Feb 18, 2022

An X-ray brings out a figure from “chaos”

Jackson Pollock is widely known as one of the greatest exponents of “action painting”. Indeed, after a brief initial period in which he made art on traditional canvases, on easel, he soon arrived to dripping, i.e. to this way of expression that involves painting with “action”, where the color is literally poured with more or less violence on canvas lying on the floor. According to him, painting had to require the movement of the whole body, an involvement, therefore, not only mental but also physical.

As was the custom of other artists, especially for abstract works, Pollock left many of his paintings “Untitled”. Where Untitled was followed by a letter and the year of execution. Sometimes it was friends, art critics, gallery owners, who gave the title to his works. This is also the case with the 1947 painting “Full Fathom Five“. To give the title of the painting was the neighbor, Ralph Manheim.

However, it seems that Pollock hated that his work was thought to be the result of chaos. Contrary to what appears at first sight and to what his contemporary art critics like e.g. Bruno Alfieri wrote in “A Little Discourse on Jackson Pollok’s Paintings” (in “Modern Art, Venice, 8 June 1950):

“Chaos / absolute lack of armony / complete lack of structural organization / total absence of tecniquem, however rudimentary / once again, chaos”.

Forty years later the diagnostic tests confirmed that his action was not at all dictated by chaos.

In fact, when, in 1999, a symposium entitled Jackson Pollock New Approaches (available online) was organized, the opportunity was taken to reassess his works also through the study of his particular technique, through radiographic investigations.

The “Full Fathom Five” painting, technically, is not only paint on canvas but includes nails, matches, coins, buttons, cigarettes, tube caps of paint among the various layers. The visual aspect is given by the overlapping of paint but, to the touch, the texture returns surfaces that are different from just paint. The overall image, created by the cobweb of colors, has a vaguely anthropomorphic shape. But the most curious thing is that the X-ray study reveals how all “chaos” is nothing more than the “hiding place” of a standing figure with his arm raised!

Perhaps someone had already glimpsed it. We have already written how the title of this painting was not indicated by Pollock but by a friend of his, specifically a translator, who probably refers to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest“, and in particular to the song that Ariel sings to Ferdinand describing the father, whom the young man believes drowned

“Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made / Those are pearls that were his eyes di lui”

“No Chaos, Damn It”, concludes James Coddington in one of the chapters of the publication of the conference proceedings.

As described by the scientists of the aforementioned symposium, an anthropomorphic structure is visible in the X-ray image because the materials used by Pollock are particularly radiopaque or in any case the thicknesses are greater in certain areas.

The “Full Fathom Five” study is certainly not isolated. In recent years Pollock has been the subject of many diagnostic analyses, especially with non-invasive punctual investigations.

After all, the contemporary art sector passes more and more often under the magnifying glass of the scientist. Although sometimes the interpretations of the results are not entirely convincing. For example, for Pollock, when 24 alleged unpublished works by the artist were found in 2006, these were analysed and declared attributable to Pollock even though some of the materials present were not yet patented upon Pollock’s death. This opinion was justified with the artist’s experimental nature and therefore with the possibility that he had “tested” them before they were released on the market.

The issue of the authentication of works of art, whether ancient or contemporary, continues to be controversial. To get to the truth, whenever possible, it is necessary to rely on who like ArtTest, with its technology and methodology of scientific analysis, offers an approach followed internationally and designed step by step, sustainable for any type of collector. Sometimes we will only arrive at a small truth, but better a small truth than a big lie, said Leonardo.

Emanuela Massa