Lecture: How X-Ray Imagery Changed the Practice of Art History

Professor Sven Dupré

Professor and Chair of History of Art, Science and Technology, University of Utrecht

Professor of History of Art, Science and Technology, University of Amsterdam

Martin de Wild working on a X-radiograph in his laboratory, ca. 1930.

London, 14 March 2018, 5:30 pm

Warburg Institute
Woburn Square
London WC1H 0AB

Admission free; please register for this event through the Events section of the School of Advanced Study (SAS).

Despite experimentation with X-Ray technology applied to the diagnosis of paintings in German science laboratories in the first decade of the twentieth century, it was only in the 1920s and 1930s that the technology became more widely and systematically applied to art. Alan Burrough’s acquisition of the first and extensive archive of X-ray images of paintings, first of the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the most important driving force behind this. Burrough’s efforts were inspirational for Kurt Wehlte, the German Maltechniker, who in the 1930s established a laboratory for the X-Ray investigation of paintings in Berlin. In this talk, Professor Dupré will speak about how and in which ways X-ray investigations of paintings were consequential for art history.

His talk will focus on two other researchers: Christian Wolters in Munich and Berlin, who in 1938, the same year Alan Burrough’s ‘Art Criticism from the Laboratory’ appeared, published his dissertation ‘Die Bedeutung der Gemäldedurchleuchtung mit Röntgenstrahlen für die Kunstgeschichte’; and Martin de Wild in Delft and Utrecht, who defended his dissertation ‘The Scientific Examination of Art’ ten years before, in 1928. The history of X-ray technology in the history of art in the 1920s and 1930s shows that it was not simply a matter of art versus science, that is, of the eager adoption by scientists embarking on the art historical terrain from their recently established museum laboratories versus the outright rejection of the technology in circles of artists and humanists. X-ray technology was accepted when it supported a particular style of art history which was structured around formal analysis and which radiating from Vienna made school across Germany and the Netherlands. Moreover, the sort of knowledge which early adopters of X-ray technology for the study of art imagined to be required of researchers and students of art history was obviously based on older models of connoisseurship. While connoisseurs like Cornelis Hofstede de Groot saw no use of methods of scientific analysis, other art historians responded that new ways of scientifically examining art in the laboratory required students of art history to learn new ways of seeing.


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