Monday, 29 November 2010

The Restoration of Adam and Eve

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Adam and Eve (1507)
Museo del Prado, Madrid
The magnificent pair of panels of Adam and Eve by Dürer are once again on dispay in the Prado Museum in Madrid, after two years of intensive restoration work on their pictorial surfaces and panels. The restoration of the panels has been undertaken by a team of international experts, coordinated between the Prado and the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles, which funded the restoration of the delicate supports of the two paintings. For one of them an ingenious technical solution has been necessary for its stabilisation. To draw public attention to the complex work done on both panels, the two works will be exhibited specially for four months in a different location to their usual one, with a special exhibition display sponsored by the Fundación Iberdrola, patron of the Museum’s restoration program.

Video (in Spanish): Overview of the restoration project by Gabriele Finaldi, Deputy Director of Conservation, and Pilar Silva Maroto, Head of the Department of Flemish Painting (1400-1600) and of Spanish Painting (1100-1500)

In 1507, following his second trip to Venice, Dürer painted the life-size figures of Adam and Eve, defining the figures with a fluid and continuous line. He replaced the Vitruvian proportional canon of eight heads with a more elegant one of nine heads and barely suggested the anatomical details of the figures. Their unstable poses and rhythmical movements, as well as their artificial gestures and self-absorbed expressions all anticipate Mannerism, an approach that Dürer would, however, soon abandon.

Video report by Informe Seminal (in Spanish): The resurrection of Adam and Eve

Albrecht Dürer
Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman (1505)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
While no documentary evidence survives regarding the commission for these works, it is thought that they were originally painted for the Town Hall of Nuremberg as they were to be found there in the late 16th century when the City Council gave them as a gift to the Emperor Rudolf II, who displayed them in the new gallery of his castle in Prague. Looted by the Swedes during the Sack of Prague (1648), the panels were moved to Stockholm. In 1654, following her abdication, Christina of Sweden (who did not appreciate northern painting) gave them to Philip IV of Spain, a great lover of painting.

When they arrived in Madrid the panels were considered to be 'nudes' and as such were hung in the 'vaults of Titian', the summer quarters in the Alcázar that housed nudes by Titian, Rubens, Tintoretto, Ribera and other leading artists. Fortunately, this part of the Alcázar was little affected by the fire of 1734 and Dürer’s panels were taken to the Buen Retiro palace along with others saved from the disaster. In 1762 moral qualms led Charles III to add the paintings to a list of others considered 'indecent' and which were to be destroyed. The intervention of the court painter Mengs saved Dürer’s panels as he was able to convince the monarch that both paintings “were very useful for his pupils to study.” With this didactic purpose in mind, ten years later the two panels were taken to the Academia de San Fernando where they were stored away. They could only be seen without restrictions during the reign of Joseph Bonaparte (1809-1813), when they were hung in the Sala de Juntas for the purposes of “study by the pupils of the Academy and delight for lovers of the fine arts.” The paintings entered the Prado in 1827 and were kept in the closed store where nudes were housed until 1838, at which date they were incorporated into the display of works on view to the public.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait aged 26 (1498)
Museo del Prado, Madrid
These two panels are masterpieces within Dürer’s oeuvre, as well as outstanding examples of the monumental nude. They are, however, more than just an exaltation of nude flesh and both involve an underlying moral reflection. On the cartouche that hangs from the branch of the tree in the Eve panel and which includes the artist’s name, anagram and the date of the work, the words post Virginis partum [after the Virgin gave birth] refer to Mary as the 'new Eve', the immaculate Virgin, chosen by God to save mankind from the sin that Adam and Eve are about to commit.

Documentation exists on restorations undertaken on the paintings since the 18th century when they were in the Spanish royal collection. Having entered the Prado in 1827, they were restored in the mid-19th century and it is recorded that further work was undertaken on the Adam in the 20th century, when a cradle was attached to the back. The accumulation of these interventions ultimately resulted in a harsh, flat image that lacked the original enamelled effect achieved by the artist. Thick layers of dirt, oxidised varnishes and areas of repainting that had darkened over time covered the paint surfaces, concealing Dürer’s brushstrokes and original colouring. These old restorations also affected the panels and resulted in numerous vertical cracks, particularly in the Adam. The depth of that panel was reduced in order to attach a rigid structure to the back, after which the original wood could not move. The Eve panel had three new cross-bars nailed to it from the front in order to eliminate its natural curvature. The inevitable movement of the wood had resulted in distortions and bulging that in turn created shadows and irregularities on the paint surface and negatively affected Dürer’s forms. All these problems meant that restoration was considered necessary.

Albrecht Dürer, Feast of the Rose Garlands (1506)
(painted for the church of San Bartolomeo, Fondaco dei Tedeschi, Venice)
Národní Galerie, Prague
In 2004 the Prado organised an international meeting on the project to restore the Adam and Eve. It saw the participation of restorers from various institutions and was intended to establish the best way of approaching a project of this complexity and delicacy. In collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum conservator, George Bisacca and an engineer, research was undertaken to develop a new mechanism based on springs that would give Adam’s panel (one of which had been reduced in thickness and cradled in the past) greater structural resistance. The old cradle (a wooden grid stuck to the back of the original panel) was removed from the Adam and the numerous cracks that it had produced were closed up. Due to the fragility of that panel it was decided to attach a new, reinforcing structure that would respect the natural curvature of the wood and which was only attached to the original panel at a number of specific points, thus allowing it to move freely. The three, screwed-on cross-bars were removed from the Eve panel while the original surviving cross-bar was restored and laminated in order to adapt it to the curvature of the panel.

Restoration process of the panels of Adam and Eve by Dürer, with comments by José de la Fuente, restorer at the Museo Nacional del Prado and George Bisacca, restorer at the Metropolitan Museum of New York

Having stabilised the support and given the panels' smooth, continuous surfaces, work started on the delicate, complex task of restoring the paint surfaces, undertaken by Maite Dávila. Her work involved eliminating the incorrect contrasts and modifications visible in the paintings, as well as revealing the underdrawing, which the artist executed with a brush and a fluid medium. Of great complexity and refinement, this underdrawing was softened by Dürer through the application of fine glazes of flesh tones that served to emphasise the differences between the male and female nudes.

Restoration of the pictorial surface of Adam and Eve by Dürer, with comments by María Teresa Dávila, restorer at the Museo Nacional del Prado

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