In Mural Painting, Johnson incorporated various images that symbolize different aspects of the nation—notions of family with the mother and child, a symbol of sustenance and nourishment through the sheaf of wheat, a man holding a hammer as a reference to hard work, a representation of the idea of industry versus the common man with the inclusion of smokestacks, and a symbol of art with the classical nude placed on a pedestal. Perhaps the artist included these symbols for aspiration, even in the midst of all that was going on in the nation at the time.
Recently conserved by Chicago-based firm Restoration Division, Mural Painting had several major issues fixed before being installed in the exhibition. Puncture holes were found in military planes that appear at the top center of the painting and a large 1-1/2 inch tear occurred in the center left flag. Craquelures—networks of fine cracks in paint—were located in all of the corners. Most were oriented diagonally due to uneven canvas tension, as well as several radial and concentric craquelures that appeared throughout the work. The conservators also found light abrasions scattered throughout the painting, along the edges and on the male figure. Additionally, the painting required a thorough cleaning.
The conservators first removed the canvas from the frame and cleaned both sides with compressed air and a soft brush. The painting’s surface was cleaned with aqueous and mild organic solvents and the areas that surrounded the puncture holes and tears were delicately flattened.
To fix the tears and the puncture holes, the conservators aligned the edges of the tears and simply mended them, later attaching canvas inserts to the original canvas threads end-to-end by using thermoplastic paste resin and stabilizing the seams with conservation paste adhesive. In their treatment to the craquelures, the conservators treated to relax them and then partially fuse the paint film.
The stretcher support was also repaired: a vertical brace was added for additional support and the bottom stretcher bars were straightened. Once re-stretched, areas of repair on the canvas were selectively filled with marble powder gesso and a texture, similar to the artist’s brushstroke, was recreated with acrylic gesso. A thin buffering coat of removable varnish was applied and other areas of abrasions or paint loss were inpainted with color and light-fast paints. Lastly, the conservators applied several thin coats of non-yellowing, removable varnish of satin luster, to keep from any further paint loss.
The conservation was funded by the generosity of the Travis B. Poole and Robert B. Smith Conservation and Preservation Fund.
Author: Kathryn Koca Polite, assistant curator, 2017.