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The role of computer technology in analysing art

Whilst working at the Chester Beatty Library with the astonishing Ruzbihan Qur’an, I spent some time wondering whether there were ways in which computers could assist with our analysis of the manuscript. Some things I wanted to find out seemed almost within reach, and certainly could be done manually, such as checking to see whether the jadval (frame lines) were all exactly the same dimensions on each page. A minor thing, but it might help us to understand whether the same mistara (ruling device – see here for some very clear examples) was used throughout. Equally, I wanted to compare other divisions of the layout on each page – the size of the onvan heading panels, and the size and position of the decorative side panels. Any anomalies might help us to understand if different quires were worked on by different people, or using different tools, or maybe just at different times. However, I’m limited by my own knowledge and skills when it comes to this kind of analysis – I can manually take measurements of each page but the book is over 800 pages long, so it would certainly be laborious, and then I would have to pick out of the measurements those which matched and those which differed. I’m fairly competent in Excel so could find a way to do this, but I felt sure there must be easier ways…

…And of course there are, and already some exciting methods are being exploited to interesting ends in the fields of art history, bibliography, and codicology. Since I began thinking about this many examples have crossed my path, including a paper given at TIMA last year by PhD student Alex Brey, who used the statistical programming language R to look for variations within certain elements of a Seljuk Qur’an: for example, to find differences between the verse markers, which may help to identify the presence of different hands. His research aims to find out exactly the things which most intrigue me about Islamic manuscript workshops – how many people may have been involved with producing a manuscript; how tasks were divided up within the studio; and how (or, indeed whether) a consistent design aesthetic was achieved when undoubtedly more than one artist was involved. Alex’s blog also delves into other areas where technology interacts with art history. This post is a very interesting discussion on whether computer vision algorithms can effectively look for compositional similarities in paintings (and indeed, what benefits exist from training computers to do this).

Image matching software is another area of interest for art historians and scholars, and already has some very exciting applications.  This Ukiyo-e Search website looks for similar prints across multiple online collections, meaning that comparing impressions, colours (and fading) and so on of the same print is exceptionally fast and easy. You can also upload your own photo of a print, and search to find matches. The Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodleian Libraries has a similar function called ‘Image Search’- you can clip an area from one of the digitised ballads, and search to see where else it appears. As woodblocks for these ballads were used over and over again, by gathering together all the similar images we can also start to see how the woodblocks age as wormholes and cracks appear as white gaps in the printed image. There are a couple of very good images of this in this blog post: Of ballads and worms.  The degradation of woodblocks can be instrumental when it comes to dating and analysing print impressions: here is an excellent poster from the University of Oxford Department of Engineering Science’s Visual Geometry Group which demonstrates this, and the role computer aided image-match technology can play in understanding the order in which prints were made. In fact, if you don’t follow any of the other links in this post I would still recommend you look at this one!

Voyeuristic book-making

An author friend of mine Viccy Adams recently prevailed upon me to assist with a creative project at Hack the Barbican. The brief was to use (or ‘hack’) the Barbican’s spaces and facilities to create an installation, so our project book / jacket focused on ‘stealing’ overheard conversations and cctv-style snapshot images (both collected on site), which we then immediately printed out and sewed into little booklets. We hoped the books would be pocketed and slipped into coats and bags, and discovered again later, as a kind of voyeuristic record of a visit to the Barbican.

We wanted to make the booklets appealing and covetable, as well as maintaining an ad-hoc aesthetic in order to reflect their origins as collated material rather than created material. Using a Japanese-style stab sewn binding allowed us to produce these booklets quickly on-site with minimum equipment, whilst having creative input in choosing thread colours and different sewing patterns so each one could be unique. I think this made a really nice contrast between the impersonal ‘found’ images and text inside and the hand-sewn, crafted nature of the sewing. Viccy has written a post about the project too, which includes a very nice slideshow with all the images and text so I recommend having a look.  We were also interviewed by Laura Davidson, who has explained in more detail Viccy’s inspiration and aims for the project.

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Washi paper

On Tuesday I went to a talk by scholar and curator Nancy Broadbent Casserly, who has just published a book about Japanese washi paper. I thought I would give a brief summary here of all the wonderful information she shared during the talk. The talk focused on her research of washi papers in the Parkes Collection housed at Kew, part of their Economic Botany Collections. She began by describing the history of the collection, which was interesting in itself: Parkes was the British Minister in Tokyo in the 1860s and 70s and whilst living there was requested by Gladstone to gather information about Japanese paper manufacturing and report back to the Houses of Parliament. This request was probably partly due to the fact that the UK paper making industry was still struggling with a shortage of rag, and had not fully discovered the potential of using raw plant fibres, whilst Japan had long used gampi, kozo and mitsumata fibres to make their papers. Japan had also developed methods of using paper for a wide variety of applications, and the technologies through which they did this may also have seemed like appealing knowledge to gain (see my older post here about some of the things the 19th century British were trying to make from paper).

Parkes reported back to Parliament as requested, and also sent samples of papers and paper-making fibres. Sadly interest seemed to have waned by that point, and no-one quite knew what to do with these samples. They were passed on to the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A), who in turn passed half of them on to Kew. The Kew part of the collection numbers 111 sheets of washi and 17 3D objects made from washi. Nancy described two different kinds of washi which can be found in that collection: decorated washi (karikami) and imitation leather washi (gikakuji and kinkarakawakami). The first kind is often woodblock printed, but a wide variety of other techniques could also be used: sometimes paper was brushed with pigment prior to printing; or “background’ printed with one pattern before being over-printed with another; flakes of gold leaf mixed with seaweed and rice starch could be applied; or ground shell or mica mixed with seaweed and rice starch to give a pearlescent look; and finally powdered pigment could be blown or sprayed onto the finished print. This kind of decorated paper was often used on screens or walls in Japanese houses.

Imitation leather washi was made by laminating sheets together with glue, and then dampening and oiling the sheets before pressing them around a covered roller to create a relief pattern or texture. Sometimes this would be leather-grain, but it could also be a more elaborate pattern. Alternatively the paper could be burnished to give a glossy calf-skin appearance. After this process the paper could be gilded, lacquered, sprinkled with mica, or decorated in other ways. Sometimes it was gilded all over and then varnished in order to resemble the kind of Spanish leather wall coverings that were fashionable at the time. Imitation leather washi was used for a wide variety of applications, including making fire-screens and bookbinding.

Nancy finished by discussing 3D objects made from washi in the Parkes Collection. This was possibly the most interesting bit, as due to the special techniques of oiling and lacquering the Japanese were able to make a wide variety of robust, beautiful and surprising objects. Imitation leather washi was used in the same way as leather to make objects such as book coverings and wallets. Washi was also woven so it could be turned into objects such as hats. It could be shaped and lacquered to make it as strong as wood but much lighter. This is a helmet made from washi paper, lacquered to make it strong and waterproof:

copyright the trustees of Kew Gardens

copyright Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

There is also a telescope in the collection made in this way, and a raincoat made from lacquered paper. Another interesting and pretty way they had of using washi paper was to create a fine, wrinkled paper made to look like silk crepe. It could be twisted and pleated, and soaked in starch to help keep its shape. These techniques were used to create ribbons and cords, like these imitation crepe hair ornaments:

copyright The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

copyright Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Nancy concluded by describing a few contemporary techniques of making and decorating washi paper (now mainly used for art and craft projects). There is currently an exhibition of the Parkes collection papers and washi papers made by contemporary papermakers at Norwich Univeristy of the Arts gallery, on until 20 April 2013.

A little bit more about different kinds of washi here

Washi: The Art of Japanese Paper by Nancy Broadbent Casserly (2013)