I love my job! Here is one of the many reasons why.
A few weeks ago, our Executive Director Stu Flack and I found ourselves in one of the most fascinating spots on Chicago’s cultural landscape. We were at the Art Institute, but not just anywhere in that phenomenal institution. No, we were in the museum’s department of conservation, where executive director Frank Zuccari gave us a guided tour of the premises. We saw x-ray machines, bulky scanners, and all kinds of other tech equipment. But I really buckled when Frank took us around the corner into the studio. A Monet and Renoir were perched on easels, while a Luc Tuymans painting leaned casually against one of the walls. What an amazing privilege to see this…
Claud Monet, Iris
Renoir, Two Sisters
Then, we sat down to talk ideas. Stu and I had come to the Art Institute to explore the possibility of organizing a CHF lecture on some of the amazing work being done in the area of conservation science. We had seen some of the results of the department’s research in such shows as Seurat and the Making of “La Grande Jatte” (2004) and Mattise: Radical Invention, 1913-1917 (2010). And we had a hunch that there might be other incredible stories lurking among the x-ray photographs and old color palates. That’s when Frank introduced us to Francesca Casadio.
Francesca is a chemist who serves as the senior conservation scientist at the Art Institute. But as I was listening to her astonishing tales of chasing ancient pigments across the globe and running microscopic residues through the latest material science machinery, it became clear that I was in the presence of a veritable art detective. Just like Steppenwolf’s William Peterson on CSI, Francesca was in the business of high-end forensics. The only difference was her starting point: a great painting rather than a corpse.
William Peterson on CSI
Francesca’s latest victim (ahem, research object) is one of the Art Institute’s great treasures, Picasso’s Red Armchair. Turns out, the 1931 painting of his mistress and muse Marie-Thérèse Walter is something of an enigma, especially in regard to the paint Picasso used to create the image. That purple background in particular has given scholars fits, suggesting to some that Picasso might have been the artist who first introduced house paint into the rarified world of fine arts. For art historians, it’s a crucial question, both for the interpretation of Picasso’s work itself and in regard to his place in the development of the later 20th-century’s radical art approaches.
The Red Armchair
Enter the intrepid Francesca and her amazing art machines. In a mind-bending feat of global sleuthing, she tracked down Picasso’s paints, chasing them from the south of France to eBay and back to her lab. The spoils were right there for us to see, from early 20th-century advertising brochures to 1930s paint samples. But the real delight was to hear Francesca tell it all. Having tackled one of art history’s great questions, she related the thrill of the hunt and the triumph of discovery in the most vivid terms.
Stu and I asked Francesca on the spot to bring her story to the CHF, and she agreed immediately. We couldn’t be more thrilled that our audience will get to share in the amazing experience we had at the Art Institute and hear from one of the true stars of Chicago’s cultural scene.
Chicago Cultural Center - Claudia Cassidy Theater: Nov. 6, 12:00 PM
Tags: conservation science, art history, forensics, Picasso, The Art Institute of Chicago, color palates