In The Bedroom
March 15, 2010 9:35 AM   Subscribe

The Vincent Van Gogh Museum (previously) is undertaking a complete restoration of The Bedroom (or Bedroom in Arles), one of Van Gogh's best-known paintings. The staff members working on the restoration have started a blog to document the entire process.
posted by Horace Rumpole (20 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
I've always wondered what happens if something goes horribly awry in this sort of project (think Steve Wynn + elbow + "La Reve"). Is the process just so gradual that nothing truly horrendous can occur? If it did, who would get stuck with the lost value of the work?
posted by sallybrown at 9:52 AM on March 15, 2010


The blog is tremendous for only having a couple of entries so far. van Gogh has brought much joy to my life.
posted by maxwelton at 10:13 AM on March 15, 2010


Is the process just so gradual that nothing truly horrendous can occur?

Oh, it can occur. But a place like the Van Gogh museum has almost certainly got some of the best in the world on its staff, and the conservators I've worked with (book & paper rather than art) have just been fantastically skillful and careful.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:28 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


["Marriage at Cana" by Veronese] fell while workers were trying to raise it, museum officials said. Metal tubes of the support system ripped through the canvas in five places, officials said....The largest tear was four feet long, he said; one was three feet long and another two feet long. Another gash was torn in the bottom right corner, touching the cat that Veronese depicted playing with a vase. On the left, a long vertical rip runs through the balustrade and the figure of a man leaning on it. The bride's hair suffered a dent, but no tear.

That's pretty much a poop your pants moment, I would guess.
posted by sallybrown at 10:37 AM on March 15, 2010


Thanks for the links, Horace Rumpole! I love to read about restorations: art and building restoration, refurbishing old appliances and cars, recovering and restoring books and recordings and movies, anything that involves rescuing things from the past and returning them to use in the modern age holds a special fascination. Suck it, entropy!

But I wonder how restorations like this will effect the appreciation of art in the future. In our age we value a lot of things because they're the only works of a particular type that have survived from the distant past. (Like Roman frescoes, say. Each and every one of them is important to us because most were destroyed in previous eras.) But now we're carefully preserving the art that our time considers to be important, and if civilization survives there's an excellent chance that the majority of these preserved artworks will still be around in the future. But will future people value them as highly if there's warehouses packed full of this stuff? For instance, there's only one Van Gogh, but many artists have been inspired by him. What if, in the next five hundred years, eleven more artists come along that paint in a similar style and are considered to be of equal artistic merit? Would that make the original Van Gogh paintings only one twelfth as relevant? Or will the originals always have a place above anyone that comes along later?
posted by Kevin Street at 10:38 AM on March 15, 2010


Would that make the original Van Gogh paintings only one twelfth as relevant? Or will the originals always have a place above anyone that comes along later?

The latter, I would think, unless the similar style is distant or inventive enough to seem original. If the similar style is too similar, the artist might be seen as nothing more than a skilled mimic--mechanically talented rather than a true artist.

(For a seriously fascinating story of a skilled mimc/forger, see Han van Meergeren, a guy so great at aping Vermeer that he convinced the Nazis to buy from him.)
posted by sallybrown at 10:47 AM on March 15, 2010


I don't understand why some things are considered 'restorable' and some are not. Many antiques, old coins, and the like, are absolutely not to be repainted or cleaned under any circumstances, lest they become near worthless. Their value lies in how untouched and authentic they are. However, it seems that works of art created as art, paintings in particular, often must be restored to keep their value. Such restoration includes deep cleaning and even painting over the original artist's brush strokes to repair damage. This does not make sense to me for some reason. It seems like at some point the painting will lose its authenticity and simply become a reproduction of the now-lost original.
posted by zsazsa at 10:50 AM on March 15, 2010


ZOMG, THNX.

The Bedroom at Arles is the piece that made me want to be an artist, at the budding age of 6. I love it so much, I could marry it. I don't know what it is about that one piece more than any other work of art I was exposed to as a kid, but there it is. Maybe it's because I could imagine living in it, in some parallel universe, that made me want to create my own parallel universes. Anyhow, I'm super excited that it's being restored and written about on the intertubes.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:53 AM on March 15, 2010


However, it seems that works of art created as art, paintings in particular, often must be restored to keep their value. Such restoration includes deep cleaning and even painting over the original artist's brush strokes to repair damage.

I have wondered about this sometimes, but I think that the idea is that these works of art are valuable as cultural artifacts over and above their value as historical artifacts, i.e. The Bedroom at Arles is valuable because it is an amazing painting, communicating emotions through color and composition in a beautiful and influential way, rather than because it's something that Van Gogh touched or made. There's certainly a very fuzzy border between these two valuation systems (especially when museums display sketches from Picasso's notebook, Seurat's studies for Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, etc.) and some of this gets into my ongoing rant about museums as arbitrary arbiters of cultural worth, but that's a huge derail that I won't elaborate on here.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:03 AM on March 15, 2010


It's interesting to note that Van Gogh himself made two copies of The Bedroom (as it says on the blog) and all three versions of the painting are on display in different museums. So it seems that some of the artwork's value does come from the fact that an artist physically created it.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:16 AM on March 15, 2010


Well, like I said, it's a pretty fuzzy border, and there's certainly a level of cachet that comes with a museum saying that they have 27 Van Goghs, 18 Monets, 31 Picassos, etc. that adds a level of economics and politics into the desirability of these things as artifacts. But I like to think that, on their better days, museum curators recognize that the value of having any particular painting diminishes significantly if you can't see what it's supposed to look like due to centuries of grime and paint cracking et al.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:22 AM on March 15, 2010


Oh, definitely. The whole notion of identity (or authenticity, as zsazsa put it) is something that can never be completely realized in the world we live in. As long as things break down and decay they have to change with time, and even restoration can't prevent that. But I guess there's a sort of continuity of identity that we recognize as being equally important as the thing itself. As long as the changes are minor and close to undetectable (like the restorer repainting a damaged spot with the same color) we tend to regard them as inconsequential.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:30 AM on March 15, 2010


Which prompts a whole host of Ship of Theseus-type questions (especially see Douglas Adam's remarks on the Golden Pavilion Temple).
posted by shakespeherian at 11:45 AM on March 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Which prompts a whole host of Ship of Theseus-type questions

If you replace one member of the Temptations at a time, are they still the Temptations?
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:56 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why is this particular painting so popular? (Other than the artist's name attached to it.)
posted by Malice at 12:59 PM on March 15, 2010


Malice: If you've never seen this particular painting (any of the three versions that exist) in person, you should definitely make an effort to if you have any opportunity. Like most oil paintings, but especially Van Goghs, it's impossible to do justice to the colors with prints or photocopies or jpegs-- the blue of the walls in positively luminous in a neon-glowing-bright-blue-crayon way; it's like seeing a color for the first time that you'd only ever heard about, somehow. Like all Van Gogh paintings, the yellows are electric, but it's really the blue walls that impact me every time I see it.

I mean, I could talk about the technical aspects of the painting. On a compositional level, there's an interplay of paired objects and single objects, and the bed, while being the largest and most prominent object in the painting, also features a sharp diagonal that draws the eye into the rest of the painting, where most of the detail lies, which allows the eye to dance around the room taking in the coat rack, the frames on the wall, the chairs, etc. The prominence of the floor coupled with a normal perspective of the rest of the room creates an unreal sense of space that functions more like a dream, or a vivid memory, something that is detailed but unable to contain in a single thought.

But really I keep coming back to that blue of the walls. Part of this probably is because of Van Gogh's name, and because it's fairly well-known that he lived a pretty shitty, miserable life. Those walls are so goddam joyful that the entire room in the painting reverberates with emotion and a sort of restless calm.

Pretty much none of this comes through in reproductions, though, as I said. But it's a great painting.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:19 PM on March 15, 2010


On the one hand, it's great they are blogging about the restoration. However, I'm miffed I won't get to see it next month.
posted by ersatz at 3:18 PM on March 15, 2010


I don't understand why some things are considered 'restorable' and some are not. Many antiques, old coins, and the like, are absolutely not to be repainted or cleaned under any circumstances, lest they become near worthless. Their value lies in how untouched and authentic they are. However, it seems that works of art created as art, paintings in particular, often must be restored to keep their value. Such restoration includes deep cleaning and even painting over the original artist's brush strokes to repair damage. This does not make sense to me for some reason. It seems like at some point the painting will lose its authenticity and simply become a reproduction of the now-lost original.

You've touched on the heart of the debate. The restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and other works by Michelangelo and Da Vinci garnered significant opposition from some quarters. In fact, the dark, dirty appearance of the Sistine Chapel frescoes had become part of their conventional-wisdom interpretation. When the bright colors were revealed, some of the opponents thought that they had been ruined forever. My own opinion, which is widely shared, is that the restored appearance is so striking it must have been intentional.

Curatorially, in a museum setting, something that is of archaeological value is usually presented as is (as excavated). In rare cases would an entire pottery be found, let alone be assemblable, but when that is the case it may be done using modern techniques. The rule is generally that the technique should either be invisible, or if that is impossible, be very visible -- that is, be obviously a modern material bridging a gap, rather than pretending to be authentically ancient.

But most items in historical collections are maintained for their association with a person, place, or social movement, and the original appearance may not be the point. A lamp may have a torn or rotted shade, for instance. If it's to be placed in an historical setting, the lamp shade would probably be replaced in as authentic a reproduction as possible. The lamp per se is not the shade, the overall Victorian setting may be what is desired.

Cleaning is inherently risky, and we have a long history of amateurish or unscientific approaches to cleaning or restoring artifacts. Often the first priority of a restorer is to undo what had been done in the past. The level of detail where you're duplicating or removing brushstrokes is obviously going to be where some judgement comes into play. If the tear is not itself historic -- say, Prince Mazursky looted the palace and slashed it in 1797 -- then disguising it (in public terms) will be paramount. Behind the scenes, though, the repair will be done in such a way that it is obvious what has been done and such that undoing it will be possible to future curators.
posted by dhartung at 5:07 PM on March 15, 2010


I went to the Vincent Van Gogh museum on my honeymoon and the two things that struck me most was how crowded European museums can be (do you mind standing back six feet from the painting!) and how dull a museum solely focused on Van Gogh can be. I love the guy but what a lack of variety in a museum!
posted by furtive at 9:20 PM on March 15, 2010


how dull a museum solely focused on Van Gogh can be

what

The man had several different phases which are demonstrated in his oeuvre, all quite different. And all of it painted in a single decade, more or less. I have never been but could probably spend at least a week in the museum, assuming it wasn't packed.
posted by maxwelton at 3:02 AM on March 16, 2010


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