“I simply don’t understand what’s going on with this picture,” says Philippe Peltier, curator at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris.
He is speaking about Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, a 20-by-37-centimeter drawing made by Paul Gauguin in 1897 or 1898, which bears an uncertain relationship to the painting of the same name. Obscure figures outlined in red stand in a murky Tahitian landscape of greens and browns. But it isn’t the piece’s content that puzzles Peltier; it’s the medium.
Roy Perkinson ‘62 nods in agreement, as the pair talk in Perkinson’s laboratory in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Perkinson, head of paper conservation at the MFA, is familiar with the work Gauguin produced while living in Tahiti. The artist’s most famous paintings – like the drawing’s namesake – are colorful and exotic, done with oil on canvas. But the drawing’s colors are dark and muted, rendered on paper in an unknown medium.
The Musee du Quai Branly lent the piece to the Museum of Fine Arts in early February for display in the Gauguin Tahiti exhibit, which will run from February to June 2004. With only a few weeks until the opening day, Peltier hopes Perkinson will be able to identify the mysterious medium Gauguin used in the drawing.
This is the kind of challenge Perkinson savors. For 35 years, his job at the MFA has involved conserving, maintaining, and managing the museum’s 250,000-odd works on paper, including drawings, prints, photographs, and watercolors. Knowing how a piece was created goes a long way toward caring for it, but Perkinson has other reasons for wanting to tackle the mystery. He wants to get inside Gauguin’s head. As a paper conservator examines a piece, Perkinson explains, “you are seeing something that is like watching the artist’s thinking process.” The experience delights Perkinson, himself a trained artist.
Perkinson didn’t come to MIT with art in mind. He thought he’d be a physicist. But midway through his junior year, he was having problems. “I got to a stage where I just felt like I wasn’t sure what I was doing, who I was, and was also, not surprisingly, feeling rather worn out,” he says. He talked with his advisor, who, much to his surprise, suggested that Perkinson take some time off.
So he returned home to Dallas, TX, and enrolled in a small arts school. “This was absolute revelation,” he says. “I had always had part of me that needed to make art. And during my initial years at MIT, that had largely been put on the shelf.” A year and a half later, his parents encouraged him to return to MIT, where he finished his bachelor’s degree in physics and philosophy supplemented with courses in art history, religion, and languages.
After graduation, Perkinson continued what he calls his “permanently schizophrenic existence.” He worked at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory while taking classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Then he earned a master’s in art history at Boston University while working at the Museum of Science.
One day, his curiosity about how certain types of watercolor paintings were made led him to Frank Dolloff, then head of the MFA’s paper conservation program. He and Dolloff talked frequently about different techniques, and in 1967 Dolloff asked Perkinson to be his apprentice.”As he took me into his workplace, I felt like I did when I’d gone to that art school. I thought, this is absolutely fascinating,” Perkinson recalls. He loved working directly with the artworks and discovering how the artists created them.
“Conservation is just the exact right place for him to have landed,” says Judith Walsh, an associate professor in paper conservation at Buffalo State College in Buffalo, NY, and an old friend and colleague of Perkinson’s. “In our field, because he has a degree from MIT, we all think he’s this scientist. But he has a degree in philosophy. He did study physics, but he’s not a physicist. He’s a philosopher who’s a painter.”
With the Gauguin piece, Perkinson started by scrutinizing the drawing under a high-powered microscope. With his trained eye, he immediately recognized two different layers of fibers and soon determined that Gauguin had placed a thin piece of tracing paper over a slightly thicker cardboard-like base. But why?
As Perkinson puzzled over the drawing through the microscope, he noticed that there were red lines, done in some kind of crayon, outlining figures on the tracing paper. Peering through small holes in the paper, he saw a layer of dark green on the cardboard beneath. Perkinson decided to take a step back and illuminate the artwork from behind. What he saw “knocked my socks off,” he says: instantly, he was able to see a painting in watercolor, outlined in pen and ink, that was obscured before.
Next, Perkinson tried to determine how Gauguin assembled this odd work. He recalled that the red crayon marks looked as if they had been pressed into the tracing paper with the tip of a stylus. “Then it hit me,” says Perkinson. Here’s how he thinks Gauguin created the mysterious drawing. He started by sketching on the tracing paper with a crayon. Then he laid the paper on a piece of cardboard; using a stylus, he traced over the red outlines, leaving an indented record of the major contours on the layer below. He removed the tracing paper and drew over the indentations on the cardboard with pen and ink.
Later, he filled in the outlined figures with watercolor, allowing the watercolor to bleed a little, giving the painting its diffuse and mysterious quality. Finally, Gauguin glued the tracing paper back on top of the cardboard.
That answered the how, but Perkinson can only speculate about the why. He knows that Gauguin loved stained glass. “I can imagine that he might have enjoyed having this affixed someplace in one of the tiny little windows in his hut that he lived in, with light coming through it, like that….He might have enjoyed the fact that as the light waned outside, and lamplight inside took over, he might have had a different view of it.” Perkinson couldn’t wait to tell Peltier.
Determining how a work of art was created is an important part of Perkinson’s job. He also helps determine how long each piece should be on display before being stored away from damaging light; treats discoloration caused by organisms such as mold; and determines whether works of art have been restored or need to be restored.
According to Perkinson, a museum staff’s decision to try to restore or otherwise change an artwork hinges on how much is known about the piece’s history – including whether it has been altered before. Nearly invisible alterations are “a vexing problem for collectors and conservators,” says Perkinson. Such alterations can change a work’s value and can hinder later repair work.
Perkinson is translating a little-known book by the German 20th-century paper restorer Max Schweidler, a name he says is synonymous with highly deceptive restorations of prints. Schweidler was so good at repairing masterworks of art – fixing tears, replacing damaged sections – that his work is virtually invisible. By translating Schweidler’s book – a kind of instruction manual – Perkinson hopes to make conservators, curators, and collectors better equipped to spot alterations.
But Perkinson is as captivated by these alterations as he is by the original work of artists such as Gauguin. “I’m extraordinarily fortunate to be working in a place where, as I walk the corridors every day, the artwork whispers stories to me,” he says. And because of his work, these stories are in turn available to the world.
What did the Parisian curator think when Perkinson told him the story behind the Gauguin piece? “Well, the curator just about fell off his chair,” Perkinson says with a smile.