By Phatarawadee Phataranawik
The Sunday Nation
Singer Haruthai “Au” Muangbunsri has stirred up a row between believers and doubters with her painting “Tree in Winter”, which she believes is an original and heretofore unknown work by Vincent Van Gogh.
Ever since Haruthai issued a progress report on research into her antique-shop purchase at the Science and Technology Ministry on Monday, folks have been arguing online about the providence of the artwork and the credibility of her investigation.
Haruthai asked the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam three years ago to authenticate her painting, which she brought for Bt2,000 at a Bangkok store selling antiques from Europe.
The museum’s favourable view could boost the value of the artwork into the millions of dollars.
The monochrome “Tree in Winter”, left, which owner Haruthai “Au” Muangbunsri is convinced is an original Van Gogh, stands beside a research-based reproduction of how it looked when freshly painted. Photo/Thanachai Pramarnpanich
But the museum pointed out that Van Gogh delighted in colour, whereas the painting that Haruthai dubbed “Tree in Winter” is monochrome.
Haruthai was unfazed. She believes her painting was once vibrant with colour but has merely faded with time to whites and greys. And she has other clues to bolster her optimism. She’s convinced the painting was made in 1888, when Van Gogh was at the peak of his creative powers.
The Van Gogh Museum, it should be noted, gets hundreds of requests every year to verify perceived originals by the master, usually in the form of photographs and purchase documents. Only rarely does it invite the owner to bring the painting to Amsterdam for further examination.
Now there are professional artists and art critics opining online. On hearing Haruthai’s progress report, which was prepared in consultation with Associate Professor Pitiwat Somthai of Burapha University, many were dubious.
Haruthai’s hypothesis was inadequately based on art history, some said. She was rationalising.
Her hypothesis is perhaps a bit narrow. She should be looking at other artists from the same period, when the post-impressionist experiment was at full gallop. Science appears to have confirmed this paintings origin in those times, but hasn’t come close to identifying the artist, and of course it can’t.
Nevertheless, Haruthai is ready to try again with the museum. She’s spent three years doing research in France and the Netherlands and scrutinising her painting with the help of the Synchrotron Light Research Institute (SLRI) and the Thailand Institute of Nuclear Technology (TINT). She even pored through the artist’s letters, archived at the museum in Amsterdam, for any mention of the work.
The Bangkok College of Fine Arts fine-arts graduate believes the brushstrokes match those found on late-period Van Gogh masterpieces, and the TINT – using carbon 14 dating – determined that the pigments were made between the 1700s and 1900s. Van Gogh lived from 1853-1890.
Dr Sasiphan Khaweerat of the Thailand Institute of Nuclear Technology has been probing the painting with the latest Carbon-14 dating techniques since 2015. Photo/Thanachai Pramarnpanich
Dr Sasiphan Khaweerat of the TINT, who worked in tandem with Dr Kilian Anheuser of Switzerland’s Fine Arts Expert Institute, spotted red paint in all that grey and white. “It was made with red earth and madder root [Rubia tinctorum], which is found only in Arles in France, where Van Gogh painted late in life,” Sasiphan said.
“That pigment was the same Van Gogh used, made with organic ingredients like red earth, madder root, grape wine and olive oil,” Haruthai added.
“Our lab in Nakhon Nayok has been using the latest carbon 14 and isotope hydrology techniques to study this painting since 2015,” Sasiphan explained.
The TINT has in the past helped the Culture Ministry’s Fine Arts Department date and classify long-buried anthropological artefacts like terracotta from Baan Chiang, beads and bronze statues. But this was first time it had studied a painting.
“We used X-ray fluorescence to analyse the pigments,” Sasiphan said. “We found the paint known as zinc white, which has been used in Europe since 1860, but there is no titanium, which has long been a component of zinc white in more recent times. So this proves that these colours were produced before 1900.”
Along with red paint, there was chrome yellow under the surface, which had oxydised and turned brown. “These results indicate the painting was originally brighter.”
At the Synchrotron lab in Nakhon Ratchasima, beamline scientist Dr Kanjana Thammanu recently found more significant indicators.
Nano-scale X-ray technology utilised by Dr Kanjana Thammanu of Synchrotron Light Research Institute uncovers the different pigments used in the paint. Photo/Thanachai Pramarnpanich
Like the TINT, Synchrotron was venturing into new territory in studying an artwork. Its electromagnetic “synchrotron light source” is used to analyse materials at the molecular, even atomic level, but it was never before aimed at a painting.
Kanjana studied the pigments using nano-scale Small Angle X-ray Scattering technology to uncover differences in the samples. He found more organic compounds, such as vinegar, olive oil and red soil.
But there the scientific community must turn the investigation over to the art specialists.
“As scientists and researchers, we only conduct the studies in our fields. We can’t identify the painter,” Sasiphan said. “In this case, only the Van Gogh Museum can make the final judgement.
“However, this research will be adapted for identifying colour pigments in our own heritage arts and crafts, which are national treasures. The TINT plans to further use the technology with the Fine Arts Department to study the pigments in Baan Chiang pottery, for example.”