Seated Bodhisattva in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

First it was drawings, then came photographs and plaster casts, X-rays and even the occasional CT-scan.  Now art historians can sit at their computers and examine the three-dimensional image of a sculpture, swivel it, upend it, turn it round and round if they like.  And remember the old plaster casts?  Well now there is Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), a technology that takes a 3-D computer image and extrudes its exact clone in some kind of plastic.  There is a beautiful show on at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art in DC where you can see examples of this technology at work — it helps that the art being studied is absolutely gorgeous:  6th Century Chinese sculptures from the Northern Qi dynasty.

In my review I talk about the way scholars at the University of Chicago used this technology to study a set of temple caves scarred by the passage of looters.  But space constraints did not allow me to include a telling anecdote: the head of the team, Katherine Tsiang, was examining the SLS  clone of a 6th century head, she noticed little dimples in the cheeks.  Strange, she thought, wonder how I missed those when I was looking at the real thing?  When she looked at photographs she realized it was the mottling in the stone that had disguised the dimples.  The replica being one solid color — a bright yellow — there was nothing to confuse the eye.    Now dimples may not seem like a big deal,  but in the jigsaw puzzle work of figuring out what fragment once belonged where, details like dimples can make all the difference.  You can get a first-hand feel for how art historians are using some of these imaging technologies right from your very own monitor: click  here.

Northern Qi Buddha Head in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The show is at the Sackler in Washington, DC, through July 13th then travels to

Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas
September 11, 2011 – January 8, 2012


San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, California
February 18 – May 27, 2012

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