Walk: Legion of Honor, Corte Madera
Distance: 1.5 miles
Have you ever been at a museum and seen a centuries old painting whose colors look bright, clear, sparkling. The sky is intensely, gorgeously blue and the foliage burgeoning spring green, the whole scene is crystal clear. Well, probably you are looking a painting that has been very poorly cleaned by a conservator. So much of the old varnish with its layers of naturally accumulated dust, dirt and other grime has been removed that the soul of the painting has been lost. The painting has been 'skinned' as they say in the art world.
Today's Docent Lecture at the Legion of Honor was on the painting techniques (and materials) of the 17th C. Dutch painters as well as how the paintings have been preserved by conservators since then. In a word, very carefully. Done right in these days, the painting is studied by modern infrared and other camera equipment for an understanding of the condition of the different underlying layers: starting with what it is painted on (usually canvas by this time in history), then moving up through base, ground, under drawing, paint and varnish. Concurrently much research is done on the historical times and techniques surrounding the painting, the intention of the artist and other significant variables. Every attempt is made to preserve the soul, the integrity of the art. Dirt and shifting of color are considered natural and removed as minimally as possible - often by the most delicate process of soft fabric and human spit.
Very important paintings - such as Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring - are often restored in public so that people can see each dab of spit and assure themselves of the care the conservators are taking. Imagine the pressure the conservators of the Sistine Chapel were under in its public cleaning a 33 years ago. There were probably decades of meetings with national and international committees of scholars along with Vatican representatives. While the chances that the Sistine Chapel was 'skinned' are infinitesimal (I think), there has been raging debate among art lovers, art critics and scholars ever since the restoration was completed. This is where angels fear to tread so I will tip toe away thankful that I wasn't endowed with the patience, manual dexterity, detail orientation and other qualities of a world class art restorer or conservator.
Michaelangelo, The Sistine Chapel ceiling, Daniel section , ca 1530 before and after restoration (1980)