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A masterpiece of the 20th century

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A masterpiece of the 20th century

Delve into the art of Pablo Picasso and discover the conservation project supported by EFG on The Studio (L’Atelier), 1928.

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In 1927–29 Pablo Picasso explored the theme of the studio in two works by the same title. The Studio of 1927–28 in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, presents an interesting contrast to the version of 1928 in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The chromatic variety and the formal and spatial complexity of the former are reduced to a bare minimum, creating a stark simplicity. The latter, instead, presents the vivid colors of Synthetic Cubism in a vast expanse of white. 

Indeed, the painting in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection shows geometric, wire-like contours that define figures in the manner of Picasso’s wire sculptures of the same period. The figures—a sculpted bust (on the left) and a full-length painted portrait (on the right)—remain ambiguous. However, the bust on the left seems sentient, while gazing at the figure framed in yellow, which can also be interpreted as an artist or more likely a model. The right-hand figure could be a female, given the biomorphic shape mounted on a circle that inextricably confuses eyes, shoulders and breasts. However, the lower torso is resolved into a circle and an arrow, the biological symbol for male. Behind this figure stands a stylized version of a table draped in a red tablecloth, its black contours perhaps doubling for the figure’s arms.

The history of the painting is remarkable. Soon after its completion in 1928, Picasso reworked it substantially by reducing the chromatic variety and the complexity of the composition. The evolution of Picasso’s thinking was ahead of his paintbrush, and on completion he had progressed beyond the work and subsequently decided to go back to it. Indeed, in 1929 Picasso gave it to his dealer, the legendary Daniel H. Kahnweiler, and five years later asked to have it back, exchanging it with five other paintings. 

While still in Picasso’s possession the painting was lent to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for two exhibitions organized by its director Alfred H. Barr: Picasso: 40 Years of His Art in 1939–40, and Masterpieces of Picasso in 1941. It seems that Picasso himself decided to keep the painting in America during the war, rather than to return it to Europe. This allowed Peggy Guggenheim to acquire it in 1942, as advised by her then-husband, the Surrealist artist Max Ernst. The painting hung in their East 61st Street home and later that same year was moved to Guggenheim’s museum-gallery Art of This Century. The U.S. painter Robert Motherwell, who had his first one-man exhibition at Art of This Century, wrote: “That painting was perhaps the most important influence on my life in those first ten years in New York. That incredible white... surely one of the most austere and powerful works since the height of Cubism... unquestionably one of the masterpieces of the 20th century”.

When Guggenheim closed her museum-gallery and decided to return to Europe, she brought the painting along with the rest of her collection to Venice and in 1948 exhibited it at the Biennale. It was then exhibited together with her collection in her home, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, which became the Peggy Guggenheim Collection after her death in 1979.

 

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Pablo Picasso, The Studio (L’Atelier), 1928, before (left) and after (right) the conservation treatment.

Conservation

At the end of the 1960s, to prevent dangerous cracking and flaking, the work was lined with wax and resin and mounted on a honeycomb panel. Over the years the “incredible white” described by Motherwell was compromised by deposits of dust, the emergence of wax from cracks and the yellowing and flattening effect of the varnish applied in the 1969 restoration.
The scientific progress in the field of conservation have made it possible to reconstruct the first version of the painting and to determine the sequence of Picasso’s pentimenti. In 2015 examinations of the painting unveiled the creative process underlying the work and helped to determine the most appropriate conservation treatment. The study and conservation of Picasso’s masterpiece have been made possible by the generous support of EFG, Institutional Patron of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Besides supporting prestigious institutions like the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and its projects, a passion for art is at the core of the EFG’s ethos.

 

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Conservation studies on Pablo Picasso, The Studio (L’Atelier), 1928.

Investigations and Treatment

The preliminary investigations, such as non-invasive macro X-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanning and reflection mid-FTIR spectroscopy measurements, were carried out with the technicians of the mobile laboratory, MOLAB of the CNR-ISTM of Perugia, that examined the painting in situ. One of the goals was to understand the composition of the paint underneath what is nowadays visible, that is Picasso’s first idea for the image. The response of the pigments to radiography highlighted in detail the painting underneath and provided an image of the precise distribution of the area Picasso overpainted.

A subsequent analytical study together with cleaning tests were carried out by Luciano Pensabene Buemi, Conservator of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, in collaboration with Carol Stringari, Deputy Director and Chief Conservator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and Veronique Stedman, Chief Conservator of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. This was instrumental to define the conservation program.

 

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Conservator Luciano Pensabene Buemi working on Pablo Picasso, The Studio (L'Atelier), 1928, conservation laboratory, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.

In preparation for the cleaning, the 1969 restoration treatment was researched. The conservator had left a series of files with materials, notes, recipes, and photos pertaining to her career that were fundamental for the reproduction of the materials used in the restoration and for the preparation of models of the painting and the conservation problems caused by the restoration itself. These were used to determine the cleaning method. The 1969 treatment included a synthetic varnish sprayed on the surface of the painting, whereby the deposit of superficial residues homogenized Picasso’s different textures. Over time the wax discolored and further compromised the intended appearance of the painting.

The cleaning of the painting was carried out with controlled and confined organic solvents that gradually dissolved and removed the 1969 varnish, wax and deposits, while leaving the original materials unharmed. 

The treatment unveiled a spatial definition that had been obscured by the wax saturation and yellowing, and clarified the diverse whites originally used by the artist. Indeed, the cleaning showed that the white within the yellow frame differs from the white outside. It is more transparent and allows the grey tone of the first layer to show, and it is also less flat, with a few distinct brushstrokes. Thus, it is quite likely that this space defines a mirror that reflects a model.

This conservation project has been supported by EFG as part of the collaboration between the bank and the venetian museum. EFG has been Institutional Patron of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection since 2001, contributing to the therapeutic and soothing power of art, which has become a source of comfort and inspiration.

 

© Succession Picasso / 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich
All rights reserved. Without permission through ProLitteris reproduction and any other use of the work besides the individual and private consultation are forbidden.

For more information please visit: https://www.guggenheim-venice.it/en/art/