Friday, October 9, 2015

The Flip Side of Art

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I’ll be honest: I’m pretty normal most of the time, but when I go to a good art museum, as I did some weeks ago while visiting St. Louis, I sometimes turn into a different animal – a geek. No, not the "omigosh-I-can’t-believe-I’m-going-to-see-wonderful-pieaces-of-art!" sort of geek. Looking at images is only part of what makes me go to art museums. The other reason I go to art museums is this: I want to know what’s behind those paintings. Literally.

“Judith with the Head of Holofernes”
Lucas Cranach the Elder. c. 1530
(Imperial Gallery, Vienna)

A large part of my goofy interest comes from learning long ago to build my own canvas supports, wooden supports, and frames. It’s no secret that art supplies are expensive, and as a student you either sell your siblings into slavery to afford canvases or you build them yourself. Being the youngest in my clan and not wanting to even suggest the former, I chose the latter and taught myself how to build painting supports.

Because my art projects very greatly, their construction is always custom work. Things get even more weird when one tinkers with projects like doored altarpieces and solid-wood panels and 4 by 11-foot painting surfaces. You will never find economy packs of those in Hobby Lobby or Michaels. I’ve checked. After a while, the randomness of projects and the varied success of each simply makes one wonder how our artistic forebears accomplished greater things, with far greater results and without power tools.

So when all the blue-haired ladies are gushing over a little Monet in the Impressionism room, and when the stiletto-healed gals and horn-rimmed hipsters are fussing over the avant-garde junk in the Moderne wing, I race past them all to find an old, German altarpiece in a plexiglass box. Then I peer around the side of it to get a peek at it’s hinges. And I inspect its joinery. And I find where the artist and artisans concealed pins and nails. And I mentally move the doors to see how they would have articulated. And I look like a geek.
“Suzanne in the Garden”
Claude Monet. c. 1886.
(Private collection)

Of course, museums prefer to modestly keep a painting’s backside to the wall. In those instances when a painting’s privates are off limits, instead of waiting until the guards and docents take a potty break so I can turn over a nifty Cranach, I go online and find photos of painting backs and radiographs of painting supports. Then I see all of the painting’s secrets and try to understand how things were put together.

If the artist was an old master, the preferred painting support was most often stretched linen or solid wood. And because both types of support can warp, what is not seen by the general public always piques my curiosity. Corner keys, stretcher bars and cradling can come into play, along with a smattering of conservator’s hardware, catalogue marks and stamps. Like inspecting an old piece of furniture, there are often little moments of enlightenment that cause increased appreciation for what lies behind the piece’s pretty face.

I’ll be honest again: I don’t care if I do look like a geek when exploring an art museum. This is my craft, and the dead guys always have a thing or two to teach me even though it’s been centuries since they breathed their last. They still quietly lead by example. As an old fart, I love going to this school. I always will.

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