Art and Deception: Functions, Techniques, and Effects of Material Mimesis

Art and Deception: Functions, Techniques, and Effects of Material Mimesis

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Calf parchment imitating green glas according to 15th century recipe. Left: soaked in vinegar-copper green solution. Right: after oiling with linseed oil (reconstruction made with Arie Wallert)

 

Mimesis or imitation comes in many forms and guises. This 4-year research project  (Veni grant, Dutch Science Fund - NWO) investigates a type of mimesis where one material imitates the visual properties of another material in the pre-industrial history of art and science⁠⁠: material mimesis*⁠⁠. Imitation materials surround us in our everyday life: laminate floors resemble wood and kitchen work surfaces imitate costly marble. There are infinite such examples, extending even into the world of digital materials: operating systems evoke writing desks and e-books allow flipping their pages in imitation of paper (fig. 1). One might think therefore that material mimesis is typical for our modern age, and, indeed, it can be found in the most modern forms of art and design. The practice is ancient however, and can be observed in artworks from some of the earliest known civilizations. Ancient potters and glassmakers invented complex ceramic glazes to give glass and clay the appearance of metalwork and discovered a type of transparent glass that could imitate crystal (fig. 2). Medieval painters applied brilliant, translucent paint on reflective metal leaf to imitate precious stones, stained glass windows and lustrous enamel and the sophisticated application of colored plaster was used to metamorphose seventeenth century furniture into quasi-marble structures. As material mimesis does not constitute a homogeneous phenomenon, nor is it limited to European visual traditions, specific art forms, or a particular period, I have chosen to study the diverse roles the phenomenon has played in pre-industrial Western art and science. This focus on a continuous period in craft history, before the industrial revolution changed the world of the artisan, allows for a comparative study of the crafts relevant to material mimesis. The study of such a diverse phenomenon, while rooted in art history, demands interactions with historical studies of craft, technology, science, social studies and the making of historical reconstructions.

In order to trace and define the various types of material mimesis and the conditions under which they appear, this research has three key objectives. Firstly, this project investigates and categorizes the different functions of material mimesis in pre-industrial society. Indeed, the motivations behind material imitation in the case of medieval ceramicists copying wicker baskets in clay differ greatly from those of fifteenth century artisans counterfeiting precious stones, or carpenters staining wood to substitute mahogany. The second avenue of research explores how studying the phenomenon of material mimesis can reveal how, behind artistic practice, lays a hidden world of experimentation, knowledge acquisition and inventions- from the invention of enamel, transparent glass and varnish to the 'invention' of oil paint and printed fabrics.  Finally, the project investigates the impact and formative role of material mimesis on various crafts, to reveal its greater effect on art history and art theory.

Today, the practice of material mimesis has not lost any of its topicality. The industrial and chemical revolution boosted the invention of substitutes on a scale not witnessed before. A process crowned by the invention of plastics in the 20th century. Even the digital age embraces imitation materials. We live in a period were both material and information science give a novel twist to material mimesis: both on the screen, where computer graphics projects 'as-if-worlds', as well as in 3D-printing, where the imitation of materials gets an entirely new impulse with unforeseeable effects for the 21st century. Such developments make it indeed all the more compelling to study and analyze the history of the phenomenon of material imitation.

 

The present project builds forth on previous research by the author into material imitation and the interdependence of various crafts. 

 

On the history of transparent varnishes and translucent paint glazes and their roles in practices of material imitation: 

[2012] Oil and the Translucent. Varnishing and glazing in practice, recipes and historiography, 1100-1600 (Doctoral dissertation: Utrecht) (Book in preparation, 2016)

 

[2013] 'Seeing Through the Paint. The dissemination of technical terminology between three métiers: Pictura translucida, enameling and glass painting' In: Andreas Speer (ed.), Die Schedula diversarum artium – ein Handbuch mittelalterlicher Kunst, Miscellanea Mediaevalia (W. de Gruyter: Berlin-New York), pp. 145-162.

 

On the imitation of precious stones:

[2014] ‘Coloring Topaz, Crystal and Moonstone: The making and meaning of factitious gems, 300-1500’, in: Marco Beretta and Maria Conforti (eds.), F for Fakes: Hoaxes, Counterfeits and Deception in Early Modern Science, 2nd Watson Seminar in the History of Material and Visual Science, Museo Galileo, Florence, June 7, 2013, Science History Publications (Science History Publications: 2014), pp. 108-129 

 

[2015, forthcoming] 'Understanding Light Through Art. Gems, glass, glazing and the artisan’s

contribution to optical knowledge, 1300-1600', in: Sven Dupré and Jeanne Pfeiffer (eds.) Renaissance Cultures of Optics and Practices of Perspective, (Max Planck Institute for the History of science and Centre Alexandre Koryé).

 

On the imitation of green glass windows with parchment: 

[with Henk de Groot and Arie Wallert, 2014], ‘Glass and Parchment With a View. Oil paint and the imitation of (stained) glass windows, 1400-1600’, in Hélène Dubois, Sigrid Eyb-Green and Joyce H. Townsend (eds.), Making and transforming art: changes in artists' materials and practice, Proceedings of the Fifth Interim Meeting of the ICOM-CC Working Group Art Technological Source Research, Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, 22-23 November 2012, Brussel (Archetype Publishers: London), pp. 129-130.

 

*Note on 'material mimesis'

Whereas various terms could be used to describe material substitution, including 'Ersatz' (in art history often used with a rather negative connotation) or 'Skeuomorphism' (mostly used by archeologists and in computer graphics), I felt that the term 'material mimesis' most clearly distinguishes the phenomenon from other forms of 'mimesis' that are frequently studied in art history and other fields (i.e. visible world, sound, behavior, etc.) while at the same time avoiding unwanted negative implications. In a different meaning, the term 'material mimesis' does indeed occur within philosophy (Dahl 2009), visual culture studies and theory (Mansfield 2010) and sociology (Mukerji 2014) in discussions about the concept of 'mimesis'. In art history, Marta Ajmar first used the notion of 'material mimesis' in a presentation held at the ICOM-CC Working Group of Art Technological Source Research in Brussels (2012). In her 2014 publication ‘Mechanical Disegno’, Ajmar employs 'material mimesis' to describe the transformation of one art into another, such as pottery being transformed into painting or metalwork, thus allowing for these ‘mechanical crafts’ to be studied as part of the arti, the ‘higher arts’ (Ajmar 2014). Conceptually Ajmar's notion of "material mimesis" is slightly different therefore, as it is used mainly to embed the notion of 'disegno' in the process of making. In this project 'material mimesis is solely used to describe the phenomenon where one material substance is visually substituted by another.