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Technique in the Arts. Concepts, Practices, Expertise (1500-1950)

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - ARTECHNE (Technique in the Arts. Concepts, Practices, Expertise (1500-1950))

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2021-02-28

How is technique in art taught? How is it learned? The transmission of ‘technique’ in art has been a conspicuous ‘black box’ resisting analysis. The tools of the humanities used to study the transmission of ideas and concepts are insufficient when it comes to understanding the transmission of something as non-propositional and non-verbal as ‘technique’. This project undertakes the experimental re-enactment of historical recipes to open the black box of the transmission of technique in the visual and decorative arts.

The three central research questions are:

1. What is technique in the visual and decorative arts?
2. How is technique studied and transmitted?
3. Who is considered expert in technique?

Considering ‘technique’ as a textual, material and social practice, this project results in a long-term history of the theory and practice of the study of ‘technique’ in the visual and decorative arts between 1500 and 1950.
On the basis of the development of a database of recipes and techniques we are able to create a historical semantic map of ‘technique’. The meaning of the notion of technique is complex and complicated by demarcations of the fields of ‘art’ and ‘science’ and with the relationships between the sciences and the humanities. One of the results of the scrutiny of diverse texts from Winckelmann, Kant and Goethe, among others, is that it brings to light that the notion of ‘Technik’ arose in connection to a process of distinction between processes of making and the works of art themselves in the eighteenth century. They relate to dichotomies between hand and mind which haunt technical art history to this day.

To assess the role of texts and manuals in the acquisition and transmission of skills in the early modern arts (painting, metalworking, and glass-making), we have combined traditional historical methods with historical reenactment. We have shown that the textual transmission of craft knowledge depended upon, rather than threatened, established routes to craft learning, such as apprenticeships. We have shown how these texts are the product of re-organization of knowledge gathered from artisans over a period of several centuries, and identified strategies which authors followed to write down artisanal knowledge with an eye towards making their texts useful for the transmission of technique. Methodologically, we have developed sustained, interdisciplinary reflection on re-enactment (or reconstruction) across the humanities and social sciences.

We have studied the emerging cultures of expertise in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the collaborations and conflicts between conservators, chemists and art historians, to understand who was considered an expert in the arts, and for which reasons. It sheds new light on the development of a science-based conservation practice and the emergence of art history as a ‘science of art’ (or ‘Kunstwissenschaft’), focusing on the period between the final years of the nineteenth century which saw the establishment of the first museum laboratory in Berlin and groundbreaking international conferences on art history and conservation held in pre-World War I Germany, and the 1940s when, from the ruins of World War II, new institutions such as the Istituto Centrale del Restauro emerged, which would shape the post-war art and conservation world. We have paid particular attention to the process by which the British Museum Laboratory became a permanent facility in the years between 1919 and 1934 to assess the role of museum laboratories in the history of conservation.
The disciplinary conflict between science and the humanities in the study of materials and techniques relies on hierarchies of the material and the intellectual, and the hand and the mind, which are still at work today in shaping processes of collaboration between conservators, conservation scientists and art historians. By writing the history of synergies and tensions between science and the humanities, and conflict and cooperation between conservators, art historians and scientists, resulting in histories of conservation and art history in modern Europe, this project contributes to the newly emerging field of technical art history which promises to resolve tensions and allows for fruitful cooperation between the sciences and humanities in the study of art.

By application of performative methodologies of re-enactment and reconstruction we have come closer to understanding what technique (or skill) is, and how it is learned and taught. By encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue on the innovative use of performative methods among curators, artists and researchers in the humanities and social sciences, such as archeology, musicology, anthropology, conservation, art history and history of science, the project has a long-lasting impact on the renewal of methods in the humanities.
Gerard Dou, 'Man Writing by an Easel'. c. 1631-32. 31.5 x 25 cm, oil on panel - private collection