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Henri Matisse

Fondation Beyeler unveils plans to allow observation of Matisse restoration

A conservation studio will be opened to educate the public about the costly process of reconstructing Matisse's Acanthes

Recognising the public’s desire to watch conservation in action, the Fondation Beyeler will open a new, glass-fronted conservation studio later this month as part of its restoration and technical and scholarly investigation of Matisse’s Acanthes—a large format papier découpé or paper cut-out.

The three-year “Acanthes” project, which launched in 2009, is an interdisciplinary exploration of the 1953 cut-out, combining art historical research with the expertise of conservators to learn more about Matisse’s method and devise the best course of action for the work’s restoration. The project is a collaboration between the Beyeler Fondation and Nationale Suisse, with cooperation from the Matisse Archives in Paris, the Hochschule der Künste in Bern and institutions with paper cut-outs including the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Cut-outs such as Acanthes constitute a late but innovative period in Matisse’s oeuvre. “Throughout his career, Matisse struggled to find the ideal form of artistic expression—the grande décoration. Cut-outs enabled him to express what he had wanted to accomplish all of his life,” said Ulf Küster, who is in charge of the collection at the Beyeler and curator of this project. He added: “They are a synthesis of drawing, painting and sculpture.”

Although there are still unanswered questions related to the creation of Matisse’s découpages, scholars know that he used scissors to cut out shapes from sheets of brightly-painted paper. Assistants would then attach them to a larger sheet of white paper according to Matisse’s detailed instructions. The Matisse Archives have preserved scraps of paper from the cut-outs. “Matisse never threw anything away. It is possible to reconstruct every scissor cut he made,” said Küster, adding: “This presents a fantastic opportunity to look over the shoulder of a great modern artist while he creates a conceptual work of art.”

According to Küster, although Acanthes suffers from problems typically associated with works on paper, it is in remarkably good condition, with only minor discolouration located mainly on the edges. The challenge in treating large-format cut-outs is that they have traditionally been treated as paintings rather than works on paper.

“It’s important to the museum and to the field of conservation for the public to bring this traditionally behind-the-scenes type of work into the limelight. It helps make people more aware of why things are costly,” said Küster.

The studio opens on 30 March and the public can follow the project’s progress online at www.beyeler.com/acanthes.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'See why conservation is costly'