Written by:

Anna Koopstra, Independent art historian and currently guest-curator of an exhibition on Lucas Gassel at Museum Helmond, The Netherlands.

In order to produce the very best paintings, painters’ materials of the highest quality (in all their forms), originating from all corners of the world, have long been transported over great distances, via networks of merchants. While the early modern trade brought with it its ugly dark sides, at the same time it enabled many beautiful works of art to be created, thanks to the hands and minds of the most ingenious artists.

That good things also happen when (technical) art historians, conservators and scientists come together to meet, was evidenced by the 4th international CATS (Centre for Art Technological Studies and Conservation) conference held on 21-22 June at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

It welcomed 105 speakers and delegates from 16 countries to discuss, share information and exchange ideas on this year’s theme, Trading Paintings and Painters’ Materials 1550-1800, delivered in 2 keynote addresses, 18 papers and 8 poster presentations. Each of the two days got off to a flying start with a rich keynote address, by Sandra van Ginhoven and Jo Kirby Atkinson respectively, both of which perfectly illustrated the theme and showed the breadth as well as depth of the material at the heart of it. Papers presented varied from discussing individual artists and their oeuvres in relation to the locations where they worked and the materials available to them, to different kinds of materials used by painters (colorants, pigments, supports, (coloured) grounds, (coloured) glass, sponges), of local vs. not-local origin, and their connections to painting techniques and trade routes; and employed a range of sources (archival, archeological, historical), methodological approaches and (technical, analytical-scientific) investigative methods. To-the-point-posters brought further topics, resources and research initiatives to the audience’s attention.

What the speakers had in common was that each made an effort to marry their subjects with the available material evidence, or vice-versa. Bringing together the fields of (technical) art history, conservation and (conservation) science, this is what makes the CATS conference of interest to many in the scholarly community, especially those who (like me) are convinced that insights are to be gained in the space ‘in between’, where the disciplines meet.

For composing an excellent, well-balanced program the organisers are to be much congratulated, and thanked; as well as for providing a collegial atmosphere for networking, with as its highlight a boat tour to experience Copenhagen and especially its harbor area from the water – appropriate to the conference’s theme, but most of all highly enjoyable – and reception at the Royal Cast Collection at the Westindian Warehouse (with an inspired introduction by curator Henrik Holm).

What remains after two days of inspiring talks, fresh insights and new contacts is to look forward to the forthcoming publication of the conference proceedings (to appear in collaboration with Archetype Publications; on-line as well as in print) which will materialize and disseminate what was presented in Copenhagen; and, secondly, to look forward to the next CATS conference, an important event for all those invested in interdisciplinary art-technological research.