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|Artist: Walter Spies
Title: Sekaten, 1926, oil on canvas
|Total after conservation and restoration|
|UNCOVERING AN ORIGINAL THROUGH CONSERVATION
This conservation project proved the authenticity of a Walter Spies painting after claims of it being not original surrounded the owner following purchase. The story is fascinating, combining technological and historical research to piece the puzzle together.
Walter Spies was a German artist who painted in Indonesia in the 1920’s and ‘30’s and is known for his Magic Realism. His paintings are well sought after in auctions for private and museums’ collections. In fact, Ms Kant has already worked on the conservation of 12 of Spies’ paintings and is considered an expert for his works. This particular piece depicts characters at an annual festival called Sekaten held in Yogyakarta. The painting was brought from the US to the conservation studio in a condition that to the naked eye might lend itself to thinking it was a fake: irregular stains, holes, abrasion of paint, artist’s signature blacked out, mould and overpainted areas.
Through infrared and ultraviolet photo technology, as well as through x-rays, it could be seen that 98% of the painting was overpainted (see UV photo). A previous restoration was done, surmised from research to have taken place in England sometime after 1989,which overpainted all the damaged areas which were cracked. As an initial conjecture, the cracking must have been due to the shrinking of paint layers which were caused by the slow-drying oils which Spies applied. And now the historical research continued.
Letters from Walter Spies to his mother supplied an important clue to why the cracking occurred to the extent it did. Spies asks his friend, the filmmaker Murnau, to bring Phoebus B from Germany to Indonesia, which unknown to him at the time was a painting agent based on vaseline oil that was not appropriate for any use on paintings, as it has unstable chemical properties. Aha his use of Phoebus B is what caused the drying cracks!
In addition, there was a blacked out signature on the reverse side of the painting in which only “26” could be read. Blacking out the signature might have happened shortly after World War II when the work was temporarily in Holland. Fearing that the painting would be destroyed because it was done by the hand of a German artist, somebody at the time decided to black out the name to save it.
Through an infrared photo the name “W SPIES 26” can now be clearly seen underneath, written in the same way as other comparable paintings and drawings of his. Stylistically, the painting could also be compared by the art historians and academics to his earlier works, and can now be seen as an important transition piece in the development of his style before he moved to Bali.
The conservation process, in removing the opaque overpaint, also revealed hidden parts of the composition such as two feet of the characters, a dog in the distance and the Southern Cross constellation in the upper left sky. As the original painting layers could be researched and dated to the 1920’s, and no other painter could have done such meticulous details as Spies did, all cries that this is not an original can fade away to silence.
|Removal of overpainted sky|
|Total in ultraviolet (UV) light|
|Blacked out signature, reverse|
|Infrared photo revealing signature|
|Oversized putty covering original||Removal tests of varnish and overpaint, revealing very visible early traction drying cracks||Underpinned head, pencil line, after removal of overpaint, visible previous infillings|