Emory Report
April 2, 2007
Volume 59, Number 25

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April 2, 2007
Creative science class investigates art with physics

by carol clark

The print of a battle scene, the work of a 16th-century Dutch artist named Philipp Galle, had been in the Michael C. Carlos Museum collection for years. Its authenticity was not in question, but was it printed from the engraving during the artist’s lifetime, or much later?

Renee Stein and John Malko decided to investigate.

Stein, a conservator at the Carlos Museum and adjunct lecturer in art history, and Malko, an associate professor of radiology in the Emory School of Medicine and adjunct associate professor of physics, spent months conducting such esoteric research to develop an interdisciplinary elective, “Investigating Art with Physics,” which debuted this semester.

“It’s serendipity,” Malko said of the course, “the right people bumping into each other.”

“There’s no textbook for this. It’s a concept we’re exploring and we’re taking the students along,” said Stein. “This course is about thinking creatively for the pure pleasure and challenge of it, which is a big part of what a liberal arts education is supposed to be.”

Stein and Malko met when they joined the team formed by Ray DuVarney, chair of the physics department, tasked with designing a neutron activation camera. The goal is to image through a stone wall in Florence, Italy, and determine if a lost Leonardo DaVinci mural lies behind it. The ongoing project is headed by famed art analyst Maurizio Seracini, whose real-life discovery of drawings hidden behind a DaVinci painting were referenced in the bestselling novel “The DaVinci Code.”

The fun of working on the DaVinci mural investigation inspired Malko and Stein to ponder how to give students a hands-on, interdisciplinary experience of physics and art.

In addition to art workshops that introduce students to the properties of paper, ink, paint and canvas — and physics labs to demonstrate techniques to analyze these materials — the duo incorporated case studies from the Carlos Museum to show practical applications for the knowledge gained.

The Galle print was ideal for their purposes.

If the print was made during the 16th century, it should have evidence of markings called chain and laid lines and a watermark, which came from the wire mesh that used to hold the paper during fabrication. Sometimes these identifiers can be seen by holding a print up to the light. But the ink on the Galle print was thickly applied, and the handmade paper was full of inconsistencies, obscuring the structure.

The solution? Use beta radiography to image the paper and reveal any hidden marks. Stein and Malko linked with other organizations interested in acquiring a beta plate, a difficult object to come by, and secured one at a significant discount.

“It’s a piece of Plexi-glass — bright blue, a beautiful color — embedded with radioactive carbon 14 isotope,” Stein said. “The decaying isotope releases electrons that can pass through the paper, recording its different densities as light and dark areas on film.”

After an eight-hour exposure, the Galle print yielded its secrets: chain and laid lines and a watermark of a fish with a crown.

For one class session, Stein and Malko brought in a guest artist to guide the students through the process of making their own paper by hand, embedding watermarks in the process.

“I was surprised at how laborious it was to make paper,” said Anne Gan, an art history major in the class. “We take paper for granted today, we go through so much of it.”

Malko made beta radiographs of the students’ papers, and brought the resulting images to lab to demonstrate the process.

Liz Schulte, contract conservator of paper for the project, discussed the case study of the Galle print with the class. She explained that an art historian wanting to pursue the investigation further could trace the fish and crown watermark to a particular place and papermaker.

Art investigations are not necessarily “a Magic 8 ball that you can ask a question and just get a answer,” Stein said. But information you get about the materials often gives you clues to age, authenticity, the resources of the artist, the place of origin — even ancient trade routes.

In another workshop, students drew a picture on canvas, and then painted another picture over the drawing. Digital infrared photography was used to reveal the resulting underdrawings — similar to a procedure used to image underdrawings in the paintings of famous artists, giving insights into their creative process. The course also includes practical lab experiments using neutron activation analysis and ultraviolet fluorescence for the study of everything from classical marbles to varnishes.

Prior coursework in physics, visual arts or art history was not required, and the 13 students who signed up came from a range of academic backgrounds.

“Most of my labs are things I’m forced to do, not things that I want to do,” said Ian Goldlust, a pre-med student with a minor in physics, explaining that he enrolled in the course because the labs and workshops sounded fun. “Even though I may not remember the details of papermaking 20 years from now, the course is giving me a new way of thinking and looking at problems.”

“This is true object-based learning,” said Lynn Tinley, a graduate American studies student in the Institute for Liberal Arts, whose research focuses on 18th-century American embroidery and textiles. “It’s really important to me to understand how objects are made, how they age and how to conserve them.”

The team-teaching approach was another allure, Tinley said. “Renee and John both have a lot of knowledge and a lot of passion.”