February 19th, 2015 Comments Off on Rust

A number of artists today use rust in their works. Tony Reason’s are the most beautiful I’ve come across. Just below is an installation photograph of a show he had at the Kunstpavillon, Munich in 2005, and below that a work on paper. Reason’s works on paper are particularly interesting because he uses only rust and a support. In an email I explained my idea of making chalk from rust and calcium carbonate, and asked if I could link to his work. His reply was, “Please feel free to link to one of my Artworks. But my work is produced by direct contact with rust and not mixed with another medium.” (Link to Tony Reason’s site.) The scientifically minded might say that the moisture in air is the medium in Reason’s work, and art historians might say that he’s making monotypes with rust. However it is, the artworks show that rust can be used to powerful effect. Reason also uses copper corrosion.

Tony Reason - Exhibition Photo

Tony Reason – 2005 Kunstpavillon, Munich – Exhibition Installation Photograph


Tony Reason - Copper Sky - 2006 - iron, copper on paper

Tony Reason – Copper Sky – 2006 – Iron, copper on paper – 60 x 90 cm


Copper corrosion was used in antiquity for pigments. Theophrastus (371-287 BCE), one of Plato’s students and a natural historian, wrote of wine lees applied to red copper to obtain verdigris in On Stones (Theophrastus/Calley & Richards 1956:57). Theophrastus, however, did not write of iron corrosion. Apart from texts relating to medicine, which show that iron rust, like hematite, was used as a drug, there’s hardly any evidence that rust was used in the ancient world, at least that I could find. But, there is some. Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), in his Natural History, wrote of the Hellenistic sculptor Aristonidas exploiting the redness of iron rust in his sculpture of the mythical Athamas, after having killed his son.

Still, however, human industry has not failed to employ iron for perpetuating the honours of more civilized life. The artist Aristonidas, wishing to express the fury of Athamas subsiding into repentance, after he had thrown his son Learchus from the rock, blended copper and iron, in order that the blush of shame might be more exactly expressed, by the rust of the iron making its appearance through the shining substance of the copper; a statue which still exists at Rhodes.

Pliny, Natural History, Book XXXIV, chap. 40, 

Bostock/Riley trans./Perseus

The rust that Aristonidas used, just as much as Reason’s rust, are synthetic materials because they come from iron, the metal, which is itself synthetic, manmade, anthropogenic, artificial, fabricated, whatever word you want to use.

Slightly later in chapter XL, Pliny wrote that nature checks belligerence by having weapons corrode.

Nature, in conformity with her usual benevolence, has limited the power of iron, by inflicting upon it the punishment of rust; and has thus displayed her usual foresight in rendering nothing in existence more perishable, than the substance which brings the greatest dangers upon perishable mortality.

Pliny, Natural History, Book XXXIV, chap. 40

Bostock/Riley trans./Perseus

If we take nature to mean air and water, what Pliny writes makes sense. These are the two things, that together, invariably cause iron and steel to corrode. Of course, it’s not just weapons that corrode—plowshares and paperclips also corrode. I asked Professor Marco Tizzoni, an archeologist specialized in mining and metallurgy through the ages, about the Romans and whether they had steel. He told me that the Romans did not have steel, but reheated their iron blades and their tools, whereby carbon monoxide would enter the iron surface and create a steel coating.

That Pliny should frame iron’s lifecycle in parallel terms to human mortality is what’s so interesting to me. Iron disintegrates. It can happen well within a person’s lifetime. It can also happen very quickly. Science teachers in today’s classrooms often use nails immersed in water, salty water, and vinegar to demonstrate chemical reactions. Iron’s corrosion is generally not a desired outcome, but once you get over the fact that it happens, rust makes itself available as a pigment.

Roman, c. 50 - 100 CE - Grave Stele Showing Blacksmiths at the Forge - Museo Archeologico Nazionale - Inv. 166 - Aquileia - w. 120 cm, h. 74 cm, d 24 cm

Roman, c. 50 – 100 CE – Grave Stele Showing Blacksmiths at the Forge – Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Inv. 166 – Aquileia – w. 120 cm, h. 74 cm, d 24 cm

The simplest rust pigments, those made from corrosion, and helped along with water or vinegar can be undertaken by any craftsman or anybody. The colorant should probably be thought of as a no-cost or low-cost urban solution. The earliest people working iron lived near the ore, the hematite, so they would not have been interested in rust as a colorant. Rust probably just perplexed and angered them. However later, when smithery became a trade in towns and cities, and when ingots of iron were sintered and smelted far away and brought to populated areas, rusted iron, even though just as maddening, could at least be recycled into a colorant. When iron axes, saws, chisels, trowels, hammers and nails became instrumental for work in the building trades, is when I believe rust was used as miltos tektonike, the red earth of builders. 

A few hundred years into the Iron Age, Hesiod wrote of the bleakness of his Age. In Works and Days, he wrote:

For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labor and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them.

Hesiod, Works and Days, Evelyn-White trans./Perseus

Iron’s nature—its inevitable dissolution to rust—insures that work never ends.

The goodish news is that rust is the antecedent to modern synthetic iron oxide colorants, and that at least by the 15th century, rust was given the more poetic name Croco di Marte/Crocus of Mars. The crocus part refers to the rust-red stigmas of the fall-flowering and pale purple flowered saffron crocus. Mars was both the god of war and iron and the significance clear. Next posts will be about rust, as well as by-products of iron smithing.

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