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.

AIC's 41st Annual Meeting, Paintings and Research and Technical Studies Joint Session, May 31, "Water in Oil Microemulsions: A Novel Cleaning System for Acrylic Paints" by Tom Learner, et al

This presentation summarized the collaborative research of the cleaning of acrylic paint films by the authors representing the DOW Chemical Company, the Tate Gallery and the Getty Conservation Institute.  The aim of the research is to develop and educate professionals in the cleaning of complex, contemporary synthetic painting media. Early findings of this research have been presented at the AIC Annual Meetings in Los Angeles (2009) and Milwaukee (2010) and at the Cleaning 2010 Conference in Valencia.  The components of these systems have varying effects on the medium: acrylic paint films are easily swollen in an aqueous environment, hydrocarbons have poor cleaning efficacy and on large colored surfaces there is a risk of tidelines.  The surface character can be changed if extracts are removed.
Dynamic mechanical analysis of potential cleaning materials was conducted; the procedural process was described as “clamping” system that would provide uniform tension across the test film as it was dipped in solution.  The displacement of the grips is measured as the paint film contracts upon drying.  Acetone and water produced significant swelling, mineral spirits resulting in a flat line.  Analysis was conducted using FTIR-ATR (Fourier transform infrared-attenuated total reflectance) spectroscopy on cleaning swabs indicating the level of surfactant material at the surface.
Trial microemulsion cleaning formulations were prepared by DOW and the Tate which were tested by conservators at workshops,  including four CAP’s (Cleaning Acrylic Paintings) seminars presented in different cities by Chris Stravroudis.  Resulting evaluations have contributed to further refinement of formulations for better compliance with performance criteria desired by conservators.  Three classes of microemulsions were produced.  All have an aliphatic hydrocarbon in a continuous phase.  They incorporate different surfactants.  The presence/level of an alcohol as a co-solvent is sometimes incorporated, as an alcohol is required in some systems to enable a stable microemulsion structure.  One class of potentially useful formulations of water-in-oil microemulsion systems that are thermodynamically stable is being tested. They incorporate deionized water, a non-miscible hydrocarbon solvent (one being tested is hexanol/butanol (?)) and a surfactant in an attempt to remove grime without removing original material, namely surfactants used in the manufacture of these painting materials, which are known to migrate to the surface as they age. They offer the possibility of exploiting cleaning efficacy associated with aqueous systems but in a predominantly solvent environment where the micelles formed has the surfactant on the outside and the water on the inside. The pH in these systems can be varied using sodium chloride.  The ionic strength of the solution should be compatible with the paint film; conductivity should be adjusted, as needed.  A stable microemulsion will be clear, while an unstable one will be milky.  Other components of the three series included a “green” surfactant, Ecosurf®, a promising new Triton material, Triton GR7, which is soluble in Shell Sol solvents, and the introduction by Richard Wolbers of silicon based cleaners.  The latter material was reviewed by Chris Stravroudis in his article, “More from CAPS3: Surfactants, silicone-based solvents, and microemulsions”, WAAC Newsletter 34/3 (Sept 2012), pp 24-27.
The series of microemulsions are being extensively tested including the issue of clearance.  A new publication on the progress of this research is expected in 2014.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting-Outreach in Paintings Session: The Dessemination of Information Outside and the Field and Within, May 10, “Conservation, Engineering and Materials — Reinventing the Wheel?” by William Wei

William Wei, Senior Conservation Scientist at the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, gave a compelling and entertaining presentation about how art conservators and historians and the scientific community: scientists, chemists and material engineers communicate with each other.  Bill used a very personal style (walking onto the floor and just talking to us rather than standing at the podium) and humor (like the hysterically screaming man graphic) to make the point that, many times, by not doing a little research into the mechanism that we are describing and the proper terminology used we end up unnecessarily reinventing the wheel, that is, wasting a lot of time.

 Wei, a mechanical engineer with a PhD in metals with 15 years of experience in conservation science focused on the perceptions, myths and misconceptions that arise in that age-old, left brain vs. right brain breakdown in communication between the scientific and artistic communities, “What are they talking about?”  While a conservator may be choosing a fabric for a loose liner he/she might consider weight or weave while an engineer will be considering factors such as the thermal expansion coefficient, that is, using mechanical properties terminology. The conservator may not distinguish the difference between stress and strain, tension and stiffness or have an understanding of what level of vibration is allowable.   The engineer comes to the table, however, with a clear understanding of engineering facts regarding mechanical properties: stress is not the same as force, stress & strain are related, tension is not stiffness and the effects of vibration are cumulative.

 The author was not so much chiding the conservation community for ignorance of material science and testing as pleading with us to do enough homework to formulate the right question.  He used several examples to make his point. Two metal rods: the microphone stand and a pen…which is stronger? The answer depends on mechanical properties.  Stress = Force/area.  Size doesn’t matter!  The force required to break the stand might be less than that required to break the pen.  When testing adhesives, how does the application method affect the results? Are there bubbles, for example?  Can you simply sew the slashed Barnett Newman painting, CATHEDRA back together? No. You need the stiffness of a lining and the lining fabrics have to have similar stiffness: Stiffness=Stress/strain. Tension does not equal stiffness.

Although most painting conservators have an intuitive sense of these principles, I believe the author’s point was that we often do not articulate our needs using the correct terminology.  We may even use elaborate mechanisms or equipment to measure vibration or dust accumulation when simpler, more straightforward and practical models would suffice.

 We need to talk, the author emphasized, reinvent as we learn and redefine words.  He stated some guidelines to accomplish these goals.

 1) Nothing is simple but it can be simply be explained and understood

2) Conservators must be willing to learn and read about problem

3) Engineers & Material Scientists must be willing to translate

4) We all must be aware of language; we must be bilingual

How  does the wheel work?  Do we really need a new wheel?

Wei went on to describe some of the pitfalls in terminology misuse of abuse.  In some cases nano is relevant.  However in his example of climate change, is
a change of 1-2 degrees over 50 years relevant to artwork as it is definitely is relevant to an increase in climatic disasters?

Finally, Wei pondered whether in the fields of conservation, engineering & materials, are we creating value?   I might take slight exception to the author’s notion that restoration is recreating art, as it is but, as most of us learned, early  on, the reason we call our field conservation  is to emphasize the preservative nature of our work, not the remaking of art.  I agree that, clearly, we do create value by increasing our understanding of objects cultural significance through scientific research.  Wei’s call to arms was inspirational.  There are solutions looking for problems, we just need to ask the right questions.  In so doing, we need to have awareness of different professional backgrounds; communication and understanding leads to better solutions.  Outreach, he said, “is not just broadcasting, it’s receiving too [there needs to be] a Socratic dialog.”

40th Annual Meeting: Outreach in Paintings Session: The Dissemination of Information Outside the Field and Within, May 10, “Bridging the Divide–Conversing with Allied Professionals” by Michael O’Malley

Michael O’Malley gave a fascinating talk about describing the investigation he undertook on a painting he had treated in 1998, which resulted in an attribution.   His determination to uncover the mysteries of the posthumous Portrait of Mére Catherine de Saint-Augustin, a 17th Century Carmelite nun beatified in 1989 was piqued by hints given by materials analysis undertaken during the treatment of the painting; it suggested a good opportunity to the conservator to open a conservation dialog with art historians.  As no interest was evident in the subject in the years since the treatment, Michael later took it upon himself to do a little digging of his own, “I’m not an art historian but I can read”, he humorously, if modestly, stated!

Michael began his talk with an overview of the Conservation Center of Quebec which sounds like a superb facility which appears to have a great community outreach and interaction with allied professionals including training, tours and bilingual publications.

Michael described the treatment of the painting, the article he wrote for the
Journal of Canadian Art History, the analysis that was conducted at CCI and the
additional research he completed to arrive at his attribution.

The unsigned and undated portrait of the nun, according to oral tradition, had been painted at her deathbed and had been attributed to Hugh Pommier (1636- 1686) a priest and artist that lived in the colony at the time. Mére Catherine de Saint-Augustin (1632-1688) was revered figure in New France and was considered to be the founder of the Catholic Church there. She was first a nurse then the keeper and director general of the hospital of the French colony.

The painting had undergone at least two restorations in the past, one by a nun who had been charged with the task of making Catherine look, “younger with a more cheerful appearance”! The painting had been glue lined, heavily overpainted and coated with a natural resin varnish.  The treatment included lining reversal and relining, varnish and overpaint removal and loss compensation.  After cleaning, the face had renewed subtlety; evident cracquelure, the original greyish-blue tone.

Stylistically the painting appeared to be of European origin. Eminent art historian Gerard Morisset Gerard Morisset (1898-1973) placed painting in an inventory of paintings in Quebec parishes and churches.  As early as 1936 he had noted a stylistic resemblance to works by Claude Francois aka, Frère Luc (1614-1685), a student of Simon Vouet and an influential artist in New France.  The artist had returned to his mother country, however by the date of the nun’s death.  Morisset saw the painting in the 1950’s at which time the background had already been overpainted.  In 1960 Morisset had made a connection with a painting of St. Claire in an altarpiece by Frère Luc.  He saw similarities with paintings of the two nuns and other similarities in the naturalistic qualities of other faces by Frère Luc as well as similarities in the treatment of the landscape elements.

Cross section and pigment analysis conducted at CCI by scientists Marie Claude Corbiel and Elizabeth Moffatt revealed a double ground layer, consistent with grounds used in France in the 17th Century  (The author referred to  Elaine Du Val’s publication on red grounds in 17 C France.) and  lead tin yellow which placed the painting prior to 1750.

O’Malley did further study of 17th C Carmelite portraits. He learned that Catherine’s death was described in the annuals of the day.  Because the date of
her death was not consistent with Frère Luc having been documented as being in
New France, he hypothesize that the painting was not, in fact,  a true portrait but a commemoration; his attribution, when published, was well received.

Michael O’Malley’s work nicely demonstrates a situation when a professional must “cross the aisle” to an allied profession when information gleaned in our work demands to be researched and shared to the benefit of all.