Research

 

 

Wassily Kandinsky

In collaboration with two international partners—the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York—the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau, Munich, presented a retrospective featuring chief works of the eminent Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky. The show, which included ninety-five paintings, opened at the Lenbachhaus and Kunstbau in October 2008 and subsequently traveled to Paris and New York. In Munich, it was complemented by an exhibition of Kandinsky’s entire oeuvre of prints.
The film “Kandinsky: Ich sehe was, was Du nicht siehst” - amongst others with informations about his technique of painting, is available on DVD in our online shop.

 

 

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Kandinsky—Absolut. Abstrakt

Thanks to the generous donation made by Gabriele Münter in 1957, the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus has the world’s largest collection of early works by Wassily Kandinsky. The exhibition presents seventeen paintings from this collection. Conservation and restoration work in preparation for the presentations in Munich, Paris, and New York, which included ensuring that the paintings were fit for transportation, began a full year before the show opened.

The standard procedure includes examining the paintings to determine the technical details of their facture and to record their state of preservation. Restorers are assisted by optical implements such as magnifying glasses and stereomicroscopes. Certain phenomena (such as later touch-ups) are revealed with particular clarity by ultraviolet light (see figs. 1 and 2) or infrared light and a special camera. Samples were taken from a very small number of paintings for a chemical analysis of the pigments and binding agents used by the artists.

 

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PAINTING TECHNIQUE

We will limit ourselves to one example of the study of painting technique: a small area of the painting Red Spot II (see figs. 1, 2, 3, and 4).

Starting around 1909, Kandinsky created almost all his paintings on canvases prepared with white primer. The following detail views illustrate how he proceeded. The layer of yellow paint (fig. 3) is part of the yellow arc shape in the left part of the picture (see fig. 1). Several long and narrow blue ovals are superimposed on this arc, while a brown circle lies beneath it near the left end. Inspection with the stereomicroscope revealed that this brown circle was the last element in this ensemble of shapes to be painted—it was added after both the yellow and the blue shapes were in place. The tiny puncture in the layer of yellow paint was left by the spike of a compass. Another detail view (fig. 4) shows that the pencil line drawn using the compass, rather than describing a complete circle, elides the existing blue and yellow areas. So Kandinsky’s purpose was solely to mark the circular shape to be painted brown. The puncture in the yellow paint, in other words, does not constitute damage to the painting; far from being an imperfection, it offers important insight into how Kandinsky worked.

 

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CONSERVATION

After studying the facture of each painting, we examined its state of preservation very carefully to determine which conservative measures, if any, needed to be taken to prevent damage.

For example, several pictures evinced damage (fig. 5) caused by vibration during transport or climate variation, which may cause layers of paint to shift, leading to the formation of fissures or cracks or reduced adhesion between different layers.

In this instance, a fine web of cracks (craquelure) has formed in some areas of the painting, and the small islands of paint have begun to curl and detach from the substratum. To prevent a partial loss of the paint layer, an adhesive (fixative) is injected beneath detached paint layers (fig. 6). Excessive adhesive is removed from the surface, and the islands or their edges are gently pressed down to reattach them firmly to the undercoat. This allows us to clean the surface and remove loose dust and even stubborn flyspecks without endangering the paint (fig. 7).

Several paintings required another intervention: the removal of fly and spider excrement (figs. 8 and 9). The paintings were displayed in frames without glass well into the 1980s, leaving them unprotected against insects. Removing this excrement was desirable for aesthetic as well as conservational reasons: the deposits may generate enough mechanical tension to produce cracks in the surrounding paint and detach it from the underlying layer.

 

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PREVENTIVE MEASURES

Preventive measures are primarily steps taken to ensure the preservation of the object without intervention into the object itself, by modifying its immediate environment. In addition to preventing climate variability, which can cause mechanical tension in the materials, creating the risk of partial loss of the paint layer, glass covers can protect paintings against a variety of problems. They prevent contamination with dust, insect excrement, and saliva, but also keep away the curious fingers of museum visitors and other sources of mechanical damage. Some glasses also shield against damaging UV rays and are shatterproof, eliminating the risk of breakage due to unexpected concussion.

Another preventive measure that can help protect paintings on canvas is the addition of a back cover made of acid-free cardboard that will buffer against damage due to mechanical impact to the back of the work. To protect paintings against vibration of the canvas during transport, which may destabilize paint layers, a polyester lining is inserted into the narrow space inside the stretcher frame between the back of the canvas and the cardboard back cover to steady the canvas (fig. 10).

Especially delicate paintings may be permanently protected against climate variability by transforming the decorative frame into a climate frame (fig. 11). Thin panels of a moisture-proof synthetic material are applied to the front of the glass pane as well as the back of the painting. The sides of this “sandwich” are insulated with aluminum foil, creating a complete barrier against the surrounding air: the painting is enclosed in a sealed “display case.” The materials immediately surrounding the painting provide additional buffers and insulation against changes in temperature and relative humidity.

 

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DECORATIVE FRAMES

Several paintings were reframed for conservational reasons. In addition, a number of old but not original decorative frames were exchanged for the exhibition (fig. 12). The designs of the new frames are based on historic frames (such as those visible in the photographs that were on display in the exhibition “Gabriele Münter—Photographien aus der Zeit mit Kandinsky und dem Blauen Reiter,” February 10–June 3, 2007), but also meet conservational requirements.

The exhibition “Kandinsky—Absolut. Abstrakt” featured altogether ninety paintings by Wassily Kandinsky, seventeen of them from the collection of the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau. Each of these paintings was carefully prepared; all conservation measures were documented in writing as well as photographs.

Ulrike Fischer

 

Fig. 1: Red Spot II, 1921, total view, normal illumination
Fig. 2: Red Spot II, 1921, total view, UV fluorescence view
Fig. 3: Red Spot II, 1921, detail view, bottom left part of the picture, yellow paint layer
Fig. 4: Red Spot II, 1921, detail view, bottom left part of the picture, pencil mark
Fig. 5: Improvisation 19, 1911, detail view, craquelure with curled paint islands
Fig. 6: Improvisation 19, 1911, detail view, injection of liquid fixative
Fig. 7: Improvisation 19, 1911, detail view, after fixation, cleaning, and retouching
Fig. 8: Improvisation 26 (Rowing), 1912, detail view, flyspecks
Fig. 9: Improvisation 26 (Rowing), 1912, detail view, after removal of flyspecks
Fig. 10: Improvisation 19, 1911, anti-vibration polyester lining
Fig. 11: A Colorful Life, 1907, historic decorative frame with back-mounted climate protection frame
Fig. 12: Improvisation 26 (Rowing), design and sample molding

 
Further reading on the painting techniques of Wassily Kandinsky and other representatives of the Blue Rider:

Rudolf H. Wackernagel, “Kandinsky—ein Vertreter der ‘modernen Temperamalerei,’” in Kandinsky: Werkverzeichnis der Aquarelle, vol. 1: 1900–1921, ed. Vivian Endicott Barnett (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1992), 19–20.

Rudolf H. Wackernagel, “‘Bei “Öl” auch Aquarell …, bei “Aquarell” auch Öl usw.’: Zu Kandinskys Ateliers und seinen Maltechniken,” in Das Bunte Leben: Wassily Kandinsky im Lenbachhaus, exh. cat., Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau, ed. Helmut Friedel (Cologne: DuMont, 1996), 547ff.

Rudolf H. Wackernagel, “‘Ich werde die Leute … in Öl und Tempera beschwindeln …’: neues zur Maltechnik Wassily Kandinskys,” Zeitschrift für Kunsttechnologie und Konservierung, 11, no. 1 (1997), 97ff.

Ulrike Fischer, Heike Stege, Daniel Oggenfuss, Cornelia Tilenschi, Susanne Willisch, Iris Winkelmeyer: “‘… I came to understand how to translate nature into colour according to the fire in my soul’: Alexej Jawlensky’s painting technique in his Munich oeuvre,” in The Object in Context: Crossing conservation boundaries. Contributions to the Munich Congress, 28 August–1 September 2006, ed. David Saunders, Joyce H. Townsend, and Sally Woodcock (London: International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 2006), 49ff.