The cleaning of paintings is a fascinating subject. Changes in approaches to conservation practice mean that cleaning now often involves varnish removal.
Traditional conservation practice commonly involves removing an old discoloured varnish from a paint layer and the changes are often visually dramatic. Natural resin varnishes such as dammar and mastic turn yellow over time, turning blue skies green, and white drapery a dirty yellow, which can be transformed with cleaning.
John Richardson’s seminal article following the Picasso retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1980 titled The Crimes against the Cubists (New York review of Books 30, no.10 (1983):32-34) was one of the first to describe the alterations caused by varnishing of intentionally matt paint surfaces, and describes the ways art history can be changed by the simple act of varnishing.
After conservation treatment
Conservators at QAGOMA have been lucky to treat some extraordinary paintings by Ian Fairweather. On one of these paintings Head c.1955, the thin cardboard support of the painting had been adhered to a solid support (chipboard), and the painting had been varnished. Fixing the thin cardboard support to a more solid support, although not generally advisable or reversible, is not such a bad idea. We know that Fairweather sometimes used paints that did not stick very well and had the tendency to crumble. Paintings that remain on their thin cardboard supports are now the most fragile.
Head c.1955 is likely painted in a combination of polyvinyl acetate house paints and other media and fillers, and is somewhat robust compared to many of his other paintings. Conservation treatment involved carefully checking the paint surface under various illuminations (visible light, Ultraviolet light and Infrared reflectography) to identify repairs and weak parts of the painting. It was checked under the microscope for paint instability, and flaking paint was consolidated with a conservation-grade glue.
It was decided that the varnish, although well-intended, was not original to the painting, so tests were undertaken to remove it. This is a slow and careful process, but a satisfying one.
Ultraviolet light image
Varnish removal process
Varnishing matt paintings was most often undertaken to hide damages and repairs and to make the painting more dramatic and slick. As you can see in these images, the paint surface revealed after cleaning is more subtle in its colours than the varnished surface.
A large area of overpaint disguising damage was also identified. In this case the varnish residue left under the overpaint assisted in protecting the original paint while the overpaint was mechanically removed. You can see here, with the overpaint removed, the repair was much larger than the damage. This damage was filled with paper pulp and inpainted with watercolour to match the gloss of the surface.
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Featured image detail: Ian Fairweather Head c.1955