Scientific analysis of Oscar Kokoschka’s portrait of actor Ernst Reinhold reveal a mysterious under-painting


These days, the Royal Museums Of Fine Arts of Belgium have dedicated a small section of their galleries to recent scientific techniques for the analysis of paintings, taking Kokoschka’s Trance Player and Gauguin’s Portrait of Suzanne Bambridge out of the permanent collection to be displayed as case studies.


The latter, a portrait made by the French artist during one of his trips to Tahiti, is shown along with several reproductions coming from multi-spectral analysis in which a camera can capture the image at a higher spectral resolution. This technique, along with others, is currently used to discover the hidden layers of paint on the canvas and how these were originally laid out by the artist, allowing to see deep into the making of the artwork and help historians and restores in their research and practice.


In the case of Kokoschka’s Trance Player (also called the portrait of actor Ernst Reinhold), the exhibition focuses on how this plethora of scientific examinations – the mentioned multi-spectral analysis, radiography and infrared scan – has managed to unveil a hidden painting which existed on the canvas before Kokoschka’s intervention, a painting that also consists of a portrait (though the one of a woman) and differs from Kokoschka’s for its opposite vertical orientation.


As informed by the didactic panel in the show, the clear difference in both the style and the type of pigments has led to the conclusion that the older painting was not made by Kokoschka himself, who instead seems to have appropriated the pre-owned canvas, repaired a few holes in it and used it for his portrait the actor Ernst Reinhold. Other than what the museum reports, not much information can be found about the older painting as the artist doesn’t seem to have left any specific notes on the matter.


Possibly because of the decay of the most recent layers of paint, it is curious to see how the face of the anonymous lady still appears up side down in the area of the man’s arm, as if Kokoschka – consciously or unconsciously – wanted to leave a visible trace of what he later covered with his work.


Perhaps influenced by recent trends of collective authorship, we looked at the Trance Player as it consisted of a work made by two artists engaged in a collaborative dialogue, as the contribution of one was the continuation of the other, as the sound of this conversation had to wait until today to be heard – a moment when technological images of these parallel voices speaking to each other could be eventually seen.

November 25, 2020