A painted image is perceived as a combination of forms, colors, and materials. But it is also a three-dimensional object made of different layers of coloring matter and binding media on a support. On this material body, artistic perception, knowledge, and theory are inscribed. The material structure of the painting not only supplies clues about the artwork’s meaning, but also about the perceptions, knowledge, ideas, and practices of the artist and his/her times. Thus a different art-historical perspective, which focuses more on individual artworks, individual artists, and their everyday life, arises from the examination of painting techniques and materials, these hidden witnesses of the past buried in the painting’s matter. The investigation of the actual process of producing a painting helps elucidate the link between the artist’s sensual perception and conceptual development, and their interactions with art, science, and philosophy—aspects that conventional art history has often failed to take into account.
Specifically this project investigated a puzzle famous amongst art historians: despite the improvement of scientific knowledge about light, color, and vision in the 1800s, this period saw the disappearance of well-established painting practices. Immature drying cracks, alligator skin, orange peel, and darkening are some of the characteristic types of damage that now appear on nineteenth-century paintings, and which are the material traces of a historical process usually referred to as the “Verfall der Malerkunst” (degeneration of the art of painting). This project aimed to understand this process.
The production of a "painted body," i.e., the technical implementation of an artistic idea into its material form, requires systematic procedures and complex technical knowledge. This form of knowledge, including theory, perception, and technology, was shared by a collective, and as such may be the subject of historical investigation: traditionally, it was transmitted in the workshop as gestural knowledge. In this way a knowledge tradition could be preserved and adapted to evolving aesthetic concerns. The appearance of the observable phenomenon of "degeneration" points to a break in this tradition circa 1800. The specific forms and causes of this break away from traditional techniques are intimately linked to contemporary social, scientific, and aesthetic transformation. In order to grasp the meaning of this "degeneration" process, this project examined the background against which it took place, and in particular as yet little-known networks of artists, artisans, technologists, scientists, and philosophers.
The project examined specifically the knowledge network that developed in Berlin from the late eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, focusing on practices of artistic education (e.g., in the academy, the workshops of Wilhelm Wach, Carl Gropius, or KPM or "auto-didactical" training), as well as on sources of knowledge (personal interaction, books, objects) or the manufacture of painting materials (e.g., Gebrüder Heyl & Co; Patents, treatises). The paintings of this period constitute moreover a central source (e.g., by Wilhelm Wach, Wilhelm Schadow, Jakob Liepmann, Carl Blechen, Wilhelm Krause, Adolf Menzel, Jakob Schlesinger, Anton Dräger). The structural construction of the "painted body" is scrutinized and analyzed historically in terms of painting practice.
This break with tradition can be traced to several factors, including the closure of the guilds, the rise of the subject or the tranformation of material culture brought by industrialization. This work showed that a more fundamental reason lies in a shift in aesthetics within art itself, and its attraction to scientific and philosophical epistemology (e.g., empiricism, natural philosophy, idealism).
Painting, as free art, looked to set art rules (academy) and expression modes (subject) on a "scientific" basis. This basis was found in the rising scientific disciplines of that time, such as history of art, physics, physiology of the senses, and chemistry. Exemplary paintings of the "old masters" (ancient world, medieval times, renaissance, Dutch painting in the seventeenth century) were thereby as central for the artists as theories of light, color, and vision (e.g., Isaac Newton, Heinrich Johann Lambert, Tobias Mayer, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, Evangelista Purkinje, Johannes Müller). The insights gained from these sources not only changed current perceptions of nature and art, but also led artists to represent nature and artistic ideas in new ways. They sought to partially reconstruct various techniques of the “old masters” and to translate the different scientific theories into an artistic techniques. These new and very specific artistic languages [Vortragsweisen] needed to be developed experimentally. One may thus speak of the experimentalization of pictorial art around 1800, which shows a close connection to practices in other fields of art (e.g., illumination, glass painting, diorama, transparencies, or scenery painting), and science (analytics, optics, physiology) and philosophy (natural philosophy, idealism). Artists sought to use optical and physiological laws to find suitable colouring materials and binding media and to develop new painting techniques. Thus optical experiments using prisms, color wheels, colored glasses, color pastes, etc. became routine occupations, as were the investigation and chemical analysis of "old masters" paintings. This knowledge gained by experiments formed the basis for modern painting techniques and painting materials. These new painting techniques must be attributed to a development in art-historical categories, aesthetic ideals, and scientific epistemologies.