I was at the dentist recently: a wretched survey of the stress-eating, teeth-grinding anxiety of the last 12 months. The dentist left the room whilst the X-rays flashed against my jaw. The X-ray appeared on a screen to my left, above another with a digital photograph of my frail teeth. I searched the shadow forms of the X-ray and the gnarled topography of the photograph above, whilst awaiting my diagnosis. Forewarned is forearmed? Better not to look. I shifted my gaze to the bland afternoon television on the ceiling, a cooking show, ambient TV at its finest. Close-ups of piping bags slowly looping perfect emoji turds of sugary chocolate icing atop tiny cupcakes. I think of decay, shadow forms. I know the damage now as the dentist starts his intricate work. Lips stretched around plastic, I close my eyes and try to recall a relaxing hike I took between lockdowns, but all I can seem to conjure are stock images of forests.
Liv’s recollection of incidental photograms stuck with me: the thermal rendering of the image-objects owned by the elderly tenant to the wall. A haunting, and for me a sort of horror: the idea of the material world as just latent images, waiting for some sort of fixing.
Image: Dental X-ray of a child age 6. Permanent teeth wait beneath, ready to usurp the babies
In November 2020, amongst the gloom of the pandemic, there was a human interest story concerning the ‘discovery’ of a missing painting by Fred McCubbin. The unearthing was touted by strident morning TV hosts as a ‘lost masterpiece hiding in plain sight’. The story goes that a conservator was killing time in the abandoned National Gallery of Victoria, doing the rounds of the Australian Collection with a torch (Museums ‘went dark’ during lockdown). He noticed a lump in the famous McCubbbin work ‘The Pioneer’. Intuiting that the shape of the lumps in the paintwork indicated a revision of prior painting, he consulted an X-ray of the work. Upon doing so he discovered shape correlated to a photograph in the archives of a work by McCubbin long presumed lost, paradoxically, titled ‘Found’.
Image Left - archival photograph Right: X-ray of ‘The Pioneer’
The photograph of the painting shows a weathered bushman, cradling the limp, pale body of a young girl. Whether or not she is alive is unclear. What is clear is the narrative thread that binds white Australian identity and much of McCubbin’s work: the hard-won battles of ‘pioneer’ settlers against the harsh and realities of the bush. This hidden image represents a culmination of what Elspeth Tilley terms ‘white vanishing’ (Tilley): a persistent trope in Australian culture in which a white interloper is drawn into the mysterious wilderness and disappears. McCubbins work ‘Lost’, from 1886 (perhaps a companion piece to the newly discovered ‘Found’) is a touchstone for Tilley in connecting the trope of the lost child to the broader discourse of white vanishing and the persistent mythologising of Australia as a place that draws the coastal dwelling settler-colonial subject into its vast and threatening interior.
‘Found’ was buried under layers of pigment and dried oil, unearthed by the lone art conservator roaming the hallowed halls of the COVID-desolate museum. Its existence was verified by image technology that uses electromagnetic radiation capable of revealing forms obscured by matter. X-rays were discovered by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895, accidentally—whilst testing whether cathode rays could penetrate glass. An X-ray’s machinic vision reveals to us what our optical, biological vision cannot, bringing into focus the disconnect between our human perception and technical media. The penetrating vision of the X-ray can be placed within a lineage of imaging technologies arising from the Enlightenment project of domination, of attempting to chart both the see-able and the invisible.
An X-Ray in a medical context is at once impersonal and intimate: a rendering of interiority that turns the subject inside out yet revealing little of their inner life. As Akira Mizuta Lippit writes in his book Atomic Light (Shadow Optics) “The point of view established by the X-ray image is both inside and out. Everything flat, interiority and exteriority rendered equally superficial, the liminal force of the surface has collapsed.” Following Walter Benjamin’s conception of ‘the optical unconscious’ of photography, Lippit links the medical X-ray to psychoanalysis. The psychoanalytic border crossing from conscious to unconscious and the x-ray’s transversal through organs to the bone, both penetrate the subject in ways that rupture a limit to survey what lies beneath, to make ‘things and the mind transparent’.
The anatomical dissection of a painting through technology such as x-ray reveals more than a hidden image. It reveals the artist’s private intentions. In doing so it grants access not just to an artist’s process, but to their innermost thoughts: the private fumbling, the discarded ideas, hesitation, and revision, in short: the material thinking. As such, it extends the camera’s lineage as a surveillance technology that grants access to private human realms. The reasons McCubbin chose to paint over the work are most likely fairly banal and economic, it is not unusual to paint over old or unsuccessful work. But the implications of an X-ray in the context of art conservation are worth thinking through: the retrospective prying open of an artist’s material thinking might be contextualised in relation to broader biopolitical technologies that seek to regulate and predict human life.
The discovery of this McCubbin painting is a complex amalgam of social and technological factors and a literal, material concretion of mythologies that bolster white Australian identity. The rapturous coverage of the discovery of the lost work was steeped in spectatorship compelled by the gaze of science and propped up by narratives of discovery and scientific verification. To me, it reads like a palimpsest of fear: the threat of the pull inwards, from the coastal fringes to the red center, from the thin skin to the bloody guts, from the surface image to the hidden interiors of cultural life.
Lippit, A. M. (2005). Atomic Light (Shadow Optics). Minneapolis, UNITED STATES: University of Minnesota Press.
Tilley, E. (2012). White Vanishing: Rethinking Australia’s Lost-In-The-Bush Myth: Brill/Rodopi.