Current project: The Making of Technique in the Arts and Sciences

(Utrecht University, 2016 – present, Wellcome Trust / Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, 2016, and Wood Institute for the History of Medicine, Philadelphia, 2017)

My current research project, which is part if the ERC-funded project ARTECHNE: technique in the arts and sciences, 1500-1950, consists of two parts. The first part focuses on the rise and spread of the use of the term ‘technique’ in the arts and sciences in Europe. The other part of the project studies the development and transmission of techniques, knowledge and skills between visual artists and anatomists with the purpose of making anatomical preparations and models in northern Europe and north America between 1650 and 1850.

The Making of Technique: the Rise of the Term ‘Technique’ in the Visual Arts

Although the term ‘technical’ is readily used in relation to the visual arts today, presently a history of its emergence and use is lacking. This project is aimed at closing this gap in intellectual history and the history of art and science, amongst others through the development of a database and an interactive semantic-geographical map of ‘technique’ and related terms (see http://artechne.hum.uu.nl/home). I acquired additional funding for the development of this database by the Utrecht University Digital Humanities Lab (8 hours per week for eighteen months), and for a data entry assistant (16 hours per week for two years). The management of this subproject, including the supervision of the programmer and the data entry assistant is my responsibility.

The first results of this project were published in an article in History of Humanities this year. The article outlines how ‘technique’ and related forms were occasionally used in European languages before 1700, and argues that the word technique was a neologism in the vernacular that started to appear sparsely in treatises on arts and sciences only 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 both processes of making or doing and their products. Yet from around 1750, a distinction of processes of making or doing from the resulting artwork appears to have arisen in German philosophies of art. In my article, I suggest that this distinction may have come about explicitly to develop arguments about judgments of taste, artistic value, and the appreciation of art.

In October 2017, I will host an international workshop at Utrecht University, which aims to bridge 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?

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? The papers presented at this workshop will be developed into an edited volume.

 

The Making of Technique: Anatomical Objects and the Visual Arts, 1650-1850

Parallel to the linguistic history of the use and meaning of the term ‘technique’ in the visual arts, I am writing a monograph about the making of technique in the visual arts and sciences by focusing on the collaboration between medical men and visual artists in the long eighteenth century. It has long been known that these two groups worked closely together in the production of anatomical atlases and models in early modern Europe, and sometimes were even united in the same person. We have an extensive corpus of literature on the history of anatomical museums and preparations. Moreover, in recent years, excellent work has been done on anatomical drawing and illustrations, and a small corpus on anatomical wax models has been published. However, thus far little attention has been paid to the development, understanding and transmission of these and various other techniques for depicting the body in three dimensions among artists and anatomists. My research fills that gap by focusing on the development, exchange, and mutual influence of techniques like drawing, casting, corrosion, colouring, wax and papier-mâché modelling in the work of artists and anatomists. The envisioned outcome of the project is an academic monograph, to be published in 2020.

The period 1650-1850 is particularly interesting in this respect as it saw the rapid development of anatomical preparation and modelling techniques, the rise of the museum, and the emergence of a slow but steadily increasing fissure between art and science. Although some attention has been paid to the history of models of human anatomy in a recent exhibition catalogue (Hallam 2015), the focus in that book is on twentieth-century anatomical modelling, while it is exactly the period before the development of daguerreotypes, photography, plastics, and the mass production of anatomical models in which the bond between artist and anatomist, humanities and science, is still extremely strong, but starts changing slowly and steadily. This project sheds light on the factors that played a role in the loosening of the traditional ties between artists and anatomists. The development and exchange of anatomical modelling techniques between artists and anatomists in Europe and north America in this period is studied using textual sources such as books, catalogues, letters, institutional archives, and notes, as well as objects such as prints, sketches, models, designs, casts, and moulds. I combine qualitative research of historical sources and historical reconstruction of preparation and modelling techniques with quantitative methods such as corpus linguistics.

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