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Engineering to the rescue of threatened art (from the New Yorker)

IMG_4820 Back in late November the New Yorker ran an article by Daniel Zalewski on The Factory of Fakes: How a workshop uses digital technology to craft perfect copies of threatened art, especially from Iraq and Egypt. (I only got around to reading it after the semester at SMU was over.) The digital tech company in question is Factum, led by Adam Lowe. The New Yorker article is full of examples of art now endangered or destroyed, for which the company has been able to recreate very high-quality facsimiles. Studying the pictures has even made possible some new discoveries, such as ridges in Tutankhamun's chamber. They could mark the entrance to the tomb of Queen Nefertiti, which has never been found. Factum's website also offers images from the facsimile of Tutankhamun's tomb, one of its flagship projects - he issue with the original tomb is that it was sealed before the painting could properly dry, because Tutankhamun had died suddenly, allowing bacteria to foster on the walls. 

My favorite part in the article was Factum's role in creating replicas of destroyed or stolen work, such as a winged-lion statue that had stood in Nimrud before the city was destroyed in 2015 or the "Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence" painting by Caravaggio, which was stolen by the Mob from a chapel in Palermo in 1969. Factum "made its reputation in 2007, with a replica of Paolo Veronese's monumental painting "The Wedding at Cana," which Napoleon presented to a new museum, the Louvre, after ripping it off the wall of a refectory in Venice in 1797."

The high-resolution technology allows scholars and tourists to study details of the work that they would not otherwise notice (tourists aren't allowed to stay more than about fifteen minutes in the real King Tut tomb, for instance). Where the quality of hand-crafted copies depends on the copier's eye for detail, Factum's approach captures all the details of a work, exactly the way its author experienced it, down to the same brushstrokes, even showing the spots where the painter was running out of paint. This doesn't come easily or cheap: it took seven weeks to scan King Tut's tomb, and  "the cost of scanning and rematerializing [=recreating] the Seti I tomb [another tomb in Luxor] will likely approach twenty million dollars". But it makes accessible phenomenal art that we would be deprived of otherwise. I enjoyed reading about Lowe's business model, which apparently involves getting enough commissions from big shots such as  Anish Kapoor, Maya Lin and Marc Quinn, for whom he fabricates sculptures, to fund his true passion of art preservation. 

It is a powerful testimony to the role high tech and engineering can play in bringing art back to the public and ushering conservation into a new area.

Another great article about Factum was published in 2013 by the Financial Times (Conservation: Factum remaking history), with more pictures of the facsimile of Veronese's "Wedding at Cana" and of the church of San Petronio, where Factum 3D-scanned and replicated the statue of the city's patron saint. 

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