Lifeline to spruce up fragile objects
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A painting by Vincent van Gogh on show at Tefaf Maastricht will reveal its secrets when restorers start researching and sprucing up the picture later this year. “Poplars near Nuenen” will go on show in a dedicated space at the fair, giving visitors the chance to see the fragile masterpiece before its planned revamp this autumn by restorers based at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the painting’s home since 1903.
The museum is a recipient of the Tefaf Museum Restoration Fund, a grant programme created 10 years ago “to support and promote professional restoration and related scholarly research of significant museum artworks”, say Tefaf officials. Over the past decade, the fund has been a lifeline for institutions keen to preserve essential objects (the only application criterion is that museums must have attended Tefaf Maastricht or Tefaf New York). Each year €50,000 is usually allocated to two projects. The funds come from the foundation itself and past recipients include Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales in Cardiff and the Musée Rodin in Paris.
Recent grants have supported a variety of important projects. Last year, the British Museum used the €25,000 funding to repair ancient glass artefacts that were smashed in the Beirut port explosion in 2020. The fragile vessels dated from the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods, and the money from Tefaf covered the shipping, restoration and technical analysis of the items.
2020’s fund allowed the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to undertake a conservation of “Pietà” by the Bolivian artist Melchor Pérez Holguín, which included repair of minor paint losses and cleaning.
“Poplars near Nuenen” was painted in 1885 on the outskirts of the Dutch village where Van Gogh’s family lived. Preliminary research into the painting will determine how the treatment will proceed; the restoration initiative will be led by Erika Smeenk-Metz, who outlines in an email the challenges faced by her team, with a helping hand from specialists at the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency.
“The paint surface shows many different defects, such as wrinkling, while paint from underneath is oozing up through cracks. The paint surface is covered with a thick layer of varnish that has yellowed and cracked over time — at least two layers have been applied, maybe in 1903 by the paintings conservator Heijdenrijk and another layer applied by [another conservator] Luitwieler in 1938,” she says.
Whether the varnish can be removed without damaging the original paint layers is a key issue. “Our extensive research of the painting is aiming to find out if varnish removal is at all possible, and if so, what would be the safest method,” says Smeenk-Metz.
Martin Bailey, the author of Van Gogh’s Finale: Auvers and the Artist’s Rise to Fame (2021), says that the restoration should “reveal much more about one of Van Gogh’s finest Dutch landscapes”, shedding light on the reasons behind Van Gogh’s decision to paint the work on top of another painting (X-ray images show that beneath the composition the artist originally painted a close-up view of the tower of the old church and cemetery presumably in Nuenen, around 1884, where his father is buried).
Crucially, Van Gogh worked further on the painting when he moved to Paris to stay with his brother, Theo, in February 1886. “It was there that Vincent discovered the work of the Impressionists, which had a profound impact on his own work. Abandoning the dark tones of his Dutch paintings, he experimented boldly with the use of colour. This ultimately led to Van Gogh becoming the colourist that we know and love,” adds Bailey.
Smeenk-Metz gives other fascinating nuggets about the painting’s journey. “Jo Bonger’s brother Andries [Bonger was Van Gogh’s sister-in-law] mentioned in a letter dated 1903 to the director of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Pieter Haverkorn van Rijsewijk, that he had seen Vincent working on the painting when he was in Paris. Vincent indeed wrote to his brother Theo that he would bring this painting with him, first to Antwerp in the autumn of 1885, and then to Paris in 1886,” she says.
“Our research will focus on which parts might have been added by Vincent in Paris and whether there’s a varnish layer in between the different painting sessions; this could complicate removal of the upper varnish layers,” says Smeenk-Metz. The painting was bought from Bonger in 1903 by 26 anonymous “art friends” for the Rotterdam Museum.
The other recipient of this year’s Tefaf grant, announced earlier this year, is the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which will use the €25,000 funding to conserve the Montefiore Mainz Mahzor (around 1310-20), a rare medieval Hebrew prayer book. “This represents the first time the fund has received an application for a work of Judaica and a manuscript, both categories represented at Tefaf, here married into one object,” says Rachel Kaminsky, a private art dealer from New York who sits on the fund committee, in a statement.
The illuminated manuscript, originating from the Jewish communities of the Rhineland, measures 16 by 11 inches, has 299 leaves and is decorated with hybrid animals and human figures. Restoration work begins on the codex this autumn when losses and tears in the parchment will be mended and the leather on the Mahzor cover will be consolidated and strengthened.
Crucially, the museum’s conservators will “determine culturally appropriate methods and materials of treatment” (in the Jewish tradition, a scribe or “sofer” is usually enlisted to restore sacred texts). Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, says that by restoring the Mahzor using culturally sensitive conservation practices, “we are able to honour both the book and the generations of congregants who revered it. The Mahzor will take pride of place in our new Judaica galleries, which open next year.”