The Art of Licking Paintings and Other Surprises

(So technically the last day of our internship was yesterday but I forgot to post this, so I’m doing it now). Before I explain my title, I’d like to recap the last couple of weeks of surprising artworks.

The 8-Second Rule: As Hannah mentioned in an earlier post, on average- people spend only 8 seconds looking at a work of art. With our recent museum practices seminars and adult tours- I’ve realized that if you aren’t looking closely you really miss out.

Go Figure: I worked with the lovely lecturer Margaret Farr on representations of figures in modern and contemporary art. I presented 3 of my new-favorite AIC works (each of which requires closer looking):

1. Feeling Blue: Picasso’s Old Guitarist shows a faint outline of the hidden figure of a woman underneath. Audience members noticed the subject’s form was elongated, appeared broken, and was not even fully contained by the panels. As I mentioned in a previous post, the conservation findings of this work are particularly interesting.

2. Celebrity Encounter: Richter’s Woman Descending the Staircase looks like a photo from a distance but you can see the brushstrokes if you come up close. The adult audience noticed the blurring of her form made her appear confident and ethereal. Many believed this was a depiction of Sophia Loren, but the subject’s identity remains unknown.

3. The Dark Side: Fritsch’s Monk – well, Monk is the opposite. The work’s matte finish, backlight, and barrier prevents viewers from getting much more visual information close-up than they did 10 yards away. People often don’t see the wire barrier, and in an attempt to get closer – they trip! Adults said that although he was a monk who appears to be meditating, he gave them an eerie feeling as they approached.

Artful Relationships: Kat and I gave a tour of the historic building and looked at relationships in art (of depicted figures, of the space, of the artist). Kat presented on the iconic American Gothic and the fascinating and frequently overlooked Boxer. Again, there’s more than meets the eye at first glance.

1. Spectacular, Spectacular: Our first stop was Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge where the unsettling depiction of May Milton on the right-hand side was previously cropped out and later reattached. If you look closely you can see where conservation treatment took place.

2. City Slickers: Caillebotte’s Paris Street includes minute scaffolding in the distance to represent the long process of Haussmannization. (Look to the left of the lamppost.) In addition, one of the only non-flaneurs is located to the right of the woman’s hat. (She’s shown wearing an apron.)

3. Better Half: We stopped through the Alsdorf Galleries at Shiva as Half-Male and Half-Female where details in body parts, dress, jewelry, and stance indicate the right side represents the Hindu God Shiva’s consort, Parvati.

The “isms” tour: Tiffany and I led an “isms” tour through the Modern Wing. Tiffany presented Kandinsky’s Painting with Troika, Dali’s Invention of Monsters, and Wanders’s Snotty Vase.

1. Feeling France-y: I led the group to Matisse’s Interior at Nice where the composition is repeated in a smaller painting on the wall in the hotel room. His use of light and of repetition was a focus for the group. Known for his works in Fauvism, this work showed Matisse’s progression towards Impressionism and Naturalism.

2. Big & Beautiful: Next I took the group to De Chirico’s monumental Eventuality of Destiny. The work’s classical elements, together with the subject matter, led researchers to believe de Chirico painted the three Fates. My last stop was to Fritsch’s Monk- again. (I really do think it’s a great work for getting audience’s reactions).

To Conserve and Protect: We finally got to tour the AIC’s Conservation Department with Francesca Casadio and Frank Zuccari. We prepped by reading the special Museum Studies issue of AIC Conservation. My only previous exposure to conservation was at Emory University’s Carlos Museum. I was really curious to see how the AIC’s department compared.

First Responders: The main goal of conservation is to preserve works of art by extending their life expectancy. Much of their work is preventive conservation. Most works have inherent vice where separate components react differently to environmental conditions that can undermine structural stability. Another important aspect is irreversibly. Conservators always want their work to be undone if better methods are found in the future.

Down the Rabbit Hole: The conservation department was too cool for words. There was one room containing art that was in the process of getting treated. Propped against the wall when we entered was a monumental Picasso painting (pictured below) that I had noticed had been missing from the galleries. In addition, Francesca showed us cross-section samples of Impressionist paintings for a new study on the grounds used by prominent Impressionist painters like Monet and Renoir. The department is also currently doing studies on Ripolin, an industrial paint used by artists like Picasso.

Licking Paintings: One of the conservators showed us an egg-tempera Renaissance birth painting showing a chubby cherub figure. It will be on display for a show in a few years. Initially it had been an octagonal composition, but at some point it was cut in half and turned into a rectangular easel painting. Because the painting was roughly 500 years old, the old and yellowed varnish had to be removed. We saw it at this stage, before the new varnish had been applied. The background was difficult to make out without the varnish. It looked dusty and blurry. To show us what it will look like the conservator licked her finger and then rubbed it over the painting’s surface. (Of course, all the interns were shocked. But then I recalled how at the Carlos Museum conservators use spit to clean Greek statues, and then it didn’t seem so crazy to me.)

Loss Compensation: Conservators also  take into consideration what is necessary to fill and restore with works of art. Are the losses so glaring that they would distract viewers? Does it impede reading the work as an aesthetic object? My understanding is that first you do whatever is structurally necessary to preserve and protect the work. Aesthetic motivations come second. I was surprised, for example, that the conservator working on the Renaissance birth painting was doing a significant amount of in-painting. A red shield on the left side of the composition was barely recognizable. When I asked the conservator what she intended to do with that portion, it seemed that she would try to restore it to it’s former glory. It made me wonder- if viewers knew that practically none of that portion of the work was original, would they feel cheated? I was never really exposed to the conservation of paintings at the Carlos Museum because most of the collection is comprised of archaeological finds (statues, sarcophagi, ceramics). I wonder if extensive loss compensation is more acceptable/necessary with paintings than it is with objects from antiquity. Overall, the exposure to different approaches and methods of conservation has been an enlightening experience.

To sum it up: Don’t just breeze by a work of art. You are missing out on more than you know!

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