What Are Those Bare Spots On The Canvas?
Since I have been on a conservation/restoration kick, I thought I would continue … this month I will cover the issues associated with those bare spots in a painting, or what are commonly referred to as ‘skinning’ or ‘over cleaning’.
To begin, we need to understand the difference between what an artist intended to do, and what someone else may have done.
Throughout time, artists used different techniques to create a work of art. Among these techniques is the removal of paint from a work in order to expose the base coat, ground, or canvas weave, to create a desired effect. Edouard Cortes was such an artist and when examining his paintings, you often find areas where the ground, or canvas, shows through. At times he used it to give body to the clouds, depth to the shadows, or a rainy appearance to the streets. There is nothing wrong with this and are as the artist intended them to be.
However, there are times where the ground or canvas is showing and it was not done by the artist. In these cases it is more than likely that the work has been ‘skinned’ or ‘over-cleaned’.
Before I go further, it is important to understand exactly what these terms mean and how this happens. When a competent conservator/restorer cleans a work of art, they use a variety of chemicals to remove the old finishing varnish (the uppermost layer of the painting that protects the paint surface). Before cleaning the entire work, they will test a few areas along the edge to see how the varnish and underlying pigments react to various chemical mixtures. After the proper mixtures are determined, they will slowly remove the finishing varnish. Knowledgeable and talented conservators understand the different drying times of pigments and what chemicals are normally safe for works from different periods; once cleaned, only the finishing varnish and any previous in-painting will be removed.
But what about all those individuals who fancy themselves conservators, but do not have the in-depth knowledge needed to safely clean works from different periods? A work in their hands can sustain damage. Remember that strong chemicals are used to clean a work of art and using mixtures that are safe for a 150 year old painting might have disastrous results on a work that is only 50 years old … and vice-versa.
The terms ‘skinning’, ‘skinned’, ‘over-cleaned’ and ‘over-cleaning’ are used interchangeably to describe a condition where the original paint has been removed by someone other than the artist. This could be as minimal as removing a visually imperceptible amount of paint from the upper layers, to actually removing enough paint to expose the ground or canvas. Skinning can also happen to works that have never been restored … I am sure you are wondering: How is that possible? During my career I have seen a number of paintings where a housekeeper used furniture dust rags (which had furniture polish on them) to dust the front of a painting. Over time, these chemically soaked rags did ‘clean’ the painting … cleaning off areas of the original paint and skinning the work. Not a pretty sight.
Once a painting has been skinned, there are only two options … one is to leave the areas as they are, letting the skinned areas show, or paint over the damaged areas, thereby covering them up in an attempt to return the work to its original look. Either way, depending on the extent of the damage, the value of the work may have been altered.
Today, people often ask about a work’s condition; more specifically inquiring about the amount of in-painting. An honest individual will detail any condition issues that exist. But what we are seeing more and more of, especially with works that are being offered in the public forums, are paintings that have been skinned and not in-painted. You might ask – why? Well, if the damages are not in-painted, then the condition report will state that there is no in-painting. If there is no in-painting, then most people’s thoughts are that the work is in good condition … and this can be very deceptive because a work that displays extensive areas of over-cleaning, is not in good condition.
We all know that having a little knowledge can be dangerous … and when trying to determine a work’s condition this saying is never more fitting. As a buyer, you need to be conscious of all the subtle differences in the terminology utilized to describe a work’s condition. Aside from those already mentioned, others include ‘thinning’, ‘thinned areas’ or ‘heavily abraded’; which are also used to denote over-cleaning.
As with any condition problem, the extent of the ‘over-cleaning’ (damage) will determine how much value, if any, has been lost. A painting with some minor skinning in the background areas, or in a relatively unimportant part of the painting might still be classified as in fine condition and there should be little change in the work’s value. On the other hand, if the central focus, or large areas, of the work has been skinned, then a detailed analysis of the damage needs to be made to determine how much value has been lost.
In the end it is important to be aware that just because a condition report states that the work has little or no in-painting, does not mean that it is in good condition. There is more to it than what is written on a piece of paper … at times, it is what is not written!
Art Market Update
Over the next two months I will attempt to update you on the state of the art, and some other, markets.
Since my last report there have been many impressive results in Europe and the Modern, Impressionist and Contemporary markets are still running hot … actually, I think the word ‘scalding’ would be more appropriate for some of them.
As always, one of my favorite Contemporary artists leads the pack … Maurizio Cattelan (b.1960). I now wonder why my parents didn’t push me into the world of creating, rather than selling, the art. Since I was born in 1959, my work could have been part of this movement! In 1995 Mr. Cattelan created Untitled (Zorro), a 4 foot by 4 foot green canvas on which he slashed the letter Z … much like Zorro did in his movies (it is interesting to note that the Italian artist Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) first created these ‘slashed canvases’ in the 1950s and 1960s and while a major example can bring in excess of $2 million, a majority of the works can be acquired in the $300,000 - $1,000,000 range). Maurizio’s work was estimated at £120,000 – £180,000 … but when all dust settled, the new owner paid £568,000 ($988,000) … heck, you could have acquired one of Fontana’s works for that price – Go Maurizio! Just in case you were wondering, Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spaziale, Attese, a 39 x 32 inch canvas with 5 slashes in it (2 more than Cattelan’s Zorro), sold for £680,000 ($1.182 million).
Continuing with the red-hot results, Francis Bacon’s 13 ½ x 11 ¼ inch Self-portrait (estimate £1.4 - £1.8 million) cost the new owner £5.16 million ($8.97 million); Lucien Freud’s 1996 Portrait of Bruce Bernard sold for £4.15 million ($7.22 million); and Andy Warhol’s 1981-82 Dollar Sign sold for an over-the-top price of £2.58 million ($4.49 million); just 4 months earlier as similar Dollar Sign work by Warhol sold in New York for $1.15 million (£760,000) – go figure! Warhol seemed to be the ‘flavor of the week’ and among the many works offered, his Last Supper commanded £2.69 million ($4.68 million); Marilyn Monroe (1967 set of 10 silkscreen) brought £624,000 ($1.08 million); his small Mao (26 x 22 inches) cost £568.000 ($988,000) and his larger Mao (50 x 42 inches) made £1.46 million ($2.54 million).
In the Modern and Impressionist worlds, strong prices were also achieved … Paul Gauguin’s Deux femmes made £12.32 ($21.57 million); Edvard Munch’s Summer Day made an auction record £6.17 ($10.79 million); Egon Schiele’s 1917 Kniender weiblicher Halbakt – which features a nude kneeling woman – brought an astounding £4.15 million ($7.2 million) … I say astounding, because the work was reported to be in poor condition; Chaim Soutine’s Le boeuf écotché, featuring a rather unattractive bloody side of beef hanging from chains, brought an auction record £7.85 million ($13.77 million) – definitely not something my wife would let me hang in the living roomJ! And Ernst L. Kirchner’s Frauenbildnis in weiddem Kleid made an auction record £4.9 million ($7.3 million).
Across the board, the sales in Europe did exceedingly well. The Contemporary, Modern, and Impressionist Art Trains still appear to be running at full speed with over £217 million ($362 million) worth of art changing hands. Nonetheless, my feelings are that at some point the Contemporary Train will run out of track … I just hope it slows down before that happens.
Howard L. Rehs
© Rehs Galleries, Inc., New York –April 2006
Gallery Updates: We are very pleased to inform you that since our last sales update the gallery has sold Arthur J. Elsley’s Safely Guarded; Eugene Boudin’s Le Port, Anvers; Louis Aston Knight’s Beaumontel & The Blue Cottage; Charles T. Frere’s Fontaine Sidi Yacoub; Fritz Zuber-Buhler’s Young Girl by the Lake; Antoine Blanchard’s Café de la Paix, Place de l’Opera & Place de la Madeleine, marché aux fleurs; Vincent Clare’s Grapes in a Basket; Oliver Clare’s A Still Life of Flowers; Ugo Giannini’s Harlequin for Leger; Sally Swatland’s Summer Hollyhocks; Gregory Harris’ A Still Morning and 4 paintings by John Kuhn.
Web Site Updates: New works by the following artists have been added to the web site: Jean B.C. Corot, Louis Aston Knight, Antoine Blanchard, Edouard Cortes, Sally Swatland and Ugo O. Giannini.
Next Month: More on the Art Market!