[UPDATED – see the end if you already read the article before 29 June, 2018]
When we see art in a museum, we are often under the false impression that it is eternal. I mean, the paintings were painted long ago, and were hung up in the gallery years or decades or even centuries before, so won’t they still be around for generations to come? Even in the best of cases, the materials that make up a painting (varnish, ink, canvas, wood…) all can degrade over time and require constant vigilance. Back when governments cared about preserving the arts, many museums had their own restoration departments who surveilled the works. However, in these Neo-liberal times of reduced cultural budgets and such, museums like the Louvre actually outsource the restoration work to outside contractors.
A common malady for old paintings is when they take on a yellowish hue. This is due to the oxidation of the varnish that the painter (or successive restorers) put on top of the painted surface to protect it. This issue as well as damage to the painted surface (curving wood panels causing cracks or mold on canvas for example) are constant battles that museums and their restoraters face all the time.
But often, the degradations are actually the artist’s fault. Leonardo da Vinci’s incredible Last Supper in Milan suffers from the fact that Leonardo used a water-based solvent which has tended to flake off over time. It was restored in the 1990s with the heavy financial assistance of some Japanese mecenes and to avoid further degradation, the whole building is in a sort of quarantine due to which visitors have to pass through two doorways before being allowed to view the masterpiece. Actually, La Cena (as it is called in Italian) suffered another insult years ago. The building it is housed in was repurposed as a depot for Napoleon’s soldiers who cut a door right where Jesus feet were in the center of the painting and further, the soldiers occasionally took target practice at the figures! Before you mention the rumor that Napoleon’s soldiers also blew away the nose of the Great Sphinx in Giza, I need to tell you that that story is totally false. In fact, the nose was cut off in ancient times. We know this because there are engravings and sketches of the Sphinx in the centuries before Napolean’s Egyptian conquest with the nose already gone. The most likely explanation is that since the Egyptians believed that the art they made of gods and pharaohs was actually a manifestation of the god or pharaoh itself/himself/herself and that the orifices such as the mouth and nose – being openings towards the interior power of the sculpture – can transmit the power of that powerful entity from the afterlife. It is likely that a successor of Djoser who built the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids wanted to ensure that he would not come back and mess with his plans so he cut the nose off to kill the supernatural power of the Sphinx.
If you have ever visited the Louvre, you have perhaps wandered around in the huge red rooms behind the crowded room where the Mona Lisa smiles enigmatically over the millions of pilgrims that come from all of the world to take selfies in front of her. And in the second of these rooms, you may have noticed, or not, the massive painting from 19th century genius Gericault, The Wreck of the Medusa (Le Radeau de la Meduse). This masterpiece depicts a random incident that the artist had read about in the paper – a shipwreck after which (like the modern day Costa Concordia in 2012) the captain and crew split on good boats back to France while the 400+ passengers were left to fend for themselves for weeks in the middle of the ocean. Only 10 or 11 people survived and this only by feasting on the remains of the other passengers – they became cannibals. Gericault decided to depict this act of cowardice on the part of the captain and his ilk by painting a huge canvas and taking this tragedy as his theme. The fact that he took a random incident out of the newspaper was exceptional as the subjects of huge paintings up to that point by European artists were primarily based on religious or mythological stories or on important historical events or battles (like the Battle of Eyla by Gericault’s teacher Gros in the same room to the left of the Medusa or The Coronation of Napoleon in the previous gallery by David). By choosing these anonymous heroes, Gericault was challenging the status quo. But, he made a big, big mistake. Often, painters will cover the canvas or wood surface they are working on with an initial color like white or red. In the late Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, often the surface was painted red in order to diffuse a bit of warmth to the overlaying colors. Gericault wanted this shipwreck to be dark and foreboding, so he decided to paint the background in black. The problem is that due to the size of the surface to be painted, he figured he could use a form of tar to obtain a very uniform black surface on which to add his paint and save a little money on materials. Little did he suspect that the acidity of the tar would gradually eat away the paining laid on it. When you look at the painting today, there are large areas of black that appear to have bubbles on the surface of the canvas. This is the tar rising from the canvas and destroying the paint. The painting about cannibalism is actually eating itself and there is precious little we can do about it.
UPDATE 29 June 2018: I learned today in my art class at the Louvre that in fact, three French researchers Jean Petit, Jacques Roire and Henri Valot analyzed the Radeau and found no trace of bitume in the pigments used by Gericault! Unfortunately, their book “Les Liants et Les Couleurs” where they discuss the analysis in detail is out of print (€150++ on Amazon.com if they can find it), so I can’t really read about it and discuss it here. This means that the reasons for which La Radeau is eating itself remain a mystery! Isn’t it amazing that in this world of artificial intelligence, big data, and space travel that we can still have a chemical, scientific mystery? 🙂