Work of Art, Work of Science. Creative Encounter of AGH UST Researchers with the World of Culture

Painting from the series “Bociany” [Storks] by Maria Bieńkowska-Kopczyńska and its photometric analysis: photo in white light (a) and in monochromatic light: 385 nm (b), 465 nm (c), 520 nm (d), and 620 nm (e). Photos by Krzysztof Mech and Grzegorz Kulinowski

We are well aware that science can be an art sometimes. However, is there room for science in art? AGH UST researchers claim that scientists can play an important role in the process of conservation and creation of awe-inspiring works of human imagination. A team led by Professor Konrad Szaciłowski from the AGH UST Academic Centre for Materials and Nanotechnology (ACMiN) develops innovative techniques for renovating works of old masters and designs nanopigments that can provide modern artists with novel and wonderful possibilities. Furthermore, Krakow researchers came up with the idea of protecting works of art not only against the passage of time, but also against forgery and theft. They have created a concept of the so-called molecular signature, which practically reduces the risk of forgery to zero.  AGH UST researchers have once again proven that interdisciplinary collaboration and creative sharing of ideas with specialists from most diverse fields can bear excellent fruits and constitute a birthplace for creative applications of the sciences taught and developed at the university, which may be of good use to the society.

The originator of the idea to use the discoveries of materials science and nanotechnology in the field of art is Doctor Kacper Pilarczyk from ACMiN, Professor Szaciłowski’s co-worker, whose scientific specialisation oscillates between chemistry and physics, as well as various branches thereof, such as photochemistry or nanophysics. Interestingly, the concept of collaboration between engineers, restorers, and artists was not conceived within the walls of the university, but during a meeting with friends who deal with creative work on a daily basis. In such circumstances did the question emerge whether it is possible to develop materials that would, on the one hand, preserve all aesthetic values of works of art and, on the other hand, be lasting and harmless for the creators? It appears that with the use of nanotechnology some of those wishes can come true, that is, it is possible to design and synthesise substances that would meet the two conditions. This careless idea brought up during an informal meeting has turned into a professional research project, which involves not only engineers but also Krakow art restorers and Polish artists.

‘I have a group of friends who are involved in various artistic projects, including the conservation of art works and painting in general. During a casual conversation with my friend, who is a painter, we thought to ourselves that the same materials we examine in the laboratory, he uses as pigments, as paint ingredients. Hence the simple conclusion that the two worlds are only seemingly distant; and the forces of artists and scientists can be joined creatively to benefit the two communities, says Kacper Pilarczyk, DSc.

The problem diagnosis

Research work on using nanotechnology in art began from consulting restorers about a precise definition of their needs. During those talks, it transpired that the chief degrading agents are light, dust, humidity, microorganisms, temperature, and finally direct human activity. Initial analysis has also shown that restorers use chemicals very frequently to preserve works of art. Chemicals which are not entirely harmless to themselves; to the extent that some of those substances contain diluents irritating eyes and skin. Therefore, the chief objective of the engineers at ACMiN was to design protective measures that would be harmless to works of art, people who work with them, and the environment. This also meant the preservation of all artistic values of the objects, which, according to the researchers, was possible due to materials science – an interdisciplinary science developed intensively at the AGH UST.

Another goal was to develop a new type of paint that, firstly, would not be toxic and secondly, would not succumb so quickly to photodegradation processes, i.e. the loss of the desired properties resulting from exposure to sun- or artificial light. To find out how light influences the degeneration processes of works of art, one can use a solar simulator, a device that in a short period of time can age a work of art for several dozen years by hitting it with a condensed dose of visible radiation and UV light. This machine would also allow AGH UST engineers to predict the durability and effectiveness of these new substances after decades of exposure to sunlight. Another useful tool in art conservation is the photometric analysis employed in the laboratory, which is based on illuminating the object with an adjusted wave length, which helps to reveal the portions most significantly affected by time. Krakow scientists decided to conduct such experiments on a painting titled “Bociany” [Storks] by Maria Bieńkowska-Konopczyńska.

Microscopic analysis of the painting “Bociany” [Storks] by Maria Bieńkowska-Kopczyńska: fragment of the head (a), beak (b), sky above the stork’s head (c), and a single fibre of the painting with pigment granules (d). Photographs were taken with the help of an optical microscope (a-c) and a scanning electron microscope (d). Photos by Grzegorz Cios

Work of art à la minute

The role of restorers and people connected to the world of art did not end with only determining their needs because they helped verify the engineers’ solutions, primarily in terms of their usability and concordance with artistic expectations. As Dr Pilarczyk claims, another exciting step would be to engage researchers into the creative process by means of designing materials meeting individual needs of particular artists. In this way, ideas that seemed impossible at first glance could become reality with the help of science. However, for now, Professor Szaciłowski’s team at ACMiN stopped at the idea of creating synthetic pigments which would, above all, be more resilient to degeneration processes resulting from exposure to light, temperature, or mechanical degradation. Such substances could be called nanopigments because they would contain nanostructures. Interestingly, the process of manufacturing them would not have to take long and could sometimes be completed in a few hours. What would be very important during such a process would be to precisely predict and test in practice how the substances work, as they could be used to renovate high-value works of art.

Molecular signature

ACMiN researchers not only developed a project to create nanomaterials used to protect works of art or replace currently used pigments but also came up with a very interesting idea of a so-called molecular signature of cultural heritage. Marking works of art at the micro and nanoscales would, according to the scientists, significantly reduce the risk of forging objects of high artistic and historical value. Such stamps would be undetectable with the naked eye, which means that they would not impede the reception of a work of art in any way. This is a very simple idea, yet a brilliant one. It could be successfully introduced to institutions collecting works of art in the entire world; it is worth mentioning that such marking includes not only paintings but also other objects, such as sculptures or architectural monuments even. Additionally, marking works of art would facilitate the documentation of changes introduced by particular restorers, which would also be beneficial. Thus far, the AGH UST scientists collaborate with the world of art in a somewhat different way, namely, they offer help in authenticating paintings that never had such a molecular signature.

‘We are currently working on authenticating paintings. We check whether a particular work of art was repainted or has corrections that were not properly documented in the paperwork. One might say that it is detective work. By combining the knowledge of the elemental composition and the crystallographic structure of the used pigments with the knowledge of restorers and art historians, we are sometimes able to determine the atelier in which the painting was created, says Dr Kacper Pilarczyk, describing the current work of the team.