AIC 43rd Annual Meeting Paintings Specialty Group Session, Friday, May 15, 2015 “Fracture or Facture: Interpreting Intent During the Treatment and Analysis of Georges Braque’s AJAX” by Allison Langley

Georges Braque, Ajax, 1948-1953 mixed media on paper mounted on canvas,  180 x 72 cm, Bequest of Florene May Schoenborn,  Art Institute of Chicago
Georges Braque, Ajax, 1948-1953
mixed media on paper mounted on canvas,
180 x 72 cm, Bequest of Florene May Schoenborn,
Art Institute of Chicago

Allison Langley gave a fascinating and comprehensive presentation on how the research and technical analysis conducted by she and her colleagues, Francesca Casadio and Ken Sutherland led to treatment decisions on a mixed media painting done by Georges Braque late in his career, AJAX.  Allison’s description of Braque’s use of materials on this and other of his paintings, his working methods and evidence gleaned from pigment analysis and period photos wove a wonderful tapestry that provided the audience with a rich and intimate understanding of the creative process of this modern master.
The paintings primary support is paper mounted to two canvases on a stretcher.  The subject, a mythological figure, is an example of the artist’s fascination with the subject in this period of his career and is related to a group of etchings by Braque of mythological figures in black and white.  Ajax is depicted in profile in black against a white background. The white ground layer, identified as lead is intentionally exposed on some areas of the design.  The painting demonstrates Braque’s interest in surface variations which, in this case, resulted from the artist’s reworking of the painting over a number of years, between 1948 and 1953.  Photos of the artist’s studio showed AJAX among other works and illustrate the fact that the artist was known to work on several paintings at once, perhaps every day and would return to work on some paintings months and years later often reworking his compositions.  An anecdote to this scenario was the fact that GCMS of a burnt umber paint showed nicotine in the paint!
The original delineation of AJAX was executed in a thin, black paint identified as carbon black.  Its gouache appearance was confirmed as containing pine resin and gum. Original reworkings of the composition over old losses demonstrate that the painting had insecurities early on, while in the artist’s studio.  Reworkings, often in the form of drips and splatters cover large losses, some on the figure.  The authors were able to identify older and newer losses and cracking in the paint film.
Analysis of reworkings over losses show changes to Braque’s palette in his late career. Visible brushwork and drips that were later additions were identified using GCMS: he added mars red with impasto, the addition of a light green passage in the upper right which wrinkled upon drying contains ochre and Prussian blue, added loops of white were identified as containing zinc and titanium and Hansa yellow was found in highlights.  A dark grey showed iron with black.
Robert Doisneau, Georges Braque in his studio, 1953
Robert Doisneau, Georges Braque in his studio, 1953

These technical insights contributed to the notion that Braque played arbitrary games with the image as it evolved.  Loops, wet drips and other passages show an idiosyncratic application of paint with varying surface characteristics.  The figure “8” was added later as it is not visible in older photos and he painted over the word “AJAX” in the lower right. The additions added ever greater variations in the surface sheen.  These variations are preserved by the artist by avoiding a final, overall varnish layer. Braque even left a warning to future conservators with his inscription on the reverse: “Ne Pas Varnis”.
Georges Braque’s Ajax, in an unfinished state, detail of photo by Kurt Blum, n.d.
Georges Braque’s Ajax, in an unfinished state, detail of photo by Kurt Blum, n.d.

Critical to the development of the treatment protocol for the painting was the need to consolidate insecurities without disturbing the delicate balance of varied sheen and texture on the surface.  Braque accepted some losses as adding texture. High resolution scans were overlapped provided a map where losses could be compared.  The old photos aided in the interpretation. A 4% solution of ethulose (ethylhydroxyethylcellulose) in water and ethanol, 1:1, was used with a hot air tool to consolidate loose paint without adding shininess.   Gamblin conservation colors were used on early losses and repaints in a blue area were left untouched. Losses were not filled.   Losses in the head were compensated with inpainting.
This unique work testifies to Braque’s diverse palette late in his career.  The used of drying oil, linseed oil, pine resin and stand oil, identified during analysis lead to the varied texture he created on the surface.  These experimentations highlight ideas Braque was contemplating with his contemporary, Manet.
AJAX was included in an exhibition of Braque’s work at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2014.