Optics and art

Share this on social media:


Paul Urbach, Professor at Delft University of Technology and past-president of the EOS, details the role light plays in the preserving, and raising the profile of, European heritage





During the EOSAM2020, from 7 to 11 September next year in Porto, Portugal, a topical meeting is planned on optics and art. Because of the prominent role that Europe in general – and Portugal in particular – have played in the history of art and architecture, this initiative is surely appropriate.

Because optics is omnipresent and applied everywhere and because light is, generally speaking, nondestructive, it is not surprising that optical techniques are often used to determine the age, internal structure and condition of works of art. Infrared spectral imaging is used, for example, to study the diffusion of varnish into paint layers. 

Famous painters of the 16th and 17th century would often create a new painting over an old one that was not to their taste. To analyse different layers of paint, scanning x-ray diffraction and optical coherence tomography (OCT) are applied. OCT is traditionally used in medical imaging to image the retina and the skin, where typically only small areas of the order of 1cm2 are considered. To image an entire painting requires stitching together many different scans.

St Petersburg is one of Europe’s cities famous for architecture and art. It is also a centre of science and education, including in optics. Some years ago Professor Sergei Stafeev – dean of ITMO University of St Petersburg, head of the Optical Museum of this university and author of three books on the history of optics – told me about his plans and ideas for research on optics and art. He had the vision to make colour holograms of famous works of art, so that people all over the world could enjoy them. 

Since then, holograms have been made of several of the famous jewellery eggs made by Carl Faberge for the last two Russian tsars, and which are part of the collection of the Faberge Museum in St Petersburg. Although these holograms do not show at full strength the extraordinary strong light scattering for which the eggs are so famous, their quality is nevertheless very impressive. 

While attending a conference in St Petersburg, I visited an exhibition on artificial intelligence in art in The Hermitage Museum. One of the works shown was ‘Recollections of Hidden Spaces II’ by the Turkish artist Reifik Anadol. It shows a gradual transition of a realistic natural scene into an increasingly abstract scene, similar to what Claude Monet did with his series of paintings of Rouen Cathedral. The transition has some randomness about it, so that it never repeats itself in precisely the same way. This exhibition illustrates the increasing interaction between art and modern technology. 

Increasingly often, artists and students of art and industrial design ask for help to realise a creative idea with optical techniques. Although in our ever more competitive academic environment scientists are stimulated to specialise in a small field, (fortunately) many of us still have broader interests which extend beyond physics. The EOS is therefore very grateful to its board member Michael Pfeffer, of the University of Applied Sciences in Weingarten, Germany, for taking the initiative to organise the topical meeting on optics and art during EOSAM2020. 

I hope that this meeting will not only address optical techniques for the study and inspection of works of art, but that it will also be used as an opportunity to bring scientists and artists into contact – by offering artists the possibility of showing and discussing their work and ideas in which optics plays an essential role. I am sure that the topical meeting will help to raise interest around EOSAM2020 in beautiful Porto.