TIME Art

Van Gogh and the Algorithm: How Math Can Save Art

NETHERLANDS VAN GOGH
In this composite photograph, a hidden portrait under the Vincent van Gogh painting ''Patch of Grass'' from 1887, is seen. Delft University of Technology/AP

With math equations that analyze brush strokes, new discoveries about the world's greatest art are possible.

It took X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and a painting algorithm to reveal the hidden portrait of a peasant underneath the painting of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Patch of Grass.” And that feat, accomplished in 2008, was just the beginning.

Art history and mathematics may seem an unlikely combination, but math techniques in image analysis is transforming the way art historians and conservationists do their work. Algorithms can be used to distinguish copies from originals, characterize and quantify the style of one artist in comparison to another, and restore cracks and fading. “What’s really important to note is that these are all non-invasive techniques,” says William Brown, chief conservator of the North Carolina Museum of Art, who gathered last week in Washington to discuss his work at a panel discussion sponsored by Duke University.

While many restoration techniques interfere with art’s chemical composition, the image analysis technique leaves art untouched. Signal processing extracts X-ray images of the art, allowing it to be viewed in enhanced or altered forms while the original remains.

“Basically, there is a mixture of sources in the artwork and we want to make sense of the mix and which elements are more present than others,” says Robert Calderbank, director of the Information Initiative at Duke. Calderbank likened the technique to the study of skin cancer, in which scientists separate different types of melatonin from within the same skin lesion.

Brown and Ingrid Daubechies, professor of mathematics at Duke, having been experimenting with the technique since 2011. The two first collaborated to characterize the style of Giotto di Bondone’s Peruzzi Altarpiece. For generations, scholars had noted that some of the faces looked much more naturalistic than others, suggesting the possibility that different artists, perhaps di Bondone’s apprentices, had painted portions of the altarpiece. By characterizing combinations, such as detail elements of brushstrokes, and using charts to visualize information and patterns, Brown and Daubechies were able to determine which panels were the ones likely painted by di Bondone, and which by his apprentices.

A restoration of another altarpiece, the Ghent Altarpiece, made it possible to distinguish once illegibly cracked calligraphy as the text of Thomas Aquinas on the Annunciation. Using an image-processing algorithm, Brown virtually removed the distortion created by the painting’s cradle resulting in an X-ray image of the art, sans cradle modification.

Daubechies is confident that the interdisciplinary work, enabled by data, can produce what neither mathematics nor art could produce independently. “We want to give you a third eye,” Daubechies said of entry of mathematics into the art world. “It’s not competitive.”

 

TIME Fine Art

Google Project Aims to Make Street Art Immortal

Google Cultural Institute is taking street art off the walls and into your computer.

From murals in Atlanta to graffiti in Tunisia, Google’s Street Art Project, which launches Tuesday, preserves and gives Internet access to more than 5,000 photographic records of otherwise impermanent artwork.

Google Cultural Institute‘s director Amit Sood says the project’s mission is to turn the world into “one huge open-air gallery for everyone to enjoy.”

“These works of art that decorate our streets do not always hang about for long, which is why we’re delighted to work with partners around the globe to help them tell a story of street art around the globe,” Sood said, referring to environmental and societal elements that threaten to destroy works of art created in public space.

Street art is at once a celebrated and reviled pastime. From humble beginnings as a vandal’s crime in New York City, street art has evolved to become globally accepted. Artists like Shepard Fairey and JR have seen their work attract attention in political campaigns and high society. However, street art can still be considered vandalism in many cases in the U.S. and around the world. This was proven in last year’s destruction of the iconic 5 Pointz in Queens. The street art initiative by Google provides a safe haven for these masterfully creative works.

One of the most important features is that the images are shown in their natural habitat, so the viewer can truly understand the space the art creates (quite an improvement over putting a Banksy piece in an auction). Not only does Google’s street art project preserve street art for time immemorial, but it provides a window into another world of art spanning the entire globe.

TIME society

Here’s What Faces Would Look Like If They Were Perfectly Symmetrical

Are they more beautiful?

There’s a biological assumption that symmetrical faces are intrinsically more beautiful than ones with uneven features. Artist Alex John Beck decided to explore—and dispel—that myth.

Both Sides Of is a photography project that juxtaposes side-by-side portraits of models whose faces have been photoshopped to be mirror images of the left and right sides of their faces. The result was somewhat eerie.

“I think they lack character— beauty is more based on character than an arbitrary data point,” Beck says. “Humanity is messy and should remain as such. I, for one, am not a fan of center-parting, for example. And even the greatest tennis players favor one arm.”

Alex John Beck

While Beck illustrated the mirroring of the left side of the face in the photo on the left side, and the mirroring of the right side of the middle axis on the right, he wasn’t compelled to show the original photo. “I just didn’t want people referring back and forth from the original the whole time,” he says. “After all, the original is just a boring portrait.”

Alex John Beck

Although if desperate, there is a trick: “If you want to see the real face, you can just print it out and fold the paper.”

Alex John Beck

Since Beck works with models, some portraits showed very little change when it switched from left to right-sided symmetry.

Alex John Beck

But there were some distinct differences that surprised Beck.

Alex John Beck

The eyes.

“You can just see that the competent character that we made for the right side of the face is a little more present than the one on their left side,” Beck says. “You can see it in the intensity of their vision.”

Alex John Beck

Beck used the photo above as an example. “[He] looks completely identical, but the left eye confident is just a little more vacant, and there’s something very, very strange about that,” Beck says. “One side is completely present and alert and getting ready and interested, and the other side is half asleep.”

Alex John Beck

Some portraits turned out better than others.

“After a few rounds of portraits I was introduced to several people who had suffered slight or severe disfigurements resulting in facial asymmetry,” Beck says.

Alex John Beck

“In the specific case of the cross-eyed man, he is a dear friend and has generously been the subject of several experiments over the years,” Beck says. “I’ve sworn to him that the next one will be more flattering. It won’t.”

Alex John Beck

Beck’s models had a wide range of reaction to the portraits, from fascination to horror. “One person I had to take down,” he says.

But Beck understands the trepidation to accept the unexplored characteristics of your face.

“Someone asked if I ever did one of myself, and I answered ‘Yes,'” he says. “Is it out there? No. I’m not going to show it, and I don’t want to think about it. It’s depressing to even remember it.”

TIME technology

This Interactive App Lets You Play With the Words of Classic Books 

It brings word games to a whole new level

+ READ ARTICLE

Israeli designer Ariel Malka has created an entirely new way to read books: by untangling them. Malka’s app, He Liked Thick Word Soup, turns the text of classic books like Ulysses into strands of sentences that have to be reassembled as the reader makes their way through the novel.

The game “forces you to read with your fingers,” as the new media blog Creative Applications notes. To play, straighten out each sentence and match sections of it to the words that appear at the top of the screen. It necessitates a different kind of attention than just scrolling through an article or flipping a page—a kind of attentiveness that’s very useful when reading something like Ulysses, James Joyce’s intricate, dense book that appears in the app’s video.

TIME Art

Bunny and Bettie: The Photographer Who Immortalized a ’50s Sex Goddess

photographer Bunny Yeager
Pinup photographer and model Bunny Yeager Miami Herald—MCT/Getty Images

Bunny Yeager, who died this week, turned from cheesecake modeling to Playboy photographer — and captured Bettie Page in her most incandescent moments

She was your basic gorgeous postwar blond: long-limbed and bosomy, with an inviting smile framed by cascading hair. Getting plenty of work as a cheesecake model (no nudity, please) in Miami in the late ’40s, she was almost Marilyn before Marilyn.

But what Bunny Yeager really wanted to do was direct — go behind the camera to take alluring pictures of other women, usually undressed. So in 1953 she took a night class in photography. Yeager’s timing was exquisite: this was just when a young Chicagoan named Hugh Hefner was making female nudity acceptable to the mainstream with a Monroe centerfold in the first issue of his Playboy magazine. And just when an out-of-work actress named Bettie Page was ready for her glamour closeup.

Jungle Bettie
American pin-up model Bettie Page feeds a young Eland calf while on a modeling assignment at Africa USA, a wildlife park in Boca Raton, Fl. Bunny Yeager—Popperfoto/Getty Images

(READ: Corliss on Bettie Page, the Garbo of Bondage)

Yeager, who died Sunday at 85 in North Miami of congestive heart failure, photographed hundreds of attractive women, herself included. Of these, the most memorable — we have to say iconic — was Page. In New York City, Page “starred” in tatty, furtive 8mm bondage loops (Dominant Betty Dances With Whip, Hobbled in Kid Leather Harness) that her Svengali, Irving Klaw, sold in plain brown wrappers at his Movie Star News shop. But in Miami, under Yeager’s congenial tutelage, Page bloomed as the girl next door with the bedroom shades up, or the beach bombshell with the seraphic grin. Between them, the Blond Bunny and brunette Bettie made nudity look both sexy and healthy.

Born Mar. 13, 1929 (her website says 1930) in Wilkinsburg, Pa., Linnea Eleanor Yeager moved to Miami with her folks when he was 17 and quickly became a favorite of the local photographers. For that night class she took some of her model friends to a Boca Raton zoo and photographed them with the cheetahs — the same milieu that Page would famously pose in, wearing (sometimes) a leopard-print bathing suit.

Bunny and Bettie worked together in 1954 and instantly struck gold: the Jan. 1955 Playboy featured a Page centerfold shot by Yeager. It was one of the first centerfold photos submitted directly to the magazine; Hefner had bought the Monroe nude and most of the following year’s foldouts in a batch for $5,000. He paid Yeager $100 for the Bettie pic.

(READ: How Playboy changed America)

Yeager used Miami sunlight as the accoutrement of radiance for her subjects; they seemed utterly at ease posing a woman every bit as beautiful as they. In retrospect, her work seems a picture of innocence. That’s why it fell out of fashion as Playboy and its rivals went more explicit in the ’70s and beyond. It’s also why Yeager’s reputation recently bloomed, with gallery showings and coffee-table retrospectives. For some admirers, her photos are a flashback to first loves, and first lusts — nudity as the purest form of nostalgia.

TIME Design

Interactive Map: Explore America’s Most Innovative Spaces

From Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater to Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, get off the beaten path to visit these 24 works of inspired design this summer. See an interactive map of these incredible locations here.

 

 

TIME Starbucks

These Are the Most Beautiful, Hand-Drawn Starbucks Cups You’ll Ever See

Gabriel Nkweti Lafitte

Artist and barista Gabriel Nkweti Lafitte spends some 40 hours creating each one

Gabriel Nkweti Lafitte is an artist and barista who works at the Starbucks across from the British Museum in London. He takes the chain’s “name on a cup” policy to the extreme with custom, hand-drawn line art. Some are so intricate they take as long at 40 hours to complete. Starbucks tells Metro U.K. “it’s fantastic how he takes our iconic cup design and makes it his own.” Here are some favorites; there’s full gallery on his Facebook page.

Gabriel Nkweti Lafitte
Gabriel Nkweti Lafitte
Gabriel Nkweti Lafitte
Gabriel Nkweti Lafitte

[Metro U.K.]

TIME museums

The 5 Best Museum Heists in History

Travel Destination: Paris
Visitors take pictures of Leonardo da Vinci 'Mona Lisa' inside the Louvre museum on Feb. 28, 2014 in Paris. Christian Marquardt—Getty Images

Talk about a sinking feeling in your stomach

In honor of International Museum Day, we collected the five best museum heists in history. Just thank your lucky stars you weren’t a museum director during any of these thefts.

1) The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, The United States: On March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as Boston Police officers demanded entrance to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. They told the guard on patrol that they were responding to a disturbance, then drew him away from the alarm button and asked him to call his partner. The thieves then handcuffed both of them and threw them in the basement, where they duct-taped their hands and feet to pipes.

The bandits then stole around $500 million worth of priceless art, the largest art heist in history. Priceless works like Vermeer’s The Concert, Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, and Manet’s Chez Tortoni were taken, never to be found again. Empty frames currently hang in some rooms of the Gardner museum where the paintings originally hung, and tourists visit to see the scene of the crime.

2) The Stockholm Museum, Sweden: Armed burglars stole $30 million worth of art by Renoir and Rembrandt from the Stockholm Museum on December 22, 2000. They staged two car explosions nearby to distract police, then a gunman with a semiautomatic terrorized the museum while his accomplishes grabbed a Rembrandt self-portrait and two Renoirs. Then the thieves escaped in a small boat.

3) The Kunstahl Museum, The Netherlands: Romanian gang members stole seven paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Gaugin and Monet in under three minutes from the Kunhstahl Museum in Rotterdam on October 16, 2012. The thieves got away with the artworks, worth more than $24 million, even though they tripped the small museum’s alarm system — probably because the small museum had no guards.

Last year, the mother of one of the alleged thieves claimed to have burned the paintings, perhaps to protect her son from prosecution. Olga Dogaru’s son was the alleged ringleader of the heist, and his and his accomplices had already been arrested. Dogaru first buried the paintings in different locations, then burned them so the police could never find them. The two thieves have been sentenced to 6-8 years in prison.

4) National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico: Robbers stole 140 precious objects from Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology on Christmas Eve, 1985, in the largest heist of pre-Colombian objects in history. The bandits picked a sleepy time when they knew the guards would be distracted by holiday cheer, and grabbed several gold, turquoise, and jade objects, as well as an obsidian monkey-shaped-vase worth over $20 million. Most of the stolen objects were very small and easy to transport, making them especially difficult to track down.

5) The Louvre, France: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is now the most famous painting in the Louvre, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, getting stolen might have been the best thing that ever happened to this tiny Renaissance portrait. On August 21, 1911, three Italian handymen hid in a supply closet overnight in order to sneak into the museum and steal the Mona Lisa. One of them, Vincenzo Perugia, was the man who had installed the protective glass over the Mona Lisa in the first place. The theft was all over the French newspapers, since many people feared that German or American businessmen were buying up all the good art from their museums. The painting became so famous that he couldn’t sell it without getting caught. So he hid it in the false bottom of his trunk until over two years later, when he finally tried to sell the painting. Of course, the police showed up, Perugia was arrested, and the painting was returned, more famous than ever.

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