The Fondation Beyeler completed the restoration of Fernand Léger’s “Le passage à niveau”

January 18, 2013

Fondation Beyeler: Restoration of Fernand Léger’s “Le passage à niveau” (1912) with Fondation BNP Paribas Suisse completed

Investigation of the painting

Exactly 100 years ago, in 1912, Fernand Léger executed his painting “Le passage à niveau” (The Level Crossing). In the context of the restoration project sponsored by BNP Paribas Suisse, the Fondation Beyeler restoration team has conducted an extensive investigation. Léger’s painting in the Beyeler Collection was acquired thanks to a donation by Kurt Schwank. With twelve paintings, Fernand Léger (1881-1955) is prominently represented in the collection. These works reflect the entire range of his oeuvre. Ernst Beyeler concerned himself with Léger from early on, as fascinated by his unique position among the main protagonists of classical modernism as by his influence on American artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Ellsworth Kelly, who are likewise represented in the collection. An early and rare Léger landscape located at the important transition point between figuration and abstraction, “Le passage à niveau” represents a link not only within the artist’s oeuvre itself. It compellingly mediates between the art of Paul Cézanne and Henri Rousseau, and the Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Thanks to a range of scientific research methods, the restoration team gleaned crucial information regarding the painting’s material, technique and history. The resulting insights have shown that it need not necessarily be classified as fragile. As restorer Friederike Steckling reports, “Rather, it was the artist’s choice of materials and the effects of its history that led  to the current state of “Le passage à niveau”.Fernand Léger, Le passage à niveau

Fernand Léger, Le passage à niveau

To prepare the canvas, Léger employed an unusually water-sensitive ground. A very early contact with water, presumably during the First World War, and a past restoration involving dampness damaged the work. So the team searched for historical reproductions in order to shed light on the changes that had taken place in it. The extent and means of the restoration were determined on the basis of the collected results. First of all, poorly integrated retouchings from a past restoration attempt were removed. In addition, pinhead-sized scuffings distributed over the entire surface were adapted in terms of color. Reversible retouchings were made solely at the points of these existing marks of damage. The team pursued the aim of closing the irregular and cracked paint layer, in order to bring the work back to its appearance in 1912, but without concealing its history or signs of aging. Investigations of other early Léger works were very helpful in this regard, for they enabled an adaptation of , “Le passage à niveau”  to the effect of the undamaged surfaces of the artist’s early works. Finally, historically inappropriate textile bands were removed from the reverse of the stretchers and the canvas edges stabilized. The work was also fitted with a more stable new frame and vibration protection affixed to the reverse of the sides, in order to prevent potential damage during transport. The restoration measures taken are discreet, being visible primarily in the area of details. Restoration is the art of preserving art. Time always leaves traces in works of art. A restoration team headed by restorer Markus Gross has been active at the Fondation Beyeler since 2001. Restoration of art is a scientific discipline combining new restoration methods with extensive historical knowledge, and depending in part on veritable detective work. As a museum institution, the Fondation Beyeler is responsible for the task of maintaining art works on a long-term basis and preserving them for generations to come. The restoration process lasted for over a year. As Sam Keller, Director of the Fondation Beyeler, has noted, “The BNP Paribas Suisse Foundation has enabled the restoration of a major painting by Fernand Léger. As a museum with a large collection of the artist’s works, the Fondation Beyeler is grateful for the support and engagement for cultural assets on the part of the BNP Paribas Suisse Foundation, and overjoyed that , “Le passage à niveau” could be investigated, restored, and made capable of exhibition and transport.” The BNP Paribas Suisse Foundation has been active in the restoration of works of art in Europe, Asia and the U.S. for twenty years now. Its aim is to contribute actively to the preservation of museum stocks and ensuring that they can be passed on to future generations. In Switzerland, the foundation has already supported more than a dozen projects, devoted to the preservation of major works by Max Ernst, Mattia Preti, Auguste Rodin, Bram van Velde and Paolo Veronese. It will continue the restoration project with the Fondation Beyeler, comprising three works in the collection, until 2014. From February 2013, the restored Léger painting will be presented in the new hanging of the Beyeler Collection. At the same time, the start of the new year will see the inception of the next restoration project, involving the original plaster of Max Ernst’s sculpture “The King Playing with the Queen”, 1944. This piece will be shown in the context of the coming retrospective devoted to the artist by the Fondation Beyeler, from 26 May to 8 September 2013. With more than 170 paintings, collages, drawings, sculptures and illustrated books, the exhibition will cover all of Max Ernst’s phases, discoveries and techniques in terms of major works. Conceived by Werner Spies and Julia Drost, the show was organized in collaboration with the Albertina, Vienna. Curator of the Fondation Beyeler exhibition is Raphaël Bouvier.

Captions to illustrations:

Fig. 1 Investigation of the painting by comparison to the X-ray image of Ferdinand Léger, Le passage à niveau (The Level Crossing), 1912. Oil on canvas, 94 x 81 cm, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel. Acquired with a donation by Kurt Schwank, Riehen, © 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich Photo: Markus Gross

Fig. 2 Fernand Léger, Le passage à niveau (The Level Crossing), 1912. Oil on canvas, 94 x 81 cm, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel. Acquired with a donation by Kurt Schwank, Riehen. © 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich Photo: Robi Bayer

Fig. 3 Fernand Léger, Le passage à niveau (The Level Crossing), 1912. Oil on canvas, 94 x 81 cm, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel. Acquired with a donation by Kurt Schwank, Riehen. © 2013, ProLitteris, Zurich Photo: Friederike Steckling

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