High and low tech combine to patch up work at National Gallery

Saturday, April 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ It takes a high-tech shower stall with multiple spouts and spigots when the lab at the National Gallery of Art has to deal with a bigger-than-life bronze nude that's been out in the weather too long.

But the basic tools for patching a Rembrandt etching would be a blender, an eyedropper and a plastic mushroom brush.

The nude is Wilhelm Lehmbruck's ``Standing Woman.'' The buxom, 6-foot-3-and-a-quarter-inch statue once stood on the balcony outside the gallery director's office, looking out onto Pennsylvania Avenue.

Staff members say the Secret Service, planning an inaugural parade, once called to ask about the security status of the black-clothed person posted there around the clock. ``Standing Woman'' is clothed only by drapery around her shins, and it's the same dark green bronze as the rest of her, but the Secret Service was apparently observing from a distance.

The statue is indoors now, in the shower stall. Streaks from a decade of exposure to the elements are being carefully ``in-painted'' with a tiny retouching brush.

``The streaks will still be there,'' explained Elizabeth Wild, in charge of the project. ``They just won't be visible.'' After restoration, ``Standing Woman'' will have a permanent home indoors.

Restorers are also analyzing Edgar Degas' much-copied statue of a 14-year-old ballet dancer, molded of wax with a wig and a cloth tutu.

Is the body just wax, or is some clay mixed in? Is the wig horsehair or something else? Just what is the material in the tutu? Object conservator Daphne Barbour said the answers to such questions will help determine the best way to preserve the 120-year-old statue.

In the large section that deals with paintings, Michael Swiclik works on a 275-year-old depiction of Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain. The painter is thought to have been Antoine Watteau, who worked in the court of French king Louis XV, although some scholars have doubts about the work's authenticity.

Swiclik's careful cleaning is revealing some delicate details that were hidden by a previous restoration. He thinks the details will convince historians that the painting really is by Watteau.

``The restorer goofed up the lion in the corner too,'' Swiclik said, ``and it's going to look more like a lion. For some reason, painters of the period don't seem to have had live lions available.''

The restoration staff has a variety of microscopes, including the headset-mounted kind that surgeons use to keep their hands free. Some of the technicians who care for art have to work with such surgical precision.

Faced with a hole in an etching, the restorer first finds scraps of paper of the right shade and quality to match a work that may be centuries old. The scraps are mixed with water in a large blender, like one used in a restaurant.

As the mixer keeps turning, a staffer adds scraps until the right blend is found. The conservator then puts a small quantity into a dish and picks apart the strands with an eyedropper. The mess of separated fiber and other mush is spread over the hole. Then a mushroom brush is used to push the fibers toward the edge of the hole, so they can bind with the original fibers.

The plastic bristles on the mushroom brush are ideal, said Shelley Fletcher, head of the paper section, because they can be used to push the fibers around without pressing them down.

A piece of polyester is put on top to let the work dry. The new fibers mesh with the fibers surrounding the hole without adhesive. When dry, the patch is ready for whatever ink or pencil marks are needed to restore the pattern. In a skillful job, the patch becomes hard to distinguish from the rest of the work.