Intimate Images. The History of Radiography in the History of Art
The project investigates the history and epistemological significance of examining paintings and sculptures with X-rays and the resulting images. Its underlying thesis is that the introduction in the 1910s of radiological examinations of paintings and later of sculptures triggered a shift in disciplinary practices in the field of art history: Previously, academic interests were focussed on the image surface and its iconographical-iconological meaning. X-rays, however, drew art historians’ attention to the material, its physical condition and artistic treatment. To look beneath the surface into the artwork itself raised all kinds of new questions about art and artistic practices and preferences, and, thereby, contributed to the creation of new knowledge.
The project approaches the emergence and application of this new knowledge from three perspectives:
a) The history of radiography in the history of art and its development from 1895 on has not yet been written. Thus, the project is the first to reconstruct this history on the basis of historical and contemporary publications, original X-ray images, and archive material. Special attention will be paid to the technological and discursive production of ‘evident data’ (Evidenz) and the development of a new kind of expert knowledge.
b) Two case studies, one on Rembrandt and one on Adriaen de Vries, investigate the manner in which this knowledge about the physical materiality of artworks was introduced into the scholarly literature and, subsequently, transformed the discipline of art history. By analysing and comparing academic texts written before and after the introduction of X-ray examinations, the epistemic shift in art history will become apparent.
c) Given that art historical radiographs are images of aesthetic objects, it is necessary to determine how not only technical, but also aesthetic considerations influenced their production. While medical X-rays always show only a detail of a body, art historical X-rays (e.g., of sculptures) can appear as images created for their own sake, adding an iconic quality to their indexical relation to the object under examination. This special aesthetic appeal and vacillating status of the X-ray image – already taken up by several contemporary artists – have not yet been sufficiently described and analysed in the context of image theory. The project will make a first attempt to do so.
In the context of this project, X-ray images are considered scientific images in art history. While art historians have long been interested in the production methods and epistemic status of images in other disciplines, they have yet to study the scientific images produced within their own discipline. The project confronts this lack of self-reflection and contributes to the investigation of art history within the theoretical framework of the history of science.
The results of this research project will be published as an illustrated monograph on the radiography in art history.
Fig.: Antonio Begarelli, Angel from the Crucifix with Four Angels (after 1534) ©Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und -prüfung Berlin
Radio talk with Uta Kornmeier and Andreas Knaesche, in: RBB Kulturradio, program: Kulturradio am Vormittag, 17 Aug 2016, 09.10am