A Pentimento for your thoughts?

Ever since I became aware of the practice, I have been fascinated with pentimenti. The idea of reusing a canvas is understandable when supplies are scant or expensive I suppose, but somehow, painting over a previous attempt smacks of desecration.

Of course, if the eventual product has worth, and demonstrates skill and imagination, perhaps interest in its progenitor might offer some clues about its evolution or its inspiration. But does insight really work like that: gradual modifications and eventual satisfaction, or is it more often a sudden flash of intuition, the clues to which are buried deep in the mind of the artist? I certainly don’t pretend to have the answers; we all function differently, and I suspect that for most of us, far more frequently our revisions only add bit by bit to what we were trying to convey.

Still, there is something mysterious about the hidden, isn’t there? Something suspicious, something clandestine; its very nebulosity begs, if not for a clarification, then at least an investigation.

I’m reminded of the subliminal advertising craze that seemed to surface like a seal in a calm and windless sea. I became aware of it some time in the 1970ies when I had finally finished university, and was still stoked with curiosity. Everybody was looking for covert clues buried cleverly in advertisements: ice cubes and their hidden depths were the example I remembered best. One of the famous ads was for Johnnie Walker scotch, I think. None of my friends were able to see what message was supposed to be hidden in it; none of us could spot the salacious material, and whether each ice cube contained contiguous clues was a matter for debate. Then, somewhere around the mid-seventies, Pet Rocks briefly occupied the hindbrains of the populace, and subliminal messages slipped silently again into the darkening water where they, perhaps, have always lived.

But the pentimento is different I think. It was not a malevolent attempt to hide anything important, or disguise the fact that the artist could not afford a new supplies. If anything it was merely a way of reusing already occupied canvas; whatever was underneath was unimportant… Well, unimportant to the artist maybe, but for some reason -perhaps related to the skill manifested in the visible painting- modern curiosity seems to hope for an equal masterpiece lying artificially hidden like buried pirate treasure underneath. Information otherwise unsuspected, or even liable to be destroyed if searched for with older techniques, is now possible with a new generation of solutions.

New methods to determine what was contained in ancient papyrus scrolls found at Herculaneum and carbonized by Vesuvius, were what originally sparked my interest I think. While interpreting hidden writing is not really the same as revealing the pentimenti on canvasses, its use of artificial intelligence (AI) to predict the underlying writing mirrors the work of George Cann and Anthony Bourached on the pentimenti underlying famous paintings; they published under the name Oxia Palus.[i]

But it’s not simply a matter of AI reconstructing a painting, as if it were reading a QR code or something. The human contribution includes gathering a dataset of works by the artist for the machine to learn their style and cleaning up the X-ray image to remove elements from the surface painting. The resulting X-ray images are “very much our interpretation of what’s underneath,” according to Cann. I find that exciting.

Let’s face it though, most of us have never heard of a pentimento; our curiosity about information hidden beneath a surface veneer is often limited to experience with those scratch cards you used to get with every purchase of gasoline for example: when you scraped its surface you found out whether you had won something. Unfortunately without the use of AI, none of us ever seemed to win more than the offer of another card. Still, hope was the element that drew us back time and time again.

I was trying to explain what I found exciting about the idea of paintings hidden under famous works of art to the Wednesday morning coffee guys at the Food Court. There were only three of them bantering away at our usual table in the corner when I arrived, but I still had a tough time introducing the topic to old men whose knowledge of Art was largely confined to the crayon drawings by their grandchildren they were obliged to Scotch tape to their refrigerator doors.

“So, what are you babbling about, G?” asked Roger, a former locomotive engineer with the railway who still felt the need to use his booming ‘engine voice’ as he called it, to slice through rival conversations.

“Pentimenti,” I answered, immediately sorry I had pluralized the word beyond any likelihood of recognition.

He stared at me for a moment. “That some kind of female underwear…?” he asked -train humour, no doubt.

“No,” I explained, frowning, “It’s the plural of the word ‘pentimento’ -a painting hiding underneath the painting you can see.”

He shook his head slowly. “I don’t know why somebody’d even think they’d have to make up a word for something weird like that.”

I sighed and launched into its etymology for some reason. “It’s Italian from the word penti(re) meaning to repent…” Then I thought I’d really impress the group. “And that, in turn, comes from the Latin paenitēre, meaning to regret.” But explanations are always tentative for our group.

Cecil, a retired plumber, blinked his eyes though. “I think I’ve seen one of those before, G,” he suddenly volunteered with a silly smile on his face.

Roger, obviously unimpressed with my etymological explanation, turned to Cecil for some clarity.

“Yah, I was working under a sink in an old home some people had just bought. The cleanout plug on the trap was leaking,” he explained in case we were wondering.

“The trap was rusted, so I had to remove the whole thing. It was really awkward under there and my pipe wrench was a bit big for the space, I guess. Somebody had put yellow wallpaper on the wall behind the sink, and it was all wrinkled and peeling. Anyway, the end of my wrench tore a strip off. I mean, everything else in the room was blue paint over drywall, I think, so I figured the wallpaper must have been over the original wall before a reno, eh?”

“This one of them shaggy-dog stories, Cece?” Roger asked, clearly impatient with his long-winded explanation.

Cecil shrugged, and continued. “I told the new owners about it, and when the husband bent down to look under the sink, he decided to tear off the rest of the yellow covering.”

I can’t say the others were actually hanging on his every word, but I at least, was curious. “So…?”

“So there was more wallpaper under that…”

“Cecile!” Roger seemed exasperated at not being able to monopolize the conversation as usual.

“And was there anything unusual about the underlying wallpaper?” I asked, to mollify Roger.

Cecile twinkled his eyes and smiled devilishly.  “Yah, some kid must have crawled under the sink years ago, and written a dirty word in crayon on the wall near the waste arm. It looked as if the previous owners had tried to wash it off, but since they couldn’t…”

There was silence for a moment or two, until George, the retired bank clerk, spoke up. “So, is that really a pentimento, G?”

I shrugged; it’s interesting how little any of us know about Art…

[i] https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20220628-the-lost-masterpieces-being-revealed

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