Friday, February 15, 2008

The Contraversy Over Varnishing

It goes back to at least the 1880's and continues today. This afternoon I had the pleasure of visiting the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, CT to view The Finishing Touch an exhibit exploring the techniques of American Impressionist and Tonalist painters, especially the controversy among them when it came to the to practice of varnishing(or not) a painting. The timing is rather ironic since I've spent the last week varnishing paintings for hanging in a show on Monday. What is even more ironic is that some of my other paintings in the show are not varnished (purposely) and will stay that way.

First, let us understand that the tonalists and the impressionists were rival artistic movements, with tonalists drawing inspiration from the old masters and developing out of the Barbizon School in France. In aesthetic, technique and working method they are closely aligned with the traditional art one finds in the Academy of Fine Art and the salon shows of France. They admire and emulate the past. The impressionists come on the scene and shatter conventions in so many ways, technique and subject matter to name but two. However, more inportantly they are not rooted in the past, but rather in their present, and their outlook and aesthetic is thoroughly modern.

The Finishing Touch exhibit brings this distinction into focus. The "old masters" paintings that tonalists admired so much were varnished, and by their day the varnish had already darkened with age. So, tonalists varnished their paintings with the belief that their paintings would "mellow" and "ripen" with age also. In other words, in addition to their already subdued colors and value range and their use of a coherent tonality along with their fondness for depicting low light situations like dusk, dawn, and rising mist, they further hoped that over time their paintings would take on a dark, warm patina and make them even better. This gave rise, the exhibit tell us, to the impressionists poking fun at the tonalists and calling them the "baked apple" or "brown gravy" school. The tonalists aesthetic was driven by a desire to create an intimate, poetic and expressive style of landscape art designed to be evocative, atmospheric and communicate emotion. Varnish has the effect of heightening the value contrasts in a painting, thereby adding drama and creating depth with a soft, glossy finish that the viewer looks into and thorough. The impressionist aesthetic couldn't be more different.

In 1853 Napoleon III delcared himself emperor of France and embarked on the daunting task of leveling huge sections of Paris, sweeping away the woefully antiquated medieval city and replacing it with a modern marvel complete with central sewage, a centralize railway system, fresh water distribution, a renovation and expansion of the Lourve, and the addition of a grand opera, three new monumental churches, well organized broad tree line boulevards and tall modern buildings. The old was swept away and the new modern, urban Paris was ushered in. It was this push to modernity, quickly and on a massive scale that fueled the impressionists enchantment with the new modern urban life, and later on the need to get away from it all in the countryside. The new science of optics also influenced them, as did the new growing lesiure class. The impressionists painted what was contemporary to them, beautiful new wide boulevards, railways, markets, the opera, and the middle class at lesiure boating, picnicing, dancing and swimming at the resort towns about 30 min. outside of Paris now made easily accessible by the new railway system. They painted the now, and the fleeting effects of movement, light and color. Their paintings reflected the fast pace and constant bustle of a new modern city. Their painting methods in turn reflected that aesthetic. They shook off the old academic ways of painting and the need to look toward the past or even inward emotionally. They looked outward and forward to the radical changes in their city and in society for inspiration. They painted with bright colors, favoring a play of warm against cool. The application of paint could be thick or thin but the strokes where energetic and remained on the canvas as dashes and daubs of paint, creating a textural surface. Many impressionists chose a "matte" finish for their paintings in direct opposition to the glossy, varnish of tonalist paintings. Some went so far as to squeeze their paint out on to brown paper or blotting paper so some of the oil would leech out. Monet didn't varnish his paintings and as a number of American artists went to Paris to study and paint the radical idea of not varnishing a painting made it's way back to America. In the exhibit at the Florence Griswold we see inscriptions on the back of some of Willard Metcalfs paintings that his paintings were not to be varnished as that would "change certain values" and "ruin it". Tonalist painter, Henry Ward Ranger, the founder of the Lyme Art Colony was a vocal proponent of varnishing and dismissed the unvarnished works of the impressionists as looking like pastels. Knowing that Monet intended his paintings to remain unvarnished, Ranger went so far as to try and convince a collector in Boston to have the Monet paintings he had purchased varnished.

There is of course an ideological battle going on here between old guard and avante guard, as well as painting interior emotions and exterior life, painting timelesness and a fleeting split second of time. On the practical side the arguements for varnishing are basically the same ones made by conservators and artists today. In the era of the impressionists, coal-fired furnaces fueled production in the factories of industrial cities and gas lamps lit the interiors of homes and galleries, hence a lot of sooty pollution in the air ready to cling to the surface of the painting. In fact some impressionist painters chose to display their oil paintings under glass in large cities rather than risk the dulling of their colors. Today the arguement is basically the same about pollutants in the air dirting the surface of the painting and now we add UV rays to the eqaution and worry about colors fading as well. Which is why many modern varnishes also contain UV protection. Fortunately for artists today there are many choices of resin based varnishes which will not yellow and darken over time as the traditional damar varnish will. So modern painters can use vibrant colors to their hearts content without a worry if they choose a modern non-yellowing varnish with UV protection.

But the question still remains and is still debated among artists, whether to varnish or not. Eventhough the problem of darkening has been solved for those who wish their colors to remain bright by using new modern varnishes and with traditional damar varnish still readily available for those who in fact hope their painting will "mellow" over time the question of the desired "look" is still hotly debated. The Finishing Touch is an interesting exhibit to see because in several paintings, in which documentation has clearly show that the artist intended to leave the painting unvarnished, and yet at a later date someone varnished the painting anyway the curators of the exhibit have removed the varnish in some areas to illustrate the difference in appearance varnish can make. Other paintings which also had previously been varnished apparently against the artists wishes have had their varnishes removed and the painting has been restored to an appearance presumabely much closer to what the artist originally intended. It is interesting to also note that not all the American Impressionists eschewed varnishing. Childe Hassam varnished his works and others like tonalist painter Dwight Tryon varnished some paintings but left instructions for others not to be varnished. So the question remains, does a painting look better varnished or not? Are their valid reasons not to varnish, should a painting be varnished to protect it for posterity? Does a collector, curator, or conservator have the right to alter the appearance of a painting against the artists specific intent? When you see the exhibit you will be able to judge for yourself. As an artsit I'm thrilled to have both options open to me and would hope that my intentions would be respected by future caretakers of my art.

The Finishing Touch was curated by Lance Mayer and Gay Meyers independant painting conservators affiliated with the Lyman Allyn Museum. The show runs through April 27th, 2008.

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