Salvador Dali artwork gets a bath at St. Pete museum

06/12/12 Janelle Irwin
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Museum patrons in St. Petersburg will have the first ever opportunity to watch giant canvas paintings get cleaned at the Salvador Dali museum. Four of his largest works displayed at the new waterfront museum will be washed and restored over the next two weeks by a team of professional art conservators in an exhibit open to patrons.

“Some of it is very simple. Some of it is vacuum cleaners.”

Hank Hine is the director of The Salvador Dali museum. He said over time the works can fall victim to particles in the air, moves from museum to museum and even the breath from passing art lovers. It’s been more than thirty years since these paintings have been cleaned and for some, it’s the first time.

“We’ve dramatized this a little bit giving it a title of “Stripped Bare and Bathed” to capture the imagination because actually conservation can be thought of as housecleaning.”

But it’s a lot more than dusting off grandma’s knick-knacks. The Hallucinogenic Toreador, completed by Dali in 1970, has a splash of mold across the back of the 13 by 10 foot canvas. A handful of young art conservators crouch while folding back corners of the canvas as others stand on ladders with spotlights illuminating the mildewed culprit. Rustin Levenson, owner of the company charged with cleaning the works, laughed as she tried to sum up how to remove mold from a priceless work of art.

“In this case they’re releasing the painting from the stretcher and you can see they’re putting push pins in to hold it in place while they do the treatment, but in the areas they’re working they release to push pin so they can get in behind the stretcher. When they get in behind there, they’re using different ways to take off as much of the mold material as possible and the remaining material is being treated with an ethanol solution.”

The other painting being worked on today is the Ecumenical Council from 1960. The team of professional art cleaners uses hand made cotton swabs – kind of like a Q-tip – to gently remove layers of dirt and grime from the canvas. Strings mark of small sections of one of Dali’s largest paintings so the workers can better keep track of what they’re cleaning. But according to Levenson, a lot of preparation went into determining which solutions would work best for cleaning this particular painting.

“You can see the dirt coming off, as you can see here, every single color on the painting has been tested. If we see anything different about the colors coming off, then we immediately stop and be sure. We used magnification and we also put it under ultraviolet light to be sure what we’re taking off is what we want to be taking off.”

That painting is also getting a new stretcher. It doesn’t look like much more than some two by fours nailed together to make a frame. But it was carefully crafted by an expert in New York. Once the work is cleaned, the team will meticulously transfer the canvas from its old stretcher to the new one.

“We’re going to release again the painting from the stretcher, put push pins in. We’re going to put boards underneath to support it and then we’re removing the pins and we’re going to slide in the other stretcher. It’s complicated, but it works. And then we’re going to put the push pins back in and then we’re going to take out the boards and they we’re going to re-stretch it. We’re also adding a piece of fabric to the edge because as you can see the edges of the painting are really degraded and there’s tearing and fraying and many, many holes from different re-stretchings. So, we’re adding a piece of fabric behind to give it extra support.”

Two other giant Dali paintings are also getting a late-spring cleaning: Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus and Galacidalacideoxiribunucleicacid — Homage to Crick and Watson. Joan Kropf, curator of the museum, said most of the paintings are in pretty good shape, but the maintenance is important.

“Over the years, even though they’re varnished, a certain amount of dirt and dust and other things attach themselves to the canvas and need to be taken off because it could be acidic or damage the surface over a period of time.”

This isn’t the first time Dali’s artwork has gotten a good cleaning. But it is the first time museum-goers get to watch. The process is open to the public – with Rustin Levenson answering questions about it each afternoon. Kropf said usually pieces are transported to Levenson’s studio for cleaning.

“Over a number of years we have been working on conserving the smaller works which we take to her studio and they work on them. Some take just a couple days. Some take a several weeks because of the process and over the years certain canvases fair better than others. It’s a process. This will be the 29th of 96 oil paintings that we have. Not all of them are in dire shape, but some of them need some sort of attention.”

One reason museum heads decided to clean Dali’s Master Works in house was because they are difficult to move. Levenson has studios in New York and Miami, but even a trip to south Florida would be a feat. Still, Kropf said, the job isn’t cheap.

“We received the money for this project through the national endowment of the arts. It was a $44,000 grant which we are matching through our keepers of the Master Works group and so they’re helping to match that fund. It’s not an inexpensive process, but it’s an important thing to do to your canvases to keep them for perpetuity.”

According to Hank Hine, the Dali museum’s director, it’s the only way to make sure the pieces are kept in good shape while still being on display.

“If we wanted our works of art to last forever and not to be exposed to these hazards we would keep them in a darkened vault with an argon environment, but that’s not very conducive to the art experience.”

And for the art lovers who don’t have 80 grand lying around to get their paintings professionally cleaned, Hine said basic precautions will keep personal art collections looking crisp and clean for years.

“Make sure that the temperature doesn’t fluctuate too much. Painting is an amazing, resilient material. It was invented because it’s long lasting, because it’s light-fast, it doesn’t degrade except in response to the environment and quick changes are the worst thing. You can have your house at 80 and it won’t hurt the painting if you keep it at 80, but if it goes from 80 to 50, you’ve got a problem.”

The Stripped Bare and Bathed exhibit will be on display for two weeks and then the four giant paintings will go back on the wall. Conservators will be working on the canvases weekdays only, but the exhibit is open weekends too. Head conservator Rustin Levenson will host a free public lecture about the process at the Dali museum on June 21 at 6:30 p.m.

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