Conserving Pierre Bourdelle’s “Bird” (Part II)

This two-part blog post is by Jen Munch, former intern in The Phillips Collection’s Conservation department and current Graduate Fellow in Art Conservation at SUNY Buffalo State. Read Part I here.

Later renovations and expansions required the sculpture’s deinstallation and relocation. During one deinstallation in 1987, the heavy stone sculpture was damaged at two locations along the slab’s bottom edge, where small sections of the stone were chipped away. In 1989, conservators repaired the sculpture by filling the two losses with chips of stone from the back of the artwork, plus an epoxy material that matched the colors of the grey and pink slab. Over time, the epoxy’s colors faded to beige, due to the strong sunlight that this artwork is exposed to. In 2004-5, the faded fills were replaced with new epoxy fills, with the goal of better matching the color of the surrounding stone. By the summer of 2017, the “new” fills again had faded to beige [fig.7, 8].

Figure 7, Before treatment, 2017. The discolored fills are circled.

Figure 7: Before treatment, 2017. The discolored fills are circled.

Figure 8: Before treatment, 2017. The discolored fills are circled.

The aging effects of sunlight are well known and documented. Just as the sun can damage your skin or the fabric of a sofa placed near a window, the sun’s rays can degrade many pigments. Ultraviolet rays are the most damaging, but visible light will also cause some degree of damage.

In 2017, the epoxy fills were still structurally stable but their beige color no longer matched the surrounding stone. The fills were visible and distracting. On one warm August day in 2017 [fig. 9], I spent the afternoon “in-painting” the beige epoxy to make it match the surrounding area. I applied small amounts of special conservation-grade paints atop the epoxy. The paints I used have good aging properties, but they, too, will eventually fade and need to be replaced. The work I did, and the materials I used, are documented with both written reports and photography, taken before and after treatment [fig. 10]. This information will be valuable to the next conservator who has to treat this artwork, just as the reports from the 1989 and 2004-5 treatments were helpful to me.

The author performing a conservation treatment on Bird by Pierre Bourdelle. Photo: Kim Sandara

Figure 9: The author performing a conservation treatment on Bird by Pierre Bourdelle. Photo: Kim Sandara

I enjoyed working on this sculpture and getting to learn about its history. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that this beautiful bird was custom-made for the Phillips and is a work of art, not just a logo. I hope you have enjoyed reading about this artwork, and will look for the bird the next time you visit The Phillips Collection.

Figure 9, After treatment, 2017. The epoxy fills have been in-painted to match the stone.

Figure 10: After treatment, 2017. The epoxy fills have been in-painted to match the stone.

Rodin’s Gates of Hell

Auguste Rodin, Maquette for Gates of Hell, Bronze, On loan from the Collection of Iris Cantor

Auguste Rodin, Maquette for Gates of Hell, 1880, Bronze, On loan from the Collection of Iris Cantor, currently on view at The Phillips Collection

In 1880, the French government commissioned Auguste Rodin to sculpt a door for the entrance of a planned Museum of Decorative Arts. Rodin worked out his design in a number of preparatory drawings and three clay maquettes (small models used as studies). This bronze casting of the third maquette—now on loan to the Phillips from the Collection of Iris Cantor—is close in design to the full-scale version which stands at over 20 feet tall. Drawing inspiration from Dante’s Divine Comedy (1308)—a three-part epic that explores the author’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise—Rodin suspends hundreds of figures in an abyss that evokes Dante’s encounter with the tormented souls of the underworld.

In developing his visual language, Rodin drew upon the long tradition of gilded bronze church doors, specifically The Gates of Paradise (1425–1452) designed by Renaissance artist Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Baptistery in Florence. After working on The Gates of Hell for a decade, Rodin was forced to abandon the commission when the government announced new plans to build a train station on the site of the proposed museum. Rodin ultimately repurposed parts of the door as independent artworks, among them his famous sculptures The Thinker and The Kiss, both visible in this maquette—The Thinker at the top above the central pier and the enraptured lovers on the lower left side.

The Gates of Hell was never cast in bronze during Rodin’s lifetime. However, since his death and according to the artist’s wishes, several casts have been made, including one commissioned by the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation.

Far left: The Gates of Hell, 1880-c. 1890, cast 1981, Bronze, Cantor Arts Center, Gift of B. Gerald Cantor Collection Left top and bottom: The Thinker, modeled 1880, reduced 1903, cast later, Bronze; The Kiss, modeled c. 1881–82, cast later, Bronze; North Carolina Museum of Art, Gift of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation

Left: The Gates of Hell, 1880-c. 1890, cast 1981, Bronze, Cantor Arts Center, Gift of B. Gerald Cantor Collection; Right top and bottom: The Thinker, modeled 1880, reduced 1903, cast later, Bronze; The Kiss, modeled c. 1881–82, cast later, Bronze; North Carolina Museum of Art, Gift of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation

Angela Bulloch: Heavy Metal Stack: Fat Cyan Three (PART II)

On September 16, the Phillips unveiled a new sculpture by Angela Bulloch on the corner of 21st and Q Streets. We asked Angela a few questions about her artwork. Read Part I of the interview here.

Heavy Metal Stack: Fat Cyan Three, 2018, Powder coated steel, Made possible with support from Susan and Dixon Butler, Nancy and Charles Clarvit, John and Gina Despres, A. Fenner Milton, Eric Richter, Harvey M. Ross, George Vradenburg and The Vradenburg Foundation

Heavy Metal Stack: Fat Cyan Three, 2018, Powder coated steel, Made possible with support from Susan and Dixon Butler, Nancy and Charles Clarvit, John and Gina Despres, A. Fenner Milton, Eric Richter, Harvey M. Ross, George Vradenburg and The Vradenburg Foundation

How do you think Heavy Metal Stack: Fat Three Cyan fits with the Phillips? How did you choose these colors/this size for this commission?

The colors were chosen to contrast with the surrounding area. The color—cyan blue—is not only the opposite color of the orange bricks but it’s also an important color used often around Washington, DC. I’ve placed the lighter color on the underside of the sculpture for the first time with the plan that it would be illuminated from the ground up at night because I thought that would be a good artificial inversion. The sun will illuminate the sculpture from above during the day in the usual way.

How does your modern/minimalist sculpture change when placed in front of a brick house built in 1897? How does it interact with the surrounding area of Dupont Circle?

This work is neither a modern nor a minimal sculpture. The techniques used in its fabrication date the sculpture—it could not have been made like this before the 1990s, really. Aesthetically I think it fits in well with the surroundings—Dupont Circle or in front of a building made about 100 years prior to the technology used for its making. The contrast between the sculpture and the building behind it is deliberately sharp.

Heavy Metal Stack: Fat Cyan Three at night

Heavy Metal Stack: Fat Cyan Three at night

What do you want people to think/feel when they see your artwork?

I don’t like to prescribe people’s feelings, but when I look at the sculpture I think it looks alien, bold yet comfortably present, holding the corner as it does, and I cannot resist the temptation to ascribe human qualities to it despite the fact that it is anything but human. Although I think wishing to humanize blind objects reveals something more about me rather than the sculpture.

Much of your work incorporates time-based elements, such as shifting light patterns, sound, and interactive mechanisms. On the contrary, Heavy Metal Stack: Fat Cyan Three is a static object. How do you envision audiences interacting with your sculpture at the Phillips?

Oh that’s not a question that I can answer. I have many thoughts but no statement . . . let’s ask the audience.