2017-04-11 Conservator Rodin Absolution

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way: Rodin’s Fragile “L’Absolution” Treated for Display & Travel?

2017-04-11 Auguste Rodin Absolution

Auguste Rodin, L’Absolution (c. 1900), before treatment. Courtesy: The Art Newspaper (14 March 2017).

Ruth Osborne

The Art Newspaper reported last month on an extremely fragile piece by sculptor Auguste Rodin, held in the collection of the Musée Rodin in Paris, that is now to go on exhibition and on the road.

The work, titled “L’Absolution”, was created from plaster and cloth by Rodin, approximately around 1900. Its complicated construction consists of over 6′ of plaster sculpture in three pieces created in the 1890s – the torso of a seated Ugolino [of Dante’s Divine Comedy], a martyr’s head, and the Earth – draped delicately over with a cloth molded by the artist in a thin layer of plaster. You can find archival images of the work in black & white from the Musée Rodin here.

The upcoming move is described by the new chief curator of collections Christine Lancestremère as “a little scary”, and the article acknowledges she also “[suspected] that its fragility prevented it from going on display before”. Then why is this display and move still happening? According to the report, the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Rodin’s death demanded this item go into the “Kiefer Rodin” exhibit (Mar-Oct 2017), which will highlight several works by contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer conceived as responses to sculptures and drawings by Rodin. The exhibit is also set to travel to the Barnes in Philadelphia in November, and will be on display there thru March 2018. After that, “L’Absolution” will move to the Musée Rodin in Meudon to be on permanent display there.  You can find a list of the sponsors of this joint exhibition on the Barnes’ website here.

But first, of course, a little handling by conservators to try and make the work more “stable” for travel and display. After all, the cloth makes structure of the work itself so delicate that it must be displayed behind glass “to prevent the fabric from moving with the wind”. Safe movement of the piece alone made some of the plaster on the cloth fall off.

2017-04-11 Conservator Rodin Absolution

Conservator examines Rodin’s L’Absolution. Courtesy: The Art Newspaper (14 March 2017).

Conservator examination of the sculpture involved:

(1) Recently fallen plaster restored.

(2) Securing fabric back into original position on the sculpture.

(3) “Cleaning” of the entire piece.

Meanwhile, there is very little documentation on the work itself from the artist. Lancestremère admits that they don’t even know if it is finished or not. All they had to work from in this treatment was one photo of this rather complicated 3-dimensional object: “Rodin did not make a marble or terracotta work from it, which is rare for the artist, and there is nothing in the archives about the piece except for one photograph.”

However, upon visiting the Musée Rodin’s online collections portal, we found these three black & white photographs, though they have no visible date associated with them.

The funding for the treatment was awarded by TEFAF for “restoration and reconstruction of the never before seen work”. TEFAF itself was originally founded in 1988 by a group of art dealers as an art fair, and has only 5 years ago established its Museum Restoration Fund. Upon ArtWatch inquiring about why TEFAF was chosen for funding the restoration, Lancestremère said that this was the choice of the Museum’s selection committee, and that the remainder of the operation was being financed by the Museum’s budgeted funds for restoration. TEFAF itself has an interesting, if questionable, history related to (1) forgeries appearing at its fairs (see here) and therein (2) vetting its own experts (see here).

A quick overview of TEFAF’s Museum Restoration Fund on the website shows that it “was launched to mark TEFAF’s 25th anniversary in 2012”.  Since then, it has restored a mixture of paintings and sculptural objects – including ancient Egyptian coffins and a sarcophagus – at major museums in the U.S. and Europe. But why is an art fair – which makes money off of the success of art sales and a space in recent years wherein one expects to uncover new “discoveries” and attributions – supporting such a questionable conservation project and exhibition?

TEFAF’s report at the announcement of the award itself is telling:

This is the first time it has been restored since its creation. Absolution resembles no other work by Rodin and it testifies to his bold and modern outlook. 

Being connected with such a rare, unique work is certainly a selling point for TEFAF as a “bold”, “modern” art fair. This statement also makes it clear that TEFAF is getting in on the ground floor, so to speak, of understanding and analyzing the work, as it is “the first time” there have been hands on this work other than Rodin’s. For technical details on how the conservation actually worked, TEFAF’s announcement went on to say:

The restoration of this work is particularly complex and requires two different kinds of expertise from two specialists: a painting restorer for the drapery and a sculpture restorer for the plaster elements. Currently, the three plaster sections have come apart, and need to be repositioned and fixed. The fabric pieces have lost their folds and shape and there are many losses in the plaster coating that held the drapery in place, with splinters that are in danger of breaking off.

So from this, one would be remiss to ask how did the three plaster sections come apart? Did they fall spontaneously or were they moved? According to our conversation with Lancestremère:

It seems that the three plaster subjects remained together until the 1980s. We do not know when exactly they were dissociated, but it is probable that it occurred perhaps on the occasion of a move from one reserve to the other […] the whole was considered too fragile, and it was preferable to separate the most prominent elements, the head of the Martyrdom, and the body of the Earth. The elements did not fall on their own because they are not broken. On the other hand, the textile had already had to slip and the folds to be discarded because, in the 1980 photographs, there are already numerous losses of material and a positioning of the drape which is not compatible with the remains of plaster present on the textile.

So the damage due to the piece over time and various potential moves while remaining in storage was not well documented. But if damage occurred to a piece that has only ever been in storage, would this fragility not concern the conservators in preparation of its travel outside the Musée Rodin to two different locations? When asked about how the multi-part piece was stabilized, Lancestremère let us know that the splintered pieces and the plaster-coated textile were stabilized by a mixture of adhesive and magnets: The three gypsum elements were reattached to each other with a reversible system composed of metallic elements fixed on the plaster by bonded resin studs (reversible adhesive) inside the plaster test. In the case of draped plaster fabrics, the gypsum scales raised were fixed with a fixative on the fabric. And the textile is held in place thanks to magnets of different sizes.

The piece has since gone on display at the Musée Rodin, where we will see how well these repairs hold up under the gaze of thousands entering the galleries. ArtWatch has also asked Lancestremère if, given the vulnerability of the sculpture, the Musée Rodin is concerned about its vulnerability in traveling overseas, but the exhibit opening it seems has kept the staff quiet for now. We will keep you posted on this development. In the meantime, take a look at their press packet for the exhibition here, which shows this photo (below) of the work on display in the center of one of the galleries.

L'Absolution Kiefer-Rodin exhibit

L’Absolution on display in Kiefer-Rodin exhibit, Musée Rodin, Paris, March 2017. Courtesy: Musée Rodin, Paris.


We’ve just received an update from the Musée Rodin in Paris on the treatment of Rodin’s L’Absolution and its travel status for the Kiefer Rodin exhibit. We would also like to thank the Musée Rodin staff for the below photographs of the work during treatment.

Lancastremère writes:

the Absolution sculpture will not go to Philadelphia. It is much too fragile for such a long and complicated journey […]The very large presence of the textile, which can not be supported or genuinely wedged, makes the packaging very complex and inevitably very “fragile”. Vibrations and other shocks are a risk both for assemblages between the different subjects in plaster and for the textile coated with gypsum, the very fine scales of which are liable to fall.

2017-04-11 Absolution Rodin Conservation

Treatment of L’Absolution. Courtesy: Musée Rodin, Paris/ph. P.Hisbacq.

2017-04-11 Absolution Rodin Treatment

Treatment of L’Absolution. Courtesy: Musée Rodin, Paris/ph. P.Hisbacq.



2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture - Art Students League New York

Recap: 2016 James Beck Memorial Lecture

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture - Art Students League New York

The Art Students League on W. 57th St. in Manhattan

This year’s 8th annual James beck Memorial Lecture was hosted last Thursday evening at The Art Students League of New York in midtown. Alternating between London and New York, ArtWatch holds this event each year to honor memory, scholarly efforts, and unwavering commitment to artistic stewardship of its founder, Professor James Beck. Since Beck’s passing in 2007, the lectures have been organized to continue Beck’s campaigning on the arts’ behalf, as well as to provide a platform for lectures by distinguished scholars, to commemorate his own contributions.

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture - Ottavino Stone

Old Ottavino Office Courtesy: A. Ottavino Corporation

Another remarkable force in the art world, and supporter of Beck’s efforts, New York painter Frank Mason, is also honored at the Beck Memorial Lectures. The Frank Mason Prize is awarded each year to an individual who has contributed to a courageous effort to benefit art scholarship and research. Frank’s dedication to traditionalist artistic training, his long teaching career at the Art Students League in New York, and protests against harmful restorations at the Metropolitan Museum leave behind a strong legacy. He was also instrumental in the founding of a precursor to ArtWatch International, The International Society for the Preservation of Art. This year’s recipient, Kate Ottavino, has expressed similar dedication in her work for A. Ottavino Corporation (founded 1913) as Director of Preservation.

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture - St. Paul's Chapel Manhattan

St Paul’s in NYC. Courtesy: AP Photo / Seth Wenig.

Kate has been practicing conservation for over 30 years, and since 1994 has overseen restoration work on many buildings and monuments throughout the country and has presented at several conferences, taught courses, and is extensively published. Her award-winning work on New York City landmarks can be see at Bethesda Terrace in Central Park, St. Paul’s Chapel, the Cooper Hewitt, New-York Historical Society, the Dakota Apartments, and Grace Church, among others. Kate has also made a point of pursuing educational initiatives at the Williamsburg High School of Architecture and Design and the Bronx International High School in order to benefit future generations of conservators, and advocates for landmarks as a board member of The Merchant’s House Museum and Historic Districts Council.

The art and life of Polish-born sculptor Andrew Pitynski was the topic of our 8th annual Lecture. The Art Students League of New York proved an apt setting for both the subject and the event, as the ASL has, since 1875, welcomed innovative artistic education and craftsmanship when the National Academy was unyielding to new artistic ideas.

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture - Don Reynolds

Dr. Donald Martin Reynolds. Art historian and Founder of the Monuments Conservancy (NY)

Speaker, art historian, and founder of the Monuments Conservancy, Dr. Donald Martin Reynolds, also took classes at the League. He shared from his extensive study of the life and work of Andrew Pitynski,  bringing to our attention the great impact of art that embraces both personal and collective struggle. Pitynski’s works employ his own heritage and the tragedies experienced by his Polish brothers to connect with the viewer’s experience; his sculpture recognizes that there is a universal striving towards freedom that can cut across boundaries of culture and time.


2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture - Andrew Pitynski Horse

Horse, ink sketch, Artist’s Collection, 2012.

Pitynski’s talent as an artist and sculptor developed in Poland, where his avant-garde teachers encouraged him in the pursuit of truth and morality in his work. For Pitynski, that meant pulling inspiration from the constant battle for freedom that his ancestors and family members fought against the waves of war and Communism in his homeland.


The exposure during his youth to the bravery and courage of his loved ones and the local Partisan group they aligned with became entwined with Andrew’s art. From his rough-hewn bronzes of galloping warriors, to the larger than life plaster sculptures of solemn soldiers honoring the sacrifices of others, the value of human liberty is made manifest.



2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture - Andrew Pitynski Sarmata bronze

Pitynski’s Sarmata, bronze and granite, 1980.

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture - Sarmata Spirit of Freedom Seward Johnson Grounds for Sculpture Hamilton NJ.

Sarmata – Spirit of Freedom at Seward Johnson’s Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton, NJ, 2001.

Pulling from his Polish heritage, many of Andrew’s most powerful sculptures have one major common thread – the stoic warrior spirit of the ancient Sarmatians, from whose civilization, according to 15th and 16th century historians, the Poles descended. The Sarmatians themselves, according to ancient Greek historian Herodotus, were descendents of the Scythians and Amazons, and thus contemporary Polish legend embraced all the virtues of strength, independence, and bravery supposed of their distant ancestors. These characteristics can be seen, for instance, in his monumental Partisan I and Partisan II on the Boston Common and New Jersey “Grounds for Sculpture”, respectively.

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture -Partisan I Boston Common.

Partisan I, cast in aluminum, on the Boston Common, 1983.


Here are featured a series of marching hussars, or mounted soldiers that served as Poland’s highly regarded and magnificently feared assault cavalry in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Sarmatian spirit is evident in his larger-than-life Patriot, demonstrating the dynamic heroicism in a winged and wounded hussar, standing with sword unsheathed.

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture -Andrew Pitynski Patriot Poland.

Pitynski’s Patriot in Stalowa Wola, Poland, 2011.


2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture -Andrew Pitynski Avenger Doylestown.

Pitynski in his studio carving plaster of Avenger for Polish cemetery in Doylestown, PA, 1986.

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture -Katyn WWII Jersey City Twin Towers.

Katyn, 1940, honoring the WWII massacre of Polish nationals by Soviets, installed in Jersey City, 1990. Shown here in early 2001.

Following the tragedy that hit New York and the rest of the U.S. on September 11th, Pitynski integrated a new memorial bronze, Sorrowful Liberty, onto his 18 ft high Katyn memorial that honored the deaths of those who had been massacred by the Soviets in 1940.  Throughout Pitynski’s artistic career, as Dr. Reynolds’ lecture demonstrated, he has sought the intersection of historic memory and honoring current loss. His sculptures, reliefs, and drawings exhibit an unmistakable commitment to searching for, as his master Jerzy Bandura put it, the “only valuable truth”.

2016-09-29 - James Beck Memorial Lecture -Sorrowful Liberty bronze.

Sorrowful Liberty, bronze relief installed on the Katyn Memorial, 2005.



1998-06-22 - Michelangelo Victory

Letter to the Mayor of Florence: Michelangelo’s “Victory”

1998-06-22 - Michelangelo VictoryIn an open letter to the Mayor of Florence, ArtWatch is calling for an immediate halt to the restoration of Michelangelo’s statue group known as “Victory”.

James Beck June 22, 1998

Dear Honorable Mr. Mayor,

On behalf of ArtWatch International, Inc. and its affiliate in Italy, ArtWatch Italia, I am asking at this time for an immediate halt to the projected restoration of Michelangelo’s sculpture group known as Victory, presently in Palazzo Vecchio in the Salone dei Cinquecento. In our opinion the matter is most urgent because scaffolding have already been constructed around the sculpture, making it ready for the intervention.

ArtWatch, a watchdog organization with nearly 1000 associates worldwide, has taken a stand against drastic and/or unnecessary treatments of our artistic treasures. Activity on the Victory should be halted until information about the projected intervention is made public. Among the points that require full disclosure are:

  1. an explanation of the assumed need for such an intervention or treatment at all;
  2. the goals for the intervention and what is hoped to be attained;
  3. the proposed methodology of the intervention, i.e. what techniques are planned, for example, with the restores use scalpels, mico-sand blasters, lasers, chemicals?

Once the data is made available ArtWatch also calls upon the Mayor to organize an open public debate, preferable in the Salone dei Cinquecento, in which international experts on Michelangelo, specialists devoted to Renaissance sculpture and Italian Renaissance art in general, specialists on marble restoration, as well as all interested parties may participate. ArtWatch believes that, as in the field of medicine, second and third opinions are essential before a restoration is undertaken. In fact, sometimes the most effective cure has been to leave the patient alone. ArtWatch makes these requests on the basis of the operative assumption that works of art of the caliber of Michelangelo’s Victory do not, strictly speaking, belong to the city of Florence, nor, to the government of Italy, but ultimately belong to the entire world, and that the city and state officials in charge are guardians whose role it is to preserve the objects in their trust for future generations. To take any action in relative secrecy is effectively a violation of that trust.

Thanking you for attention to this matter, I am Sincerely Yours,

(signed James Beck)