Elena Savateeva: microchemistry, forgeries and the future of painting
19.03.2019
Ведущий специалист в области химических и биологических исследований Русского музея рассказала о том, как остановить окисление масляных картин и как микрохимия используется реставраторами и изготовителями подделок . Оригинальное интервью на русском языке можно почитать здесь , а RA Gallery предлагает перевод на английский язык для наших англоязычных читателей.

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The leading specialist in the sector of chemical and biological research of the Russian Museum spoke about how to stop the oxidation of oil paintings and how micro-chemistry is used by restorers and forgers . The original interview in Russian can be accessed from TANR here , RA Gallery is offering the English translation for our non-Russian speaking readers.


Архип Куинджи. «Березовая роща»

According to modern museum standards, restoration can only be started after preliminary chemical and technological analysis. But professionals in this field are not trained at any university, they really are “one in a million”. And there are unlikely to be more than ten professionals like Elena Savateeva, a leading expert in the sector of chemical and biological research at State Russian Museum, in St. Petersburg. Thanks to her scientific research, the museum specialists have successfully restored such important masterpieces as “The Copper Serpent” by Fyodor Bruni, “The Last Day of Pompeii” by Karl Bryullov, the “Smolyanka” series by Dmitry Levitsky, and many other famous works. Elena Savateeva spoke about the intricacies of museum chemistry and the prospects for preserving the masterpieces of world class painting.

Microchemistry is a relatively young branch of chemistry, and its inclusion in the study of painting, in restoration, is also a young phenomenon.
Yes, the first steps in the field of microchemical research of painting materials were taken by German scientists only at the beginning of the 20th century. They used the simplest microchemical reactions to analyze pigments. In fact, reliable methods were developed only in the 50s of the last century, real objective data on pigments was obtained, without which it is impossible to confirm the authenticity of the paintings. Now microchemistry is the most important link in the process of restoration: we, the chemists, actually help the craftsmen to develop a strategy and tactics of restoration. 

And before these discoveries were made, the restorers could apparently make a lot of mistakes?
Indeed, many works in Russian museums, in particular in the Hermitage, suffered in the 19th century. For example, in the process of transferring paintings from one base to another. In one of her books, Inna Nemilova, the keeper of the French paintings at the Hermitage, writes that in Antoine Watte's painting “Landscape with a Waterfall” she saw a character copied from another artist's painting from the Louvre — apparently during the transfer there was a significant loss of the paint layer, and to hide it, the resourceful restorer borrowed an image widely used in engravings.

What is the most important knowledge that microchemistry provides for restorers and experts?
The main information is about how painters worked with paints and how pigments interact with each other. Ignorance can lead to the destruction of works of art! A relatively recent example. When the Russian Museum decided to exhibit paintings of Russian avant-garde artists for the first time, everyone saw gray spots on the white field of the Black Square by Kazimir Malevich. It turned out that these are the traces of previous restoration. We found out that some of the components of the priming on which Malevich painted, could have released sulfur, and during the restoration in they used a lead-zinc white — the lead reacted with the sulfur and gave the white a shade of gray.

What are your main tools?
Microscopes. The biological and polarizing kind. A device for microprobe analysis would, of course, be very useful too. The Hermitage specialists have one, but we have to reach out to the university. But in the cellars of the Louvre there is even an accelerator of charged particles, which allows you to determine not only the elemental composition of colors, but also isotopic! And to establish where the raw materials for the paints used by the old masters were sourced from, for example, the Rembrandt school.

Does an artist also have to be a chemist?
Now it’s probably, not necessarily, but you should know the basics, otherwise it will affect the longevity of the work. Remember Kurt Vonnegut's “Bluebeard”? There’s a story about when the artist painted with modern paints and it had an unfortunate ending. Recently, at one of the exhibitions I saw the work of a famous Petersburg artist and my attention was drawn to the matte surface of the textured painting. I asked him: "Tempera?" And he said: "No, oil, but I dilute the paint with kerosene in order to mask the effect of oil paint." In my opinion as a chemist, such painting will not last long.

Even during the master's life?
It is not improbable. It is known that Auguste Renoir, who lived for quite a long time, seeing how his paintings painted in natural klaplak began to fade, stopped using it. The cyclamens from his still life at the Metropolitan Museum became pink instead of crimson, and this process can not be stopped.

Do the manufacturers of fakes delve into such microchemical subtleties?
Of course! Even in the nineteenth century, with the development of chemistry, when they learned how to determine which elements the paints consist of and how to synthesize them, the manufacturers of fakes tried to use “the right pigments”. And now, as an expert, I immediately see through a microscope attempts to fake old masters. Some craftsmen even try to imitate the transparency of their colors, which is extremely difficult. This transparency appears because the oil changes its optical properties with age. Oil painting is oxidized throughout its life, and there will come a time when we can no longer save the masterpieces of the old masters...

Will “Gioconda" die too?
Everything will perish, only encaustic Art will remain — wax painting, that is. Fayum portraits are forever. Unless, of course, museums decide to transition to the storage of paintings in an inert gas, for example in argon.

It turns out that you are an invaluable source of knowledge for both restorers, experts, and for forgers?
Apparently, yes, and therefore I stopped teaching: it is not clear who will use your knowledge and how. This is a well-known fact: as soon as the experts publicly spoke about the intricacies of the technology of fastening the balls to the beads by the Faberge masters, right away the right balls appeared on the fake market. But we keep our finger on the pulse and try to keep track of the techniques of individual “masters” (forgers).

Do they also have their own style?
Of course, experts know them. Experts can tell: this is by the hand of such and such.

Have the forgers come to you for advice?
Fakes have been brought to me to "check the chemistry." One gentleman brought a painting, allegedly by Wassily Kandinsky. I studied the pigments and told him that this is certainly not the early Kandinsky, there is titanium white everywhere. And then he says right in front of me: “Someone deceived me, because I ordered pure zinc at a factory in Berlin!”

Is there a difference in the chemical composition of paints of the northern and southern countries, Western European and Russian?
Until the 18th century, such a difference, of course, existed, and then mutual diffusion begins and everything is leveled, averaged. For example, the European paint “Van Dyke Brown”, or “Cologne earth” is a transparent brown paint from peat extract, under a microscope you can see it contains plant fibers.

Once we found such paint in a painting and immediately assumed that it was not our work, but western: in the XVII century there was practically no such paint in Russia. There is a difference in tempera. Italian, Byzantine and Russian uses yolk, and the tempera of the northern countries uses glue with resins or glue with gum.

Can paints be made from anything?
Nearly. Paints were made from minerals, from petals and stamens of flowers, juice of lilies, oak beetles, berries, bark, leaves and the roots of plants. Even from the urine of cows! They were fed mango leaves, the paint was transparent, bright yellow, but the cows died from it quickly. Now its synthetic counterpart is widely produced.

Have you ever made any discoveries?
Yes, for example, in the process of studying samples of a painting by Arkhip Kuindzhi, we discovered that he was able to reproduce the Flemish technique of multi-layer painting, similar to Rubens's technique. He applied thin layers of transparent glazing paints, without mixing them with each other on the palette. The result was a deep, rich glow from within the painting.

Is all this beauty in terms of chemistry doomed?
I really hope that someday there will be equipment and materials which can forever preserve the masterpieces of painting.