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Freddies Flaking Fingers

In connection with the opening of Danish and International Art after 1900, Wilhelm Freddie's The Dancer, was restored.

Freddie and his dancer
Wilhelm Frederik Christian Freddie
, 1909-1995, is considered the most renowned surrealist in Denmark - a true enfant terrible.

‘Danserinde’ or ‘The Dancer’ was made by Freddie in 1943. The work was acquired by The National Gallery of Denmark in 2011, but could not be put on display before undergoing conservation treatment. The Dancer consists of a painted wooden surface, upon which 5 fingers from a mannequin are attached. Freddie often used body parts from wax mannequins in his work. Inspired by his work as a window decorator, he would orchestrate the dolls in unusual positions. The fingers in The Dancer, are representative of his erotic fascination with the female figure, as well as his fascination with death.

Flaking Fingers
It is uncertain whether or not Freddie himself painted the fingers in The Dancer. Our observations show just one layer of paint, so it is likely that the paint layer is from the time of fabrication. In any case, the paint surface on the attached fingers was flaking badly, making the work extremely fragile and difficult to move or even hold upright. The whole surface of the painting was also extremely dirty, making it difficult to see the underlying image.The work, which was to be hung in the modern collection (Art after 1900), had to be stabilized before it could be exhibited.

Detail of the flaking paint layer before treatment

What is happening to the paint layer?
A paint layer can detach from the underlying substrate for a number of reasons.  In this case, the characteristic flaking appears to have been caused by a combination of factors, including changes in environmental factors such as temperature and humidity. The paint layer is shrinking and retracting, making it curl up and pull away from the substrate.  There was also a substantial layer of dirt on the surface of the painting, which could not be removed before the paint layer was secured.

Scientific analysis
Scientific analysis using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, FTIR, showed that the paint layer had a good match to beeswax. Solubility tests were also performed to see if the paint layer was soluble both in water and in a solvent. Our results showed that water did not affect our samples, whereas the solvent had a softening effect. Fear that the solvent would dissolve our paint layer or underlying substrate led us to find a way we could work with a water based consolidant, while still being able to soften the paint layer enough to re-adhere it.  Using heat, instead of solvents, to soften the waxy paint layer was considered a viable option. As getting the paint layer to re-adhere to the surface of the fingers was our primary task, and knowing that the paint layer consisted of a substantial amount of beeswax, and that it was not sensitive to water, was essential information in finding and applying the right treatment.

Spraying the fingers with diluted glue ‘mist’, a solution of glue extracted from dried sturgeon bladders and ‘funori’ or seaweed glue. Applied with an ultrasonic mister.

What is a consolidant?
A consolidant is a material used in conservation to impregnate a substance, creating bonds between particles, which were not there before. Glue, introduced into a paint layer to reattach it is considered a consolidant.

Treating the flaking paint layer was problematic because any type of direct contact would result in loss of paint. Most of the flakes were only barely attached.  The surface was also very matte in appearance. After testing various glues and methods of application, it was decided to try using a technique often used to fixate pastels: an ultrasonic mister. The mister does exactly that: it creates a fine mist of solution, which allows you to apply a consolidant to a friable surface, without having to actually touch the surface.  The solution is heated under pressure and dispersed.

The method was tested using a mixture of two types of glues: sturgeon glue and a funori glue. Sturgeon glue is relatively strong glue, made from dried sturgeon bladders, and funori glue, which is weaker but more matte in appearance, is derived from seaweed. They are both dissolved in water. A very weak solution consisting of these two glues was made and misted onto the fingers. The temperature of the warm mist was just enough to soften the paint layer. It was then possible to press the paint flakes down with the help of a small silicone spatula. The glue solution penetrated the paint flakes enough to help them adhere to the surface, with no visible changes to either the color of the paint or the matte appearance of the surface. Once the paint layer was properly laid down, a stronger solution of the sturgeon/funori mix was applied by brush.

Once the paint layer on the fingers was stabilized, the rest of the painting could be cleaned.

Written by
Louise Cone, Conservator, Contemporary Art
Sara Cadinanos, Student in conservation, Contemporary Art

Updated: 26.apr.2018
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