Getting up close and personal with Colin McCahon’s portrait of Madame Cézanne

Getting up close and personal with Colin McCahon’s portrait of Madame Cézanne

Washing a charcoal drawing in water?! Paper conservator Jennie Cauchi takes us behind the scenes of her work to treat a 1950s drawing by Colin McCahon.

In 1953 Colin McCahon made a charcoal drawing of a woman flanked by kauri trees. The artwork, titled Madame Cézanne at Titirangi, was made while the McCahon family were living in a tiny house in the bush clad hills of Titirangi, now home to the McCahon House Museum.

This was one of a number of drawings and paintings that McCahon did of kauri trees during this period. In the early 1950s he was increasingly interested in the principles of cubist art, and explored these through multiple attempts to reduce the kauri to its elemental form and geometry.

Colin McCahon, Madame Cézanne at Titirangi, 1953, charcoal on wove paper. Before conservation treatment. Photo by Jennifer Cauchi. Te Papa (1980-0002-1)

The kauri and Cézanne

The kauri trees in this work form the backdrop to a portrait of ‘Madame Cézanne’ – the wife of French artist Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). Cézanne was one of the great early modernist painters; someone who had an influence on McCahon from his student days in the late 1930s.

Over the course of his life Cézanne painted 27 portraits of his wife, Marie-Hortense. In Madame Cézanne at Titirangi, McCahon pays tribute to the artist by continuing this series. The drawing claims a kind of whakapapa to Cézanne and his work, imagining this mythical figure of European art history sitting among the kauri in the hills around McCahon’s Auckland house.

I came to know the artwork in detail when it came to conservation for assessment and treatment prior to a potential loan. It is an interesting example of McCahon’s working method – his choice of a lower quality paper, for example, possibly reflecting the economic constraints that he was working under at the time.

‘Fixed’ charcoal

Charcoal is used to vividly and quickly express the graphic shapes and forms of the trees and the face of Madame Cézanne. Charcoal is a soft, friable material that can easily smudge so it is often ‘fixed’ to the support by the application of a binder, generally applied in a spray form.

The droplets of fixative seen on this work vary quite a bit in size and location, perhaps indicative of application by mouth through a straw, or a slightly clogged spray can. Fixatives can be made of a wide range of natural or synthetic resins, or other materials such as starch or gum Arabic. In this case the fixative has discoloured, making the spatters and spots a more noticeable part of the drawing and a vivid reminder of the artist at work.

Colin McCahon, Madame Cézanne at Titirangi, 1953, charcoal on wove paper. During conservation treatment. Photo by Jennifer Cauchi (1980-0002-1)

The paper support has also discoloured unevenly, with more intense yellowing seen in the right half of the sheet, which has caused the support to become slightly mechanically weakened. The work also shows many small foxing spots which are a likely result of storage in damp conditions (not hard to find in New Zealand!). There are old stains from pressure sensitive tape, which are quite noticeable in the top left area of the work. The work also has many light creases and some small edge tears.

The treatment

My treatment of the drawing aimed to reduce the discolouration and the related acidity in the paper support. By reducing discolouration, I hoped to allow for a better appreciation of the original contrast between the charcoal and the support paper.

Given the delicate nature of charcoal as a material, and the relatively large size of the work (550mm x 750mm), there were plenty of challenges to overcome in treating the drawing.

After much discussion with colleagues, and testing of the charcoal, it was decided to treat the work aqueously (with water), using a suction table. Margaret Morris, conservator at the Alexander Turnbull Library, came to my aid to collaborate in treating and handling the large work. Gaëlle Boudet, a visiting graduate student from Québec, also assisted in documenting the treatment process.

Colin McCahon, Madame Cézanne at Titirangi, 1953, charcoal on wove paper. After conservation treatment. Photo by Jennifer Cauchi (1980-0002-1)

As a first stage in treatment, the work was humidified in order to relax the paper fibres and allow an easier penetration of moisture during later stages of treatment. It was then put onto the suction table – a piece of equipment that allows a liquid (in this case de-ionised water) to be pulled through the paper using a vacuum.

The aqueous treatment substantially reduced the discolouration in the paper, while also reducing some of the tape staining. Physical damages in the paper were stabilised by tiny repairs with a thin Japanese tissue paper and wheat starch paste adhesive. Creases and undulation in the support were also reduced by additional humidification of the work and gentle pressing in a stack of acid-free blotters.

The transformation in the work is subtle yet substantial. The contrast between the graphic charcoal forms and the paper support has been enhanced, allowing a greater appreciation of this wonderful example of McCahon’s oeuvre. Possible future analysis of this work would further enhance our understanding of McCahon’s working methods, and I hope at some point to carry out analysis of the fixative used.

Raking light images of Madame Cézanne at Titirangi – before (left) and after (right). Photos by Jennifer Cauchi. Te Papa

Thank you to Margaret Morris, Gaëlle Boudet, and Lizzie Bisley.

Colin McCahon at Te Papa

To mark the occasion of his 100th year, we’re hanging a group of Colin McCahon’s paintings in Toi Art. We’re also planning some public programmes over the course of the year and we’ll be publishing a McCahon blog a month over the course of the year – in which curators and conservators, as well as writers, artists and historians, write about a specific McCahon artwork from Te Papa’s collection.

More information about Colin McCahon at Te Papa

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