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Fernand Léger: Subtle restoration

Fernand Léger's painting Le passage à niveau was thoroughly examined and conserved as part of a restoration project funded by the Fondation BNP Paribas Suisse. It revealed that the painting is not inherently fragile — fortunately — but that the artist's choice of materials and the subsequent effects of time were responsible for the work's present condition.

Art-historical context

The condition of the hundred-year-old painting Le passage à niveau had been considered fragile since the opening of the Fondation Beyeler in 1997, due to the extensive craquelure and brittle-looking surface. In order to prevent any damage, the painting was thus never loaned. It was thoroughly examined and restored as part of a restoration project funded by the Fondation BNP Paribas Suisse. Valuable knowledge about the materials, technique, and history was gained over the course of this project.

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Initial condition

The condition of the hundred-year-old painting Le passage à niveau had been considered fragile since the opening of the Fondation Beyeler in 1997, due to the extensive craquelure and brittle-looking surface. In order to prevent any damage, the painting was thus never loaned. It was thoroughly examined and restored as part of a restoration project funded by the Fondation BNP Paribas Suisse. Valuable knowledge about the materials, technique, and history was gained over the course of this project. 

Extreme water sensitivity

One fortunate observation was that the painting is not inherently fragile, but that the artist's choice of materials and subsequent time were responsible for its present condition. For example, Fernand Léger used an unusually water-sensitive primer to prepare the canvas. As a result, contact with moisture early in its history caused considerable damage (figure 1). Invasive restoration techniques in the past also led to the painting's present appearance. Historic photographs were found that helped document alterations suffered by the work, such as abrasions and later overpainting.

Historical photograph

Figure 1: This historical photograph was decisive for the project: the water damage visible at the bottom edge (arrow) explained why and where restoration work had taken place in the past.

Conservation treatment

An appropriate conservation treatment was devised based on the information gathered. All measures were discreet and can only be seen in details. First, poorly integrated retouching from prior restorations was removed (figure 2). Pinhead-sized abrasions distributed across the entire surface of the painting were retouched and chromatically integrated. All newly applied retouches are reversible and only placed on pre-existing areas of damage. The purpose of these measures was to integrate the irregular and broken painted surface (figure 3) and bring it closer to its original appearance from 1912 — without masking the history and age of the work. The examination of comparable early works by Léger was very helpful in this process. They made it possible to get as close as possible to the original intent of Le passage à niveau. The painting was also given a sturdy new frame with vibration padding. The restoration not only stabilized the work's materials but has also made the composition  more legible and accessible to the viewer.