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The Oldest Abstract Portrait? A Picasso? Problems Identifying Badly Damaged Artwork

Snaking queues form irrespective of pouring rain or blasting sunshine, trailing like a coiled viper from the entrance to a hotly anticipated exhibition. Nobody knows what’s inside, but everyone has heard that the contents are good: this is no ordinary retrospective; no regular collection of artworks. The reason for the queue is that only one person can be admitted to this particular gathering of artworks at a time, just one.

Wandering through a grand museum of art (or equivalently, dramatic cathedrals), one could be caught thinking about how such a large volume of artwork has navigated the minefield of human destruction: more easily are artworks destroyed, than created. How, for example, did the sections of the Ghent altarpiece survive doubtless Renaissance intrigues; became lost and found; survive the scheme to ferret these pieces to the collection of the Führer’s kunstmuseum (with the exception of the Just Judges, which is still lost)?

Of course, we could turn the question on its rather large head and consider the proportion of exquisite artworks which has not survived—a moot point, though, because we simply wouldn’t know— however if we could know, perhaps the body of surviving work of which we do know  wouldn’t be so impressive in its size.  We could turn this into an exhibition in which the gallery halls were completely empty to engage the audience to reflect on this issue, where the sounds of a lone patron’s footsteps would reverberate off of the parquet floors, reinforcing the concept of emptiness.

A subset of this lost art is damaged art. Poorly prepared canvases can be problematic for historians of art, along with artworks which have become damaged over time through external reasons (poor storage, or placement above a radiator for example).  A painting which fits into possibly both of these categories is shown below. The style of this  painting is decidedly modern, although the painting itself appears quite old.

Oil Painting of Unknown Origin, Possibly Early Abstract Movement
Stylistically the painting seems mature in its composition taking into account its (visual) age, but the execution is suggestive of more naïve art. Note the water damage to the frame surround and the light discolouration towards the base where a name plaque might have been.

Crazing, or craquelure, is the term given to the spider-web pattern of cracks which forms in the layers of varnish applied to a painting following completion; it is a natural occurrence and is in the main of no real concern. In the case of the painting shown, though, the oil paint itself has cracked and has come away from the canvas beneath, which is indicative of a deeper problem (although treatable with the correct restorative efforts, at expense).

Unknown Abstract Portrait Painting Surface Cracks
Craquelure is the natural (spider-web) cracking of the layers of varnish applied to a painting. In this instance, the paint itself has cracked and has subsequently come off of the underlying canvas, which is a different phenomenon entirely.

The cracked paint is indicative of poor preparation of the underlying canvas, whilst external damage is also evident—if only to the frame. Water damage is shown here by the stains on the fabric of the frame, suggesting poor storage. Curiously, there is also a lighter patch towards the base of the frame in the typical shape of a name-plaque—could this have been a piece by an abstract genius in his or her early years?  Dating this piece is problematic; the signature is indistinct, whilst  the date signature is also ambiguous—it looks like it could even read 1789—the style is too mature (although arguably the execution is a bit slap-dash; immature) to be from the 18th century. A second reading of the date might suggest 1959, but if that is true, can we reconcile that date with the condition of the painting? Entirely possible, yes. But we can see quite easily how problematic this field is.

Abstract Portraiture Oil on Canvas, Picasso?
The indistinct signature of the oil painting along with an equally distinct date (1789, 1959?); the style of the painting suggests completion somewhere in the region of the latter date, whilst the condition of the portrait suggests a couple of hundred years’ rough handling and poor placement!

A quotation for an art restorer to stabilise the painting (especially to re-lay the painting on the canvas proper) came to the estimate of £200, which is not too unreasonable considering the small size of the painting. As most art collectors would agree, there is a degree of reluctance in restoring pieces for which there is little to no providence; the artist is uncertain—even if one should absolutely adore the piece.

As of 2015, this painting is currently in storage without having undergone any restoration. If anybody has any information regarding an appraisal of whom the artist may be, or how old it might come to be, please get in contact.

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