The Making of Technique in the Arts: Concepts and Practice from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century

*This blog was originally published on The ARTECHNE Project Blog on 26 September 2017*

By Marieke Hendriksen

“Peintures en huile, en miniature et encaustique,” Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 8 (plates) (Paris, 1771). Plate I: Painting, Atelier, Paint Pallet and Brushes.

The terms ‘technique’ and ‘technical’ are used widely in relation to art, art history and science today, both to refer to the technical analysis of artworks and to a more holistic analysis of creative processes. Yet we do not have a history of the shifting meanings of the term ‘technique’ in the arts and sciences. The word ‘technique’ was a neologism in the vernacular, and started to appear in treatises on arts and sciences from the middle of the eighteenth century. Rooted in the Greek techne, which was translated routinely as ‘art’ until the mid-eighteenth century, technique referred to processes of making or doing and their products. Such processes had been described to previously as ‘art’, ‘methods’, ‘manners’ or ‘mechanics’ in the vernacular, and they were recorded in text with the intention of documenting and/or transmitting practical skills and knowledge.

On 26 and 27 October, Sven Dupré and I are hosting an international workshop at Utrecht University with the aim of bridging the gap between the changing concept of technique and the practices currently described by it. Questions we seek to answer are for example: how was what we now call ‘technique’ in the arts and sciences described and understood before the term took hold? More specifically, how were techniques in the arts described between 1500 and 1900? What kind of written sources can we distinguish, which terms were used to describe and instruct technique in various languages, and who were the intended audiences of these works?

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger will give a public keynote lecture, entitled “The Hands of the Engraver – Albert Flocon meets Gaston Bachelard”

Moreover, we will look at the linguistic history of technique in the arts, with questions such as why the term ‘technique’ first emerged around 1750, and what did it mean initially to artists, art theorists, and natural philosophers? Is there a connection with the emergence of categories such as aesthetics, fine art, craft, mechanics, and technology? Did the meaning of ‘technique’ and related concepts vary between periods, practices, and European languages, and how can we use data and concept mining to understand this? What do we mean by ‘technique’ in relation to art now, and can we use the same word to describe historical knowledge and practices?

Another issue closely related to the understanding of the concept of ‘technique’ in the arts is the development of so-called somatic language. Somatic language to describe measurements and sensory characteristics of materials traditionally played an important role in technical art texts, but seems to become rarer or more standardized over time. This kind of language guides the reader’s posture, as well as the use of their own body, and tools and materials, yet it is often unspecific and metaphorical (‘shift your weight’, ‘a handful’, ‘like yoghurt’), and meanings and interpretation can vary wildly in different languages, times, and cultures. How did the use of this kind of somatic language change in Europe between 1500 and 1950? What was the influence of standardization on conservation practices?

During the workshop, we will discuss these and related questions in panels of specialists from a variety of fields, such as history, art history, intellectual history, philosophy, and linguistics. Each interdisciplinary panel will focus on a particular concept, but there will also be ample time for exchange between the various panels.

Limited seating is available, please contact j.briggeman@uu.nl if you are interested in attending.  

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Transmitting technique between disciplines: the anatomical models of William Rush (1756-1833)

*This blog was originally published on The ARTECHNE Project Blog on 9 March 2017*

A travel grant from the Wood Institute at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia recently allowed me to do research in their library and archives. Established in 1786, the College holds a wonderful collection of manuscripts and printed works. As I am particularly interested in the transmission of art technical knowledge in the long eighteenth century between medical men and people we would now describe as artists or craftsmen, I started looking for connections between such people in Philadelphia. I did not have to search long, for Philadelphia in 1800 had a population of only 41,220, but it was a fast-growing trading hub with two medical colleges, and an art academy was about to be established. This meant that many Philadelphians in the middle and upper classes knew each other personally – some were even related.

William Rush, Tragedy, 1808. Pine (originally painted). Copyright: Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Philadelphia-born William Rush had started his career as a carver of ship figureheads, learning the trade from his father and the famous Edward Cutbush. He was one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (est. 1805), and from the early nineteenth century onwards, he created a number of sculptures for public places in Philadelphia. Caspar Wistar (1761-1818), professor of chemistry and the institutes of medicine at the College of Philadelphia, was a skilled maker of anatomical preparations and models, which he created by injecting organs with wax. However, when the number of students attending his classes greatly increased in the early decades of the nineteenth century, he decided he needed something more dramatic as a teaching aid: enlarged models of human anatomy, which would be visible even at the back rows. Realizing that this surpassed his own modelling skills, he turned to Rush, who made at least twenty models for him.

Model of the Right Maxilla by William Rush, c. 1808

As is so often the case when people are physically close, no primary written records –such as letters- remain of this collaboration between Wistar and Rush. However, their collaboration shows that there were strong connections between medical men and visual artists and craftsmen in Philadelphia around 1800. It is likely that Wistar and Rush already knew each other before they started working together. Not only was Philadelphia’s population fairly small, William Rush was a full cousin of a colleague of Wistar’s, the famous Philadelphian physician and professor of chemistry Benjamin Rush (1746-1813). Moreover, Wistar came from a family of craftspeople himself: his grandfather and namesake (1696 –1752) was a German-born

https://www.pafa.org/collection/caspar-wistar

William Rush, Portrait bust of Caspar Wistar, ca. 1812-13. Terracotta. Copyright: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

glassmaker. Both Benjamin Rush and Caspar Wistar studied in Edinburgh, and the latter corresponded with Thomas Pole, a fellow Quaker and the Philadelphia-born author of the 1790 The Anatomical Instructor, a handbook that describes, amongst others, how to make anatomical preparations and models from a variety of materials – although wood was not one of them.

So although in this case there is no evidence that Wistar taught Rush anatomy or that Rush taught Wistar practical skills for model making, it is clear that they must have been very aware of each other’s knowledge and skills, and it is rather unlikely that they never learned anything from each other. In any case, Rush successfully transmitted his technique from one discipline to another: from artistic sculpting to anatomical model making.

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A forgotten chapter in natural history: the taxidermy of man

*This blog originally appeared on the Recipes Project on 9 March 2017*

By Marieke Hendriksen

Having written a book on eighteenth-century anatomical collections, I know a thing or two about historical techniques for preserving (parts of) the human body. As I am interested in natural history collections more generally, I also did some research on the preservation of animal bodies, and even took a taxidermy course myself. However, recently I realised that the preservation of human and animal bodies were historically even closer connected than I had imagined. Yet ideas about which parts of the human body could and should be preserved, and how, diverged greatly, particularly when it comes to skin, or taxidermy. Taxidermy, from the Greek τάξις (taxis) and  δέρμα (derma – I am adding those for people who may not read Greek script), literally means ‘the arranging of skin’.

Fragment of an engraving of the anatomical theatre of Leiden University, early 17th century, showing visitors who appear to discuss a human skin. Contemporary engraving by Willem Swanenburgh; drawing by Jan van ‘t Woudt (Johannes Woudanus).

There are a few known cases of attempts to preserve human skins in their entirety before 1800 – for example, there was a human skin in the Leiden anatomical theatre in the seventeenth century – but that wasn’t stuffed, and such attempts appear to have been altogether unsuccessful. If human skin was preserved, it was mostly small pieces, which were used to study things like skin colour and structure, tattoos, or pathologies. By the end of the eighteenth century, the preservation of an entire human skin in a lifelike pose was of little interest to anatomists. Normal internal anatomy would be studied through dissection and the creation of preparations and skeletons, and pathologies of the skin could be preserved by making preparations of small sections of skin. As healthy skin can be studied perfectly easily in live subjects, there was little reason to pursue the taxidermy of man. This is reflected in anatomical handbooks like Thomas Pole’s 1790 Anatomical Instructor (reprinted in 1813), which gave detailed directions for numerous methods to preserve parts of the human and animal body, including entire heads and foetuses, but did not say anything about how to preserve only skin. On the contrary, Pole advised to remove the cuticle from a head that was to be preserved,  as this would give ‘a brightness to the complexion’.[1]

Jeremy Bentham’s ‘preserved’ head is not on display, but stored in an environmentally controlled safe. Copyright: UCL.

However, with the growing popularity of taxidermy – the mounting of animal skins in lifelike poses – and the rise of physical anthropology in the early nineteenth century, there were a number of experiments with human taxidermy, the most famous of which was probably Jeremy Bentham’s unsuccessful attempt to have his body made into an ‘auto-icon’ after this death. Then there was ‘el negro’ or ‘the negro of Banyoles’, whose faith was described by Dutch author Frank Westerman in his 2004 book El Negro en ik (‘El negro and I’). The remains of this young African San man were stuffed by two taxidermists, the French Verreaux brothers, in the 1830s, and remained on display in a local Museum in Banyoles, Spain, until 1997. Eventually his remains were send for burial in Botswana in 2000. Jules Pierre (1807-1837) and Jean Baptiste Édouard (1810-1868) Verreaux created taxidermy specimens of exotic animals for their father’s Parisian shop in natural historical objects, Maison Verreaux, and, as ‘el negro’ shows, used human bones for his models.

The head of the figure in ‘Arab Courier attacked by lions’ sits detached from the rest of the diorama during restoration work. Copyright: Nate Smallwood | Tribune – Review

For a long time, ‘el negro’ was the only known case of nineteenth-century human taxidermy. However, a recent discovery suggests that the Verreaux brothers used human remains more frequently. In 2016, a human skull was discovered in a mannequin that was part of an ensemble made by the Verreaux studio. Formerly known as “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions”, it was restored and returned to display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh under the title “Lion Attacking a Dromedary”. Although apparently no attempt was made to use human skin in the Pittsburgh diorama, these cases show that there was little reticence when it came to using human materials for taxidermy displays in the nineteenth century, particularly when the human in question was considered ‘exotic’. This is supported by the fact that a popular contemporary taxidermy manual, aimed specifically at museums and travelers, opened with a paragraph on the impossibility of applying taxidermy to man successfully. The book, written by the naturalist Sarah Bowdich (née Wallis, later Lee, 1791-1856) saw six editions – the first in 1820, the last in 1843.

After listing the necessary tools and giving a number of recipes for the cleansing and preservation fluids used in taxidermy, Bowdich opened the section on ‘the preparation of mammalia’ with a somewhat disappointed-sounding statement:

1. Of man 

All the efforts of man to restore the skin of his fellow creature to its natural form and beauty, have hitherto been fruitless: the trials which have been made have only produced mis-shapen, hideous objects, and so unlike nature, that they have never found a place in our collections. 

Bowdich went on to discuss the life-like wet preparations made by Amsterdam anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638  – 1731) as ‘without doubt (…) very useful to science’, before switching to a description of a more successful practice – the preservation of skeletons. Given the tragic history of ‘el negro’ and many other violently obtained human remains in museum collections, it is a cold comfort that the naturalists of the nineteenth century failed at the taxidermy of their ‘fellow creature’.

[1] Pole, Thomas. The Anatomical Instructor ; or an Illustration of the Modern and Most Approved Methods of Preparing and Preserving the Different Parts of the Human Body and of Quadrupeds by Injection, Corrosion, Maceration, Distention, Articulation, Modelling, &C. London: Couchman & Fry, 1790: p.84.

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Preserving and modelling the body: technique in anatomical practice and visual arts at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, 1700-1850

A guest blog I wrote for The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (RCSEd) Library and Archive – looking forward to this project very much!

The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (RCSEd) Library and Archive

Our guest blog post is from Marieke Hendriksen, a postdoctoral researcher at Utrecht University. Marieke will be joining us in October here at the RCSEd Library and Archive on a Wellcome Trust Research Bursary. Her research is a study on practices and resources used by the members of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, to preserve and make models of the human body in the period 1700-1850. Look out for related events and future blogs!

The art of modelling [in plaster] trenches upon that of the artist, and, as everyone knows, is practiced by a number of persons as an art. Professors of this branch of science are in every large city, and I recommend to do as I did, viz. visit the studio of the artificer in stucco. All in this line in Edinburgh, at least, I found most communicative, and happy at all times to explain everything, and much more of…

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Google NGram for early modern history?

Last month, I started a new job at Utrecht University within the ERC funded project ARTECHNE. One of the things I try to figure out in my subproject, The Term ‘Technique’ in the History of the Arts and Sciences, 1500-1950, is when and why a term like ‘technique’ first started occuring in the vernacular to describe artistic skills (instead of only in Latin to describe any process of skilfully making or doing something, as was the case before the eighteenth-century). Of course this can be done by studying primary sources one by one, but searching large amounts of historical  texts semi-automatically could be a great help. However, Digital Humanities methods like data mining do require caution, as Pim Huijnen also describes in this excellent blog.

Book-scanning-U-Mich

Book scanning at the University of Michigan, one of the libraries participating in Google Books

I soon saw this confirmed when I started experimenting with Google Books NGram Viewer (GNV), and figured it might be interesting for other early modern historians to share my experience. In theory GNV is amazing for analysis of historical texts, and for research that focuses on post-1800 texts , this is true to some extent, as described here. As Wikipedia puts it, GNV ‘is an online search engine that charts frequencies of any set of comma-delimited search strings using a yearly count of n-grams found in sources printed between 1500 and 2008.’ An n-gram is an instance of a word or phrase within a corpus; n is a variable representing the number of words.[1] In other words, GNV counts how often a word or a combination of words occurs in the digitized printed sources available in Google Books in any given year between 1500 and 2008 and visualizes that in a nice chart. Google Books contains over 25 million titles and GNV works for those in American English, British English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, and Chinese, so in theory it would be a great way to figure out when the term ‘technique’, or a combination of words like ‘art’ and ‘technology’ first occurred in European languages, and how it spread.

However, there are a couple of reasons that this does not work for early modern printed works (roughly 1500-1800). First of all, the majority of the books on Google Books are not from this period, but from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A lot of early modern sources relevant for my research are simply not on Google Books. Second, old books are often printed in unusual and irregular fonts, which are hard to recognize for OCR (Optical Character Recognition software). This leads to a lot of misses (i.e. the combination of the terms ‘art’ and ‘technique’ does occur but does not come up in the GNV because the OCR does not recognize one or both words), but also to a lot of false positives (i.e. GNV ‘recognizes’ a word, but when you go to the source, it turns out it is a an OCR misread, or a source is dated wrong).

To give an example: I tried using GNV to see when the word ‘Technik’ starts to occur in German in Google Books. This is what the resulting ngram looks like:

Schermafdruk 2016-03-11 13.21.10

The upward line after 1800 is fairly reliable; sources printed after this date are generally suitable for OCR. However, before 1800 it is a different story. The three ‘peaks’ between 1650 and 1750 seem rather random – and if you start analysing them, it soon turns out they are. At the bottom of the screen, you can click some of the periods in which GNV shows the term you searched for occurs. When you follow the link to the results for 1500-1727, it turns out that all these results are documents that are dated incorrectly in Google Books:

Schermafdruk 2016-03-11 11.32.11

When you click the first result that actually has a document attached to it (the third result here), it turns out that the word ‘Technik’ here occurs not in a late sixteenth century book, but in a 1925 newspaper article that somehow ended up in the same file as a sixteenth century Italian book:

Schermafdruk 2016-03-11 11.28.47.png

On closer inspection, every supposed occurrence of ‘Technik’ between 1500 and 1727 turns out to be a case of a wrongly dated document or an OCR misread. For the period 1728-1800 (you can manually adjust the period), the results are slightly more reliable, but a quick look at the results shows that the most common occurrence is not around the middle of the eighteenth century, as GNV suggests, but the last decade of the century, mostly in work related to Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft.

So although I can use GNV and especially a period-limited search in Google Books to partly back up my initial hunch about the emergence of the term ‘Technik’ in German (namely that it is first used in Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft), it is not a reliable way to say how often a certain term occurs in digitized sources on Google Books from before 1800. That does not mean we can’t use digital humanities methods and tools like GNV at all of course, you just have to realize the limitations and figure out an alternative that does work for your particular research. One of the solutions we are working on is building our own database containing historical texts on art and technology together with the people at the Utrecht Digital Humanities Lab. We only just started, and it is a work in progress, so more on that to follow soon!

 

 

[1] In computational linguistics, n-grams are actually used for more complex things like probability predictions too.

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Unexpected connections: paper flowers

A groom's clay pipe, decorated with paper flowers. First half of the eighteenth century. Courtesy of the Frisian Maritime Museum.

A groom’s clay pipe, decorated with paper flowers. First half of the eighteenth century. Courtesy of the Frisian Maritime Museum.

A couple of weeks ago, when I was in the final stages of researching a paper on an entirely different topic, a call in the early nineteenth-century proceedings of the Dutch society for husbandry (Nederlandse Huishoudelijke Maatschappij) caught my eye. The society, established in the late eighteenth century as a branch of the Royal Dutch Society of Sciences and Humanities (Koninklijke Hollandsche Maatschappij van Wetenschappen), started a new program to improve the applied sciences and artisanal industry in the Netherlands, such as engraving, painting and pottery manufacture, through prize competitions and the establishment of art academies. This call was for a prize competition: who could produce the best paper flowers? Judging by advertisements in newspapers and magazines, making paper flowers was a popular pastime and they were widely used as decorative items, so it made sense to want to stimulate their production.

Art supplies seller's advertisement for paper to make paper flowers. Rotterdamse Courant, 3 December 1816. Source: Delpher

Art supplies seller’s advertisement for paper to make paper flowers. Rotterdamse Courant, 3 December 1816. Source: Delpher. Click to enlarge.

“But what on earth does this have to do with science and medicine?” I hear you think. Well, a quick search learns that paper flowers did play a role in both science and medicine – although at wildly different moments and locations.

A contemporary origami kusudama. Courtesy of roserevolution.

A contemporary origami kusudama. Courtesy of roserevolution.

A kusudama, or Japanese medicine ball (kusuri means medicine and tama means ball) is a kind of origami paper flower that is nowadays made as a decoration, but they probably stem from the Heaian Period (794 – 1192). Originally it was a bundle of fragrant woods and herbs placed in a small cloth bag, which was decorated with blossoms and hung in the house to dispel evil spirits and disease. Unfortunately I have been unable to find reliable sources on how and when the medicine ball transformed from a cloth bag into a paper flower, and when the medicinal use disappeared. Maybe there is a Japanese reader out there who can enlighten us?

Mary Delany, Physalis, Winter Cherry, a paper collage. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Mary Delany, Physalis, Winter Cherry, a paper collage. Courtesy of the British Museum.

An entirely different kind of paper flowers are Mary Delany’s (1700-1788). An upper class lady who grew bored with other pastimes after the death of her husband, Delany started making vividly coloured representations of blossoming flowers out of tissue paper in her early seventies. This may sound as a rather eccentric hobby, but in the royal and intellectual circles in which she moved, her models were taken extremely serious: the botanist Sir Joseph Banks allegedly declared that her collages were ‘the only imitations of nature that he had ever seen from which he could venture to describe botanically any plant without the least fear of committing an error’.  This seems to imply that, although not exactly three-dimensional, Delany’s models did have a certain depth and detail that was lacking in drawings and prints. Moreover, their advantage compared to dried flowers must have been that they did not loose colour over time, and had not shrunken, although Delany occasionally included parts of the actual plant in her collages. In the collage in the image above, of the Winter Cherry, an actual skeleton of a pod case is stuck over paper seeds. A century before Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka started making their famous glass flowers, Mary Delany’s paper flowers were the state of the art in botanical models.

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Mapping histories of medicine

Over the past few months, I have started exploring the many possibilities offered by Digital Humanities technologies. Digital humanities ‘can be described as a set of conceptual and practical approaches to digital engagement with cultural materials’, as this excellent online resource from UCLA puts it. Another excellent resource for historians to learn more about digital tools and techniques is Adam Crymble’s ‘The Programming Historian.’ One of the things I find most fascinating is the use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to represent historical data. While keeping in mind that maps are always distorted in some way, entering historical data about events, people, and dates into a GIS application can visualize connections and networks that are otherwise difficult to grasp.

Network visualization of 17th C correspondents discussing anatomy via E-Pistolarium project.

Network visualization of 17th C correspondents discussing anatomy via E-Pistolarium project.

For example, the ‘Knowledge circulation in the 17th century’ project in the Netherlands gives insight not only in the content of correspondence of seventeenth-century philosophers, but also in the network it formed. Something similar is done in Stanford University’s ‘Republic of Letters’ project. There are countless other examples, but one thing many of these projects have in common is a substantial professional team of developers, creating the technical infrastructure that humanities researchers then fill with their data.

However, there are possibilities for individual researchers without a big budget too. Many universities will offer their students and employees an online GIS course free of charge, and the development of open source software offers new opportunities. Here is an example of how a research group used open source application QGIS to create maps for their research on Burgundy’s historical landscape.

Even if you do not want to download software -or if your laptop cannot handle it- there are possibilities. Last week, I experimented a bit with the experimental data visualization web application Google Fusion Tables, which allows you to create online maps and tables from your own data. Of course this becomes more interesting when you have a big dataset, but just to see the effect I entered the sites of experimentation I described in a recent paper, “Anatomical Mercury: Changing Understandings of Quicksilver, Blood, and the Lymphatic System, 1650–1800.”

This resulted in an online map and a pie chart showing the geographical spread of experiments using mercury to trace the lymphatic system in the period 1650-1800. Even with this ridiculously small dataset, you get an overview that is impossible to obtain from the paper so fast. Of course, there is much to object: Google (for now at least) mainly contains contemporary maps, although historical imagery is being added as we speak.

Moreover, I’m still trying to figure out if there is a way to connect datapoints and thus visualize interactions and networks in Fusion Tables. Used with such a small dataset the application only produces an interesting illustration – this did not provide any new insights. Still, this is only a first try. I have just installed QGIS and hope to use it to gain new insights from my research data in the near future.

Do you already use digital humanities methods or GIS in your historical research? What are your experiences?

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