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Uplifting discoveries for colonial art.

Would you believe that a valuable Latin American colonial painting served, for a time, as a cushion for an onion vender? Adoration of the Kings, a monument to 18th century Cuzco painting in the Frank Barrows Freyer Collection of Peruvian Colonial Art at the Denver Art Museum, has had a turbulent existence. Now, after a very expensive face lift, this famous painting is revealing some previously unsuspected secrets.

Mrs. Frank Freyer discovered the painting in Cuzco's farmers market in the 1920s. She had made the long journey from Lima to show the city of Cuzco to the new American ambassador and his staff. While buying foodstuffs in the open air market, she noticed some bright colors on an old cushion where an onion vender sat. After making a purchase, Mrs. Freyer asked to see the cushion. Unfolded, it turned out to be a splendid large colonial painting with vivid colors and stencil-like patterns of pure gold.

How the Adoration of the Kings came into the possession of the onion vender is one of the paintings's mysteries. Communication between Mrs. Freyer and the vendor was free enough to allow for purchase of the precious canvas but not for explanations as to its history.

When the Freyer Collection came to the Denver Art Museum many years later, the Adoration of the Kings proved to be one of its stars. As an art historian and museum curator, I was instantly intrigued with the painting. Although typically Cuzqueno in style, the telltale brush strokes of the artist were hard to identify. In most of the standard references on colonial art it remained listed as "Artist unknown, period unknown, copy after an engraving, probably Rubens."

On a trip to Cuzco several years ago, I had the good fortune to wander into the Cathedral's adjoining Church of the Triumph when the early morning sunlight was shinning on a nearly identical painting. This one had been shaped to fit around a center window of the curving vault above the entrance, but the style was similar to that of the Freyer Adoration. With this happy discovery, I began an in-depth historical investigation of the painting in the Church of the Triumph. I discovered that a major commission had been granted in 1750 to Marcos Zapata, a young local artist, to paint nearly 70 enormous paintings on the life of the Virgin Mary for the ceiling vaults of the Cathedral. The paintings were completed between 1755 and 1760, with the help of Cipriano Toledo y Gutierrez. The Freyer Adoration clearly showed the direct influence of this series.

Centuries of dirt, candlesmoke and grime, together with the damage inflicted by the weight of an onion vender pressing down on the tightly folded creases, had disfigured the Adoration of the Kings. Five vertical and six horizontal creases had broken the paint film and most of the support threads. This caused the canvas to separate into 30 square, tile-like pieces. Conservation was urgently needed to prevent major tears or loss that would further damage the work.

The meticulous procedures for cleaning and restoring fine paintings, were first taught in major European centers specializing in particular types and periods of art. There, students learned to conserve European paintings which had been produced under strict guild rules where the works were always consistent both in materials and techniques. But in the out-back of colonial Peru, painting was achieved with whatever supplies were available. European supplies were highly taxed and very expensive, so local materials were often used instead. These substitute materials have created their own conservation problems--everything must be carefully tested before treatment. So little was known about Spanish colonial painting in Europe or in the United States that few of the major conservation centers had any experience with such works.

One of the first problems related to the canvas itself. The Adoration had not been painted on Flemish linen, which was the most common painting support in colonial America. Instead, a cotton twill-weave fabric was used, probably a remnant from a galleon's sail. Cotton reacts to humidity in the environment quite differently than linen. In addition, the heavy grounding prepared for the pigment, varnish and gilding, had formed a stiff surface. Once folded, the heavy "panels" rubbed together and broke down the twill threads. What was needed was not another cloth lining behind but some sort of solid support.

Tony Conrad at the Conservation Laboratory of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. came up with an innovative suggestion. Conrad was training a young technician, Marion Mecklenberg, who was exploring the use of solid supports for the conservation of old paintings. Although they had little experience with colonial art, they were aroused by the challenges posed by the Adoration, and the painting was carefully crated off to Washington. After months of testing, a solution was proposed: a sandwich of aluminum panels with a honeycomb membrane center was devised which was strong, smooth, inflexible and lightweight. Using a wax adhesive, the canvas was affixed onto the panel while missing areas and torn creases were filled. This was a revolutionary approach to the problem of stabilizing the surface of this painting.

After many false starts, a nearly equal surface was prepared for the delicate "in-painting" by piecing small bits of new canvas into large areas of loss and providing textured gesso where needed. The aim of the conservators was to preserve the artist's original intention by making subtle repairs that did not distract from the work but that still remained visible to the discerning eye so that the original and repaired areas could be distinguished. In previous restoration work, repairs were often overpainted and disguised, actually covering parts of the original painting. This practice has been largely discontinued.

The next step was careful "in-painting" to match colors going up to, but no further than the edge of the original pigment. The textured gold was the hardest to match because the dark ground and surface wear had subtly changed the color of the original. All of this amounted to a face-lift of considerable proportions.

Our joy upon seeing the returned restored masterpiece was echoed by the conservators pride in their solution to a number of very tricky problems. The painting now looked almost as good as new, reconsolidaded and cleaned, with losses disguised, but not eliminated.

Although there is controversy surrounding the solid support technique, it could prove effective not only in terms of conservation, but also as a solution to one of Spanish Colonial paintings' greatest problems: the threat of vandalism and theft. When a thief sneaks into an out-of-the-way church, he usually quickly slices the paintings out of their wooden mounts. Once cut, they are rolled or folded for smuggling out of the country. If the paintings were mounted on panels, they could not easily be cut and certainly not easily reduced in size to create convenient smuggling packages.

In addition to the discovery of a new procedure for conservation, the team from the National Gallery of Art revealed another secret of this splendid old painting. They concluded that two entirely differently artists had worked on the painting. My initial research on the Cuzco Cathedral paintings documented that two artists, Marcos Zapata and his assistant Cipriano Gutierrez, had executed that series. Therefore, the odds were good that they had also painted the Freyer Adoration of the Kings, probably around 1760, toward the end of the Cathedral series.

Thanks to conservation, our dark and dirty old painting had its parentage restored as well as its bright shiny face. The Adoration of the Kings is now on permanent display at the Frank Barrows Freyer Gallery of the Denver Art Museum.

Robert Stroessner is curator of the Denver Art Museum's New World Department. Teddy Dewalt edits the newsletter published by the Rocky Mountain Institute for Pre-Columbian Studies.
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Title Annotation:Art; discovery and conservation of discovered colonial paintings in the City of Cuzco, Peru
Author:Stroessner, Robert J.; Dewalt, Teddy
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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