Murals conserved for art gallery reopening

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Photo by Jessica Smolinski.

This is a three-part series exploring art restoration at Yale as the Yale University Art Gallery’s ongoing renovation provides increasing gallery space for the University’s more than 185,000 permanent collection pieces. Part 1 investigates the process of bringing art out of storage through the lens of the nineteenth-century Huntington murals. Part 2 probes the innovative techniques used and created by Yale conservators during the restoration of works like a fragmented sixth-century Byzantine mosaic found in the 1930s. Part 3 considers the art that conservation forgot.

When the newly hired curator of American paintings and sculpture took her first tour of Yale’s art storage facility 31 years ago, she found a set of damaged canvases wrapped up and rolled around two-by-four blocks of wood. She realized that the paintings, which had been there for 50 years, were some of the only surviving works from the first years of the late 19th-century American muralist movement.

“I quickly saw they were in very fragile condition, and that we wouldn’t be able to display them immediately,” Helen Cooper said. “But I said to myself, ‘Someday I would like to conserve these and exhibit them.’”

The murals, taken from the Huntington mansion in New York, are among Yale’s many art holdings that will finally get their day in the sun when the Art Gallery reopens in late 2012.

Conservators routinely mine the archives to see what else might be fit for exhibition; in 2005, they discovered a painting in the University’s storage unit that caused a stir when it was officially attributed to Spanish master Diego Velazquez this summer. But while a large portion of the gallery’s collection will soon be moved from the Hamden storage unit into the renovated and expanded Art Gallery, the new space cannot house all of the University’s holdings. Only so many pieces can receive the full conservation they need due to the department’s small staff and limited resources, said Patricia Garland, the gallery’s paintings conservator.

Before the University’s conservation department was able to give them a second life, the 31 Huntington murals, comprised of 28 semi-circular lunettes and three ceiling paintings, spent 85 years at Yale in storage and on the walls of a secret society.

MAKING HISTORY

In their previous life, the murals graced the home of railroad tycoon Collis Huntington. He commissioned the murals as part of the 1893 construction of his family’s Fifth Avenue mansion, tapping turn-of-the-century American painters Elihu Vedder, Harry Mowbray and Edwin Blashfield to complete the works. Before the estate was demolished — Tiffany & Co. now stands in its place — the murals were torn from the walls and ceilings and donated to Yale by Huntington’s stepson Archer Huntington, who had received an honorary degree from the University in 1926.

The paintings are rare samples from the early days of the American mural movement, Cooper said. Though they are works done in oil on canvas, the artists gave their paintings of muses and other classical figures a matte surface in order to make them look like frescoes, conservation fellow Cynthia Schwarz said.

They were painted in the same year as murals created for the 1893 Chicago World Fair’s Columbian Exposition, which Schwarz said is regarded as the beginning of the American mural movement.

Mowbray and Blashfield both turned down invitations to paint murals for the exposition in favor of taking on Huntington’s private commission. And it is a good thing they chose to paint for Huntington — the building in which the Chicago murals hung was destroyed in a fire in 1894.

“[The Huntington murals] remain as the only surviving murals from that period,” Cooper said.

THE LIGHT OF DAY

Cooper’s dream to restore and display the murals finally became a reality when the Art Gallery announced in 2008 its plans to expand into Street Hall. While space was a limiting factor before, Cooper said, the addition of thousands of feet of wall space would finally give the murals a place to hang.

To decide what pieces would grace the walls of the renovated wing, the gallery’s curators developed priority lists for what they wanted to install in their galleries, Garland, the paintings conservator, said. The lists were reviewed by the conservation team to figure out which pieces most needed restoration.

Given the conservation department’s small staff and the Art Gallery’s fast-approaching deadline for reopening, not every piece can be treated, Garland said. Some pieces that could be in better condition are hung without treatment, based on where they fall on a curator’s priority list.

Though the Huntington murals were unexhibitable and in very poor condition relative to the other pieces in the gallery’s archives, their historical importance landed them the funding they needed for conservation.

“The project was set as a priority for [Cooper], so we had to figure out how to make it happen,” Garland said. “We couldn’t do it with just our staff.”

A grant from the Horowitz Foundation for the Huntington restoration gave Garland the budget to hire two fellows. With the extra hands, the murals could receive the attention they needed.

But not all pieces in the Gallery’s collection have been so lucky.

Though the Huntington murals will finally see the light of day, many pieces remain in storage. Cooper said she regularly sifts through the University’s holdings to reassess what could be put on view in the future, whether it is a new piece entirely or an old work on which the curators have found a new perspective.

“Tastes change,” she said. “Last year, you couldn’t give away Victorian paintings. There are things in storage that I may think look wonderful now, but 50 years ago wouldn’t have looked good.”

The gallery space’s displays are not set in stone, Garland said. Pieces are rotated in and out, she said, so while not every work can be on view at once, these changes will eventually bring more pieces into the public eye.

STAYING TRUE

When the paintings go up in 2012, they will be displayed in a way that evokes their original placement in the Huntington mansion. Architecturally, Street Hall is similar to the murals’ first home, having been constructed during the 1860s. Though the exhibition team cannot recreate the Huntington mansion entirely, Schwarz said that the stylistic parallels between the buildings make it easier to integrate the murals into the architecture in a way that is historically accurate.

Two ceiling murals, for instance, will be installed on the ceiling of the American decorative arts gallery, said Meaghan Monaghan, another conservation fellow working on the project. The eight-by-17 foot paintings would have originally been placed in a living room, making a gallery that houses furniture and other decorative works the ideal location for their installation.

In Street Hall’s American paintings gallery, the Mowbray lunettes will also be placed with reasonable historical accuracy. The paintings originally hung in the front entryway, 20 feet off the ground in an alcove lit by a skylight, Schwarz said. When they are moved to Street Hall, she said, they will be about 16 feet off the ground — again in a cove under a skylight.

“The artists painted the Huntington ceiling murals with the intention that viewers would see them from below, so being able to mount them on a ceiling seemed preferable to hanging them on a vertical wall,” John Gordon, the curator of American decorative arts, said.

But with only one ceiling painting complete in its treatment so far, Schwarz said the conservation team, with its limited staff, will require the full year before the gallery reopens to finish restoring the set of murals.

BRINGING THE MURALS TO LIFE

Time is not the only obstacle.

When the University’s conservators unrolled the paintings in 2008 to begin treatment, they found the works in varying states of distress. Garland said the team has dealt with a range of issues, from simply cleaning off surface dirt to contending with tears and the removal of ultra-sticky white lead paint from the backs of the canvases.

Many of the paintings’ current problems stem from being mounted on the walls of the Huntington mansion.

“When they were attached, nobody thought about the fact that they have to come down,” Garland said.

Garland said the conservators will attach the canvases to the walls of the Art Gallery using entirely reversible methods. Schwarz has sandwiched removable adhesive and cushioning materials between the canvas and a sheet of aluminum honeycomb, which is used in airplane flooring. The material is strong but light, Schwarz said, perfect for fixing a large canvas to a wall or ceiling.

The team is still testing cleaning methods to determine the best course of action. One difficulty is that the matte paint has absorbed more dirt than a varnished painting would, Monaghan said.

Among the possible cleaning procedures is something called “spit cleaning,” in which synthetically produced saliva is used as a cleaning agent. Monaghan said human saliva is particularly good for cleaning off dirt, as it is gentle while containing useful enzymes.

Subtleties in the state of each painting make planning a timeline for their conservation tricky: one Mowbray required one month for the lead paint removal, while another took the conservators four months, Schwarz said. But though the murals still require a good deal of work, they all need to be finished in time for the gallery’s reopening next year, when they will be displayed as part of Yale’s revamped collection.

For the second installment of this three-part series — a look at computer-controlled conservation techniques — see tomorrow’s News.

Correction: February 22, 2011

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of John Stuart Gordon, the Benjamin Attmore Hewitt Assistant Curator of American Decorative Arts.

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