Les Demoiselles: Conserving a Modern Masterpiece MoMA.org: The Museum of Modern Art Les Demoiselles: Conserving a Modern Masterpiece
IntroductionHistory of the PaintingAnalysis & Previous TreatmentsTreatment 2003/04Phase 1: Treatment AnalysisPhase 2: CleaningPhase 3: RetouchingAsk The ConservatorGlossaryBibliographyConservation Home

Treatment 2003/04
Phase 2: Cleaning

The first step will be to remove a layer of superficial airborne grime that has accumulated since the work was last surface cleaned twenty years ago. This treatment will also allow the surface to be examined closely in order to detect Varnish Removalany minor conditions that may have been overlooked. Removing the surface grime also will permit the underlying discolored varnish and Overpaint Removalwax to be removed more effectively and evenly.

A mixture of organic solvents applied with cotton swabs will allow the painting to be "devarnished" in a safe and controllable manner. Tests have indicated this will result in an appreciable improvement in surface quality and color saturation, and an overall appearance closer to what Picasso intended [see: Varnish Removal]. The exact combination of solvents used will depend on solubility tests and knowledge gained from previous treatment of several wax-infused and varnished paintings in MoMA's collection. Glue residues will be softened using an enzyme gel and then mechanically removed. Discolored retouchings will also be removed during the cleaning [see: Retouching Removal].

Update March 2004

Phase two of the treatment of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is continuing with the removal of surface coatings. Discolored layers of synthetic varnish and wax from the 1950 and 1963 treatments are being dissolved using organic solvents, which do not affect Picasso’s oil paint. In the 1950 treatment the water-soluble retouching was liberally applied, in some cases covering Picasso’s original paint as well as damages. These areas of restoration paint are now being removed, revealing original paint below. These areas have been documented with photographs [see: Conservator’s Update March 2004] in anticipation of phase three of the restoration, when the retouching of losses will be done. As of mid March 2004 the varnish has been removed from three-quarters of the painting’s surface with only the standing (curtain-pulling) figure still to be done. Some glue residue remains, and this is being reduced to the extent safely possible using a water-based gel mixed with enzymes.

Update June 2004

Phase two of the conservation treatment was completed in June 2004. At this time, all of the restoration materials from the 1924, 194850, and 1963 treatments have been removed from the surface, allowing Picasso’s true palette and methods of paint handling to be appreciated.

Without the discolored wax resin and synthetic coating, the surface has regained a freshness and vitality, as if a gray filter had been removed from in front of the painting [see: Conservator’s Update June 2004]. This is evident in the images shown here. Paige Knight in the Department of Photographic Services captured these digital images documenting the beginning and end of Phase 2 under the same lighting conditions. The true shift of tone in the conserved paint surface can be appreciated in these color-balanced images. Color balancing was done by adjusting the color until the standard color bar charts captured in each image matched. The image of the Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in its cleaned state provides a usefuOverpaint Removall document for the conservator of the exact surface condition before any restoration in Phase 3 commences. This baseline image provides a reference for future conservation and study.

Now that all old restoration paint has been removed, details of the left figure’s hand and the central figures’ torsos reveal the extent of the paint losses along the vertical cracks [see: Conservator’s Update June 2004, Details]. With the conclusion of Phase 2, the true condition of the surface can be evaluated and discussions with the curator can begin to determine how much restoration will be necessary to hide visually distracting conditions. With Picasso’s true palette revealed, discussions relating to framing, lighting, and installation will also begin in order to determine the best way to display Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the new galleries of the expanded MoMA.


Pictured at top:
Detail of the conservator's cotton swab removing dirt and grime. Note the gray dirt on the swab.

Copyright 2003 The Museum of Modern Art