Restoring a masterwork is Minneapolis conservator’s swan song

A group of students watch as Joan Gorman, Senior Paintings Conservator at the Midwest Art Conservation Center, participates in a public restoration project at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minneapolis, Minn. on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. Jeffrey Thompson / MPRNews

I’m not a rich guy so my personal art collection is more about emotional attachment and less about dollar value. The dollar value of a major 20th century work Joan Gorman is restoring at the Minneapolis Institute of Art is no doubt high, but the emotion around the work is memorable, as I’ll explain today in a new episode of Minnesota Sounds and Voices as part of All Things Considered.

You may know the piece from your visits to the MIA. It’s Max Beckmann’s “Blind Man’s Buff,” and it’s difficult to miss because of its size, nearly 7-by-14 feet, and it’s vibrant colors that depict a cabaret scene.  Conservator Joan Gorman is working on the piece in an MIA gallery where you can see how she detects and stabilizes flaking paint, among other problems that can afflict art objects.

Joan Gorman, Senior Paintings Conservator at the Midwest Art Conservation Center, uses small tabs to map her progress during a restoration project on Wednesday, February 5, 2014 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minneapolis, Minn. Jeffrey Thompson / MPRNews

Joan Gorman was part of a very high profile public conservation job back in 1999 with colleague David Marquis as they cleaned and repaired the seven-by-12 foot “Immaculate Conception.”

Max Beckmann’s story is gripping.  The guy was pretty much the toast of Germany’s art world early in the 19oos, and then Adolph Hitler arrived on scene and declared Beckmann’s work and that of others degenerate.  Artwork was confiscated, some destroyed.  Beckmann’s work was edgy and often showed a dark side to human nature, images not favored by the Fuhrer who wanted art to extol Germany’s virtues.

A visitor looks at the painting “Descant” of Max Beckmann in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, western Germany, Thursday, June 30, 2005. The museum presents in the exhibition “Aspects of Christ” in collaboration with the Vatican, on the occation of the World Youth Day, precious works of mainly Christian art. (AP Photo/Hermann J. Knippertz)

Beckmann lost a plum job, and in 1937 he and his wife decided it would be wise to move to Amsterdam — except that the Nazis occupied the city and kept Beckmann under surveillance. Even so, that’s where he completed his masterwork, “Blind Man’s Buff,” working in secret, by oil lamp and candlelight and hiding the painting when it was finished.

There’s a lot more to the story and Joan Gorman hopes people see the painting and become curious about how it came into existence. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Beckmann’s story had a mostly happy ending. He moved to the United States, got a couple of prestigious teaching jobs.  A good share of his art survived World War II.

Curator Mayen Beckmann poses in front of a self portrait of her grandfather Max Beckmann in the Kunsthalle Schirn museum in Frankfurt, Germany, Thursday, March 2, 2006. the exhibition runs from March 3 until May 28. (AP Photo/Bernd Kammerer)

Here’s a fun footnote if you see the movie Monuments Men:  Joan Gorman, who says she’s retiring next year after forty years of art conservation, notes that one of her college art professors was Charles Sawyer, one of the original Monuments Men.

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