SEEING OBJECTS FROM A SAFE DISTANCE
Florrie Badley, PhD Art History student, University of Manchester
We often refer to the ‘texture’, the ‘materiality’ and the ‘tactility’ of artworks, even though we cannot touch them. Florrie Badley considers the additional barriers facing object-based researchers due to the outbreak of COVID-19, reflecting on how we were already responding to issues of distance, separation and forbidden touch in the gallery space before the pandemic.
The term ‘object-based’ research can involve anything from examining artworks in situ to conducting scientific analysis on them. Those engaged in object-based study are facing additional barriers to their research, with the indefinite closure of collections and cultural institutions, due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
Our removal from gallery spaces gives us the opportunity to reflect on how we usually encounter artworks as material objects. We are well accustomed to seeing art from a safe distance. Objects are often shielded by glass cabinets in museums, our pathways to paintings blocked by lengths of rope and other visitors. Not to mention the invisible barriers that exist between artworks and us, their beholders, telling us that we cannot touch them. The lockdown has heightened our separation from works of art – but many of these ‘social distancing’ measures were already in place.
How does art history overcome these obstacles unique to studying art objects? Curiously, we often refer to the ‘texture’, the ‘materiality’ and the ‘tactility’ of artworks, even though we cannot touch them.
Art history has developed some innovative methods for overcoming these obstacles. ‘Materiality’ is an interdisciplinary venture spanning humanities subjects such as anthropology, history and archaeology. Studies in materiality are primarily concerned with the embodied experience of encountering objects; with exploring how humans make contact with the things around them. In the context of art history, this means studying how objects relate to the bodies of both their creator (or artist) and their beholders. Therefore, to study the ‘materiality’ of an artwork means to study our physical encounters with them, without actually touching them.
Investigating the materiality of artworks involves a great deal of imagination. We essentially have to interact with objects in our minds, unfolding our mental projections of what it would feel like to touch or use the object. Our brains have the amazing ability to imagine what objects would feel like, based on the textures and surfaces that we see before us. This is an embodied way of seeing, which stirs up visceral physical reactions, and often these interactions take place subconsciously without us realising.
It is a precarious methodology: relying on our ability to hypothetically fabricate the experience of handling objects. We might actually be wrong. The object may feel totally different from how we have imagined it – but it’s an interesting place to start.
The experience of viewing artworks up-close can feel breathtakingly abnormal – probably because we are so used to seeing them from a distance. The closer we look, the more information we can gather about their texture without actually touching them. Low-magnification portable microscopes can be a useful tool for researchers who are interested in materials and materiality. Before the pandemic, I was beginning to explore the possibilities of using low-magnification microscopes to take photographs that enhance details in Renaissance prints.
The photograph above was taken of Lucretia, an engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi, using a low-magnification portable microscope.
The magnified image provides us with a better understanding of what it might be like to touch Lucretia’s papery hand. We gain an enhanced sense of the qualities of the ink and the texture of the paper it is printed on. The surface appears more tactile than it did at its original scale. The engraved lines creating shade along the lower edges of Lucretia’s thumb and fingers work remarkably like fingerprints. The image of her hand reaching out makes our hands want to do the same. In this context, the magnified snapshot of Raimondi’s Lucretia takes on a new meaning, becoming a tactile image about touch on numerous levels.
This photograph is a novel example of how technology can bring us closer to the experience of touching artworks – closer than our own eyes would ever allow.
These issues have been on my mind because, in the throes of lockdown, I have been relying on digital image viewers to gather visual information from artworks. Most well-funded galleries and museums now have online platforms for viewing high-quality images of their collections. And often these platforms have zoom functions, which provide views that are sufficient for up-close visual analysis. An outstanding example of one such resource is the newly launched Manchester Digital Collections image viewer, providing ultra-high-quality images of objects from the university’s collections.
In some ways, technology places more barriers between us and artworks, separating their beholders from the materiality of the objects themselves. They provide us with mediated experiences that are not necessarily ‘true’ to the experience of encountering artworks first-hand. But on the other hand, these technologies break down barriers by enhancing the accessibility of objects and by overcoming human limitations regarding our ability so ‘see’ and perceive them. High-resolution images, combined with the ability to ‘zoom in’, often means that one can see more at home than one ever could in the gallery space. And most importantly, one can view artworks from all over the world.
This reflection does not intend to downplay the experience of seeing objects in person. There is no substitute for encountering artworks as physical objects – being able to move around them, viewing them from different angles and in different lights. But before we become too tangled up in the ‘authenticity’ of encountering objects first-hand, whilst collections remain closed during the pandemic, it’s worth considering how we were already compensating for limitations regarding engagement with objects.
Before the pandemic, we were already finding innovative methods for dealing with the issues of distance, separation and forbidden touch in the gallery space. Our minds have been doing a lot more of the work than we realise. We have plenty of experience ‘feeling’ artworks without making physical contact with them. In an ideal world, we would be able to balance real life experiences with technologically enhanced viewing. For now, we are limited to viewing objects using online platforms. But perhaps our separation from artworks, during this difficult period, will change the way we think about viewing objects from a safe distance in the future.
Cranston, Jodi. ‘Theorizing Materiality: Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas’. In Titian: Materiality, Likeness, Istoria, edited by Joanna Woods-Marsden, 5–18. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007.
Cranston, Jodi. ‘Late Titian and the Haptic Gaze’. In Venetian Painting Matters, 77–89. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016.
Elkins, James. ‘Some Limits on Materiality’. Das Magazin des Instituts für Theorie 12 (2008): 25–30.
Ingold, Tim, et al. ‘Materials Against Materiality’. Archaeological Dialogues 14, no. 1 (2007): 1–38.
Wouk, Edward H., and David Morris, eds. Marcantonio Raimondi, Raphael and the Image Multiplied. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016.
Florrie Badley is a PhD Art History student at the University of Manchester. She explores the relationship between Titian’s painting techniques and the materiality of prints. Her thesis ‘Painting in the Age of Print’ places an emphasis on object-based research, building on her MLitt in Technical Art History from the University of Glasgow.