Conservation “Discoveries” & the Art Above Them: Picasso at the Philips Collection

Picasso's "The Blue Room" under microscope in the conservation studio at the Philips Collection. Courtesy: AP Photo/Evan Vucci.

Picasso’s “The Blue Room” under microscope in the conservation studio at the Philips Collection. Courtesy: AP Photo/Evan Vucci.

Traditionally, conservation and treatment analysis has been carried out on a work that requires such attention to ensure its physical stability. Removing layers of grime and dirt or a yellowing varnish is the standard conservator’s diagnosis. With the invention of the blockbuster exhibition in the 1970s, more and more paintings were sent to the conservator’s studio in preparation for international travel to ensure works looked bright enough to appear before an audience of millions. Recently, more paintings have been placed under the microscope simply for the thrill of a hoped-for discovery.

This week’s case in point: Picasso’s The Blue Room at the Philips. Reports were made of a “hidden man” revealed beneath the top layer, shown to the conservator’s eye by the light of thermal imaging. It had reportedly been “long suspected” that there was something hidden beneath its surface, as connoisseurs’ eyes noticed an inconsistency between the brushstrokes in this area with the rest of the composition. Suspicion noted in a conservator’s letter from 1954 finally found justification with X-ray technology in the 1990s that was confirmed in 2008 by infrared imagery that allowed conservators to view the bearded man’s face.

For the past five years, scientists from major conservation departments in the Northeast have been working on getting a clearer vision of the figure in the painting. These include important players like Delaware’s Winterthur Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and Cornell University. Researchers are now on their own path attempting to pin down just whom the portrait depicts. [1]

News reports proudly announce the new advantages brought to studying art thanks to new scientific methods. As an article in Popular Mechanics relates revealingly:

“These days infrared technology is revealing all kinds of secrets about decades- or even centuries-old works of art. Phillips Collection associate conservator Patricia Favero, who works on this project, talks with us about art sleuthing with science…”[2] 

The mustached man beneath "The Blue Room." Courtesy: AP Photo/The Philips Collection.

The mustached man beneath “The Blue Room.” Courtesy: AP Photo/The Philips Collection.

So far, the Picasso has undergone technical analysis by means of multi-spectral imaging technology and X-ray fluorescence intensity mapping. But this treats artistic heritage as objects to be poked and prodded at for the sake of discovery. According to the press office at the Philips Collection, their Picasso was under the microscope for reasons unrelated to its upcoming travel for exhibition in South Korea in 2015. We suspect it was being studied not in the interest of maintaining its physical integrity, but instead for the sake of uncovering the hidden figure beneath the surface. But at what risk to the finished image by the artist?

Recent “discoveries” like this one at the Philips have been highlighted in the media that praise the new advances in imaging technologies allowing modern conservators and scientists to hover closer over important artworks.  These include a whale found beneath overpainting in a seventeenth-century Dutch seascape, a women painted over by Van Gogh, a Leonardo mural hidden beneath layers of old whitewash, and an ancient Roman fresco hidden under the work of nineteenth-century artist Giampetro Campana.[3] But one important thing news articles have failed to address is the impact of such thermal imaging on the paintings that allows them to make these discoveries.

For instance, the same high-intensity X-rays that exist in a particle accelerator were those used by a materials scientist and chemist in Belgium to scan the Van Gogh. Words used to describe the process are troublesome: “powerful X-ray bombardment caused atoms in the picture’s layers of paint to emit ‘fluorescent’ X-rays of their own.”[4] How does a treatment so forceful as to cause activity in the chemical structure of the painting not pose a threat to its overall stability?

As to the Picasso at the Philips, Director Dorothy Kosinski’s statement is emblematic of the rather voracious appetite with which collections are tossing works into the conservation studio:

“Our audiences are hungry for this. It’s kind of detective work. It’s giving them a doorway of access that I think enriches, maybe adds mystery, while allowing them to be part of a piecing together of a puzzle…The more we can understand, the greater our appreciation is of its significance in Picasso’s life.”

No doubt this five year-long examination is sure to go on until those involved find the gem they’re looking for. This discovery holds the possibility of making their Picasso world-famous for its hidden secrets about this household-name artist.  Major exhibitions and travel are upcoming for The Blue Room; after it tours to South Korea next year, it will be the center of a major Picasso exhibit for 2017.

 

By Ruth Osborne

 

[1]Brett Zonigker, “AP Exclusive: Picasso painting reveals hidden man,” Yahoo News. 17 June 2014. http://news.yahoo.com/ap-exclusive-picasso-painting-reveals-hidden-man-065651732.html (last accessed 19 June 2014).

[2]Darren Orr, “Discovering a Hidden Picasso,” Popular Mechanics. 18 June 2014. http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/engineering/extreme-machines/discovering-a-hidden-picasso-16904979 (last accessed 19 June 2014).

[3] “5 Lost Images Found Hidden Beneath Famous Paintings,” Gizmodo. 19 June 2014. http://gizmodo.com/5-lost-images-found-hidden-beneath-famous-paintings-1592796080 (last accessed 19 June 2014); “Whale tale: a Dutch seascape and its lost Leviathan,” University of Cambridge. Research News. 4 June 2014. http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/whale-tale-a-dutch-seascape-and-its-lost-leviathan (last accessed 20 June 2014).

[4] “X-rays reveal Van Gogh portrait,” BBC News: Europe. 31 July 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7535574.stm (last accessed 20 June 2014).

 

Two Major Blows to the Delaware Art Museum: Loss at Auction & Official Sanction from AAMD

It turns out the Delaware Art Museum’s Board of Trustees may have to dig even deeper into their collections to make up for their $30 million budget deficit. Yesterday at Christie’s in London, the first work of art given up in exchange for cold hard cash went for half the lower estimated sale price: $4.8 mil instead of $8.5-$13.6 mil. Other items thought to be in line for the chopping block include an Alexander Calder mobile and a painting by Winslow Homer. To add to this financial catastrophe was today’s sanction of the Delaware Art Museum by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). President Timothy Rubb has not failed to make his disapproval extremely clear in various press statements over the past few months. The sanction from AAMD, posted earlier today, states:

“With this sale, the museum is treating works from its collection as disposable assets, rather than irreplaceable cultural heritage that it holds in trust for people now and in the future…we ask our members to suspend any loans of works of art to, and any collaborations on exhibitions with, the Delaware Art Museum, until notified by us that the sanctions have been suspended or removed.  While each of our members needs to consider this request individually and make its own decision, it is AAMD’s strong belief that the actions of the Delaware Art Museum are contrary to the long term interest of each and every art museum.”

Calder Mobile Disappears: Will this be the next item sold by the Delaware Art Museum?

Alexander Calder's "Black Crescent"

Alexander Calder’s “Black Crescent” in the Museum’s East Court where it used to hang. Courtesy: Matt Freeman/The News Journal.

The Delaware Art Museum may be best-known for its nineteenth-century works (by the Pre-Raphaelites, Brandywine River School, and Ashcan School), but their modern collection may also take a hit from the recent budget crisis. Recent speculation by local news sources suggests the disappearance of an Alexander Calder mobile from installation and the Museum’s online database heralds this will be the next of the possibly four items to be sold.

“Black Crescent” (1959), purchased by the Museum in 1961, will need to bring in upwards of $10 million to help cover the $30 mil. needed to replenish its endowment and pay off construction costs from the previous decade. As recent sales have shown, Calder pieces have certainly gone for as much, if not more (most notably, last month’s “Poisson Volant” for $26 mil. at Christie’s).

While we await the June 17 sale of William Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil, even more criticism has emerged from a national public whose trust has been deceived by the Delaware Art Museum. Former AAMD President and Director of the PMA Timothy Rub recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal:

“This is not a matter, as is often claimed, of protecting the public trust, as important as that may be. Rather, it is about common sense. You don’t cut out the heart to cure the patient; and yet this was the remedy chosen by Delaware’s trustees to restore their institution to good health. Regrettably, they seem not to have understood their broader responsibility to care for all of the museum’s assets—most significantly, its collection.

It is precisely in such circumstances that the trustees of the Delaware Art Museum should have stood up—and stood together—to champion a broader and more compelling vision of cultural stewardship by protecting their collection rather than monetizing it. That they did not do so is unfortunate for their institution and has set a dangerous precedent for the field.

As we pointed out last week, such activity in the museum world in response to the recent economic crisis has unfortunately forced several museums to make such ill-advised decisions. The true character of a Board is shown when their museum is faced with financial strain. ArtWatch hopes that, while these actions by the Delaware Art Museum demonstrate one type of reaction, museum trustees elsewhere will take such opportunities to care for the collection first, and a reputation-bolstering expansion second.

 

By Ruth Osborne

Museum Budgets & an Anxious Arts Community: What does this say about the next 15 years?

Last month, we received update on a historically significant painting by Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt set to be sold at Christie’s to pay of a portion the Delaware Art Museum’s $30 million debt. In the ensuing weeks, ArtWatch has picked up on an increasing degree of anxiety from art historians and journalists keeping abreast of the story as it unfolds. Even more unease has appeared in the arts world from updates on the status of the Corcoran Gallery’s demise, also from lack of funds.

From The Ruskin Society comes the following comment on the W.H. Hunt sale, to take place later this month:

“I am deeply concerned about the forthcoming sale of Isabella and the Pot of Basil.

It is my belief that museums and galleries should be the custodians of paintings and other items in their care. these things are not assets to dispose of at will, but important cultural capital.

Museums and galleries should have good management and be able to balance their books without having to sell ‘the family silver’ to pay off debts.

This particular Pre-Raphaelite painting Isabella and the Pot of Basil is a historic work of art, to be compared to its ‘sister’ in the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK.”

Dr Cynthia Gamble

Chairman

The Ruskin Society

 

From an updated estimated lot on behalf of Christie’s (that the Hunt painting could go for upwards of $13.4 mil.), Delaware journalist Margie Fishman has just hinted at the Delaware board’s possible selling strategy: parting with fewer but more valuable works is better than parting with more works at lower individual figures. Independent journalist Judith Dobrzynski has further suggested that the Hunt painting, alongside the possible sale of Winslow Homer’s Milking Time (1875), could be all that is required to take care of the $30 mil in need. But if this is to be Delaware’s strategy, will they not be risking parting with two of their most treasured works? Just how much will these unfortunate sales depreciate the overall value and integrity of the collection?

Museum professionals nationwide remain deeply concerned with what these sales imply for the future health of the Delaware Art Museum, stating their anxieties about current happenings and “misplaced” art works and loans in the past: “With their history of mismanagement, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were in this position 20 years from now.” (Richard J. Kelly, secretary of the national Museum Trustee Association).[1] Issues pertaining to museum funding, board management, and (inevitable?) deaccessions all lend themselves to a reconsideration of whether or not American collections are appropriately valued and supported by wider society.

Lee Rosenbaum’s coverage of the New York National Academy’s recurrent budget crisis relates yet one more story of serious museum staff restructuring in the face of lagging financial support. The Director’s recent statement insisted that this move was not due to budget cuts, but also referred to the staff as “streamlined” and confirmed it would help save the Academy funds “in the mid-six figures,” as they had been experiencing operating budget issues since 2008. No surprise there. The Academy undertook “stealth” deaccessions that fateful year to help with budget deficit, causing it to be ostracized from the AAMD and placed on probation.

NEH Funding Chart. Courtesy - www.neh.gov.

NEH Funding Chart. Courtesy – www.neh.gov.

All institutions will make their own decisions, it seems, when a budget crisis places them between a rock and a hard place. What the past ten years has showed us is that these decisions are only increasing in this troubled financial environment. The startling proposal to slash the NEH budget in half for the upcoming fiscal year is just one more obvious sign that priorities towards the arts are slipping and responsibilities the government took up fifty years ago are falling through the cracks.

 

 By Ruth Osborne

 

[1]Margie Fishman, “First painting auctioned by museum could bring $13.4 million,” The News Journal. 20 May 2014. http://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/local/2014/05/17/first-painting-auctioned-museum-bring-m/9233453/ (last accessed 22 May 2014).