Craquelure: Background information when reading Asunder

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by Chloe Aridjis

Asunder by Chloe Aridjis X
Asunder by Chloe Aridjis
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    Sep 2013, 208 pages

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Poornima Apte

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As Chloe Aridjis explains in Asunder, a painting too must obey the laws of physics - in that it slowly - ever so slowly - descends from "order" (the finished painting) into disorder. This "disorder" is brought about by a series of cracks in the paint or varnish that forms a network over time. This network is called craquelure (pronounced crack-lure). The cracks are formed as result of drying forces, responses to humidity and a number of other environmental factors. As time goes on, paint dries and undergoes shrinkage which, in turn, creates cracks. The pressure on these paintings is higher at the edges than it is in the center, which means cracks are more pronounced at the edges of a painting. Even the human touch can set off a series of invisible cracks.

Mona LisaSince craquelure is a function of the kind of paint used (oil, watercolor, acrylic); the medium it is painted on and the thickness of the various layers, the network of cracks is more noticeable for certain kinds than others. For example, three layers of the more viscous oil paints on canvas will yield more noticeable (and varied) patterns than say, two layers of watercolors on canvas. In Asunder, we learn about drying cracks in the "form of flames, nets, brushstrokes, spirals and grids, and ageing cracks in the form of spokes, garlands, corn ears and diagonals." Restorations of old paintings keep craquelure in mind when working on preserving the authenticity of the work.

The Comtesse de TillièresResearch has shown that the study of craquelure can help in sourcing paintings of unknown origins. In a study of a variety of paintings, clear patterns emerged in different styles. A Flemish work for example, would exhibit craquelure different from that of an Italian one. The distinct patterns are probably caused by the varying materials used and the different techniques of drying and preservation. For example, the English style uses bitumen, which creates bubbles of cracks on the surface.

Craquelure is such an essential part of a painting that art forgers try, using formaldehyde and slow drying techniques, to replicate networks of cracks on forgeries. However, these methods usually lead to uniform networks of cracks whereas the unpredictable nature of genuine craquelure is what readily distinguishes it from forgeries. Interestingly enough, craquelure is a popular touch to contemporary pieces of art such as vases, outdoor objects, and even reproductions of paintings. Manufacturers can create craquelure under controlled conditions to give the object an "authentic" and appealing look. Software programs can even create craquelure on digital images.

Examples of two different kinds of craquelure in the images above. See the typical Italian pattern of small rectangular blocks on Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, and then the typical French craquelure with larger and less regular patterns, and curving cracks on Jean-Marc Nattier's The Comtesse de Tillières.

Article by Poornima Apte

This article is from the September 18, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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