Spike Bucklow, Copy of Jan van Os, Flowers and Fruit; Jan van Os, Flowers and Fruit; Composite by Damian Walsh

Old paintings can often seem pretty boring. I realise that this might not be a particularly promising outlook to have when setting out to review an exhibition featuring a whole range of old paintings, but Sharpening Perceptions peels back layers of paint – sometimes quite literally – to reveal the interesting features and processes hidden underneath.

Sharpening Perceptions offers the rare chance to see timeless paintings broken down into their raw materials and processes, and put back together by skilled student conservators

The exhibition’s concept is fairly straightforward, presenting old, somewhat faded, original masterpieces alongside new copies, in various stages of completion, made by art conservation students at the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Hamilton Kerr Institute. These copies are made with the goal of examining the original artist’s tools and techniques. When working to conserve or restore a painting, and equally when visiting this exhibition, it’s important to draw attention primarily to the processes behind a painting’s construction, not simply to the aesthetics of the final product.

In a single-room exhibition, Sharpening Perceptions sees celebrated works of art stripped down to their nitty gritty details: the pencil marks sketched out behind an elaborate still life, the individual pigmented powders offering vibrant splashes of colour to a several hundred year-old portrait, and the intermediate layers of paint making up a gloomy skyline. Daniela Leonard’s 2009 copy of Dirck van Delen’s 1628 painting Interior of a Church, offers a particularly direct representation of the various stages that go into constructing a masterpiece. Her work consists of six separate strips representing the original painting in various stages of its development, from the initial background wash and pencil sketches to the final layers of paint.

Each pair of paintings is accompanied by a detailed recipe of the pigments and materials used, with the student conservators having gone to great lengths to replicate the exact tools used by the original artists. Perhaps it’s just because I know a whole lot more about cooking than I do about art, but these ‘pigment recipes’ were a standout feature of the exhibition. Upon entering the exhibition, Spike Bucklow’s 1993 copy of Jan van Os’s Vase of Flowers is immediately eyecatching thanks to its pastel vibrancy. This half-finished re-creation far outshines the original, which has seen its colours fade somewhat over the past couple of centuries.

Despite all this, the exhibition certainly isn’t without its flaws. The dim lighting of the room, presumably for preservation purposes, can be forgiven, but the chaos of the layout remains a barrier to complete enjoyment. Essentially, the exhibition seems lacking in any real order, gathering artworks dating from Ancient Egypt alongside some from just a couple of centuries ago, without any apparent attempt at thematic or chronological organisation. In a single-room exhibition, it shouldn’t be such a challenge to orient yourself.


Mountain View

Letting art speak for itself: Francis Bacon at the Centre Pompidou

Nevertheless, Sharpening Perceptions is worth a visit if you want to get an inside look on art. Some people – young children especially, who haven’t yet figured out that damaging other people’s possessions isn’t a very popular pastime – feel compelled to tear things apart in order to figure out how they work. This, it goes without saying, doesn’t tend to go down very well in art galleries, but a visit to Sharpening Perceptions offers the rare chance to see timeless paintings broken down into their raw materials and processes, and put back together by skilled student conservators.

Sharpening Perceptions shows us art deconstructed. Sure, the exhibition may not be sufficiently ordered or detailed to impress a conservation expert or art historian (despite the clear skill of the student conservators whose work is on display) but, for the uninitiated, it’s certainly an engaging whistle-stop tour of art conservation.

Sharpening Perceptions is open until Sunday 17th May at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

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