n Image & Text : a Journal for Design - Sublimation and reversibility : technologies of vision, the X-ray, and looking at paintings

Volume 22, Issue 1
  • ISSN : 1020-1491



The first medical X-ray photograph was taken in 1895 by Wilhelm Röntgen. This was a time when such technological devices to measure and record previously unrecordable and little understood physical processes were proliferating. These technologies focused, with the notable exception of the work of EJ Marey, on visualisation, culminating in the dominance of cinema technologies in twentieth century culture. The use of X-rays in art has been largely limited to revealing layers of paint and other materials underneath the ostensible work, in order to aid the process of the restoration of paintings in gallery collections. In some cases the X-ray process reveals a different image to the one apparent in an exhibited work, for example the painting (1921) by Maggie Laubser, obscures a self-portrait by the artist. The ability of the technology to reveal thus also raises the spectre of obfuscation - that is, of the aesthetic meaning of the work. The X-ray also thus reveals a temporal dimension to the works which perforce becomes part of their meaning. However, this temporality is not sequential and does not move inevitably forward. Is what we see when we look at the works the primary image, or can the obscured image recaptured by the machine come to replace the 'finished' work in terms of time, space and meaning? This technology of vision, in its palimpsestuous character and propensity to manipulate the sequential nature of time, problematises the link between vision and aesthetic meaning itself.

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