In 1944, the German artist Max Beckmann lived in exile in Amsterdam, laboring secretly over a painting he dared not expose to public view.
Beckmann had been the toast of Germany's art world, winning acclaim and the admiration of art collectors around the globe. But his art could be edgy, and it sometimes showed a dark side of human existence instead of the idealized images favored by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. The Nazis labeled painters like Beckmann degenerates. Beckmann had to hide the huge canvas, for fear it would be confiscated and destroyed.
Seventy years later art conservator Joan Gorman is at work on the same painting. But instead of laboring secretly in Amsterdam, she's working in Minneapolis, with an audience.
The painting is "Blind Man's Buff." It measures nearly seven feet by 14 feet, and shows a Cabaret scene. No one is smiling, but the colors are vibrant and jump off the canvas. "Deep blacks and navy blue to bright reds, yellows, light blue, greens," Gorman observed at her gallery workspace in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. "It's spectacular."
"They had no heat," Gorman said. "They finally got candles and an oil lamp but they don't have any matches."
After the Nazis came to power in Germany, Beckmann's work was no longer exhibited. He lost a prestigious art teaching job. "The man was nothing in Germany," Gorman said. "He'd lost everything."
The artist and his wife tried to find safety in Amsterdam, but Amsterdam's Nazi occupation lasted until nearly the end of the war. Beckmann was under constant surveillance.
In-laws made room for him in cramped quarters in their house, near where many of the city's Jews lived. Beckmann, who was not a Jew, watched as people were rousted from their homes and marched off. And it was in Amsterdam, in 1944-45, that he created the painting Gorman is now working to conserve.
Diminutive and precise with delicate fingers, Gorman seems well matched to the detailed and meticulous work of art conservation. She peers through a binocular microscope to locate sections of flaking paint. Using a very fine brush, she fills tiny gaps with special resins.
Conservators strive to stay in the background, Gorman explained, and make sure their work shows no hand but the artist's. "We do our work so that the viewer, the eye, is not interrupted by damage," she said.
Even so, the results can be dramatic. In 1999, thousands of gallery visitors watched as Gorman and her colleague David Marquis cleaned and repaired a seven-by-12-foot, 364-year-old oil painting by Castiglione called "The Immaculate Conception."
"We removed many layers of varnish from the surface," she said. "It was just as brown as a bear, as we like to say." The restoration brightened the painting by a third.
Gorman and Marquis are conservators for the Midwest Art Conservation Center, a nonprofit located at the Arts Institute. The Conservation Center's website describes the organization as a "full-service fine arts conservation laboratory."
Gorman studied to be a museum curator at the University of Michigan and then an art conservator at the State University of New York. She grew up in suburban Detroit, attending a parochial school that gave no special attention to art. But on Saturdays she visited the Detroit Institute of Arts with her sister.
"We'd just crawl all over the museum, two little girls," she recalled. "She ended up being an objects conservator. Our older brother has just retired from restoring stained glass."
And soon Gorman herself will retire, after a career that spanned more than 40 years and thousands of pieces of art. She called the conservation of "Blind Man's Buff" her swan song.
She hopes viewers take the time to learn the story of how the painting came to be.
"The political and cultural climate that he and his wife lived through during the war years," she mused, is "greater than the object itself ... that's worth preserving."
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