In 2006, when Las Vegas hotel tycoon, Steve Wynn, famously put his elbow through Picassos Le Rêve, a collective cringe rippled through the conservation world. It was not just the heartbreaking damage to a masterpiece that made the incident so horrendous, nor was it the fact that the accident nullified Wynns deal to sell the work for $139 million to Steven A. Cohen, but those who have repaired canvas tears knew that the work involved in restoring the painting would certainly be difficult.
In historic conservation processes, it would have often been necessary to line a canvas such as Le Rêve to repair the damage. Lining is a centuries-old process that involves gluing a second fabric backing to a weakened or damaged canvas to provide structural support to a fragile painting. Traditional linings used animal-based glue paste or wax-resin mixtures to attach the fabric to the canvas, and a heated iron and/or a large press were then used to flatten the two fabrics together. Although often very effective, the treatments were invasive, harsh, and occasionally resulted in the flattening of impasto, impregnation of the paint with wax, or even shrinking of the original canvas.
After treatment: detail of mended tear from the back
Still today, lining can be a necessary step in the preservation of a work of art and is often chosen by conservators when treating very old or badly damaged art works. The 20th-century development of new adhesives and fabrics have improved the lining process considerably, making it a more controllable one. Advancements have reduced the amount of heat, moisture and pressure required, and have also increased the reversibility of a lined painting. Repairs to the painting Still Life with Flowers by April Banyack is an example where, although lining would have been an appropriate choice due to the severity of the tears, less invasive treatment methods were considered.
Still Life with Flowers was torn in several places when it fell off the wall onto the back of a chair. Painted in 1954, the canvas was in relatively good condition although some weakening around the tacking margins was noted. After surface cleaning and varnish removal, the tears were carefully rewoven, using both the original fibres and canvas thread inserts secured with welding powder and a hot tacking iron. Tear mending, although often extremely time consuming, can be a rewarding alternative to lining, and when properly executed, is practically invisible when viewed from both the front and back.
Because this painting was weak around its tacking edge, the decision was also made to strip line the painting. Strip lining is a technique that introduces adhesive and a backing fabric only around the exterior edges of the work, where a canvas is often the weakest, providing the necessary support for restretching the canvas onto its stretcher bars. After the structural treatments, the painting was filled and retouched to replace lost paint around the tear areas and then varnished.
Although lining would have been a faster method and certainly would have been an effective treatment for mending the tears, the concern for the integrity of the original canvas and the artwork as a historic object influenced the decision to mend by reweaving.
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