Magazine article The New Yorker

A Picasso Face-Lift; at the Museums

Magazine article The New Yorker

A Picasso Face-Lift; at the Museums

Article excerpt

It takes steady nerves to operate on a ninety-seven-year-old patient, especially when the patient is: (1) eight feet tall; (2) not sick; and (3) the cornerstone of modern art. For the past six months, Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," born in 1907, has been undergoing a major restoration in the Museum of Modern Art's temporary conservation studio, in Queens, and it is a pleasure to report that the painting looks almost alarmingly healthy. Having retained, decade after decade, its power to shock and disturb viewers, Picasso's bombshell, whose value is literally incalculable, will now shock them anew, because it looks so different. The colors are fresher and brighter, the flesh tones are fleshier, and the whole indecent ensemble seems to have broken out of its previous fixed space and entered a more fluid environment, an arena that is accessible and close at hand. What Picasso called his "first exorcism picture," with all its savage distortions and chthonic eroticism, can now be seen more clearly as a ravishingly seductive lesson in the art of painting.

James L. Coddington, moma's chief conservator, reports that the museum started about ten years ago to think about restoring "Demoiselles." "At the end of our big Matisse show in 1993," he said the other day, "John Elderfield"--the moma curator who organized the show--"put a few Picassos, including the 'Demoiselles,' in a room with Matisse's 'Bathers by a River,' from Chicago. In that context, 'Demoiselles' didn't speak as strongly and with the vigor that one would expect, and we thought that this probably was not Picasso's fault--that it could well be the state of the picture. It looked gray, and dull, and diminished. So we began to do a little background research."

Aside from a buildup of dirt since its last surface cleaning, in 1983, there was nothing really wrong with the picture: no crackling, no flaking paint, and no structural problems. Like many paintings, though, it had suffered at the hands of previous restorers. Until well past the midpoint of the last century, the so-called science of painting restoration embraced practices that are now considered harmful and for the most part unnecessary, such as relining. A canvas is relined by gluing another canvas to its back; this is done to strengthen the support, but it usually involves applying heat and pressure to both surfaces, and all too often this results in flattening or damaging the paint layer. The museum's research showed that "Demoiselles" had been relined by a restorer working for the French couturier Jacques Doucet, who had bought it from Picasso in 1924.

The painting had also been varnished. Restorers and artists have long used clear varnishes to protect their paint surface and enhance the colors, but Picasso didn't varnish the "Demoiselles," for the same reason that he and Braque didn't varnish their early Cubist canvases. Varnishing provides a more or less homogeneous surface. Picasso and Braque were after something else, a contrast of textures in contiguous areas of the painting which would enliven the surface and convey a new sense of depth. John Elderfield thinks that Doucet's restorer may have varnished "Demoiselles," whose installation, on a landing at the top of a grand staircase in Doucet's apartment in Neuilly-sur-Seine, left it somewhat vulnerable to bibulous dinner guests. …

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