (again)

Ignoring the results entirely, Metro News Vancouver, which favours the use of the word ‘fraud’, featured it in the headline of a second article about the testing, “Alleged Group of Seven work a fraud: VAG curator” by Thandi Fletcher (June 5, 2014 print issue); happily the online version of Fletcher’s story has had its headline changed to the more accurate: “Alleged Group of Seven painting not an authentic Lawren Harris, says Vancouver Art Gallery curator.” Fletcher’s article was updated after its initial publication with some additional text (it is worth checking out the online version even if you’re already seen the print version). There had been a second Vancouver Metro article on the testing of the authenticated painting by Nick Wells but that in common, with his June 4, 2014 article about the first test, “A fraud or a find?” is no longer available online. Note: Standard mainstream media practice is that the writer with the byline for the article is not usually the author of the article’s headline.

There are two points to be made here. First, Robertson has not attempted to represent ‘Autumn Harbour’ as an authentic Lawren Harris painting other than in a misguided headline for his 2011 news release.  From Robertson’s July 26, 2011 news release (published by Reuters and published by Market Wired) where he crossed a line by stating that Autumn Harbour is a Harris in his headline (to my knowledge the only time he’s done so),

Lost Lawren Harris Found in Bala, Ontario

Unknown 24×36 in. Canvas Piques a Storm of Controversy

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA–(Marketwire – July 26, 2011) –
Was Autumn Harbour painted by Lawren Harris in the fall of 1912? That summer Lawren Harris was 26 years old and had proven himself as an accomplished and professional painter. He had met J.E.H. MacDonald in November of 1911. They became fast friends and would go on to form the Group of Seven in 1920 but now in the summer of 1912 they were off on a sketching expedition to Mattawa and Temiscaming along the Quebec-Ontario border. Harris had seen the wilderness of the northern United States and Europe but this was potentially his first trip outside the confines of an urban Toronto environment into the Canadian wilderness.

By all accounts he was overwhelmed by what he saw and struggled to find new meaning in his talents that would capture these scenes in oil and canvas. There are only two small works credited to this period, archived in the McMichael gallery in Kleinburg, Ontario. Dennis Reid, Assistant Curator of the National Gallery of Canada stated in 1970 about this period: “Both Harris and (J.E.H.) MacDonald explored new approaches to handling of colour and overall design in these canvases. Harris in particular was experimenting with new methods of paint handling, and Jackson pointed out the interest of the other painters in these efforts, referring to the technique affectionately as ‘Tomato Soup’.” For most authorities the summer and fall of 1912 are simply called his ‘lost period’ because it was common for Harris to destroy, abandon or give away works that did not meet his standards. The other trait common to Harris works, is the lack of a signature and some that are signed were signed on his behalf. The most common proxy signatory was Betsy Harris, his second wife who signed canvases on his behalf when he could no longer do so.

So the question remains. Can an unsigned 24×36 in. canvas dated to 1900-1920 that was found in a curio shop in Bala, Ontario be a long lost Lawren Harris? When pictures were shown to Charles C. Hill, Curator of Canadian Art, National Gallery of Canada, he replied: “The canvas looks like no Harris I have ever seen…” A similar reply also came from Ian Thom, Head Curator for the Vancouver Art Gallery: “I do not believe that your work can be connected with Harris in any way.” [emphases mine] Yet the evidence still persists. The best example resides within the National Art Gallery. A 1919, 50.5 X 42.5 in. oil on rough canvas shows Harris’s style of under painting, broad brush strokes and stilled composition. Shacks, painted in 1919 and acquired the Gallery in 1920 is an exact technique clone of Autumn Harbour. For a list of comparisons styles with known Harris works and a full list of the collected evidence please consult www.1912lawrenharris.ca/ and see for yourself.

If Robertson was intent on perpetrating a fraud, why would he include the negative opinions from the curators or attempt to authenticate his purported Harris? The 2011 website is no longer available but Robertson has established another website, http://autumnharbour.ca/.

It’s not a crime (fraud) to have strong or fervent beliefs. After all, Robertson was the person who contacted ProSpect* Scientific to arrange for a test.

Second, Ian Thom, the VAG curator did not call ‘Autumn Harbour’ or David Robertson, a fraud. From the updated  June 5, 2014 article sporting a new headline by Thandi Fletcher,

“I do not believe that the painting … is in fact a Lawren Harris,” said Ian Thom, senior curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, “It’s that simple.”

It seems Thom feels as strongly as Robertson does; it’s just that Thom holds an opposing opinion.

Monetary value was mentioned earlier as an incentive for Robertson’s drive to prove the authenticity of his painting, from the updated June 5, 2014 article with the new headline by Thandi Fletcher,

Still, Robertson, who has carried out his own research on the painting, said he is convinced the piece is an authentic Harris. If it were, he said it would be worth at least $3 million. [emphasis mine]

“You don’t have to have a signature on the canvas to recognize brushstroke style,” he said.

Note: In a June 13, 2014 telephone conversation, Robertson used the figure of $1M to denote his valuation of Autumn Harbour and claimed a degree in Geography with a minor in Fine Arts from the University of Waterloo. He also expressed the hope that Autumn Harbour would prove to be a* Rosetta Stone of sorts for art pigments used in the early part of the 20th century.

As for the owner of Hurdy Gurdy and the drama that preceded its test on June 4, 2014, Fletcher had this in her updated and newly titled article,

Robertson said the painting’s owner, local Vancouver businessman Tony Ma, had promised to bring the Harris original to the chemistry conference but pulled out after art curator Thom told him not to participate.

While Thom acknowledged that Ma did ask for his advice, he said he didn’t tell him to pull out of the conference.

“It was more along the lines of, ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t do it, because I don’t think it’s going to accomplish anything,’” said Thom, adding that the final decision is up to Ma. [emphasis mine]

A request for comment from Ma was not returned Wednesday [June 5, 2014].

Thom, who already examined Robertson’s painting a year ago [in 2013? then, how is he quoted in a 2011 news release?], said he has no doubt Harris did not paint it.

“The subject matter is wrong, the handling of the paint is wrong, and the type of canvas is wrong,” he said, adding that many other art experts agree with him.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 4

* ‘ProsPect’ changed to ‘ProSpect’ on June 30, 2014. Minor grammatical change made to sentence: ‘He also expressed the hope that Autumn Harbour would prove to a be of Rosetta Stone of sorts for art pigments used in the early part of the 20th century.’ to ‘He also expressed the hope that Autumn Harbour would prove to be a* Rosetta Stone of sorts for art pigments used in the early part of the 20th century.’ on July 2, 2014.

ETA July 14, 2014 at 1300 hours PDT: There is now an addendum to this series, which features a reply from the Canadian Conservation Institute to a query about art pigments used by Canadian artists and access to a database of information about them.

Lawren Harris (Group of Seven), art authentication, and the Canadian Conservation Insitute (addendum to four-part series)

Art (Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven), science (Raman spectroscopic examinations), and other collisions at the 2014 Canadian Chemistry Conference (part 2 of 4)

Testing the sample and Raman fingerprints

The first stage of the June 3, 2010 test of David Robertson’s Autumn Harbour, required taking a tiny sample from the painting,. These samples are usually a fleck of a few microns (millionths of an inch), which can then be tested to ensure the lasers are set at the correct level assuring no danger of damage to the painting. (Robertson extracted the sample himself prior to arriving at the conference. He did not allow anyone else to touch his purported Harris before, during, or after the test.)

Here’s how ProSpect* Scientific describes the ‘rehearsal’ test on the paint chip,

Tests on this chip were done simply to ensure we knew what power levels were safe for use on the painting.  While David R stated he believed the painting was oil on canvas without lacquer, we were not entirely certain of that.  Lacquer tends to be easier to burn than oil pigments and so we wanted to work with this chip just to be entirely certain there was no risk to the painting itself.

The preliminary (rehearsal) test resulted in a line graph that showed the frequencies of the various pigments in the test sample. Titanium dioxide, for example, was detected and its frequency (spectra) reflected on the graph.

I found this example of a line graph representing the spectra (fingerprint) for a molecule of an ultramarine (blue) pigment along with a general explanation of a Raman ‘fingerprint’. There is no indication as to where the ultramarine pigment was obtained. From the  WebExhibits.org website featuring a section on Pigments through the Ages and a webpage on Spectroscopy,

raman-ArtPigment

Ultramarine [downloaded from http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/intro/spectroscopy.html]

Raman spectra consist of sharp bands whose position and height are characteristic of the specific molecule in the sample. Each line of the spectrum corresponds to a specific vibrational mode of the chemical bonds in the molecule. Since each type of molecule has its own Raman spectrum, this can be used to characterize molecular structure and identify chemical compounds.

Most people don’t realize that the chemical signature (spectra) for pigment can change over time with new pigments being introduced. Finding a pigment that was on the market from 1970 onwards in a painting by Jackson Pollock who died in 1956 suggests strongly that the painting couldn’t have come from Pollock’s hand. (See Michael Shnayerson’s May 2012 article, A Question of Provenance, in Vanity Fair for more about the Pollock painting. The article details the fall of a fabled New York art gallery that had been in business prior to the US Civil War.)

The ability to identify a pigment’s molecular fingerprint means that an examination by Raman spectroscopy can be part of an authentication, a restoration, or a conservation process. Here is how a representative from ProSpect Scientific describes the process,

Raman spectroscopy is non-destructive (when conducted at the proper power levels) and identifies the molecular components in the pigments, allowing characterization of the pigments for proper restoration or validation by comparison with other pigments of the same place/time. It is valuable to art institutions and conservators because it can do this.  In most cases of authentication Raman spectroscopy is one of many tools used and not the first in line. A painting would be first viewed by art experts for technique, format etc, then most often analysed with IR or X-Ray, then perhaps Raman spectroscopy. It is impossible to use Raman spectroscopy to prove authenticity as paint pigments are usually not unique to any particular painter.  Most often Raman spectroscopy is used by conservators to determine proper pigments for appropriate restoration.  Sometimes Raman will tell us that the pigment isn’t from the time/era the painting is purported to be from (anachronisms).

Autumn Harbour test

Getting back to the June 3, 2014 tests, once the levels were set then it was time to examine Autumn Harbour itself to determine the spectra for the various pigments.  ProSpect Scientific has provided an explanation of the process,

This spectrometer was equipped with an extension that allowed delivery of the laser and collection of the scattered light at a point other than directly under the microscope. We could also have used a flexible fibre optic probe for this, but this device is slightly more efficient. This allowed us to position the delivery/collection point for the light just above the painting at the spot we wished to test. For this test, we don’t sweep across the surface, we test a small pinpoint that we feel is a pigment of the target colour.

We only use one laser at a time. The system is built so we can easily select one laser or another, depending on what we wish to look at. Some researchers have 3 or 4 lasers in their system because different lasers provide a better/worse raman spectrum depending on the nature of the sample. In this case we principally used the 785nm laser as it is better for samples that exhibit fluorescence at visible wavelengths. 532nm is a visible wavelength.  For samples that didn’t produce good signal we tried the 532nm laser as it produces better signal to noise than 785nm, generally speaking. I believe the usable results in our case were obtained with the 785nm laser.

The graphed Raman spectra shows peaks for the frequency of scattered light that we collect from the laser-illuminated sample (when shining a laser on a sample the vast majority of light is scattered in the same frequency of the laser, but a very small amount is scattered at different frequencies unique to the molecules in the sample). Those frequencies correspond to and identify molecules in the sample. We use a database (on the computer attached to the spectrometer) to pattern match the spectra to identify the constituents.

One would have thought ‘game over’ at this point. According to some informal sources, Canada has a very small (almost nonexistent) data bank of information about pigments used in its important paintings. For example, the federal government’s Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) has a very small database of pigments and nothing from Lawren Harris paintings [See the CCI's response in this addendum], so the chances that David Robertson would have been able to find a record of pigments used by Lawren Harris roughly in the same time period that Autumn Harbour seems to have been painted are not good.

Everything changes

In a stunning turn of events and despite the lack of enthusiasm from Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) curator, Ian Thom, on Wednesday, June 4, 2014 the owner of the authenticated Harris, Hurdy Gurdy, relented and brought the painting in for tests.

Here’s what the folks from ProSpect Scientific had to say about the comparison,

Many pigments were evaluated. Good spectra were obtained for blue and white. The blue pigment matched on both paintings, the white didn’t match. We didn’t get useful Raman spectra from other pigments. We had limited time, with more time we might fine tune and get more data.

One might be tempted to say that the results were 50/50 with one matching and the other not, The response from the representative of ProSpect Scientific is more measured,

We noted that the mineral used in the pigment was the same.  Beyond that is interpretation:  Richard offered the view that lapis-lazuli was a typical and characteristic component for blue in that time period (early 1900’s).   We saw different molecules in the whites used in the two paintings, and Richard offered that both were characteristic of the early 1900’s.

Part 1

Part 3

Part 4

* ‘ProsPect’ changed to ‘ProSpect’ on June 30, 2014.

ETA July 14, 2014 at 1300 hours PDT: There is now an addendum to this series, which features a reply from the Canadian Conservation Institute to a query about art pigments used by Canadian artists and access to a database of information about them.

Lawren Harris (Group of Seven), art authentication, and the Canadian Conservation Insitute (addendum to four-part series)

 

Art (Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven), science (Raman spectroscopic examinations), and other collisions at the 2014 Canadian Chemistry Conference (part 1 of 4)

One wouldn’t expect the 97th Canadian Chemistry Conference held in Vancouver, Canada from  June 1 – 5, 2014 to be an emotional rollercoaster. One would be wrong. Chemists and members of the art scene are not only different from thee and me, they are different from each other.

Setting the scene

It started with a May 30, 2014 Simon Fraser University (SFU) news release,

During the conference, ProSpect Scientific has arranged for an examination of two Canadian oil paintings; one is an original Lawren Harris (Group of Seven) titled “Hurdy Gurdy” while the other is a painting called “Autumn Harbour” that bears many of Harris’s painting techniques. It was found in Bala, Ontario, an area that was known to have been frequented by Harris.

Using Raman Spectroscopy equipment manufactured by Renishaw (Canada), Dr. Richard Bormett will determine whether the paint from both works of art was painted from the same tube of paint.

As it turns out, the news release got it somewhat wrong. Raman spectroscopy testing does not make it possible to* determine whether the paints came from the same tube, the same batch, or even the same brand. Nonetheless, it is an important tool for art authentication, restoration and/or conservation and both paintings were scheduled for testing on Tuesday, June 3, 2014. But that was not to be.

The owner of the authenticated Harris (Hurdy Gurdy) rescinded permission. No one was sure why but the publication of a June 2, 2014 article by Nick Wells for Metro News Vancouver probably didn’t help in a situation that was already somewhat fraught. The print version of the Wells article titled, “A fraud or a find?” showed only one painting “Hurdy Gurdy” and for anyone reading quickly, it might have seemed that the Hurdy Gurdy painting was the one that could be “a fraud or a find.”

The dramatically titled article no longer seems to be online but there is one (also bylined by Nick Wells) dated June 1, 2014 titled, Chemists in Vancouver to use lasers to verify Group of Seven painting. It features (assuming it is still available online) images of both paintings, the purported Harris (Autumn Harbour) and the authenticated Harris (Hurdy Gurdy),

"Autumn Harbour" [downloaded from http://metronews.ca/news/vancouver/1051693/chemists-in-vancouver-to-use-lasers-to-verify-group-of-seven-painting/]

“Autumn Harbour” [downloaded from http://metronews.ca/news/vancouver/1051693/chemists-in-vancouver-to-use-lasers-to-verify-group-of-seven-painting/]

Heffel Fine Art Auction

Lawren Harris’‚ Hurdy Gurdy, a depiction of Toronto’s Ward district is shown in this handout image. [downloaded from http://metronews.ca/news/vancouver/1051693/chemists-in-vancouver-to-use-lasers-to-verify-group-of-seven-painting/]

David Robertson who owns the purported Harris (Autumn Harbour) and is an outsider vis à vis the Canadian art world, has been trying to convince people for years that the painting he found in Bala, Ontario is a “Lawren Harris” painting. For anyone unfamiliar with the “Group of Seven” of which Lawren Harris was a founding member, this group is legendary to many Canadians and is the single most recognized name in Canadian art history (although some might argue that status for Emily Carr and/or Tom Thomson; both of whom have been, on occasion, honorarily included in the Group).  Robertson’s incentive to prove “Autumn Harbour” is a Harris could be described as monetary and/or prestige-oriented and/or a desire to make history.

The owner of the authenticated Harris “Hurdy Gurdy” could also be described as an outsider of sorts [unconfirmed at the time of publication; a June 26, 2014 query is outstanding], gaining entry to that select group of people who own a ‘Group of Seven’ painting at a record-setting price in 2012 with the purchase of a piece that has a provenance as close to unimpeachable as you can get. From a Nov. 22, 2012 news item on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online,

Hurdy Gurdy, one of the finest urban landscapes ever painted by Lawren Harris, sold for $1,082,250, a price that includes a 17 per cent buyer’s premium. The pre-sale estimate suggested it could go for $400,000 to $600,000 including the premium.

The Group of Seven founder kept the impressionistic painting of a former Toronto district known as the Ward in his own collection before bequeathing it to his daughter. It has remained in the family ever since.

Occasionally, Harris “would come and say, ‘I need to borrow this back for an exhibition,’ and sometimes she wouldn’t see [the paintings] again,” Heffel vice-president Robert Heffel said. “Harris asked to have this painting back for a show…and she said ‘No, dad. Not this one.’ It was a painting that was very, very dear to her.”

It had been a coup to get access to an authenticated Harris for comparison testing so Hurdy Gurdy’s absence was a major disappointment. Nonetheless, Robertson went through with the scheduled June 3, 2014 testing of his ‘Autumn Harbour’.

Chemistry, spectroscopy, the Raman system, and the experts

Primarily focused on a technical process, the chemists (from ProSpect* Scientific and Renishaw) were unprepared for the drama and excitement that anyone associated with the Canadian art scene might have predicted.  From the chemists’ perspective, it was an opportunity to examine a fabled piece of Canadian art (Hurdy Gurdy) and, possibly, play a minor role in making Canadian art history.

The technique the chemists used to examine the purported Harris, Autumn Harbour, is called Raman spectroscopy and its beginnings as a practical technique date back to the 1920s. (You can get more details about Raman spectroscopy in this Wikiipedia entry then will be given here after the spectroscopy description.)

Spectroscopy (borrowing heavily from this Wikipedia entry) is the process where one studies the interaction between matter and radiated energy and which can be measured as frequencies and/or wavelengths. Raman spectroscopy systems can be used to examine radiated energy with low frequency emissions as per this description in the Raman spectroscopy Wikipedia entry,

Raman spectroscopy (/ˈrɑːmən/; named after Sir C. V. Raman) is a spectroscopic technique used to observe vibrational, rotational, and other low-frequency modes in a system.[1] It relies on inelastic scattering, or Raman scattering, of monochromatic light, usually from a laser in the visible, near infrared, or near ultraviolet range. The laser light interacts with molecular vibrations, phonons or other excitations in the system, resulting in the energy of the laser photons being shifted up or down.

The reason for using Raman spectroscopy for art authentication, conservation, and/or restoration purposes is that the technique, as noted earlier, can specify the specific chemical composition of the pigments used to create the painting. It is a technique used in many fields as a representative from ProSpect Scientific notes,

Raman spectroscopy is a vital tool for minerologists, forensic investigators, surface science development, nanotechnology research, pharmaceutical research and other applications.  Most graduate level university labs have this technology today, as do many government and industry researchers.  Raman spectroscopy is now increasingly available in single purpose hand held units that can identify the presence of a small number of target substances with ease-of-use appropriate for field work by law enforcers, first responders or researchers in the field.

About the chemists and ProSpect Scientific and Renishaw

There were two technical experts attending the June 3, 2014 test for the purported Harris painting, Autumn Harbour, Dr. Richard Bormett of Renishaw and Dr. Kelly Akers of ProSpect Scientific.

Dr. Kelly Akers founded ProSpect Scientific in 1996. Her company represents Renishaw Raman spectroscopy systems for the most part although other products are also represented throughout North America. Akers’ company is located in Orangeville, Ontario. Renishaw, a company based in the UK. offers a wide line of products including Raman spectroscopes. (There is a Renishaw Canada Ltd., headquartered in Mississauga, Ontario, representing products other than Raman spectroscopes.)

ProSpect Scientific runs Raman spectroscopy workshops, at the Canadian Chemistry Conferences as a regular occurrence, often in conjunction with Renishaw’s Bormett,. David Robertson, on learning the company would be at the 2014 Canadian Chemistry Conference in Vancouver, contacted Akers and arranged to have his purported Harris and Hurdy Gurdy, the authenticated Harris, tested at the conference.

Bormett, based in Chicago, Illinois, is Renishaw’s business manager for the Spectroscopy Products Division in North America (Canada, US, & Mexico).  His expertise as a spectroscopist has led him to work with many customers throughout the Americas and, as such, has worked with several art institutions and museums on important and valuable artifacts.  He has wide empirical knowledge of Raman spectra for many things, including pigments, but does not claim expertise in art or art authentication. You can hear him speak at a 2013 US Library of Congress panel discussion titled, “Advances in Raman Spectroscopy for Analysis of Cultural Heritage Materials,” part of the Library of Congress’s Topics in Preservation Series (TOPS), here on the Library of Congress website or here on YouTube. The discussion runs some 130 minutes.

Bormett has a PhD in analytical chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh. Akers has a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Toronto and is well known in the Raman spectroscopy field having published in many refereed journals including “Science” and the “Journal of Physical Chemistry.”  She expanded her knowledge of industrial applications of Raman spectroscopy substantive post doctoral work in Devon, Alberta at the CANMET Laboratory (Natural Resources Canada).

About Renishaw InVia Reflex Raman Spectrometers

The Raman spectroscopy system used for the examination, a Renishaw InVia Reflex Raman Spectrometer, had

  • two lasers (using 785nm [nanometres] and 532nm lasers for this application),
  • two cameras,
    (ProSpect Scientific provided this description of the cameras: The system has one CCD [Charged Coupled Device] camera that collects the scattered laser light to produce Raman spectra [very sensitive and expensive]. The system also has a viewing camera mounted on the microscope to allow the user to visually see what the target spot on the sample looks like. This camera shows on the computer what is visible through the eyepieces of the microscope.)
  • a microscope,
  • and a computer with a screen,

all of which fit on a tabletop, albeit a rather large one.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term CCD (charged coupled device), it is a sensor used in cameras to capture light and convert it to digital data for capture by the camera. (You can find out more here at TechTerms.com on the CCD webpage.)

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

* ‘to’ added to sentence on June 27, 2014 at 1340 hours (PDT). ‘ProsPect’ corrected to ‘ProSpect’ on June 30, 2014.

ETA July 14, 2014 at 1300 hours PDT: There is now an addendum to this series, which features a reply from the Canadian Conservation Institute to a query about art pigments used by Canadian artists and access to a database of information about them.

Lawren Harris (Group of Seven), art authentication, and the Canadian Conservation Insitute (addendum to four-part series)

What about the heart? and the quest to make androids lifelike

Japanese scientist Hiroshi Ishiguro has been mentioned here several times in the context of ‘lifelike’ robots. Accordingly, it’s no surprise to see Ishiguro’s name in a June 24, 2014 news item about uncannily lifelike robotic tour guides in a Tokyo museum (CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) News online),

The new robot guides at a Tokyo museum look so eerily human and speak so smoothly they almost outdo people — almost.

Japanese robotics expert Hiroshi Ishiguro, an Osaka University professor, says they will be useful for research on how people interact with robots and on what differentiates the person from the machine.

“Making androids is about exploring what it means to be human,” he told reporters Tuesday [June 23, 2014], “examining the question of what is emotion, what is awareness, what is thinking.”

In a demonstration, the remote-controlled machines moved their pink lips in time to a voice-over, twitched their eyebrows, blinked and swayed their heads from side to side. They stay seated but can move their hands.

Ishiguro and his robots were also mentioned in a May 29, 2014 article by Carey Dunne for Fast Company. The article concerned a photographic project of Luisa Whitton’s.

In her series “What About the Heart?,” British photographer Luisa Whitton documents one of the creepiest niches of the Japanese robotics industry--androids. Here, an eerily lifelike face made for a robot. [dowloaded from http://www.fastcodesign.com/3031125/exposure/japans-uncanny-quest-to-humanize-robots?partner=rss]

In her series “What About the Heart?,” British photographer Luisa Whitton documents one of the creepiest niches of the Japanese robotics industry–androids. Here, an eerily lifelike face made for a robot. [dowloaded from http://www.fastcodesign.com/3031125/exposure/japans-uncanny-quest-to-humanize-robots?partner=rss]

From Dunne’s May 29, 2014 article (Note: Links have been removed),

We’re one step closer to a robot takeover. At least, that’s one interpretation of “What About the Heart?” a new series by British photographer Luisa Whitton. In 17 photos, Whitton documents one of the creepiest niches of the Japanese robotics industry–androids. These are the result of a growing group of scientists trying to make robots look like living, breathing people. Their efforts pose a question that’s becoming more relevant as Siri and her robot friends evolve: what does it mean to be human as technology progresses?

Whitton spent several months in Japan working with Hiroshi Ishiguro, a scientist who has constructed a robotic copy of himself. Ishiguro’s research focused on whether his robotic double could somehow possess his “Sonzai-Kan,” a Japanese term that translates to the “presence” or “spirit” of a person. It’s work that blurs the line between technology, philosophy, psychology, and art, using real-world studies to examine existential issues once reserved for speculation by the likes of Philip K. Dick or Sigmund Freud. And if this sounds like a sequel to Blade Runner, it gets weirder: after Ishiguro aged, he had plastic surgery so that his face still matched that of his younger, mechanical doppelganger.

I profiled Ishiguro’s robots (then called Geminoids) in a March 10, 2011 posting which featured a Danish philosopher, Henrik Scharfe, who’d commissioned a Geminoid identical to himself for research purposes. He doesn’t seem to have published any papers about his experience but there is this interview of Scharfe and his Geminoid twin by Aldith Hunkar (she’s very good) at a 2011 TEDxAmsterdam,

Mary King’s 2007 research project notes a contrast, Robots and AI in Japan and The West and provides an excellent primer (Note: A link has been removed),

The Japanese scientific approach and expectations of robots and AI are far more down to earth than those of their Western counterparts. Certainly, future predictions made by Japanese scientists are far less confrontational or sci-fi-like. In an interview via email, Canadian technology journalist Tim N. Hornyak described the Japanese attitude towards robots as being “that of the craftsman, not the philosopher” and cited this as the reason for “so many rosy imaginings of a future Japan in which robots are a part of people’s everyday lives.”

Hornyak, who is author of “Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots,” acknowledges that apocalyptic visions do appear in manga and anime, but emphasizes that such forecasts do not exist in government circles or within Japanese companies. Hornyak also added that while AI has for many years taken a back seat to robot development in Japan, this situation is now changing. Honda, for example, is working on giving better brains to Asimo, which is already the world’s most advanced humanoid robot. Japan is also already legislating early versions of Asimov’s laws by introducing design requirements for next-generation mobile robots.

It does seem there might be more interest in the philosophical issues in Japan these days or possibly it’s a reflection of Ishiguro’s own current concerns (from Dunne’s May 29, 2014 article),

The project’s title derives from a discussion with Ishiguro about what it means to be human. “The definition of human will be more complicated,” Ishiguro said.

Dunne reproduces a portion of Whitton’s statement describing her purpose for these photographs,

Through Ishiguro, Whitton got in touch with a number of other scientists working on androids. “In the photographs, I am trying to subvert the traditional formula of portraiture and allure the audience into a debate on the boundaries that determine the dichotomy of the human/not human,” she writes in her artist statement. “The photographs become documents of objects that sit between scientific tool and horrid simulacrum.”

I’m not sure what she means by “horrid simulacrum” but she seems to be touching on the concept of the ‘uncanny valley’. Here’s a description I provided in a May 31, 2013 posting about animator Chris Landreth and his explorations of that valley within the context of his animated film, Subconscious Password,,

Landreth also discusses the ‘uncanny valley’ and how he deliberately cast his film into that valley. For anyone who’s unfamiliar with the ‘uncanny valley’ I wrote about it in a Mar. 10, 2011 posting concerning Geminoid robots,

It seems that researchers believe that the ‘uncanny valley’ doesn’t necessarily have to exist forever and at some point, people will accept humanoid robots without hesitation. In the meantime, here’s a diagram of the ‘uncanny valley’,

From the article on Android Science by Masahiro Mori (translated by Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato)

Here’s what Mori (the person who coined the term) had to say about the ‘uncanny valley’ (from Android Science),

Recently there are many industrial robots, and as we know the robots do not have a face or legs, and just rotate or extend or contract their arms, and they bear no resemblance to human beings. Certainly the policy for designing these kinds of robots is based on functionality. From this standpoint, the robots must perform functions similar to those of human factory workers, but their appearance is not evaluated. If we plot these industrial robots on a graph of familiarity versus appearance, they lie near the origin (see Figure 1 [above]). So they bear little resemblance to a human being, and in general people do not find them to be familiar. But if the designer of a toy robot puts importance on a robot’s appearance rather than its function, the robot will have a somewhat humanlike appearance with a face, two arms, two legs, and a torso. This design lets children enjoy a sense of familiarity with the humanoid toy. So the toy robot is approaching the top of the first peak.

Of course, human beings themselves lie at the final goal of robotics, which is why we make an effort to build humanlike robots. For example, a robot’s arms may be composed of a metal cylinder with many bolts, but to achieve a more humanlike appearance, we paint over the metal in skin tones. These cosmetic efforts cause a resultant increase in our sense of the robot’s familiarity. Some readers may have felt sympathy for handicapped people they have seen who attach a prosthetic arm or leg to replace a missing limb. But recently prosthetic hands have improved greatly, and we cannot distinguish them from real hands at a glance. Some prosthetic hands attempt to simulate veins, muscles, tendons, finger nails, and finger prints, and their color resembles human pigmentation. So maybe the prosthetic arm has achieved a degree of human verisimilitude on par with false teeth. But this kind of prosthetic hand is too real and when we notice it is prosthetic, we have a sense of strangeness. So if we shake the hand, we are surprised by the lack of soft tissue and cold temperature. In this case, there is no longer a sense of familiarity. It is uncanny. In mathematical terms, strangeness can be represented by negative familiarity, so the prosthetic hand is at the bottom of the valley. So in this case, the appearance is quite human like, but the familiarity is negative. This is the uncanny valley.

[keep scrolling, I'm having trouble getting rid of this extra space below]

It seems that Mori is suggesting that as the differences between the original and the simulacrum become fewer and fewer, the ‘uncanny valley’ will disappear. It’s possible but I suspect before that day occurs those of us who were brought up in a world without synthetic humans (androids) may experience an intensification of the feelings aroused by an encounter with the uncanny valley even as it disappears. For those who’d like a preview, check out Luisa Whitton’s What About The Heart? project.

Cloud and molecular aesthetics; an art/science conference features a bionanotechnology speaker

Here’s a notice from a June 19, 2014 from OCR (Operational and Curatorial Research in Art Design Science and Technology) organization newsletter highlighting an upcoming conference in Istanbul, Turkey, which includes a nanotechnology speaker,

Lanfranco Aceti, the founder of OCR; Edward Colless Head of Critical and Theoretical Studies and Paul Thomas, Program Director of Fine Art at COFA, are the lead chairs and organizers of the conference Cloud & Molecular Aesthetics from June 26 to 28, 2014, at the Pera Museum.

We invite you to three stimulating days that explores new perspectives and evolutions in contemporary art were acclaimed professionals including curators,historians, creative arts practitioners, critics and theorists consider transdisciplinary imaging relating to the theme of cloud, dispersal, infinitesimally small and molecular aesthetics. The conference is free and open to all. The program is available here.

The conference keynotes are Professor Anne Balsamo, Dean of the School of Media Studies at The New School, Dr. Ljiljana Fruk co-author of Molecular Aesthetics, Dr. Jussi Parikka who authored Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology; and Prof. Darren Tofts author of Alephbet: Essays on Ghost-writing, Nutshells & Infinite Space.

The notice doesn’t mention the most interesting aspect (for me, anyway) of Dr. Ljiljana Fruk’s work. Here’s more from her OCR Cloud and Molecular Aesthetics Keynote bio page,

Dr. Fruk is a scientist and lecturer at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany working on the development of photosensitive bio nano hybrid systems to be used in the design of new catalysts, artificial enzymes and biosensors for nanomedicinal applications. [emphases mine] She studied chemistry at University of Zagreb and continued to pursue her PhD at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, where she worked on the development of advanced tools for DNA detection. After award of Humboldt Fellowship and Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowship she conducted a postdoctoral research on artificial enzyme catalysts at the University of Dortmund in Germany. Since 2009 she leads her own research group and is also active in exploring the interface of art and science, in particular the cultural and societal impact of new technologies such as nanotechnology and synthetic biology. Besides number of scientific activities, she was also a co-organizer of the first symposium on Molecular Aesthetics (2011), 3D interactive exhibition on Molecules that Changed the World, and together with artist Peter Weibel, a co-editor of Molecular Aesthetic book (2013).

The official title for the conference is this: ‘The Third International Conference on Transdisciplinary Imaging at the Intersections of Art, Science and Culture’ although the organizers seem to be using the theme, Cloud and Molecular Aesthetics, as an easy way to refer to it. You can still register for the conference here: http://ocradst.org/cloudandmolecularaesthetics/registration/

I last mentioned the OCR in a March 24, 2014 posting about a call for papers for a conference on sound curation.