The most appealing results of the research done in the Research Agenda 2008-2012 set in the spotlights.
Victory Boogie Woogie is the last work painted by Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) and part of the permanent collection of the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. In the period 2006-2008, this famous painting underwent a large-scale investigation in collaboration with the Gemeentemuseum. The public could follow the object-based examination from behind a glass partition.
Victory Boogie Woogie (1942-1944) is the ideal case study. All the ingredients for an interesting investigation are present: besides paint, the artist used relatively unknown materials such as adhesive tape, he used a special technique (paint scraping) and left the canvas unfinished and unvarnished. It is precisely this state of incompletion that gave researchers, conservators and curators clues in uncovering the fabrication chronology to learn more about Mondriaan's art process.
Mondrian spent his last nine months almost continuously working on Victory Boogie Woogie. In January 1944 he began a thorough revision, when, according to his own words, the work was ready to exhibit and he had already removed most of the auxiliary strips of adhesive tape. This led to several radical changes, in which Mondriaan again decked the canvas with narrow strips of adhesive tape. Between 17 and 23 January, the painter made even more changes by interrupting straight lines and 'opening up' the surface once more. The picture won in strength and dynamism as a result, an improved response to what he was trying to express with the painting, "a dynamic movement in balance". Mondrian abandoned the work in this unfinished state with its 574 small sections. He died on 1 February 1944.
More information about Mondriaan's way of thinking and working was necessary to better understand the painting. A number of things were helpful here, such as the testimonies of Charmion von Wiegand. In 1944 this American art critic made sketches of Victory Boogie Woogie in Mondriaan's studio. These show the initial stage of the work with straight lines, before the Mondrian added the coloured blocks. Then there was the exact copy of Victory Boogie Woogie by Perle Fine of 1946, commissioned by the then Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam director, Willem Sandberg. Comparison with photos from the fabrication period of the painting also provided new information.
During the preliminary investigation in September 2006 Victory Boogie Woogie was removed from its glass 'box' and closely examined. In March 2007, the painting was investigated using infrared and X-ray techniques by MOLAB in the second research phase. This is a mobile laboratory containing five different instruments and is operated by conservation scientists from three Italian universities. As the instruments are non-destructive and non-contact (sample taking is not required) the painting can be analysed without affecting it in any way. In addition to this research on-site, primary source research and research into the restoration history of the work were carried out.
The study of the material composition and the layer structure should provide insight into the painting's history of development. Identification of the used materials was necessary to be able to compare the blocks of colour and spectral measurements made it possible to classify the colour blocks. Photographs made with raking light revealed height differences on the surface, showing that the current picture of Victory Boogie Woogie largely corresponds with the artist's intent. The first pencil lines that Mondriaan had drawn in 1942 coincide with the painted pattern of lines. Mondrian decided on the positions of the large grey and white blocks at an early stage and did not change these further. The large blue, red and yellow blocks also appear to have been positioned at an early stage, although Mondrian did continue searching for the right tone of colour: up to seven layers of blue paint were found on some blocks.
Within the fixed elements Mondrian made changes particularly with the colour and position of the smaller blocks. A relatively large amount of tape was found: his means for quickly adjusting the composition.
During the investigation attention was also paid to possible signs of deterioration in the remaining adhesive tape. The restoration treatment by Caroline Keck in 1949, in which loose tape was re-adhered with wax and polyvinyl acetate, seems to have adequately protected the structure of the material and the colour. Now, more than 50 years after the treatment, no new conservation issues have been detected. However, Victory Boogie Woogie remains a fragile work due to the way the canvas is attached to the frame.
All the information gathered from the survey was ultimately visualised in a virtual presentation made in CARTA. This represents a successful application of a so-called GIS, a geological information system that was originally developed to map earth strata. Now Mondriaan's order of work actions can be deduced from the paint and tape layers, and made visible to all.
Maarten van Bommel
Klaas-Jan van den Berg, IJsbrand Hummelen, Eric Domela Nieuwenhuis, Esther van Duijn, Madeleine Bisschoff, Hester Lensink, Simone Vermaat,
Matthijs de Keijzer, Luc Megens, Henk van Keulen, Suzan de Groot, Ineke Joosten
Hans Janssen (Gemeentemuseum Den Haag), Ron Spronk (Queens University), Bruno Brunetti e.a. (Universiteit van Perugia, EU-ARTECH), Geerten Blessing en Charles de Jong (CARIS)