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Art Scene Investigation: Picasso Goes Nanotech

If I say “ring” you might first think of Frodo. Or maybe Wagner if you’re an opera lover. But you’ll find neither Hobbits nor Valkyries at the ring-shaped Argonne National Laboratory just outside Chicago. What you will find is Art Institute conservation scientists, as we visited the Lab this month on a mission to bring Picasso to the ring.

Let me qualify that: we brought minuscule samples of Picasso paintings from the Art Institute to the Advanced Photon Source, the Western hemisphere’s brightest source of X-ray beams. At this top-notch facility, scientists rip electrons from atoms and make them spin furiously around the circumference of the experiment hall—which is large enough to encircle a baseball stadium. These enraged electrons (always charged with that negative attitude!) give off enormous amounts of energy, which the scientists can bend and direct to do wonderful things.

We used the energy from this process to penetrate every single grain of white pigment that Picasso used with nanometric resolution (that is, splitting human hair eighty thousand times to get down to a nanometer) in order to determine where it came from. Was it from a wrinkled tube from one of the artist’s storied houses, produced on the banks of the river Seine in chi-chi Paris? Or did it come from a drippy can of mass-market produced house paint? Could the paint possibly have been made in the U.S.? By looking at infinitesimal contaminants in these zinc oxide pigment particles we hope we will be able to answer these questions and advance our Picasso-related detective work.

Often conservators are surprised to find themselves in facilities such as these. But at Argonne, scientists riding around on tricycles (the facility’s favored mode of transportation) were probably just as surprised to find us. These scientists were encountering Picasso in unexpected places: posted in a note with our project title on our experimental station’s door and attached with a drop of nail polish (an ironic fate for a known womanizer!) on a small pin!

Outside, at night (yes, because when you are awarded time for an experiment, you work 24/7 for 5 days: science cannot wait), dragonflies sparkle amidst the grass in the calm, bucolic setting. Inside, it sparkles too…we are brimming with the excitement of discovery. And that is how Picasso, a trailblazer in both life and death, went nanotech at Argonne on a hot day in July 2011.

—Francesca C., Andrew W. Mellon Senior Conservation Scientist

Image Captions:

Top image: The Advanced Photon source inside and out: the “ring” at Argonne National Laboratory (left) and one of the tricycles used to circulate around the 2/3 of a mile circumference (right)

Bottom image: Beamline scientist Volker Rose inside the control room. At right, tools of the trade, and our Picasso sample (try to spot the almost invisible white paint chip hanging in the circular hole!)