Workshop Knowledge: Formation and Perception of Art. Conference Report “WerkStattWissen – The Work o


​Ever since the work of Pamela H. Smith (The Body of the Artisan, UCP 2004) and her interest in the nature of materials, the knowledge embodied by early modern artisans and the resulting importance of workshop knowledge for the production and perception of art, early modern research has started to focus more and more on sources concerned with the technology of art. These sources are nowadays used not only to provide information about the historical production of materials and art works and to get a more differentiated understanding of materials, but also to recreate knowledge of historical workshop practice and investigate the intersections between artistic making and scientific knowing. In addition, new research foci have arisen which are reflected in numerous recent major research projects such as the Making and Knowing (Columbia University, New York), Recipes and Realities (NICAS, Amsterdam) and ARTECHNE (Utrecht University, Utrecht) projects.

Our own Materialized Identities project focuses on the importance of materials as we argue that things exceed their status as mute objects through their material properties. As we focus on materials and their relation to values and affects one important way in which we can gain more detailed insights is by investigating workshop practice. This helps us to understand the production of art works in our research periods not just as the realm of the relevant specialists, nor as a traditional, inalterable process but as a constantly changing world and a world in the making.

We were therefore greatly looking forward to the international conference “WerkStattWissen – The Work of Art. Material and Technology in Sources and Workshop Practice”, which was held in Bern from 31 May to 2 June 2017, organized by the members of the SNSF project New Approaches to Art Technological Resources in Text and Images at the Bern University of the Arts. The conference brought together well-known researchers and emerging scholars to present and discuss problems of the reception of art technology sources, of practical knowledge and workshop practice and how these sources can be used in the field of conservation and restoration.

Image as sources for workshop practice

Several of the contributions focused on paintings or engravings as the starting point to get a more detailed insight into workshop practice. Christine Göttler (University of Bern) delivered an introductory paper in which she focused on the image chosen for the conference flyer, an altar painting by the famous Bernese artist Niklaus Manuel, to discuss the workshop as a place of artisanal production and knowledge transfer. Discussing the altar’s two exterior panels depicting Saint Luke and Saint Eligius, she made the point that both paintings refer to alchemical transmutation and that alchemy and mining were both particularly important subjects for Bern in the sixteenth century. Céline Talon (Brussels) also uses paintings as a source of information and she focused on depictions of painters’ palettes to get some new ideas on the subject of colour handling and the depiction of tools to show how these paintings may be used as a source for the history of painting techniques. As a complement, Ann-Sophie Lehmann (University of Groningen) argued convincingly that sometimes the artwork itself is a reflection of its own process and pointed to the treatise by Wilhelm Beurs and his remarks on brushwork, since he believed it was essential to use the correct brush to paint different things. She spoke about Hendrick Hondius the Elder’s “Pictorum aliquot celebrium […]”, where different artists are shown in printed portraits holding various kinds of brushes. Lehmann argued that this series aimed to give an impression of how artists worked. Franca Mader’s (Bern University of the Arts/University of Bern) contribution went into the same direction. She presented illustrations of sculptors and their workshops in texts on art technology and discussed what such images reveal about the subject, what function they fulfilled and whether they offer a more immediate insight into artisanal knowledge and workshop practice. Anne Krauter (Bern University of the Arts) discussed textual and pictorial changes in successive editions of Johannes Kunckel’s Ars Vitraria Experimentalis, pointing out that the illustrations change from pictorial representations into almost technical drawings, similar to those used later in the famous encyclopaedias.

Reception of source documents on art technology

Sylvie Neven (University of Liège) shifted our focus towards the original function and current relevance of books of secrets and recipe books. Examining a corpus from between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries she distinguished between three different types of recipe collection: those written by artists for themselves, those written for artists and practitioners, and those written by non-professionals in order to preserve knowledge. The paper by Henrike Haug (Herzog August Library of Wolfenbüttel/University of the Arts Berlin) on her research into the sermons of the St. Joachimsthal preacher Johannes Mathesius picked up on another aspect. Haug persuasively showed that in his texts Mathesius illustrated theological teachings and ideas by means of secular examples, including reports on the deposits of precious stones in the Ore Mountains and the processes of glass production. With Lisbet Tarp’s (University of Aarhus) paper the focus moved to early modern Denmark where recipe manuals did not become popular until the seventeenth century, rather later than elsewhere. Taking as her example the Oeconomia Nova paa danske (1648/49) she convincingly argued that it was not only the elite but increasingly the bourgeoisie as well who were interested in such books.

Art technological sources and their applicability in restoration practice

With Anna Bartel (Basel Historical Museum), Christoph Krekel (State Academy of Visual Arts Stuttgart), Manfred Lautenschlager (Friedrich-Alexander University, Erlangen-Nuremberg) and Doris Oltrogge (TH Köln – University of Applied Sciences) all the editors of the Liber Illuministarum, a composite manuscript collected between 1460 and 1515 (Steiner 2005), were present. In reference to the Liber Illuministarum Anna Bartl pointed out the importance of art technology sources for restoration departments. She showed that such sources not only give an insight into the workshop practice and art production of their time but also list different recipes and provide information about certain materials which are today unknown. Moreover, as Doris Oltrogge pointed out from her research into the manuscript by Georg Strauch (1613–1675), such manuscripts also reflected artistic networks or, as Manfred Lautenschlager showed, included the latest developments in the area of science as in the case of Wolfgang Seidel’s treatises.

Handling of art technological sources

Sven Dupré (Utrecht University/University of Amsterdam) persuasively pointed out in his keynote lecture the importance of error and failure. Quoting Bernard Palissy’s words “you will still make a thousand mistakes” he discussed the topos of the early modern period that one can only learn a craft by making mistakes. He asked why early modern artisanal writings only laid down rules and did not mention errors, and he discussed the strategies which were used in such texts to deal with uncertainty. With regard to books of secrets, he showed that the purpose was to test and validate them, and that there the aspect of variation was very important. He also pointed out that learning by doing had an epistemic value. Two contributions focused on the continued use of art technology sources and the related problems. By comparing the De Mayerne Manuscript with the first published edition of 1901, Jenny Boulboullé (University of Utrecht) showed that some of the information, e.g. the use of different inks, was omitted and therefore important knowledge was lost. In reference to Padre Resta’s “Galleria Portatile” Irina Schmiedel and Annkathrin Kaul (Johannes Gutenberg‐University Mainz) mentioned that when it underwent restoration in 2006 the original structure of the book was destroyed to conserve only the prints and not Resta’s handwriting.

The valuation of material and the significance of hands-on reconstruction

In addition to text and object-based research into art technology sources there is now also a tendency towards hands-on reconstruction which Rozemarijn Landsman (Columbia University New York) highlighted in her presentation. She focused on medals which are hollow on the reverse, in an exact inverted replica of the image on the front, and explained how such medals were made and how hands-on experiments can help us to understand the technology used in producing works of art as described in the written sources. For her part, Giacinta Jean (University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland, Lugano) discussed the value of materials. She pointed out that stucco was always described as a fine material and if done properly stucco was seen as equivalent to an excellent marble.

Overall, the Bern conference brought together different positions and research strategies in the fields of restoration and art history, linked by the common theme of workshop practice and workshop knowledge. For our own Materialized Identities project it was interesting to see that the question of material value was one of the issues discussed since in our project we are also dealing with this aspect in various forms – e.g. based on the value of the material itself or on the evaluation of the skill of the artists. Some of the contributions dealt with the same approaches that we are taking, for example the importance of hands-on reconstructions in reference to the production of shell gold; or the use of the latest technologies such as digital microscopy in the feather subproject to get a better understanding on the techniques, skills and handling of that material. The conference once more showed – as the Material Identities group has already experienced several times in its workshops – that dialogue between practitioners, such as conservators and restorers on the one hand, and art historians/historians on the other, is valuable and can lead to new and fruitful insights and must therefore be stepped up.

Conference program

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