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 of radiological examinations of paintings in the 1910s and later 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. 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, artistic practices and preferences, thereby contributing 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 onwards 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 archival 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 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 role of radiography in art history.


Fig. above: Antonio Begarelli, Angel from the Crucifix with Four Angels (after 1534) © Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und -prüfung Berlin

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