|A Touch of Expertise
copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
6 October 2007
What is this, and how is this done? are the
first two questions to ask of any work of art. The second question
immediately illuminates the first, but it often doesn't get
asked. Perhaps it sounds too technical. Perhaps it sounds pedestrian.
But I think it's a good idea to ask the simple questions first.
What kind of painting is this? It is an altarpiece for a church/
a private devotional painting to hang in a bedroom/ a street
shrine from a renaissance city. How is it done? In oil on canvas/
in tempera on a panel/ in fresco. Simple answers give us a little
firm ground on which to stand.
In sculpture especially, it makes a big difference
to know how an object was made and in what material: is it carved
or modelled (is it hewn from the stone, or built up with little
pieces of clay), and in what material? Knowing the answer takes
us a long way towards understanding why it looks the way it
does. Some of the commonest materials give a very wide range
of results: marble is versatile, clay even more so. The rarest
materials, by contrast, tend always to look like themselves:
rhinoceros horn, for instance, always looks like some revoltingly
thick toenail; the red coral of Trapani always looks like red
coral, even when cunningly carved and assembled to look like
a Crucifixion scene; amber always looks like amber.
Rock crystal is interesting, being much rarer
than one thinks. It is nothing to do with the type of cut glass
called Crystal. It is a kind of translucent quartz, cold to
the touch and therefore believed once to be water hardened by
the gods into permanent ice. A jug or ewer carved from this
material is never likely to be thin like glass - it must have
been laboriously hollowed out by hand, and there would always
have been a risk of the piece shattering. To know the rarity
of the material, and the laboriousness of the execution, is
a part of understanding and appreciating the piece.
In The Making of Sculpture, a guide to the
materials and techniques of European sculpture, newly issued
by the Victoria and Albert Museum (edited by Marjorie Trusted),
there is an illustration of one such ewer, dating from 14th-century
France. I remember an occasion when someone was trying to sell
a similar object, and the difficulty arose: how would you be
able to prove (given the rarity of such a work) that it was
not a fake, or that it was not - say - 19th-century? You could
prove that it was a fake (if you could show that it had been
made by modern tools, for instance). But how could you prove
it was not a fake? And how could you establish how old it was
and where it came from?
Exceedingly rare objects in semi-precious materials
have a way of surviving for centuries, incorporated into objects
from previous eras. Roman cameos get used as ornaments on crucifixes
or among the jewels on a reliquary. Cups or other vessels carved
out of remarkable stones get provided with gold or silver mounts
from a later era, as a tribute to their rarity and the bravura
of their execution.
There is something particularly satisfying
in knowing that the specific virtues of certain materials have
been used in a brilliantly apt combination. For instance, if
you find a disc of slate on which a wax portrait has been executed
in profile, that could well be a model for a coin or medal.
The slate is being valued for the flatness of its surface. The
wax, by complete contrast, is being exploited for its malleability
and its suitability for the execution of minute detail. Together,
these two materials do an excellent job. Whereas slate alone,
though it can be carved, could never remotely take such detail.
Some materials, such as mother-of-pearl, are
exceedingly intractable to carve. Others, like alabaster, are
easy. You can go at alabaster with a carpenter's rasp, and it
will yield. You can polish it with glasspaper. But you will
never get the kind of detail, including the perilously thin,
translucent panels, that you can achieve with, say, ivory.
Ivory, now extinct as a sculptor's material,
was exceedingly valuable in early times, and there were eras
in which it was (through reasons of war) simply unavailable
in Europe. When it could be found, it was used economically,
so that the curve of the Virgin's body, in a Gothic statuette,
reflected the shape of the tusk being used. One has to think
of all the shavings being carefully conserved, and burnt, to
make the pigment Ivory Black. The ivory of piano keys was economically
produced by a machine like a potato peeler which took a long
thin slice off the rotating tusk. Jane Austen's "little
bit, two inches wide, of ivory on which I work with so fine
a brush" is of course a metaphor to compare her fiction
with the miniaturist's art, but it preserves a typical sense
of economy of means. The piece of ivory the miniaturist painted
on was both small and very fine.
Most of the illustrations in The Making of
Sculpture show objects from the V & A's collection, which
gives the book a double purpose. You can use it as an introduction
to the large range of traditional sculptor's materials, or you
can use it as a guide to objects you will find in South Kensington.
Paul Williamson, in his foreword, points out that visitors to
the museum are "fascinated by the creative process, by
the actions which transform often intractable materials into
works of the highest quality."
And this is one of the V & A's quintessential
tasks, to promulgate knowledge of the processes of production
of the fine and decorative arts. There are chapters on wax,
terracotta, bronze and lead, marble and stone and so forth.
What is covered is only the European tradition, so there is
no point in going to this work to find out about, say, jade.
And it is only an introduction - each of the chapters could
have been a book. But it's a starting-point, and that's what
we all need, when asking what an object is, and how it is done
- our basic questions.