Radiation and art history are typically not disciplines that feed off one another, but a new exhibit at the McMaster Museum of Art does just that.

The Unvarnished Truth, which opened on Sept. 5, seeks to find the hidden secrets of renaissance paintings. The exhibit uses modern screening and radiation technologies to examine painting technique, materials and even the hidden works of art under the famous paintings.

Nearly 30 researchers were involved with the project, from engineers to historians. Brandi Lee MacDonald is one of these researchers.

MacDonald conceived the idea for the exhibit in 2010. She studied anthropology throughout her undergraduate and graduate degrees at McMaster, eventually focusing on pigment and its use throughout human history.

Over the course of her work on the exhibit, she was also able to work with radiation. By combining radiation with anthropology and art history, she was able to discover the secrets of paintings within McMaster’s collection. MacDonald began working in the university’s nuclear reactor during her undergrad, and was excited to put that experience to use.

Through the exhibit, her painstaking research has finally come to life. The nine paintings in the exhibit all yield exciting new information about the work and the artist. MacDonald’s personal favourite is a Van Gogh painting which, when scrutinized using radiation, showed an earlier, incomplete portrait. “It was obvious he had scrapped [the portrait] and painted the landscape over top,” MacDonald said.

While the hidden treasures have been rewarding, MacDonald has also enjoyed seeing the real world applications of research techniques she was taught. She believes her research is important in the way it makes this newfound information accessible to the masses.

The Unvarnished Truth will remain in the McMaster Museum of Art until Dec. 19, after which it will tour other galleries across the country. While it remains in Hamilton, there will be numerous events focusing on the initiative, from tours to guest lectures to panel discussions, many of which will be lead by MacDonald.

Photo Credit: Jon White/Photo Editor

The Museum hours are as follows:

  • Sunday – Closed
  • Monday – Closed
  • Tuesday 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
  • Wednesday 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
  • Thursday 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
  • Friday 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
  • Saturday 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.


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