The Hues of Human History: Narayan Khandekar on art, conservation, and the Forbes Pigment Collection
“Understanding is what appreciating art is all about,” states Narayan Khandekar, Director of Harvard Art Museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, as he’s discussing the Forbes Pigment Collection. Aside from being the collection’s current curator, he also tends to the Gettens Collection of Binding Media and Varnishes. Over 2,500 samples of pigments, some ancient and others recently released, are currently on display at the world-famous institution.
Edward Forbes (1873 — 1969) started the collection at the turn of the 20th century; the former director of the Fogg Art Museum, one of three art museums at Harvard, was interested in learning about the composition of paintings after his 14th-century Tuscan paintings Madonna and Child with Saints began to show signs of wear and tear.
By 1927, Forbes hired chemist Rutherford John Gettens (1900 — 1974) as the museum’s first staff scientist — and the first museum scientist in general — to help analyze the pigments he had been collecting for nearly thirty years. George Stout (1897 — 1978), who went on to become one of the Monuments Men, joined the team in 1929. Gettens and Stout published the ground-breaking Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopedia in 1942.
Today, the pigments in the original collection, as well as the ones that have been added over the last century, make up a standard, which helps scientists working in art conservation test the chemical compositions of the artwork they are tasked with cleaning, restoring, and preserving for future generations. Khandekar has been leading the charge since 2015.
Aside from conducting chemical analysis of paintings throughout history, his passion and dedication to the discipline inspired him to establish a postdoctoral fellowship for individuals interested in entering the field of art conservation science, when he first started at Harvard in 2001. Drawing from personal experience, he hopes to show people that art and science are not two sides of the same coin, but rather work together to create the coin in the first place.
With a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Melbourne University and a Postgraduate diploma in the Conservation of Easel Paintings from the Courtauld Institute of Art, Khandekar is considered to be the leading authority in the scientific analysis of paintings and painted surfaces.
ARTpublika Magazine spoke to Narayan Khandekar about his work, the importance of pigment analysis, and the significance of ancient colored particles.
How did you get interested in art?
In Canberra, when I was growing up, the National Gallery of Australia was largely under construction, but there was a portrait gallery and a little bit of the collection on display. Occasionally paintings were bought by the government — which was then run by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (1916 — 2014). He green lighted Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952), which was bought in 1973 for $1.3 million dollars, and everybody made an enormous amount of fun of it — this inaccessible, easy to paint, sort of splattered painting. No one could quite believe it. I would bet that if you got into a cab in Canberra at two in the morning and started a conversation going, “What do you think about the Blue Poles?” you’d have an interesting ride. It was that controversial, and it got me looking at art, in a way.
The National Gallery of Australia has an unbelievable collection of paintings, one of every great artist — and not just one, a great one of every great artist. There’s an early Jim Dine painting, An Animal (1961); there is Andy Warhol’s Elvis (1963); amazing Marcel Duchamp (1887 — 1968) sculptures; there’s an incredible painting by Roy Lichtenstein (1923 — 1997), Kitchen Range (1961 — 1962); and it just goes on and on. And what was amazing to see, too, was the amount of resources that the government was prepared to put into creating an art gallery — it was impressive! Even if it was criticized by the Australian public, it was an extraordinary thing to behold.
Did you have a favorite work?
I think the Bull Profile Series (1973) by Roy Lichtenstein in Canberra, but a long time favorite is his diptych WHAAM in Tate. I really like Roy Lichtenstein a lot; he is able to take the essence of whatever it is that he’s looking at, and reduce it to seemingly simple lines, dots, and abstract shapes. He really understands what he’s depicting, and I think his Bull series is an example of that. In many ways, it tells us so much about who he is; he’s so sensitive and so adept at simmering things down to what really matters. But, he is also witty and funny at the same time — it’s a really great combination.
Does your profession influence how you look at art now?
Yes. If you do something every day, you get better at it. When I was looking at art at the National Gallery of Australia, I was looking at it as a seventeen-year-old who was at university studying chemistry. I had no art training and no art background, so, I was looking at it with pretty naive eyes. I think now, I am able to look at things in a much more knowledgeable way; I know what it is that I’m looking at and why I like looking at it. I especially like looking at good art — it’s wonderful for me to find paintings that still blow my mind, even after decades of working in galleries.
What types of hobbies did you have as a child?
I studied classical ballet for a long time. I saw it on TV, and I was like: “That looks really cool! I want to do it.” So, I studied it for 10 years. I didn’t have what it took to become a professional, but I really loved it! I learned a lot about dance, movement, and shape — all sorts of things. It was an amazing thing to do to learn about discipline and working with other people.
How old were you when you started?
I must have been about eight or nine.
You said you were studying chemistry in high school; it’s very different from ballet.
Yeah. I guess I’ll frame it like this: At that point, university in Australia was free. I had a knack for chemistry — it’s something that came easily to me — so I studied it. When I finished, there was a recession and there were no jobs. So, I got a scholarship and did a PhD. It wasn’t anything other than just allowing doors to open and going, Alright, I’ll try it out.
While I was doing my PhD, I was actively going to art galleries, especially the National Gallery of Victoria. I started wondering how I could combine chemistry and art in some way, because I really didn’t want to continue down the chemistry path alone. And, I thought, OK, I want to work with art. Maybe my chemistry will help me in understanding what a painting is made of? I found that the conservation course at the Courtauld Institute of London specialized in scientific analysis under professor Gerry Hedley (1949 — 1990) at the time. So, I applied and was accepted; I studied painting conservation after I finished my PhD and that was the real turning point — that’s when I learned I could put these two areas together, and ever since then I was a scientist in a museum or an art gallery.
Do you recall one of your very first projects once you started working?
I think there was a Rubens (1577 — 1640) painting I was looking at from Dulwich Picture Gallery — it was Venus, Mars and Cupid (early 1630s) and it was being cleaned. There were questions about how the cleaning would proceed; [the presence of certain glazes on the torso of Venus would tell us which solvents to use, and what to expect as the painting was cleaned]. By taking a little bit of paint from the painting, I was able to get enough information to make a major impact for its future.
Can you elaborate on that idea?
If you want to understand what a painting is made of, you can take a tiny bit of paint [and analyze it.] You can see every layer of paint that has been applied by the artist and the order that the artist applied it in; you can see if it was painted in wet or if each layer was dry before the next layer was applied; you can see if dirt accumulated in between the layers of paint indicating the passage of time; you can see thin layers of varnish that may have been applied to “wet-out” the surface. You can tell so much about the process and the creation of a work of art — build out this rounded vision of the decisions that the artist makes while making a work of art.
As a senior conservation scientist, can you walk us through a typical day?
Everything that we do is geared around a work of art, and every work of art is unique, so no two days are exactly the same.
How did you restore the Rothko Murals and can you explain what a compensation image is?
The Rothko Murals had been on display for 15 years in a Harvard University Penthouse dining room from 1964 to1979 — they had gotten a lot of direct sunlight and faded unevenly based on their location in the room— so we had to understand what they looked like back in 1963, when they were finished. We went through a lot of work and developed images, which we call the target image based on restored historic Ektachromes and an unused panel that belongs to Christopher Rothko, Mark Rothko’s son. We then had to develop an image that, when projected onto the Rothko Murals’ exiting state, would make them look like [they originally] did — what we had to do was develop a map of the missing color, which essentially is the compensation image.
How did you become the director of the Strauss Center?
Henry Lie was the previous director of the Straus Center, and he decided to retire after 34 years. The Museum’s director tapped me on the shoulder and said: “I think this would be good for you to apply for.” So that’s how that happened. It’s a huge honor to step into Henry’s shoes.
What’s it like working with the Forbes Pigment Collection? There’s been a lot of interest in it lately!
The Forbes Pigment Collection is something that’s been on display for a long time, we have records of an exhibition from 1942 and probably earlier. I think that what happened is, when we renovated and reopened in 2014, the analytical lab’s main storage area — which is this glass fronted, long corridor along one side of the courtyard — allowed people [to see] all the pigments and became more interested [as a result]. Edward Forbes retired in 1944 and most of the [pigments] in the collection have been in the analytical lab since then. You would think that between WWII and now people would have shown more interest, but in the last 5 years, it’s certainly taken off.
It’s really compelling to see people care about color. I’ve had to work out some sort of system for displaying the pigments, and so I put them in a kind of opened-out color wheel that’s interesting to look at; it’s not a rainbow, but a 19th century version of color theory. The glass jars are really beautiful — from the 1920s/30s.
We may have 60 different versions of iron oxide (red) and we group them all together to show that it isn’t just one color — there are all these different shades of it. We do the same with cadmium yellows, the cobalts, and in fact all the colors. So, there are lots and lots of different examples of the same pigment. Underneath that, we have the raw material, which is used to make the pigments. We’ve got pigment on the left part of the display and we’ve got binding media on the right.
People can look at it in two ways: One is you can put the pigments and the binding media together to make paint [from the raw materials]. Or, you can look at it as if you are pulling a painting apart.
When you have a collection of pigments and their source material, what are some of the more surprising things that the public can learn about the importance of these pigments?
I guess, what people don’t necessarily think about is that everything around them in colored in some way; they don’t think about the sources — where these things come from and their influence.
Think about cosmetics: Cochineal is in lipstick and you don’t even think about where cochineal comes from. It comes from an insect that grows on a cactus in Mexico. There are people who grow it specifically. They’ll harvest it and then grind it up; they’ll extract the carminic acid, and then ship it off as a pigment to the makeup industry, where it will be incorporated into lipstick, after being mixed in with fatty acids and all sorts of other things, until it turns into a product that you buy.
[The value of pigments] is something that is sometimes underestimated, too. Cochineal, when it was found by the Spanish and imported to Europe, became a significant source of wealth. It rivaled gold and silver in the Spanish empire, so you think about that and [realize how] important [it was] for their economy.
There’s a Japanese pigment company that’s been around since 1751, Ueba Esou, and the CEO is a woman, Yumi Ishida; what she’s done is she’s taken these very traditional Japanese pigments and incorporated them into nail polish and revived the company.
Another good example is car tires, which contain, I would guess, around 6 pounds of carbon black. So, each tire weights about 20 pounds and has about 6 pounds of carbon in it. Probably more than 70% of produced carbon black pigment goes into the manufacture of car tires. And so you’ve got this enormous economy of pigment production going into something people [use all the time]; they breathe in ground up car tire all the time, and dust it off their shelves, but never really think about where it comes from.
What can people learn about our collective history by looking at things in that way?
That’s a good question. Pigments have been with people throughout our time. If you think about the oldest cave paintings or wall paintings, which are tens of thousands of years old, they incorporate color. The artists chose color — they didn’t just scratch the wall. They used reds and yellows and blacks. And these were people who were hunting and surviving in inhospitable environments, but they were still taking the time to look out for color, and to use it to tell the stories that they want to tell. So, I think to underestimate color is to underestimate who people are.
I believe that color is hardwired into how people think. People want color; they search out color. [In the Ancient world,] people made Tyrian purple in an extraordinary way. They would get spiny murex sea snails to squeeze a gland inside them and get this creamy liquid out, which they exposed to sunlight until it turned purple. It’s also called Imperial Purple, because you used it on the Emperor’s garments. That is an extraordinary amount of effort – you need hundreds of thousands of mollusks to get an ounce of pigment.
Is that how it became an international symbol of wealth?
Exactly. And it also explains why when William Henry Perkin (1838 — 1907) developed mauveine in 1856, he unleashed this sort of pent up desire for purple, which [was fashionable in] Victorian garments and house decorations. It’s a desire to connect yourself to something that has this perceived value.
There are other stories of pigments having a lot of wealth associated with them, like lapis lazuli; its only real source, until more recently, was Afghanistan. It had to be quarried and transported down to the coast, loaded onto a ship and then sent across to Europe, where it was ground up and turned into ultramarine blue — it means blue from beyond the sea. And it was as expensive as gold, so artists could not afford to supply it and would have to put in a separate budget line and get paid in advance for it, so they could go out and buy it to use for their commission. People who wanted to prove their high position would commission a piece and specify that they wanted it to include ultramarine.
So, pigments tell stories, and they explain the thinking of the people.
What are some of the rarest pigments in the collection?
I know people laugh at this when I say it, but we have a ball of Indian Yellow, and it’s a pigment that comes from India. It’s made from the urine of a cow [sustained only on] mango leaves; the urine is collected and dried, and it produces this really brilliant, yellow color. You could find it on Indian manuscripts. There aren’t many of these balls anymore, so it is rare, and the British government outlawed the production of Indian Yellow.
What is the oldest pigment in the collection?
We’ve got some pigment a Minoan potter’s studio dating back to around 1500 BCE that came from an archaeological site. But mostly, the pigment collection is really there because it’s a library of standards. When we do analysis, we want to be able to use these things as a reference — the age of it is not as important as its chemistry.
What do you like to read?
I like reading novels. I just finished Peter Carey’s novel A Long Way From Home (2017). I think he dealt with a really difficult issue really well, about how Aboriginal people were treated by white Australian culture. It’s something that’s known but not addressed in the way that it should be, and I think he’s gone a long way toward doing that. It’s a brave book, it’s a little bit like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), but in Australia. Anyway, it’s an extraordinary book. Carey also wrote another book that I love, it’s called Bliss (1981), which I read when I just started university, and again, it’s an amazing book and it’s about someone realizing what’s important in his life and living a life that brings him toward contentment.
What kinds of movies do you like to watch?
I like movies with a really strong point of view. I like Martin Scorsese’s movies, like Mean Streets (1973) — where it feels really personal, like he’s telling his own story. That, I find very exciting. I find Billy Wilder’s (1906 —2002) movies really amazing, I think he’s telling a story — not his story — but he’s telling a story in a way that is totally engaging could be really funny or, every one of his movies is kind of amazing and compelling to watch — the narrator of Sunset Boulevard (1950) is already dead when the film starts, it’s a great set-up which gets dusted off decades later for Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (1999). WIlder made one of the great films noir, Double Indemnity (1944) with Raymond Chandler (1888 —1959) as a script writer. And I love 1980s action movies, like Mad Max 2 (1982), Terminator (1984), Predator (1987), and Robo Cop (1987) and Aliens (1986). Bladerunner (1982) is another favorite.
What kind of music do you like?
I don’t choose to listen to music that much anymore. My wife and I just got a puppy and she loves music, she loves Opera especially. I put on the aria from Madame Butterfly (1904) for her and it made me tear up, and I’m like, I don’t need to do this to myself, I don’t need to feel this much, but I’ll put on opera for the dog. She really loves it, her eyes close and she relaxes. It’s amazing how music pulls emotion out of you.
Note* Images 1, 3, 9 credit Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer, © President and Fellows of Harvard College | Image 2 © President and Fellows of Harvard College | Image 7 credit Peter Vanderwarker, © President and Fellows of Harvard College| Image 8 credit Caitlin Cunningham Photography © President and Fellows of Harvard College. |Other images sourced from the public domain.