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Saturday, December 17, 2011

New Masterpieces

I suppose it's almost a given fact that all of us have seen dirty pictures at one time or another.  How would you like to get paid to look at dirty pictures? BIG BUCKS! Actually what you get paid for is cleaning them up. Okay, I'm not talking about pornography here now. I'm talking about the lonely life of an art restoration technician. It's tedious; it's time-consuming; and it's a solitary existence--hours spent totally immersed in the artwork of some great master--nose just inches from the canvas, perhaps viewing your work through binocular magnifying glasses, daubing away with Q-tips and solvent, delicately trying to remove centuries of dirt and varnish to reveal the beauty that gradually faded from view generations ago. Often the restoration work takes longer than it did the artist to create the painting in the first place. And sometimes, more than just revitalized beauty awaits the eyes of those paying the thousands, sometimes millions of dollars to have their artwork restored.

Landscape with Bacchus and Ceres, 1624-27,
Nicolas Poussin
Recently the owners of a painting titled Landscape With Arcadian Shepherds had it pulled from the vault of the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool England to be restored. A year later, they found themselves the proud owners of a Poussin! Nicholas Poussin (pronounced Pu-SAN) was a French artist born in 1594, famous for his classical subject matter and landscapes, but most importantly his careful attention to draftsmanship in his work. This painting, re-titled Landscape with Bacchus and Ceres, (once it was clean enough to actually discern the subject matter) was painted between 1624 and 1627 during a period of time when the artist was trying to establish his reputation in Rome. It's an important work because it came at a time when the artist was struggling to find himself and find commissions through the production of a wide variety of styles and subject matter.

Having previously been deemed by the Queen's art expert, Sir Anthony Blunt, to be too crude to be the work of Poussin, the owners quickly found themselves not only bearing the high cost of the restoration work, but that of a hefty, multi-million-dollar insurance policy as well. The painting is a typical Poussin, bucolic landscape with nude or barely clothed male and female figures frolicking together in an erotic idyll thinly cloaked in mythological respectability. In short, it was a highly salable piece of artwork catering to the secular (male) tastes of the time. Even then, Poussin was astutely aware that "sex sells." He went on to produce and sell dozens of such paintings. What makes this work so important is that it could be considered a prototype for the kind of work that was to influence the primacy-of-drawing faction (Poussinistes) of French painting for generations to come. The painting is no longer literally a dirty picture, though the newly revealed subject matter might not have been far removed from that almost four hundred years ago when it was painted.

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