Visitor tears Picasso's 'The Actor.' How can Met fix it?

A visitor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York lost her balance and fell into a Pablo Picasso painting, 'The Actor,' tearing the canvas. Art restorers explain how it might be repaired.

By , Correspondent

Art restorers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will soon begin repairs to a prominent Pablo Picasso painting damaged by a visitor last week in an unusual accident.

A visitor attending a class at the museum last Friday lost her balance and fell into the canvas, creating a 6-inch tear in the lower right hand corner of “The Actor,” a more than 6-foot tall painting depicting a pink-hued acrobat.

The painting was immediately taken to the Met’s paintings conservation department, where masterpieces are brought for cleaning, restoration, and in rare cases, repair, the museum said in a statement. Some reports put the painting's value at $130 million. Another Picasso picture from 1905, "Garcon à la Pipe," sold for $104.2 million at Sotheby's in 2004.

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The 1904-1905 painting from Picasso's so-called rose period is expected to be repaired in time for the museum’s upcoming exhibition, “Picasso in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," featuring 250 of the artist's works.

While there is no right way to repair a painting – each piece demands a different approach – some principles are paramount in the fine art of art restoration, experts say.

First, do no harm

“The first principle of conservation is to minimize intervention,” says James Hamm, interim director of the Art Conservation Department at Buffalo State University. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We do as little as possible because the more we get our hands in it, the more chance for wear and tear. The art is supposed to live longer than us.”

Once conservators assess the best way to repair the damage while minimizing intervention, they clean flaking paint and dust, says independent art restorer Patrick Mahoney.

“It’s kind of like cleaning a cut,” says Mr. Mahoney. “The first thing you have to do is clean the painting.”

Mahoney says he may use a soft brush to clean the front of the painting, and a hand-held vacuum to pick up debris on the back. Liquids are rarely used for cleaning because they may seep into the canvas and distort the paint.

Because Picasso’s paint tends to be applied in thick strokes, the paint is likely to have suffered extensive flaking, says Mr. Mahoney. In such a case, he says he would use a pH-neutral, polyvinyl acetate adhesive to “glue” the paint back onto the canvas and prevent it from flaking off completely.

Mr. Hamm, who disagrees with Mahoney's methods of restoration, says he would not use PVA glue on fine art.

When the visitor fell into the canvas, she not only created a large tear, she also created a dent in the canvas. The Met’s restoration team may humidify the canvas using a ventilation system consisting of a damp cloth suspended under plastic mylar, to “bring it back into plane,” says Mr. Hamm of Buffalo State University.

Sewing up the tear

In some cases, experts will try to repair the tear using a technique called re-weaving, in which the frayed threads of the ripped canvas are painstakingly woven together.

“The frayed yarns would be pulled back together, one at a time, with adhesive and tweezers – under microscope, of course,” explains Hamm. “It makes eye surgery look easy. It is tedious, but there’s only one of these paintings, so the effort is worth it.”

In extreme cases, Mahoney says the frayed yarns of the canvas would be clipped and a stiff linen patch applied to the back of the canvas to provide support and adhere the torn ends together.

The patch solution should be a last resort, says Hamm.

The last step, Hamm says, is touching up the front of the painting where paint is missing. Restorers usually use a resin-based paint to mimic an oil paint’s texture and shine. If the painting was varnished, conservators will apply a varnish after the paint has dried.

The job may take days or months, depending on the damage. The Met will probably use its own in-house conservators, but if they use independent experts, the job would likely be billed at around $100 per hour, say experts.

Once it’s done, Met visitors will likely be none the wiser.

“If it’s well-done, you won’t even know it’s there,” says Hamm. “It’s a funny business – we work very hard to make our work look invisible.”

[Editor's Note: The original version of this story has been updated to accurately represent the different points of view.]

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