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Cincinnati museum puts art restoration on display

One of the Cincinnati Art Museum's most famous works, Vincent van Gogh's 1890 masterpiece "Undergrowth with Two Figures" appears to most visitors to be a beautiful, well-preserved, post-Impressionist painting.

After 121 years, the broad, vigorous brushstrokes of green, yellow and white on the forest floor and the imposing gray-blue tree trunks still pop from the canvas, providing a stark contrast to the two shadowy figures walking through them.

The painting is a visitor favorite, voted the No. 1 piece of art in the Museum's 60,000-piece collection in its 2006 People's Art Poll. While the museum does not release the values of works in its collection, van Goghs have fetched tens of millions of dollars at auction.

But most visitors don't see what the museum's chief conservator, Per Knutas, sees in this van Gogh, one of the great artist's last masterpieces: extensive damage done by well-intended conservation efforts in the mid-1970s.

But now, they can.

Knutas himself is on view in the Cincinnati Wing of the Museum as he carefully restores the painting to lengthen its lifespan and prepare it for loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art next year.

The Cincinnati Art Museum has displayed conservation work before. But this is the first time that, at Knutas' suggestion, the museum has connected the powerful microscope he uses - the same kind that's used for surgical procedures - to a 42-inch flat screen TV hanging on the wall behind him. Visitors can see the painstaking conservation work like never before.

"For me, it's really important to heighten the awareness of conservation," Knutas said. "Most of the time, conservators are tucked in the back vaults of museums. People just expect the paintings to look great. But there's actually a profession behind the painting."

Born in Sweden, Knutas was trained in Denmark and previously worked at the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art before coming to Cincinnati two years ago.

It likely will take him through July to finish restoring the van Gogh.

In 1975, Cincinnati Art Museum conservators, following the best practices at the time, used a wax resin to attach a second canvas to the back of the original 20-by-39 ½-inch canvas.

The purpose of the wax lining was to secure any loose paint and to make the original canvas less vulnerable to fluctuations in humidity and temperature, Knutas said. But over the years, the wax penetrated microscopic cracks in the canvas, pooled in the heavily textured brushwork of the painting and turned from clear to a milky white color.

"It obscures the colors that van Gogh was so famous for," Knutas said. "By gently removing the wax, I expose the intended colors so the painting will be more vibrant, and the texture will be more true to how the painting looked when van Gogh was done with it."

Knutas uses a soft brush dipped in solvent to soften the wax, then a soft bamboo stick to scrape off the wax without harming the paint.

He also will be removing varnish, a clear protective top coat, which past conservators had applied to the painting. While varnish can protect a painting, it also can alter its composition, hardening once-soft transitions and deepening colors. Research has shown that van Gogh did not varnish his paintings, Knutas said.

Watching Knutas work recently, museum director Aaron Betsky compared the painting's amorphous, magnified forms appearing on the TV screen to contemporary video art and said it was a revelation to watch the conservation process happen.

"It's going to make the quality of the painting come alive so much more," he said. "One of the joys to me is when we clean our great works of art, and so much comes out that has remained hidden. It's quite often as if you're seeing them for the first time."

The Cincinnati Art Museum is one of many that are opening up conservation labs to public view, said Eryl Wentworth, executive director of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

"What I love about it is that the public is becoming more aware of what conservation is and what conservators do and the importance of conservation for preserving our cultural materials for the future," she said. "And this is a way to get kids excited about science and the arts."

Knutas will also field questions from visitors while he works, like this one: How does it feel to be tracing the brushstrokes of a master?

"Working on the paintings, you can't think about the value. You can't think about the importance of the piece. You just can't," he said. "And ethically, within our professional organization, we are supposed to treat this painting the same as a painting painted by (anyone), with the same respect and the same care.

"It hits you sometimes, but very rarely," he said. "You know what you're doing."

--- Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer,

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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