Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

Vision science helps to rescue John Martin's vision of destruction | Tim Smith

Psychologist Tim Smith describes how a painting was saved by a combination of eye-tracking technology, Photoshop and conservation expertise

When TATE Britain decided to organise a major exhibition of British artist John Martin's work they faced a difficult decision: should they try to restore his lost masterpiece, Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum? This work was the centrepiece of Martin's 1822 solo exhibition at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, where advertisements described it as "the most extraordinary production of the pencil that has ever appeared in this or any other country". But in 1928 the painting was declared damaged beyond repair when the Thames broke its banks and flooded the basement of the gallery. It suffered severe water damage and one fifth of the canvas – the section depicting the erupting Vesuvius – was lost.

In 2010 the TATE decided to attempt a restoration. Advances in conservation techniques meant that the existing painting could be cleaned and stabilised, but this left the major question of what to do with the lossed section. As part of its research, the TATE decided to consult me – a vision scientist – and together we devised an experiment to help inform the restoration process.

My research involves investigating how we attend to visual scenes and how this influences what we see. The same features that may attract our attention in the real world, such as people's faces, points of high contrast, and violent imagery also guide our attention when looking at a painting. Classic theories of conservation such as Cesare Brandi's theory of restoration in the early 1960s referred to contemporary psychological theories of vision, but our understanding of the human visual system has advanced inordinately since then.

The decisions made by conservators when restoring important works of art have a direct influence on how the final painting will be perceived and there is a lot of psychological insight that can inform this process. For example, computational models of visual attention can tell a conservator whether a crack or the loss of a segment is likely to capture the viewer's attention and how this will change depending on the context in which the painting is viewed.

For the damaged John Martin we decided to compare how viewers attended to and made sense of different digital reconstructions of the painting by recording viewer eye movements. An eyetracker uses high-speed infrared cameras to record where a person looks on a screen. This allowed the TATE to foresee how viewers might attend to the final product before embarking on costly and time-consuming work on the painting itself.

TATE conservator Sarah Maisey created four digital versions of the painting. Taking details from an intact smaller copy of the painting made by Martin, Sarah created a digital image of the existing painting, digitally retouching the smaller losses and inserting a modified version from the smaller copy into the large loss. These images were then presented to 20 viewers (who had never seen the painting before) on a large computer screen in my lab, as part of a longer sequence of paintings. Each viewer either saw the fully restored version, a similar version but with less detail in the filled section, a restored version with muted colour in the filled section, or a neutrally coloured infill without any details.

Immediately apparent from the gaze locations on the fully reconstructed version was that the painting contained only a few strong focal points, such as the heart of the volcano, the city in the midground and foreground figures. When the gaze pattern of a viewer is replayed as a video it is clear how the mouth of the volcano is one of the first areas fixated and the viewer then follows the diagonal sightlines laid out by Martin down through the city to the foreground figures.

In the neutral version of the painting the mouth of the volcano and part of the city is lost and instead the viewer dwells on the edges of the loss, spending significantly less time on the foreground figures. The consequence of the different gaze pattern is that when asked to describe the content of the painting, viewers of the unreconstructed version did not realise it was a painting of an erupting volcano. The painting had lost its meaning and viewers could not view it as originally intended by Martin.

The difference in gaze behaviour between the completely restored and unrestored (neutrally filled) versions confirmed our intuitions about how destructive the loss was. As well as this evidence, the TATE team also considered the history and context of the painting, with careful consideration of the ethical issues posed. One proposed option for restoration was to omit some detail in the reconstructed section, allowing viewers to see all the main content of the painting while spending most of their time viewing the original sections. This would preserve Martin's intended viewing pattern without distracting from the original content. Our study demonstrated that such a viewing pattern could be created by filling the lost section with an abstracted version of the original content with less distinct details.

Our findings were used by the TATE to inform the (fully reversible) reconstruction of the lost section. Given the scale of the loss this was a major undertaking, but having now viewed the final result at the exhibition I can confidently say that it is an exceptional accomplishment. The painting has been saved from destruction by a combination of vision science, Photoshop and Maisey's conservation skill and expertise.

Martin's vision of destruction has been given a new lease of life and can now be appreciated by future generations, rather than lying abandoned in the TATE stores. Let's hope that this proves to be the first of many collaborations between vision science and art conservation.

Tim Smith is a psychologist at Birkbeck, University of London

John Martin: Apocalypse is at TATE Britain until 15 January 2012

Maisey, S, Smithen, P, Vilaro-Soler, A, and Smith, TJ (in press) Recovering from destruction: the conservation, reintegration and perceptual analysis of a flood-damaged painting by John Martin. International Council of Museums: Committee for Conservation. Published Proceedings. Lisbon, Portugal, September 19-23, 2011. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

No Soup for you

Don't be the product, buy the product!

YES, I want to SOUP ●UP for ...