Objects in museums are like people in that they need routine maintenance to keep them at their best — a cleaning now and then, the repair of minor blemishes here and there, and even major surgery on occasion. For the past decade, it’s been a trend at art museums including the National Portrait Gallery to put that maintenance, called conservation in art circles, on view for visitors.
This week, the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg enters the fray with its own visible conservation lab. Four of the museum’s largest paintings — Dalí’s Masterworks — will be treated by a team of eight visiting conservators while visitors watch in the museum’s Hough Family Wing. The two-week process began on Monday and ends on June 22; afterward, a video documentary of it will be shown in the gallery until Sept. 9.
The project — which has been given the sassy title Stripped Bare and Bathed: the Preservation of Dalí’s Masterworks — marks the first time that the paintings have been conserved since 1970, says Dalí curator Joan Kropf. At that time, all of the paintings in founders A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse’s collection received a conservator’s examination and a coat of varnish before making their way from Cleveland to St. Petersburg. After hanging for three decades in the Dalí’s former building and, in one case, enduring the rigors of travel to other museums, the paintings are due for a check-up.
That’s where Rustin Levenson comes in. The New York and Miami-based conservator is accustomed to resolving art emergencies. When I first spoke with her last week, she had just taken on a new challenge — repairing a priceless 19th century work by French painter Courbet for a private client. The canvas underneath the painting had been almost entirely eaten away by bugs, necessitating a major intervention by the conservator and her team.
Dalí’s works are in nowhere near as dire straights. Each of the four paintings — “The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (1959),” “The Ecumenical Council (1960),” “Galacidalacidesoxiribunucleicacid (1963)” and “The Hallucinogenic Toreador (1970)” — will receive a delicate cleaning by Levenson and her team using a water-based solution and cotton swabs. (One member is CL Assitant Editor’s father, Glenn Stevenson. Read Arielle’s story on next page.) The inch-by-inch process is part of what makes the conservation of each painting take up to one week. The solution is tested and calibrated not to damage paint or disturb colors, and the team makes their Q-tip-style swabs by hand.
Levenson describes the intended results as a subtle clarification.
“I think when you see it, you’ll think: What is it about this painting that looks better?” she says.
On Monday, she and her team were still learning what other repairs the four paintings might need. They’ll replace one of the wooden stretchers that supports the canvas from underneath on “The Ecumenical Council,” a canvas that has traveled to Japan, Australia and Atlanta in recent months — an operation the team planned for in advance. Encountering the painting close up on Monday, they also found a few small dents (now scheduled to be smoothed out with a pair of earth magnets placed on either side of the canvas) and a mystery drip (it could be alcohol) on its surface.
“The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus” — the other painting slated to be conserved this week — requires some of the most dramatic repair work. The team will tackle mold on the painting’s surface (perhaps a product of being situated near a roof leak in the old building) and re-weave frayed edges. Next week, they’ll be removing four decades of dust and lint from one of Dalí’s most dazzling works and probably the museum’s most popular possession: “The Hallucinogenic Toreador,” a 13-foot-tall canvas in which a row of Venus de Milos appear to transform into matadors.
Levenson seems unfazed by taking on the legendary surrealist’s paintings — perhaps because she’s been working with the museum for a decade — but younger members of her team are more awed.
“It’s Dalí — you want to do your best,” says Kelly O’Neill, 31, a University of Florida grad who recently finished her master’s degree in painting conservation at Queen’s University in Ottawa.
Visitors watching the process from behind a guard rail in the gallery will be able to converse with Levenson and her team Monday through Saturday at 3 p.m., through the run of the project, during a 15-20 minute Q&A session. (Levenson will also give a lecture on Thurs., June 21, and join a panel of local arts leaders for a symposium on conservation at the Dalí on June 23.) Visitors will also see a live video feed from a camera documenting the process at close range projected on a wall behind the conservators. The footage will become part of an 8-minute documentary about the process that will include interviews with the conservators, museum staff and local donors who helped fund the project by sponsoring specific paintings. Their contributions, combined with an NEA grant, funded the $80,000 endeavor.
The long-term payoff is knowing that Dalí’s most important paintings are in the best condition possible and offering visitors an opportunity to see his works in a new light. The phrase is meant literally at the museum, says associate curator Dirk Armstrong, where features of its one-year-old HOK/Yann Weymouth-designed building allow carefully filtered natural light to graze over the masterworks in specially engineered niches. Between the architecture and their conservation, Dalí’s paintings are popping like never before.
“I’m seeing some details I hadn’t seen before, and I’ve been here 20 years,” Armstrong says.
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