http://www.kunsthaus.ch/en/the-collection/conservation/examples-from-the-world-of-art-conservation/augusto-giacometti/?redirect_url=title%3DGuides

Kunsthaus Zürich

Augusto Giacometti
«The Circle of the Planets» (1907)

Augusto Giacometti (1877–1947) is regarded as a major exponent of Art Nouveau and Symbolism, but he also plays a pioneering role in the development of the international Abstract movement. Throughout his life, he dealt intensively with the theme of colour, in works that ranged between abstraction and representation. He was a free spirit, both stylistically and in the techniques he used to translate his idiosyncratic visual ideas into paintings.

Painting Conservation
Painted in 1907, ‘The Circle of the Planets’ entered the Kunsthaus Zürich in 1967 from the artist’s estate via the Erwin Poeschel Collection. Conservation issues soon became apparent, which are primarily attributable to Giacometti’s experimental painting technique. A glance at the restoration file reveals that the work has undergone conservation treatment more than once since arriving at the Kunsthaus, owing to adhesion problems with the paint layer. Initial investigations suggest that the artist himself may have attempted to tackle them, reworking some areas while the painting was still in his studio.
However, the interventions never produced the desired result. Until now the work’s fragile condition has precluded lending it out. The current conservation project aims to improve our understanding of the causes behind the noticeable damage, to consolidate and thus stabilize the painting, and so to prevent further losses of paint layer.

Observations on painting technique
A characteristic feature of Giacometti’s painting is a highly nuanced and experimental approach to materials and application techniques. There are differences in the execution of the motifs and colour fields, with finely stippled areas next to impasto brushstrokes and patches of colour coarsely applied with a spatula or bristle brush. In some parts the paint is translucent, allowing the white ground coat or layers of underpainting beneath to show through. In others, run marks left by extremely diluted paint dominate the work’s appearance.
The composition of the paints used in the various colour areas may be just as heterogeneous as the method used to apply them. The binding agent employed for the thinly applied or glossy areas of colour may indeed be oil, but some of the more matte, impasto areas were executed using a lean tempera technique. This is confirmed by analyses of blue paint layers which show that they contain a large proportion of protein along with a small amount of oil. The result of an analysis of the binding agent in a sample of the underlying ground coat probably also explains the poor adhesion: an extremely high proportion of degraded, heavily saponified oil is preventing proper bonding with the layers above, completely failing to satisfy the ‘fat on thin’ requirement of oil painting technique.

Damage
The paint layer exhibits craquelure, loosening and layer separation. It is often highly tense and pronouncedly lifting; in some cases impasto ridges or entire flecks of paint are separating from the underlying layers. In certain areas, countless small flakes have already been lost. The damage is especially marked in the blue areas, where signs of earlier interventions are clearly visible and have resulted in a speckled appearance. At certain points, weakly bound, degraded paint layers are darkened by various saturating consolidating solutions. Areas that have been treated with wax to stabilize them detract from the overall appearance owing to the liberal way in which it was applied and its specific colour, but also due to the resulting change in colour saturation and surface sheen.

The challenge of consolidation
Treatment measures focus on preservation and prevention. Preliminary consolidation tests have revealed that the lifting layers of paint are extremely brittle, and rendering them more flexible to lay them down and ensure stable adhesion to the underlying paintwork is almost impossible. Alternative methods must be found that are suitable for working on the weakly bound, degraded tempera and allow adjustments to be made at any time to accommodate the variety of painting techniques.

Supported by:
Ars Rhenia Foundation for the trans-regional promotion of art and culture

Fig. 1
Augusto Giacometti, «The Circle of the Planets», oil on canvas 268 x 218 cm, 1907
Fig. 1
Augusto Giacometti, «The Circle of the Planets», oil on canvas 268 x 218 cm, 1907
Fig. 2
Use of extremely diluted paints leading to the formation of characteristic structures and paint runs, lower figure
Fig. 2
Use of extremely diluted paints leading to the formation of characteristic structures and paint runs, lower figure
Fig. 3
Adhesion problems and paint layer losses in impasto areas in the background (width of illustrated area 5.5 cm)
Fig. 3
Adhesion problems and paint layer losses in impasto areas in the background (width of illustrated area 5.5 cm)
Fig. 4 
Lean tempera on thin underpainting: adhesion problems, losses of paint layer and discolouration resulting from consolidation media introduced earlier, right-hand figure
Fig. 4
Lean tempera on thin underpainting: adhesion problems, losses of paint layer and discolouration resulting from consolidation media introduced earlier, right-hand figure
Fig. 5
Macro photograph of severely loosened and lifting paint layers in raking light, right-hand figure (width of illustrated area 3.5 cm)
Fig. 5
Macro photograph of severely loosened and lifting paint layers in raking light, right-hand figure (width of illustrated area 3.5 cm)