Many artists may dream that their work will live on forever but few would suspect that their work would be at the centre of pioneering efforts, with science and art joining forces to improve art management in the 21st century. This, however, is exactly what has happened for surrealist painter Salvador Dalí.
A recent study, published in the Royal Society of Chemistry's Journal Analytical Methods, describes a cross-disciplinary approach by scientists, curators and art conservationists to explore non-destructive ways of assessing the composition and integrity of precious canvases. This will help curators to find out whether a canvas or portrait is in a suitable condition to be transported for exhibition. It seems appropriate that the subject of this study was Dalí who had a keen curiosity in scientific matters and often explored these themes in his work.
Typically studies that address the question of art preservation focus on the characteristics within the paint. This latest study, quite uniquely, seeks to describe the condition of Dalí’s canvases - which form the very foundation of the painting.
The study used near infrared spectroscopy (NIR) and sophisticated data analysis to categorise 12 Dalí paintings to determine if they were fit for handling and travel. NIR analysis provides information on the chemical composition of a sample based on its absorption of radiation at different frequencies. This effectively tells researchers about the chemical makeup of the canvas fibres without touching them and is often described as providing a chemical fingerprint.
The team of researchers first used a collection of sacrificial historic canvas samples to create reference data against which the Dalí paintings could then be compared. Chemical and NIR analysis was carried out on 199 historical canvases that were from the same provenance as the 12 Dalí paintings. The researchers recorded the pH level, degree to which fibres had been weakened by acidity, fibre type and finally NIR data. This body of information was then used to build a statistical model that allowed them to predict canvas properties without chemical analysis. The Dalí paintings were then examined using just NIR methods. These can be performed in situ and without the constraints of a laboratory setting. The researchers were able to compare the NIR results from the reference data to that of Dalí portraits and reliably infer the canvas material, pH and degree to which fibres had been weakened, without carrying out any destructive testing.
The final stage of the study was to classify the quantitative data into meaningful categories for determining if the Dalí paintings were fit for transportation and then hanging. Only one canvas of the 12 was deemed to be very fragile and moving was not advised.
This study represents a repeatable framework for the examination of precious art, demonstrating the exceptional scope there is for scientific and statistical analysis to play an important role in art conservation. Studies such as these will help define ways of protecting valuable works of art and possibly increase the life of iconic pieces, helping immortalise artists such as Dalí, as well as their creations.
Oriola, M; Mozir, A; Garside, P; Campo, G; Nualart-Torroja, A; Civil, I; Odlyha, M; Cassar, M; Strlic, M. Analytical Methods, 6 (1) 86 - 96. doi: 10.1039/c3ay41094c. Looking beneath Dali’s paint: non-destructive canvas analysis.