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Art Scene Investigation: Why Are You Angry?

I am sitting in a white room with high ceilings, in deep silence. I am all alone. Only a slight humming is audible in the background. Right above me, unaware of this entire operation, hundreds of visitors are entering the glass doors of the Modern Wing. In front of me, a robotic arm, red and amber lights on, is going back and forth with a hypnotic rhythm. Outside, a yellow and purple X-ray warning sign is guarding the door.

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I have programmed the computer this morning, so now I only have to sit, wait, and watch while, dot after dot, tantalizing images the eye  cannot see trickle down the screen, like The Matrix with a splash of Warhol. In a few hours, the veil will be lifted.

The scene before me was painted by Paul Gauguin in Tahiti in 1896 and it is entitled Why Are You Angry?

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The painting shows two women sitting in the foreground, not making eye contact. Another woman, a magnetic presence, stands in the middle, and she is not happy. Although the title is evocative of some kind of narrative, the whole meaning of the scene remains mysterious. My colleague Kristin Lister, a paintings conservator, says that after looking at the painting inch by inch through a microscope, examining every brushstroke, she thinks perhaps originally this might have been a twilight scene. Perhaps there was fire, or light peeking through the doorway of the hut that is now pitch black. Today, over 100 years later, the colors are still bursting out of the painting, making the whole room vibrate (no, the vibrations are not just the effect of the cooling fan in the X-ray tube; this art is powerful).

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We cannot see through the dark, or through black paint for that matter, but X-rays can. And this new piece of technology—brilliantly designed by scientists Joris Dik and Koen Janssens with Bruker’s engineers—has been on a US grand tour to peer under some of the most important and enigmatic paintings in this country, after having its Cyclops eye trained on nothing less than Rembrandts back in Europe. It is important to remember that only a few years ago it was unthinkable to do what I am doing today, in the comfort and security of my own lab here at the Art Institute. This type of analysis was only possible at Synchrotrons, large-scale facilities like the one located 30 miles from here at Argonne National Lab. I don’t even want to start thinking about the hassle of having to transport this masterpiece there, arranging for security during transport, making sure the temperature and relative humidity are kept constant during the analysis and at values that are safe for the art. Instead, now that the technology is portable, it can travel to the art rather than the other way around. So, after the Getty in Los Angeles, and New York’s MoMA and Metropolitan Museum of Art, this instrument, called a macro-XRF scanner, has landed here in Chicago. Too bad I can only keep it for a few more days! I would love to own one of these.

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This amazing technology scans the surface of a painting with X-rays, exciting the painting materials without harming them. In response, at every spot probed, the atoms that make up the physical structure of the painting and its paint layers emit energy back in different packets so that we can tell precisely what the chemical elements are below the surface and, by inference, what pigments the artist has used. And instead of doing this for individual points, wielding a gun-like instrument—as seen in my post from June 27, 2011—we can now visualize the exact distribution of paints by sweeping through the entire surface of the painting. And this one is definitely big, at 37 1/2 x 51 3/8 inches!

It is going to be fantastic to be able to include this imagery in our forthcoming online catalogue on Paul Gauguin, part of our ongoing Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative which already includes richly detailed catalogues for Monet and Renoir.

So now under my eyes the magic of discovery begins: Below the veil of bluish-black paint there are two heads, not just the one we see, and red brushstrokes of vermilion (a pigment that contains mercury, whose symbol is Hg in the periodic table of elements) with touches of chrome yellow (a pigment containing lead [Pb] and chrome [Cr]), making for a very dynamic yellow-orange and fiery red backdrop for the seated figure.

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So, is there a glowing fire inside? Is it an orange curtain? Wait, is Paul inside? Are the women fighting over him? After all, he could be quite attractive, I think; perhaps not conventionally handsome, but I can definitely see a fire in him. He reminds me of the actor Jean Reno of "La Femme Nikita" fame.

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Whatever it is, after spending many hours in this room in close intimacy with his work, analyzing its every brushstroke, I feel somehow closer to Gauguin. And suddenly I am reminded of a recent article in the New York Times by Bill Hayes that definitely resonated with me. Its words are still echoing in my head now. In essence it says: When the world goes crazy, pick a work of art. Make it yours. Make it matter. Visit often.

Well, this is MY Gauguin today then. After a whole day with this painting, I feel exhilarated and very calm.

“Why are you angry?” asks Gauguin. “Why are you stressed?” we may sometimes ask ourselves. As long as we have great art that makes us dream and technology that makes us experience things we never thought possible, then we can have faith in this world. No need to be stressed, no need to be angry.

As spoken from my X-ray den. (And don't worry, I wear a radiation dosimeter and, yes, this instrument is safe for me AND the art!)

 

—Francesca Casadio, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Conservation Scientist

 

Image credits:

[On view in Gallery 246] Paul Gauguin. Why Are You Angry? (No Te Aha Oe Riri), 1896. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.

[On view at the Van Gogh Museum] Paul Gauguin. Self-Portrait with Portrait of Émile Bernard (Les misérables) (detail), 1888. Van Gogh Museum , Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).