Artistic expression: more than a luxury, a determining element of humanity

The first records of artistic expression date back to prehistoric times. On the occasion of World Art Day, this is a fundamental human right.

Artistic expression: more than a luxury, a determining element of humanity
More than luxury, artistic expression is a determining element of humanity. Photo by laura adai / Unsplash

The artistic manifestation objects to and confronts the situations that are lived in each country, especially in these times where often creators also give the fight through their work, express their criticism of a system, an idea, or an event, regardless of censorship, emphasizes the coordinator of the Laboratory of Diagnosis of Works of Art (LDOA), of the Institute of Aesthetic Research (IIE) of the UNAM, Eumelia Hernández Vázquez.

It is a fundamental and inherent expression of the human being, whose first examples date back to prehistoric times. From then on, man found his materials in carbonized bones minerals, and plants, to satisfy that need to communicate feelings and important events during his/her life.

"Artistic manifestations should not be considered only as 'beautiful'. Now we know and consider that art should not have that quality of reassuring us or making us feel that everything is fine, but also that character of confrontation and reflection on the world and personal events," the art historian explains.

The benefit of the fine arts -painting, music, cinema, dance, literature, etc.- is their contribution to release internal tensions, doubts, and emotions that we have inside us, "and for each artist, in their area or discipline, it is also their reflection that feeds their creativity, which makes them take different paths, and not only dedicate themselves to drawing and only work with a single medium such as charcoal, there is also the need to experiment with other materials that could be foreign to them," she says.

The great creators of the Renaissance were painters, sculptors, engravers, etc.; they used new materials and media, which is what made their creativity increase exponentially.

On the occasion of World Art Day, which is commemorated on April 15, the birthday of one of the greatest artists of humanity: Leonardo Da Vinci, Eumelia Hernandez emphasizes that artistic expression is not a luxury, but a determining element of humanity and a fundamental human right that allows it to develop and express itself.

Throughout history, there have been several cases of censorship, not only political but also of religious beliefs and the life of the community itself. The importance of commemorating this date, although it is necessary to promote it so that it is not trivialized, is that it serves to analyze the artistic practice, the life, and work of women and men who have been brave enough to open new paths, to present new reflections, to confront the authorities and their community.

A conjunction of science and art

LDOA experts, art historians, photographers, chemists, and associated scientific specialists have studied, among other works, Diego Rivera's mural The Creation; Agustín Querol's Pegasos, in the esplanade of Bellas Artes; as well as notable groups of paintings and altarpieces from the 16th century, such as Huejotzingo, to determine the procedures, materials, and state of conservation.

This university instance is an interdisciplinary space that was created in the IIE 20 years ago and has developed alongside heritage sciences. In 2014, at the initiative of the IIE, the National Laboratory of Sciences for the Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (LANCIC) was created, which brings together a group of specialists in the hard sciences, such as the Institutes of Physics and Chemistry of the UNAM; the Corrosion Research Center of the Autonomous University of Campeche, and the National Institute of Nuclear Research.

Our mission is to investigate the materials and execution techniques of works of art, mainly Mexican. What we seek is to know the pigments, colorants, supports, etc., used in their execution and how they are produced and commercialized, as well as to determine what kind of pigments were used in their execution and, through this, also to know the function and history of the objects, she adds.

This knowledge allows them to identify the context in which they were created, the life of the artist, the trade, and the economics of art. It also establishes the basis for working on their conservation and for the artistic and cultural heritage to be duly considered, defended, preserved, and disseminated.

"We also have a part in which this exploration of the objects, through time, has an impact on the communities, because the fact that we find out the materials they are made of and how some works were made can compare the traditions that are still made today, such as the use of dyes, also experimental replicas are made to prove how pre-Hispanic dyes or pigments were worked in the viceregal or modern times, for example," she argues.

With the use of optical microscopy, scanning electron microscopy, spectroscopy, chromatography tests, visible, ultraviolet, and infrared radiation, LDOA experts can observe the materials down to the level of elemental characterization, which allows them to determine what they are made of and the pigments used in their elaboration.

Using these techniques, they have studied pre-Hispanic mural paintings, codices, coffered ceilings, furniture, choir books, engravings, paintings, sculpture, architecture, etcetera. The hard data from these analyses are interpreted jointly with art historians, conservators, and scientists to be able to present a multi-angle explanation of the objects and their artistic processes.

For example, with these methodologies, it is possible to determine the colors and pigments used in some pieces, such as copper resinate, one of the greens used, which, utilizing the tests "we are verifying that indeed its chemical composition corresponds to the pigment, whose particles can be observed under the optical microscope and with the scanning electron microscope even perform elemental chemical mapping to know in-depth what a certain material is made of".

These processes have allowed us to make certain discoveries, such as finding one work after another, like the painting of Saint Anne, by Andrés de Concha (in the Cathedral of Mexico). "Observing the work at a 45-degree angle, it was observed that there were some brushstrokes that did not correspond to what we see now," emphasizes Hernández Vázquez.

Through a radiographic study, it was found that, in effect, a group of religious characters - Saint Anne, Saint Joseph, the Virgin, and Child - were painted on a virgin, possibly an Immaculate Conception, because the relief of her "little head", a dragon and the moon in the lower part could be seen; thus the questions and surprises begin.

The grana cochineal, the pigment that was found in a work of Van Gogh, is a material native to Mexico, which illustrates the trade, production, and demand in the country and other spheres due to the importance of the natural colorant.