The study of craquelure as a path to ‘green museums’

While looking at the paintings we admire the colors, the shaping of forms, the painting technique, but we also see a network of cracks – craquelure, which adds a historical “patina” to the painting layer and it is commonly believed to enrich the aesthetic perception of the work. However, there is a lack of knowledge and language that would allow us to talk about the craquelure, which is why we rarely hear about that from curators, art historians or conservators.

Discussion in the conservation studio of Dr. Aleksandra Hola

For this reason, scientists forming a consortium of three scientific institutions – Jerzy Haber Institute of Catalysis and Surface Chemistry Polish Academy of Sciences, Faculty of Conservation and Restoration of Works of Art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim – they started the multidisciplinary project “GRIEG Craquelure”. The acquired knowledge, although it may seem narrow and very specialized at first glance, will prove to be an invaluable tool in establishing environmental guidelines in museums, the origin of the paintings, their age and authenticity.

According to Dr. Aleksandra Hola from the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, “skilled conservators know what a “typical” network of cracks looks like in the Italian quattrocento painting or the Gothic work of the Lesser Poland workshop. Intuition tells us why they differ so much, which may be the cause of the differences, but no one has ever systematically examined it. Finding answers to these and many other questions is a completely new path for specialists from many fields to collaborate”.

“GRIEG Craquelure” project is extremely important because it will allow us to understand what we see in the most valuable works of art, but also because the crack pattern is very specific to the time in which the object was created, the geographical area or the material used. Understanding the crack formation process will allow to better identify fake artworks. However, this is not the only purpose of this endeavor. As the project coordinator, Dr. hab. Łukasz Bratasz from IKiFP PAN, says “its strategic goal is to support the protection of painting collections by researching the impact of environmental conditions on the process of destroying objects. The existing environmental recommendations for museums and galleries were based on research which did not take into account the existing cracks. After the project is implemented, the painting collections will be safer, and at the same time museums will also become more “green” due to the fact that the preservation strategy of the painting collections will be much more environmentally friendly, in terms of using energy needed for example for air conditioning.”

The project involves 15 people with various specialties and interests, that may be considered inconsistent with the studied area. However, combining different domains can bring many benefits. As Noemi Zabari – an astrophysicist by training – states, “the enormous potential resulting from the use of numerical calculations and technology used in astrophysics can also be adapted to the analysis of cracks in paint surfaces. Starting with image processing, ending with machine learning. This gives great opportunities for development and the possibility to implement your own ideas ”.

The program includes both research of works of art using non-invasive methods of analysis and experimental work consisting in creating samples and examining the cracks formed on them under the influence of various external factors.

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