The Museo Picasso de Barcelona has completed an extraordinary restoration of the pastel portrait of Picasso’s mother. Originally completed in 1896 when Picasso was still a student, the portrait is masterful in the use of the qualities that make pastels special for portraits – and very difficult. The surface is velvety and soft, colours quiet. In this portrait, the artist’s mother is looking down into the work in her lap, probably knitting or needlework, and the curves of her face are both tender and show her concentration on her work. One feels, looking at the portrait, that she has been asked to sit still for someone to draw many times.
Pastel portraits are usually done on paper, and the paper and pastel combination, while giving the finished work the softness and velvety surface pastels are known for, also give restoration specialists grave challenges. In the case of this work, the edges of the paper had been deteriorating for some time, and restoration work done in the 1970s was accelerating the deterioration, with buckling and deformation of the paper, and early loss of the pastel colouring. The first steps involved backing the work carefully out of the previous restoration work. When the previous cardboard supports were removed, an unknown sketch by Picasso was found. He had used the back of the paper for a drawing of a man before turning the paper over for the portrait of his mother.
Excitement over this extraordinary discovery only added to the challenges facing the restoration specialists, who needed to both find a way to repair and conserve the original portrait, which was becoming irreparably damaged, and find a way to allow the newly discovered drawing to be seen by art lovers and studied by art historians. Work on one could not compromise the other. The first step was in repairing and restoring the paper.
Art papers are made of plant fibres of various types, and like all organic material, the plant fibres react to the humidity in the environment and UV light. This work had seen the paper edges beginning to break down for many years, with cracking and fragmentary loss, so the first step was to rehydrate and stretch the paper fibres while protecting the delicate pastels on both sides of the work. The edges were supported and reinforced with layers of very fine Japanese papers, considered to be the strongest and most delicate for restoration of fine art papers.
Pastels are pure pigments, compressed into a crayon-like stick that is used for drawing. These powdered pigments are the most dense form of pigment, but they are extremely delicate, and can be blown off the surface of paper with a breath. The nature of the form is why pastel portraits have such a velvety surface. Pure pigments have not changed over the years, and artist’s pigments today can be replicated to match the ones used in the past. Artists replaced the areas of pigment that had been damaged along the edge of the portrait when the paper crumbled.
With both the paper repaired and stabilised, and the pastel surface repaired, restoration specialists built a two-sided display frame structure that could both protect the newly repaired surfaces from further environmental degradation and allow both sides of the portrait to be viewed.