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Conserving Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

As scientists make new discoveries about artists’ materials, and as art historians make new discoveries about artists’ intentions, more efforts can be made to conserve and restore works. Do these efforts create new, derivative works? It is still unclear what the effect of these efforts on authorship and authenticity of works will be.

Through new x-ray technologies, it has been discovered that chrome yellow, a bright yellow pigment often used by Van Gogh, contains chromium atoms that turn brown in the presence of sunlight. “Van Gogh intended to make his paintings more yellow, but nature is making them more brown,” says Professor Koen Janssens of Antwerp University in Belgium.

Scientists have suggested that museums should keep paintings in darker, cooler conditions, to prevent or delay the reverse oxidation process that turns the pigment brown. But can any artist foresee how his or her works will change over time? An artist certainly cannot foresee how perceptions about the work will change. Why should later generations attempt to freeze an artist’s works and fix them at a moment in time?

Preventing further change is not a very offensive conservation effort. Perhaps the more interesting issue will be whether or not the scientists and historians attempt to recreate the original yellow (but without any finnicky chromium atoms). Ella Kendriks, of the Van Gogh Museum, said: “This type of cutting-edge research is crucial to advance our understanding of how paintings age and should be conserved for future generations.”

Read Steve Connor’s article on “Why Van Gogh is Entering his Brown Period” at the Independent.

Also, this blog recently addressed some of these these issues in an article about the fabrication and conservation techniques used on the work of Donald Judd.