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Technical study of La tertulia del café de Pombo

The initial results of the study of the work with visible light, x-ray, ultraviolet and infrared technology which, along with the state of conservation of the painting, shed new light on this work of art. The x-ray images show that Solana painted the La tertulia del café Pombo over a baroque altar. The four phases of the study can be navigated with the cursor. 

Introduction

José Gutiérrez Solana painted La tertulia del café de Pombo in 1920, at the request of his friend Ramón Gómez de la Serna, a writer linked to the avant-garde movement in Spain. Gomez de la Serna, the inventor of greguerías (a genre that brought together various linguistic resources as a means of artistic expression, as did dadaism) is the character standing in the centre of the composition. He is surrounded by various of the regular participants in the gatherings that took place on Saturday evenings starting in 1912 in the café Pombo, an old wine bar that had been turned into a modest and somewhat anachronistic café on number 4 Calle Carretas, in Madrid.

This project shows the analysis carried out by the Department of Conservation and Restoration using visible light, ultraviolet light, infrared reflectology and x-ray. The study was performed in order to gain a thorough understanding of the painting's state of conservation, so that its alterations can be treated with the most suitable solution.

Visible light

Studying the painting using natural light macro-photography reveals a great deal about the artist's technique and allows the state of conservation of the pictorial layer to be perceived in greater definition. On this occasion the images have been taken at a colour temperature of 5500 Kelvin and using a 100 mm macro lens, which makes it possible to exceed 4x enlargement in high image definition. This uncovers a great deal of information about the artist's technique and shows how the colours have been applied in layers of impasto, side by side with others containing abundant medium, which makes the brush strokes slide easily and reflect the painter's movements more faithfully. The backgrounds are the result of painting layer upon layer, some of which have been scraped with the spatula before adding the next one. This way of painting, creating intense contrasts in material and colour with thick impasto next to very oily shadows applied with medium, is typical of Solana's technique.

In addition, looking at the image under optimum illumination makes it possible to find out exactly what alterations have been made and what damage has been suffered, thus creating a minutely detailed register about the work of art and its state of conservation.

Infrared reflectology

Infrared radiation has been used to examine art objects since the 1960s. These techniques, especially since they were digitalized, have allowed spectacular findings to be made of underlying drawings, changes made by the artist in the composition or hidden details such as signatures or inscriptions. Infrared technology is especially useful in the study of pictorial techniques consisting of a layer of reflective preparation, a drawing and the application of successive layers of velatures over it. It shows us the behaviour of the underlayers of colour in the non-visible spectrum.

However, in the canvases of José Gutiérrez Solana it is not likely that infrared reflectology will produce such findings. The layers of oil paint are so thick that the infrared radiation, even though it has a longer wavelength than visible light, has no way of penetrating them. In this case it offers interesting information about the way the artist worked. Around the head of the person to the left of Gómez de la Serna are some strokes that do not correspond to the visible image but rather to an underlying composition. To find out what it is, the x-ray image must be studied.

Ultraviolet light

Ultraviolet light shows the different fluorescent responses given by the outer layers of the materials present. The chromatic intensity varies depending on the different properties of the elements that make up the surface of a painting and when these elements were applied. This makes it possible to visually identify the presence of inpainting or non-original chromatic additions, the artist's use of different mediums or varnishes or the condition and thickness of the layer of varnish covering it.

In Solana's painting the first thing that draws the analyst's attention is the fact that the varnish seems to be extended very irregularly. The technique used by the author himself includes layers of varnishes that can be confused with ones added subsequently. Also, there is a very slight fluorescent response in the impasto used to form the figures. However, comparing the ultraviolet image to the visible light image, in the latter it can be seen that the brilliant finish of the varnish is very regular and was applied in a uniform manner. So, the cause of such an uneven image is something else. Solana uses different mediums, oils and varnishes in different proportions and different means of application, depending on the characteristics of the object he is painting. Thus, the fabric of the suits, the flesh of the figures or the surface of a mirror in the background give different chromatic responses because they were painted with different blends of medium and pigment.

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