Twilight of the West: Contemporary solutions for some contemporary problems
Anselm Kiefer 'Abendland (Twilight of the West)' 1989 synthetic polymer paint, ash, plaster, cement, earth, varnish on canvas and wood, Collection of the National Gallery
Anselm kiefer's Abendland or Twilight of the West 1989 was bought by the National Gallery of Australia in the year it was made. This important contemporary work is usually referred to as a painting, but in some ways that is a rather deceptive description. It is huge (400.00 x 380.0 cm); constructed of many different materials; and the artist used unconventional techniques. The work consists of two sections: the top part (which represents the sky) is made of a thick lead sheet which has been worked, wrinkled, crumpled and embossed, with an impression of a manhole cover representing the twilight sun. The 'painted' landscape beneath (an industrial hinterland with train tracks) is a complex mix of materials.
Recently the lower section was brought to the Conservation studio for examination and treatment. The image layer is on a linen canvas stretched over a sturdy wooden strainer (frame). The main component of this layer appears to be an emulsion of pigments and a bulking agent (this was not analysed, but is probably a form of plaster or chalk). The mixture has been applied with a spatula or similar type of tool to create broad textural marks, often with fine curls along the edges. Other areas are thickly built up, some with blobs of material, some flatly worked. Throughout the image there are dribbles and splatters of thinned paint or ink and glue. There are also clusters of dirt, ash and charcoal, and several nails are stuck to the surface. Selected arrears are shinny, apparently because of the application of a surface coating, perhaps shellac or similar material. The surface has been 'brushed' over with a flame, resulting in a singed and burnt appearance, which is particularly noticeable at the thin and fragile edges of the 'impastos'. The 'brushing' has also resulted in some burn holes in both the canvas and the strainer.
The conservators determined from a detailed examination of the work that the image layer is extremely fragile. The thin frills of impasto and the dry, cracked nature of the plaster-like material are vulnerable to movement and contact with other objects. Some losses have already occurred. This vulnerability was exacerbated by the slackness of the canvas, and weakness resulting form burn hole along the top edge. The great weight of the work, particularly when the two sections are united, makes handling difficult. The conservation treatment carried out will slow down the cracking and losses of the image layer and provide solid support for the canvas so as to reduce movement.
Twilight of the West is now on view again. The treatment has not changed its appearance in any way: it merely made the work more physically stable, thereby prolonging its life.
detail showing burn hole more detail
Treatment undertaken by Erica Burgess and Greg Howard, National Gallery conservation studio:
The painting was laid face upwards on two tables slightly smaller in total area than the outer dimensions of the work; this enabled staples, extreme care was taken to avoid losses to the section of image layer at the bottom which forms the turnover edge.
The top tacking edge of the painting was gently lifted parallel with the surface of the painting to enable a sheet of cardboard to be canvas. The painting, with its supporting sheet of card, was lifted off the strainer, leaving the edges free to maintain their configuration.
Unstable areas of the image layer were consolidated with an acrylic dispersion adhesive -the concentration varied from 10 to 50 per cent, depending on the thickness of the impasto.
Burn holes and tears were exposed by cutting away corresponding areas of supporting card. The damaged areas were patched with Beva 371 film and a lightweight cotton fabric similar to existing patches.
Metal brackets on the reverse of the strainer (used to strengthen the cut-down members at the bottom) were glued into each join to strengthen the strainer. The outside edges of the strainer were sanded.
detail showing burn hole more detail
Two sheets of 5mm Fome-cor archival board were secured to the face of the strainer. The first layer was glued and stapled to the strainer and the second layer was glued over the first, making sure that the joins overlapped. Areas corresponding with convex deformations in the canvas and patches on the reverse were compressed to ensure that there was no undue pressure in these areas.
The painting was then returned to the blind strainer by gently sliding it off the supporting cardboard. The cardboard was held in line with the strainer so that there was little disturbance to the plane of the painting. The work was secured to the strainer with staples over cotton tape.
During the whole procedure of joining the canvas section to the top lead section then re-installation on the gallery wall, the canvas suffered very little movement. The treatment took nine days to carry out.
First published in artonview 34 winter 2003