The most appealing results of the research done in the Research Agenda 2008-2012 set in the spotlights.
Charlene' (1954) by Robert Rauschenberg is one of the most famous works from the collection of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. In preparation for reinstallation after the museum's renovation, conservator Louise Wynberg asked the Netherlands Cultural Heritage Agency to help assess the possible risks of the long-term installation of this work.
Charlene is an early example of Rauschenberg's 'combine paintings'. He composed these assemblies from a variety of materials using diverse techniques. Here Rauschenberg incorporated a light bulb, a dented mirror, a flattened umbrella, reflectors, a T-shirt and reproductions of famous artworks, but also a handwritten letter from his mother and a scrap of paper entitled 'Charlene'. He also applied fragments of newspapers, magazines and comic books.
Charlene interacts with her surroundings: the mirror reflects the constantly changing viewer and the space before the painting, and the museum wall is visible through a wooden window above. The work contains so many interesting elements that you almost forget to view it as a whole. From a distance the elements flow together into an abstract composition in muted colours with red dominating. The paint he used was often a matter of chance. He always bought discounted paint from the paint shop opposite his studio and simply used what was to hand, mostly red in this case.
Louise Wijnberg of the Stedelijk Museum approached the RCE with a proposal for a joint project to thoroughly investigate the materials used and to identify the risks of deterioration. So far this has resulted in a risk analysis that was easily be applied using the experience gained from the RCE's Collection Risk Management method. The project took place in 2012, the last year in which the Research Agenda was conducted. Therefore the project is still open ended on a few aspects.
The main questions posed by the Stedelijk Museum:
The work is fortunately still in good condition, although in pervious years a little local restoration had been carried out, such as the replacement of a piece of silk on the rotating parasol, and the securing of small pieces of paint or paper. The present reality is in stark contrast to the pessimistic views in the press in the mid 1960s when Charlene was acquired. Reviewers then predicted that the work, consisting of "paint-smeared pasted-on rags, remnants and toilet paper" would fall apart after a few years. They were proven wrong and Charlene remained an attraction at the Stedelijk for many years.
In a discussion between Wynberg and Rauschenberg's assistant, it appeared that the cord is an important part of the installation: it had to be black and draped over the floor of the gallery. This was accurately carried out in the new installation for the reopening of the museum. In addition, all risk factors were identified during a risk analysis workshop. An estimate was made of general risks, including the effects of dust, water and fire, vandalism and theft of small components. This proved easy because the Stedelijk was found to comply with the highest standards. The fire risk of the flickering light was assessed and its wiring slightly modified as a result.
Ultimately one question remained which must be addressed in the future. This concerns the binder used in Rauschenberg's paints. Will the strongly discoloured varnish further degrade in the future to become sticky and so attract more dust? This is related to the general question remaining unanswered; to what extent has the colour, which plays a central role in this work, changed. The researchers felt that the greatest changes in Charlene have already taken place, but how exactly that has occurred has been difficult to determine. Several factors could have been of influence, ranging from paint and glue to the discolouration of the newspapers and textiles.
Furthermore, because the work was not extensively documented in the past, apart from a few Ekta negatives (large, square, colour slides), a comparison between the original and present colours is difficult to make. As long as the Ektas themselves are not corrected for colour-change, an objective comparison is impossible. Moreover Charlene consists of a varied surface with local variations in the fond, paint thickness and binder. Non-invasive analytical research (in which the apparatus does not interfere with the surface of the work; for example, X-ray examination) would provide insight into various aspects of the composition of the work. A mapping out of these results and of the current colours and condition could make possible a useful comparison with the corrected Ektas. This important additional research is planned for the future.
Lack of documentation can form a high risk for the value of an artwork through loss of meaning. That is certainly true in the case of Charlene, a work with a great many personal and hidden meanings. Who else in the near future will still know that the letter written by Rauschenberg's mother is about his sister Janet? Contemporary documentation can be an important means of preserving meaning, for example a digital reconstruction of the artwork could be made that also visualizes the content lying below the surface. An intern at the Stedelijk, Marian Cousijn, gave a compelling impetus for this project in a blog when she linked components of Charlene with the work method of Rauschenberg and other artists (see Results).
Thus there are future plans enough, but the essential issue has been resolved for the time being. Charlene is able to sparkle again for a time on display as a crowd-puller among her contemporaries.
Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) was a painter, sculptor, photographer and choreographer. He trained at the Art Student League of New York, a renowned art school, and elsewhere. There he discovered that the prevailing trend of the moment, abstract expressionism, did not appeal. Rauschenberg chose a less emotional artistic direction, Pop Art. In 1953 he made his first combine painting. Here he used various materials and objects, often found during his many walks along the beach or in his own neighbourhood in downtown New York. His combines are very personal and full of references to his own life. Rauschenberg's work had as theme the bridging of the gap between life and art. About his use of objects from the real world he once said, "I do not want a painting to look like something it is not, but to look something like what it really is." He regarded his art as being equivalent to the viewer, who should participate actively in the work.
Bart Ankersmit, Maarten van Bommel, Agnes Brokerhof, Suzan de Groot, Henk van Keulen, Frank Ligterink, Klaas Jan van den Berg, Bill Wei
Meta Chavannes, Bart Rutten, Marian Cousijn (stage)