In October, two anti-oil protesters at the National Gallery in London toss tomato soup of Vincent van Gogh Sunflowers painting. After the accident, you could almost hear a collective sigh of relief when news outlets reported that the masterpiece was unharmed.
In similar events, scores of other activists targeted beloved masterpieces earlier this year. It’s the kind of demonstration that’s been going on for more than a century, long before the seeds of social media and viral content. In 1914, also at the National Gallery in London, suffragette Mary Richardson cut Diego Velázquez Rokeby Venus with a meat knife. In 1974, a man spray painted the words “kill all lies.” of Picasso Guernica at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain. The Mona Lisa it is also not unknown to harm. People have thrown acid, hot coffee, a rock and even a cake in her direction.
Fortunately, many of today’s museums use protective glass to protect their most vulnerable masterpieces from such insults. However, when paintings are damaged, it is the job of conservators to restore them to their former glory.
Plastic surgeons for Art
Typically with a background in studio art, art history and science (such as chemistry and archaeology), the quaestors undergo several years of training. This can include academics, internships and scholarships as they hone their restoration skills.
To understand the art and science behind the craft, consider the painstaking restoration of By Willem de Kooning Woman-Ocher. This work was finally shown this summer after a theft, recovery and restoration project managed by the Museum’s Painting Conservation Department, J. Paul Getty in association with the Getty Conservation Institute.
The story of the dramatic before and after of this painting begins one fall morning in 1985. At the University of Arizona Museum of Art, two visitors entered early. One of them distracted a security guard. The other went to the room where Woman-Ocher suspended.
The thief probably used a box cutter to cut the perimeter of the canvas. With most artwork, this would allow him to easily remove the canvas. De Kooning, however, remained firmly attached to the wall.
What the thief didn’t know: In 1974, conservators had reinforced the painting with a second, thicker canvas. Since the box cutter only cut through the original top layer of canvas, the thicker second canvas continued to hold Woman-Ocher on the spot.
To get it out, the thief pulled and peeled it down, similar to how one might try to free the end of a roll of packing tape. As he did so, the paint cracked, flaked and disintegrated under the strain. The thief then likely rolled the painting face down, creating more tension as well as more damage, explains Ulrich Birkmeyer, senior conservator of paintings at the Getty.
Years and then decades passed without any public knowledge of what happened to the precious work. Then, a few years ago, the owners of an antique shop paid $2,000 for a collection of items at an estate sale. Woman-Ocher was among the contents. It eventually ended up in the hands of Birkmeier and his team of conservatives.
To repair the damage, Birkmaier’s team will have to reattach the canvas to its original border, remove its discolored varnish, press and glue the rolled paint back into the canvas, fill deep wounds, and touch up areas of missing paint.
The work begins with high-powered microscopes and specialized X-ray equipment, allowing conservators to study the chemistry of de Kooning’s original pigments. They discovered that one of the paints was made from a rare red dye. It was sensitive to the solvents normally used to remove varnish. That would complicate their efforts.
After studying and mapping the painting, they used silicone-tipped dental instruments to gently press each rolled-up flake of paint back into the wax canvas, sealing it in place with a tool that emits warm air.
With this slow, painstaking work complete, it was time to use a gentle solvent to remove the discolored varnish while preserving the red dye. Next came the Quaestors Woman-Ocher with the previous border of the canvas, placing padding on the back of the canvas to support the newly joined edges.
Finally, it’s time to retouch the picture. Inert material was used to fill lines and voids. Working one millimeter at a time, using a microscope, they applied paint to the canvas.
“It’s like solving a puzzle,” says Birkmeyer. “We let the picture dictate the colors we use. The more we fill in, the more unified an area becomes and the more clues we have. We also don’t want to go too far because that will draw attention to the conservation treatment. We don’t want the picture to look new. We want to make it look old as it originally looked.
In all, de Kooning took three years to clean, repair and restore. Although some of the marks on the painting can be seen if you look very closely, they are not noticeable when standing at a typical distance. The restored artwork was on display at the Getty for three months, after which it was returned to the University of Arizona Museum of Art, where it is now on display.
Create pictures last
As much as the protesters and thieves are in the press, the most constant threat to the paintings is not the people. It is time.
Light can fade paint. The varnish oxidizes and discolors. Fluctuations in heat and humidity will expand and then shrink the canvas, leaving behind cracks and flakes. For these reasons, museum rooms are usually maintained at a constant temperature (70 degrees) and humidity level (50 percent). The lighting is as low as possible while still allowing visitors to see the artwork.
On top of that, conservators sometimes add a very thin sheet of specialized museum glass just behind the picture frame. The spacers separate the glass from the artwork, creating a thin air pocket. In addition to protecting the paintings from coffee, soup, and other airborne substances, the glass seals in the humidity level, keeping it constant.
“We try to provide the perfect conditions,” says Birkmeyer. “Some of these paintings have already been around for hundreds of years. We are the guardians of our generation, trying to help the paintings survive for another 200, 300 years. It’s a great responsibility.”