The art of preserving art

Works of art are not immune to the effects of time: colors change, materials decay. A stable climate and special lighting during display and storage greatly contribute to the preservation of artwork, but a conservator’s knowledge and skills are needed as well. Since 2001, a dedicated team has been working on the long-term preservation of the collection’s major works so that they will remain accessible to future generations.

Partnership with the Fondation BNP Paribas

For over 20 years the Fondation BNP Paribas Suisse has been involved in the restoration of works of art in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Its objective is to actively contribute to the preservation of museum collections so that they can be passed on to future generations. It has already supported over 20 projects in Switzerland, including the conservation of important works by artists like Max Ernst, Mattia Preti, Auguste Rodin, Bram van Velde and Paolo Veronese.

The Fondation Beyeler is pleased to have had the support of the Fondation BNP Paribas since 2011 for the restoration of the collection’s major works.

Claude Monet's large-scale Water Lily Triptych is the heart of the Beyeler Collection [[Link]] and was one of the sources of inspiration for the museum's architectural design. Whereas this work has a pristine, matte surface, one of the other water lily paintings in the collection, Nymphéas (1916-1919), a study for the large-format water lily series, was covered with a glossy, reflective varnish. This was a later addition and contrary to Monet's original intention. Conservators now have the difficult task of removing this film of varnish.

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Claude Monet: Biography

The French painter apprenticed with outdoor painter Eugène Boudin, among others, then in 1859 began studying in Paris. Here he made the acquaintance of Pissarro, Bazille, Sisley, and Renoir. During the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1874, his painting Impression, soleil levant led critics to ridicule him by calling him an “impressionist,” thus giving an identity to one of the most important art movements of the 19th century. 

At the outbreak of war between Germany and France in 1871, Monet fled to London. Here he was greatly inspired by the paintings of Turner and Constable and taken under the wing of the art dealer Durand-Ruel. After moving to Giverny, he worked on a series of paintings in which he concentrated on the relationship of forms and colors to conditions of light, air, and time of day. His garden and water lily ponds became the main inspiration for his famous water lily compositions, which he began painting in 1899. The last works in this series already contain elements of Expressionism.

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Detailed view

The multilayered paint, applied in crisscrossing brushstrokes, lies under a thin coat of varnish.

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Detailed view

The gloss of the acrylic varnish is particularly apparent in the monochrome areas of paint executed with less impasto.

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Looking at Picasso’s iconic painting Femme (Époque des “Demoiselles d'Avignon,” 1907), the Beyeler couple’s favorite, conservators wondered why the original lemon-yellow had turned a dark beige. Together with a team of experts from the Getty Center in Los Angeles, they examined the painting millimeter by millimeter. They discovered that Picasso had used cadmium pigments; their aging properties would certainly not have pleased the artist. He would have been even less pleased with the fact that a coat of varnish was later applied to his painting. This unwanted layer had to be carefully removed during this project, a tricky task for the conservators.

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[Translate to Englisch:] Portrait Picasso

Pablo Picasso: Biography

The Spanish painter, graphic artist, and sculptor studied art in La Coruña, Barcelona, and Madrid. In 1900 he began making trips to Paris and finally settled there in 1904. In 1907, after the Blue and Rose Periods, he painted the Desmoiselles d’Avignon, the first major Cubist work. He began using collage techniques and making sculptures in 1912. From 1917 he designed costumes and stage sets for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. 

In the early 1920s, he switched to a neoclassical style. In 1925 he participated in the first Surrealist exhibition in Paris. He created his first large-scale sculpture using scrap metal and iron. He commemorated the 1937 bombing of the Basque city of Guernica by German aircraft for the Spanish Pavilion at the World's Fair in Paris that same year. The monumental painting Guernica uses symbolic means to depict the horror of war. In 1939 the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a major retrospective of his work. During the German occupation of France, he was not allowed to exhibit his work. In 1949 he moved to the south of France, where he had spent his summers painting since 1909. His late works are characterized by stylistic variety and dialogue with the Old Masters. Wildly painted nudes dominated the mid-1960s. The Museu Picasso opened in Barcelona in 1970 and the Musée Picasso in Paris in 1985.

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Varnish removal

Markus Gross removing the layer of varnish on Femme (Époque des “Demoiselles d'Avignon”) in the conservation studio at Fondation Beyeler.

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Helpful sources

This old Ektachrome color slide from the Beyeler archives is one of the most important resources for determining changes that have taken place in the yellow areas of the picture.

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Le lion, ayant faim, se jette sur l’antilope (1898-1905) is one of the largest and most important works painted by Henri Rousseau and contributed to his breakthrough as an artist in 1905. It is undeniably one of the highlights of the Beyeler Collection. This work held some surprises for the conservators. The surface had gathered dirt over the years but could not be cleaned with the usual aqueous solutions or solvents without damaging the paint. Conservators had to find creative alternatives. Interpreting the large, distracting layers of overpainting was another challenge. As these were awkwardly executed and unfitting, it was assumed that they were the work of a later hand. However, research revealed, that they are dated very early and may even have been done by the artist himself.

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Henri Rousseau: Biography

The earliest-known paintings by the Parisian customs agent date from 1877. In 1885, he quit his job at the customs bureau to devote himself entirely to painting. He began exhibiting at the Salon des Indépendants in 1886. He was a friend of the poet Alfred Jarry and knew Gauguin, Redon, Seurat, and Pissarro. In 1891 he began painting exotic, fantastical motifs. In 1906 he met Delaunay, Picasso and the circle of people surrounding Apollinaire. Picasso held a banquet in his honor the following year.

Historical overpainting

A detail of the lower right corner of the painting shows obvious dark-green overpainting. These were not removed because examination showed that they may have been executed by the artist himself.

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Dry cleaning the surface

The soiled but fragile paint layer had to be cleaned without using any solvents or water. Instead, conservators worked with special dry sponges.

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The Beyeler Collection has a total of twelve works by Fernand Léger. For the conservation team, these provided an excellent basis to research and compare the artist's materials and techniques, right in the studio. Conservators wondered why Le passage à niveau (1912) is more fragile than other Léger paintings, showing many cracks and traces of wear on the surface. Chemical analyses showed that Léger had used an extremely water-sensitive ground layer. This wasn’t understood during past restoration efforts, which were necessary after major water damage, causing the painting's condition to deteriorate further.

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Fernand Léger: Biography

The French painter began his study of art early in life, at the Académie Julian in Paris and other institutions. At the turn of the century, he painted his first works influenced by Impressionism. His admiration for Cézanne helped him break away from Impressionism and find his own style in 1909. He joined Cubists Picasso and Braque, and together they created the “Section d’Or” group.

 He entered his “mechanical period” after serving active duty in the war from 1914 to 1917. In 1925 he painted his first mural in a building by Le Corbusier. In 1929 he taught at the Académie Moderne, together with Amédée Ozenfant. He was a member of the artists' group “Cercle et Carré.” In the early 1930s, he made trips to Austria, the United States, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, and Greece. After the Germans occupied France in 1940, he immigrated to the United States and lived there until 1945. There he worked as a teacher in addition to painting and making films. In 1945 he returned to Paris and joined the Communist Party. He began working with ceramics in the late 1940s.

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Historical photographs

These historical photographs were crucial for the project: the water damage visible at the bottom edge (arrow) showed why and where restoration work had been done in the past.

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Removal of old retouch

Retouching from previous restorations covered original layers of paint in many areas. Luckily they dissolved easily and could be reduced with the help of solvents and absorbent paper.

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The King Playing with the Queen (1944) is an extremely fragile and unique plaster sculpture. There are bronze versions of this work in other collections, such as the MOMA in New York. This sculpture had always been a mystery for the conservators: why did the artist leave large areas of the blue figure — such as the shoulders and elbows — white? A thorough examination with X-rays and other methods showed that the sculpture had been improperly disassembled to make casts for the bronze versions. The X-rays showed that the artist was already aware of the fragility and weakness of the plaster when he made it, which is why he reinforced the interior with various kinds of armatures.

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Max Ernst: Biography

As a student of psychology and art history at the University of Bonn, the German-French painter and graphic artist began to experiment with Expressionist, Impressionist, Cubist, and Futurist creative methods. In 1912 he participated in an exhibition of Rhineland Expressionists for the first time. He became acquainted with the Berlin Dadaists during a leave from the front in 1916, and three years later he created a Dada group in Cologne with Jean Arp. In 1922 he moved to Paris, where he joined the Surrealists. He used their “écriture automatique” techniques in collages, frottages, grattage and sculptures that he made out of found objects. His visionary cosmogonies are rooted in the tradition of Grünewald and Bosch.

Historical photograph

In the background of this fashion photo from 1945 we see the sculpture in its original condition: a homogenous paint surface without the present reconstructions at the neck, shoulders, elbows and hands.

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X-ray photograph

A detail of the neck taken with X-rays shows the structural underpinnings of the sculpture. Reinforcements made of a variety of materials are clearly visible inside the plaster.

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The first major conservation research project in the museum's history was the scientific examination and conservation of Henri Matisse’s 3.5 meter-long cut-out Acanthes (1953), one of the main works in his series of large-format papiers découpés. The interdisciplinary project included the restoration of the painting and paper, as well as a critical analysis. Given the quality of the work, international experts were also called in for this complex project. The three-year adventure proved to be worth it — for the museum's visitors as well: a specially-built studio permitted the public to watch the conservation work from start to finish.

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Henri Matisse: Biography

The French painter, sculptor, and graphic artist studied in Paris, at the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts, among others. Around 1900 he created his first sculptures and at the same time began to paint with unmixed, bright colors under the influence of Monet, Cézanne und Gauguin. He gained attention at the Salon d’Automne as the leader of the Fauves. He made his first woodcuts and lithographs after a trip to Algeria in 1906.  

From early on he sought to translate space and solids into something two-dimensional and decorative. At first, his interiors and still lifes combined realistic three-dimensional motifs with arabesques. After the life-changing experience of the Islamic exhibition in Munich in 1910 and a trip to Morocco in 1912, he began painting only flat surfaces. The motif of the carpet, the symbol of the garden of happiness in Islamic Art, can be found throughout his work. He strove to create sacred art full of peace and harmony, accessible to everyone. In the late 1920s, he turned to murals and architectural decoration. He lived in Nice and Venice during the Second World War, then returned to Paris. In 1948 he made his first Gouaches découpées. From 1947 to 1951 he decorated the Chapelle du Rosaire in Venice.

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Technical examination

The forms and paper background are full of pinholes as a result of Matisse's work process. They were caused by the master pinning the forms to his studio wall.

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Conservation and restoration

One major challenge in the conservation and restoration of Acanthes is the complex structure of the image, which consists of several layers and needs to be stabilized.

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