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Conserving Henri Matisse's "The Swimming Pool"

Matisse's "Swimming Pool" cut-out, a popular piece at the Museum of Modern Art, underwent a detailed restoration process. The artwork, discolored over time, was brought back to life through careful research and conservation efforts, including replacing the burlap background and maintaining the original color balance. This process offered new insights into Matisse's unique working style.. Created by The Museum of Modern Art.

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Video transcript

- In 1952 Matisse had taken a short trip with one of his assistants to a favorite pool in the south of France to see divers and it was so hot, and so sunny he said "I'm gonna die of the heat, let's go home. "I'll make my own swimming pool myself." He asked his assistant to install a white paper frieze at a height of about five and a half feet and he cut blue painted paper into forms of swimmers, divers, sea creatures and the forms were pinned by his assistants on to the burlap wall one by one. The work stayed that way until his death in 1954. After his death the work was traced, it was sent to Paris in pieces, and glued onto new burlap despite the known acidity of burlap and its propensity to change color over time. The white paper frieze was also new. - The Museum of Modern Art acquired the "Swimming Pool" in 1975. It's arguably one of Matisse's most important cut-outs and certainly one of the most popular works of art in our collection. People loved looking at it because it's so lively and animated and gave you a real sense of the way in which Matisse worked with cut paper. Unfortunately, by 1993 it had become discolored. The burlap background had started to change color and it had affected the paper itself and so we decided it was no longer capable of being displayed to the public. About five years ago we started an intense research project to figure out how to make it viewable again, what we could do to restore it, and conserve it, and bring it back to life. This meant working with conservation scientists, with art historians, with conservators, to try and figure out a way in which to return it to display. In doing that, the cut-outs, which we thought we understood, became alive again as we realized that he had worked in a very different way than we had thought. - From the very beginning I had three goals. The first was to return the color balance to the work. That is tan burlap, white paper and blue cut-outs. The second goal was to install the work at its proper height. Because of MoMA's ceiling heights this had never been feasible. Third goal was to mimic, as best as possible, the architecture of the original room to allow the viewer to really feel surrounded by the cut-out and immersed in the "Swimming Pool". A central part of the research was to explore the way the cut-outs looked when Matisse lived with them in his studios. Claude Duthuit, the grandson of Matisse, gave me a piece of the original burlap from Matisse's dining room so I was able to see the original color and the weave that would have been my goal. And I was very happy to find in the conservation archive this small sample of the fabric used in 1955. Never seen the light of day, not aged, not discolored. You can see that over time this burlap changed because of light exposure, because of atmospheric pollution, and that's why I was so concerned to replace this and get back to this. The most time consuming part of the whole process was the removal of the burlap from the cut forms. I used a rotary tool, and then took a scalpel and scraped off the remaining fibers. When I felt that this was hurting the paper too much I just took a fiber and i pulled it one by one which took approximately 2000 hours. My research led me to replace it with this new burlap which the work will be mounted onto. - The nature of burlap is that it's sort of an imperfect industrial material, it's not produced to be used on fine art. It has a lot of imperfections. There were a lot of clumps of dark fibers and we found ourselves combing through and picking out impurities. - There was an idea, that because the way paper has discolored over time, perhaps it would have been possible to replace the white paper with a new, whiter paper. I made the decision not to do that because the white paper has aged the same amount of time as the blue and if a new white paper had been inserted it would have seemed jarringly white as compared to the blue. - So surface cleaning was performed on the white paper using a vinyl eraser. That couldn't be done on the painted blue pieces due to the sensitivity of the gouache and that meant going in with a very sharp colored pencil and just touching out those little scratches and dings that have happened over the years so that the viewer only sees the beauty of the blue cut paper. - One of the controversial aspects of this conservation process has been that instead of mounting the white frieze and blue forms with a new adhesive, the forms will be pinned to new burlap panels. This has never really been done before on a Matisse conservation project. This process has two goals. One is to return to the work a little bit of the three-dimensional liveliness that the works would have had in the studio when he lived with them. And secondly, the white and blue will be against the burlap only for the months that they are on view. Once the exhibition is over the works are unpinned and they will no longer be in contact with the burlap, which even though it is new, is still acidic. - This is really important for future display and for the future stability of this piece. - The research that we did on the "Swimming Pool" informed how we thought about all of Matisse's cut-outs, and that's what makes this exhibition different than any other exhibition about Matisse's work before because this exhibition looks at the way in which Matisse lived with these works of art, how he animated his life by manipulating the paper forms that he cut out, how he understood these works as organic and I think that really comes through in the way in which we've created displays here that allow people to get a sense of what it must have been like for Matisse to be surrounded by this world he created for himself. - This will offer both to the public and to the conservation field an incredibly important way of thinking about how the cut-out should be seen and also how they should be conserved.