Rönten image of an angel figure, from the upper torso upwards.

Intimate Images. The History of Radiography in the History of Art

The project investigated the history and epistemological significance of examining paintings and sculptures with X-rays. As its underlying thesis, the project posited that the introduction of radiological examinations of paintings in the 1910s and, later on, of sculptures triggered a shift in disciplinary practices in the field of art history: Previously, academic interests were focused on the image surface and its iconographical-iconological meaning. With the introduction of X-rays, however, the art historians’ attention was drawn to the material, its physical properties and its artistic-manual treatment. This look beneath the surface allowed for new questions to be raised about works of art, such as questions for artistic preferences and their significance. Thus, X-rays brought forth new knowledge of art and artists.

The project explored the emergence and application of this new knowledge from three perspectives:

a) The relatively short history of art-historical radiography—the production of radiographs of artworks—and its development from 1895 onwards has not yet been accounted for. As part of this project, it has now been reconstructed on the basis of historical and contemporary publications, original X-ray images, and archival material. Special attention was given to the media-technological and discursive production of ‘evident data’ (Evidenz) and the development of new expert knowledge.

b) By taking a look at two case studies, one of Rembrandt van Rijn and one of Adriaen de Vries, the project investigated the ways in which this new knowledge of the materiality of artworks was introduced into scholarly literature and subsequently transformed the perspectives within the discipline. The project analyzed and compared academic texts written before and after the introduction of X-ray examinations towork out the epistemic shifts in art-historical practice.

c) Since art historical radiographs are images of aesthetic objects, it was necessary to analyze not only the technical, but also the aesthetic considerations that influence their production. Whereas medical X-rays only show one section or part of a body, art-historical X-rays (e.g., of sculptures) can also be regarded as independent creations. This adds an iconic quality to their indexical one. This specific aesthetic of the X-ray image— an aesthetic that several contemporary artists already work with— has not yet been sufficiently analyzed in the context of image theory.

The project understood X-ray images of artworks first and foremost as scientific images which allowed for a subject-specific process of self-reflection: While art historians have long been interested in scientific images from other disciplines, they have yet to focus on scientific images from their own. The project confronted this circumstance and contributed to the scholarly history of science of art history.

The results of this research project will be published in an illustrated monograph on radiography in art history.

Funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) 2016–2020
Head researcher(s): Uta Kornmeier


Uta Kornmeier


28 Jun 2019 · 10.30 am

Uta Kornmeier: Bild/Diagnosen. Überkreuzungen von Medizin und Geisteswissenschaften

Medizinische Universität Wien und Allgemeines Krankenhaus der Stadt Wien

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Lecture in the context of the exhibition »Geheimnis. Ein gesellschaftliches Phänomen«
12 Feb 2019 · 6.30 pm

Uta Kornmeier: Das Geheimnis der Bilder. Röntgendurchleuchtungen von Gemälden

Museum für Kommunikation, Leipziger Str. 16, 10117 Berlin

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Media Response

12 Feb 2019
Bilder und ihre Geheimnisse. Gemälde im Röntgenlicht

Radio talk with Uta Kornmeier, in: rbb, program: WissensWerte, 12 Feb 2019

17 Aug 2016
Intime Bilder. Die Geschichte kunsthistorischer Radiographie

Radio talk with Uta Kornmeier and Andreas Knaesche, in: RBB Kulturradio, program: Kulturradio am Vormittag, 17 Aug 2016, 09.10 am