As indicated in the previous posts in this series, MoMA paintings conservators Cindy Albertson, Anny Aviram, and Michael Duffy have been studying five Magritte paintings for the past two years in preparation for Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938.
MoMA’s painting The Menaced Assassin was first exhibited at the Galerie Le Centaure in Brussels in 1927. This work, along with The Secret Player, were the two largest paintings Magritte had completed to date, leading some scholars to speculate that they are pendants. The subject is a crime scene: a female corpse with blood around the mouth lies on a red chaise lounge in a room while a man listens to a phonograph. Two bowler-hatted men, one with a cudgel and the other with a net, flank the doorway to the room while three men appear outside a window and peer over a balcony railing.
The Menaced Assassin was acquired by MoMA in 1966 after being on display in a casino in coastal Belgium for about 10 years. MoMA conservators at the time described the surface as moldy and recommended cleaning, surface varnishing, and wax-lining in an attempt to stabilize the painting. At the time, varnishing with synthetic resins was promoted as a way to seal off the paint surface from any airborne dust or grime and also to provide an even surface that was judged to be aesthetically pleasing. Paintings were also routinely wax lined to stabilize the canvas support, even if no tears or significant distortions were present. This type of treatment is today considered too invasive and generally used only when more minimal treatments are not effective enough. In addition, conservators at the time disguised the “mold” spots on The Menaced Assassin by covering them with restoration paint to make them less visually distracting. After 40+ years these restoration materials had aged and discolored, compromising the surface appearance.
We decided to completely reverse this early treatment in time for the current Magritte exhibition. After removing wax, synthetic varnish, and the discolored inpainting, we can all appreciate Magritte’s true palette and brushwork. Details in the men’s bowler hats and suits were revealed, including glossy accents in the hats and shoulders of the suits. Magritte even highlighted the three small men’s heads in the window with varnish.
After treatment, the “mold” spots were reevaluated under magnification. They appeared as spidery, dark cracks, which likely developed as part of the drying process of the thin paint. Another phenomenon was also observed: minuscule bright white droplets on the surface, which had emerged from the cracks. In order to determine what was happening we turned to MoMA conservation scientist Ana Martins. Ana determined that the white droplets were not a byproduct of mold attack but in fact a manifestation of a different paint defect: deposits of zinc soaps. These soaps, which are the result of zinc combined with excess oil medium originated from beneath the paint layers, are known to occur in Old Master paintings but we were surprised to see this occurring in a painting from the 20th century.
Recent research by colleagues at the Tate and the Van Gogh Museum discovered that commercially prepared canvases in the early 20th century contained thick layers of zinc and lead in the priming layers applied at the factory on wide canvas rolls. Magritte was known to order such pre-primed canvases from Claessens in Belgium and stretch them himself on standard-size stretchers. Consultation with other conservation scientists familiar with oil-paint formulations confirmed that what we were seeing in The Menaced Assassin was in fact zinc soaps originating from the canvas-priming layer.
Anecdotal and physical evidence suggests that Magritte painted The Menaced Assassin very quickly with oil paint mixed with extra medium (typically linseed oil and natural resin thinned with turpentine) so that it flows off the brush and covers the canvas evenly so that it would be ready for his exhibition at Le Centaure. The result is a thinly painted surface that might have been more susceptible to the formation of such zinc soaps after spending years in a coastal (high humidity) environment prior to acquisition by MoMA. Such a condition may also have been accelerated by exposure to the heat involved with the wax-lining procedure done at MoMA to stabilize the painting.
Once we completed the removal of the discolored varnish and wax-resin residue we could appreciate the nuances of Magritte’s original palette. Yet even after treatment the presence of the soaps and associated patchy appearance was still visually distracting in areas. With this in mind a decision was made in consultation with Anne Umland, the exhibition curator, to do a minimum of inpainting in the most affected areas. This solution allowed for the appreciation of the composition without completely disguising the paint film defects. We will continue to monitor the surface in the coming months and years. We presume that in the museum environment the factors contributing to the soaps formation will be arrested and no further conservation intervention will be required to stabilize The Menaced Assassin in the near future.
The Menaced Assassin is currently on display in Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938, on view through January 12, 2014.