This was the first time in 25 years that the iconic painting has travelled to another institution, and the first time in five years that the work has been on public display, thanks to developments in conservation practice that allowed it to undergo treatment here at Te Papa.
McCahon had used a matte interior house paint called Monocoat to paint the canvases on the deck of his Titirangi home in 1958. This paint was designed for use on solid, stable structures, such as ceilings and not for use on flexible supports, such as the unstretched canvases he used for this artwork. Over time, this meant that the surface of the Northland Panels became increasingly unstable and caused some flaking of the paint layer.
Many artists around the world were experimenting with non-traditional paints at this time, and it’s the study of these materials in New Zealand that has led to the development of the Modern Paints Aotearoa exhibition as a collaborative research project between painting conservator Sarah Hillary at the Auckland Art Gallery and conservation scientist Tom Learner at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles.
Traditional techniques used to consolidate flaking paint layers were not appropriate to use on this painting as they would have caused changes to the appearance of the paint layer. It was not until advances in conservation techniques and materials in the last few years that a suitable consolidant was found that could be used to re-adhere the paint flakes without causing any visible changes in the matte paint.
Former Te Papa conservators Katherine Campbell and Melanie Carlisle painstakingly spent 18 months researching, testing and treating the panels to stabilise the paint surface, using an adhesive derived from a Japanese red algae called JunFunori. They did a fantastic job that has meant that the artwork is able to be exhibited once again.
Earlier this year my fellow painting conservator, Linda Waters and I worked closely with crate maker, Pierre Lagace, to pack the panels in custom built trays and crates to safely transport them to Auckland.
Once arriving at the gallery the paintings were left to acclimatise for 24 hours before opening the crate, and then Sarah Hillary and I checked the condition of the panels’ paint surfaces before we worked with the installation crew at the gallery to hang the panels.
The exhibition runs until 15 March 2015, so if you happen to be heading to Auckland then it’s a wonderful opportunity to view this iconic artwork.
Tijana Cvetkovic, Painting Conservator, Te Papa