The partnership with the Fondation BNP Paribas Suisse

The Fondation BNP Paribas Suisse has been partnering the restoration of art works in Europe, Asia and the United States for over 20 years, in the desire to play an active role in ensuring that museum holdings are preserved and can so be passed on to future generations. It has already sponsored over a dozen projects in Switzerland, benefitting the conservation of major works by Max Ernst, Mattia Preti, Auguste Rodin, Bram van Velde and Paolo Veronese. The Fondation Beyeler is delighted to be able to restore three key pieces in its collection with the support of the Fondation BNP Paribas Suisse. Over a period of three years, our team of conservators and curators will devote themselves to the following works: Henri Rousseau’s painting Le lion, ayant faim, se jette sur l’antilope (1898/1905), Max Ernst’s sculpture The King Playing with the Queen (1944), and the work discussed here, Fernand Léger’s painting Le passage à niveau (1912).

Fernand Léger in the Context of the Collection
Fernand Léger, 1947 © Robert Doisneau / Rapho

Fernand Léger (1881–1955) is prominently represented in the Beyeler Collection by twelve paintings that together document every phase of his career. Works by the artist passed through gallery-owner Ernst Beyeler’s hands from an early date. The independent position that Léger held amongst the major players of classical modernism, and the direct influence that he exerted upon American artists of the post-war era, including Roy Lichtenstein and Ellsworth Kelly (both also represented in the collection), make him a fascinating figure. Le passage à niveau (The Level Crossing) of 1912 is an early and rare example of a Léger landscape and lies at an important crossroads between figural representation and abstraction. It also assumes a pivotal role insofar as it facilitates between the works of Paul Cézanne and Henri Rousseau on the one hand, and the Cubist pictures of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque on the other.

"Le passage à niveau" and its art-historical significance

Le passage à niveau belongs to a small group of early landscape paintings that already proclaim Fernand Léger’s significance within the sphere of contemporary art. Léger shared with the Impressionists an interest in a nature that was gradually being invaded by civilization and technology. By 1912, however, Léger had moved away from the atmospheric pictorial language of his predecessors and shifted closer to the Futurists, who translated the pulsing rhythms of modern life into a painting characterized by rapid, animated staccatos of lines. Absorbing the influences of Cézanne and the Cubist works of Picasso and Braque, Léger developed his own abstract pictorial language. Amongst the artists of the Paris avant-garde, he stands out for his highly individual style, one that would also prove influential upon the subsequent course of art history.

About the restoration project and the conservation measures

The condition of the 100-year-old Le passage à niveau was already classed as fragile when the Fondation Beyeler opened in 1997, on account of the extensive network of cracks in the paint film and the brittle appearance of the surface. To prevent any risk of further damage, the painting has never been released on loan since then.

Scientific investigations
Within the framework of the restoration project sponsored by the Fondation BNP Paribas Suisse, in 2012 Le passage à niveau was comprehensively examined and restored. Using a variety of scientific methods of investigation, we were able to gather crucial data on the painting’s materials, technique and history. On the basis of our findings, we are delighted to say that Le passage à niveau is not inherently fragile, but that the artist’s choice of materials and the adverse influence of external factors over the course of time have led to the painting’s present condition. For example, Fernand Léger prepared his original canvas with an unusual water-sensitive primer. Contact with water at a very early stage consequently meant that the painting suffered badly. Invasive attempts at restoration in the past have also contributed to the painting’s appearance today. With the aid of early reproductions sourced from documentary archives, it has been possible to identify changes to the work, such as areas of abrasion and non-original overpainting.

Conservation measures
On the basis of all these findings, our conservators drew up an appropriate set of restoration measures. The first step was to remove areas of poorly integrated retouching from a past restoration. The second was to restore the pinprick-size abrasions scattered across the entire surface. This was done by means of reversible retouching confined exclusively to the existing areas of damage and corresponding as closely as possible to Léger’s original palette. The aim of these measures was to close up the previously somewhat irregular and broken appearance of the paint film and bring it closer to that of 1912, without concealing the history and age of the work. Analyses of comparable early works by Léger proved particularly helpful in this regard, as they granted insights into the original visual effect  of Le passage à niveau. Lastly, non-historical strips of fabric were removed from the back of the wedged stretcher and lifted canvas edges were secured by gluing them back down. The painting was also given a protective new frame and anti-vibration protection on the back.
The restoration measures carried out were discreet and confined in most cases to details. The work was not only stabilized, but the pictorial composition of Léger’s important painting made more legible and hence more accessible for the viewer. 

The restored painting will be back on show in the Fondation Beyeler as from February 2013 as part of the latest rehanging of the collection. 

Fernand Léger
"Le passage à niveau", 1912
Oil on canvas, 94 x 81cm © ProLitteris, Zürich
Ernst Beyeler
Ernst Beyeler in front of "Les deux cyclistes, la mère et l’enfant" by Fernand Léger
Historical photograph

The historical photograph of the painting (before 1933, exact date is unknown) shows a stain due to water spilling along the lower edge of the painting (Source: Musee Fernand Léger, Biot / Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques et des Sites / Arch. Phot. Paris / S.P.A.D.E.M.)