Thursday, May 20, 2010

I've Seen This Painting Naked

Twelve years ago, I worked at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich. There, I catalogued incoming works and traced the provenance of paintings originally part of the royal Wittelsbacher collection. I also translated texts into English. At the time, the Alte Pinakothek was closed for renovations because the museum was getting an elevator to assist visitors who could not mount the 1,700 stairs that led to the second floor (the number of stairs is an exaggeration, but really, there were a lot of stairs.)

Later, I will tell you stories about how I used to climb out the window above my desk to get to the roof level of the Neue, where lavender grew lush and thick in sprawling planters.

Anyway, back to the painting I meant to write about here: the elevator shaft I mentioned previously bisected my curator’s exhibition area. This area consisted of intimate cubicle spaces, called ‘cabinets,’ that were filled with 17th century Flemish paintings—from comical genre scenes to opulent still lives. Around this time, the Doerner Institut was repairing--with beeswax and historically accurate, hand-mixed pigments--Albrecht Duerer’s “Paumgartner Altar” and “Mary as Grieving Mother,” which had been partially defaced by acid thrown on them by an angry visitor back in 1988.

I don’t remember what month it was…it was probably the middle of my tenure at the museum… but an X-Ray film reconstruction of Rubens' massive oil on panel “Massacre of the Innocents” was made on an equally huge lightbox built in one of the Neue's Doerner Institut rooms. It was amazing to see, everything in black and white and shades of gray. Thanks to the lead white Rubens used, which shows up very clearly in X-Rays, it was possible to see Rubens’ thought process, where he made changes, where he reconsidered compositional elements, painted over them, made them ostensibly disappear (but not to the all-seeing X-Ray). All his secrets and corset strings were revealed. Renger, the curator for whom I worked , said sagely in German as he pointed to the painting’s upper right hand corner: “ah...and here is a Friday to Monday job.”

I asked him what this meant, and he replied: he thought about it over night or maybe over a few days and decided to add a piece of wood here to change or otherwise enlarge the painting.

What Renger said was true. The dark portion of the painting, which looms behind the man holding the wailing baby aloft, has been added. The X-Ray made it clear that the wood was different, the seam between panels was evident. Perhaps something had been there before that Rubens disliked, an image he felt was somehow inferior and could not otherwise remove. Perhaps it was a pesky knot that showed even after layering it with paint. I had not noticed it until Renger pointed it out.

We could trace the movement of the figures, the forethought, the planning, but also the beauty of the mistakes. To have seen this is one of those rare things in my life that I will never forget; it's an experience I probably did not appreciate as much as I should have at the time. But I was young then. And now I know its value. In my mind, I often walk through that room, the hallways, and the storage areas of those buildings. I mentally gaze at everything I saw all those years ago and snapped with my mind’s eye like photographs.

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