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Exhibitions and Projects
6 September–3 October 2018

Revelations, September 2018

Portrait of Baron Josef Anton Codelli: Conservation-restoration dilemmas

Among the Baroque painters of Ljubljana, Fortunat Bergant (1721–1769) is regarded as an excellent portraitist, yet some questions arise as to his painting invention. It is mainly the matter of “dichotomy” between his refined and relaxed Rococo portraits and his religious pieces which abound in passion, pathos and expressions of blissful ecstasy and are permeated with folk colourfulness. Bergant’s portraits are elaborated in great detail and excel in elegant gestures, whereas in his contemporary religious motifs he is naturalistically eloquent and the gestures are often highly expressive.

The image of the Ljubljana townsman Baron Josef Codelli (1718–1795) is certainly the best of Bergant's portraits. The removal of the overpainting, dating from the second half of the 19th century, has revealed the painter's characteristics. In the first place they are manifested in the typically Bergant's manner of simplification of the setting into which he placed a figure of a scene (e.g. the Way of the Cross stations in the basilica at Stična). In this oval portrait too the sitter is awkwardly, or even illogically, placed into a hardly suggested landscape and not into a drawing-room milieu which the relaxed posture of Codelli's figure, clad in a fur-lined fitted dressing gown, would indicate. Even the composition is somewhat peculiar, since the asymmetrical placement of the baron’s posture and the elevation behind him asymmetrically shifts the weight of the scene to the left. It must have been this disharmony and not perhaps a poor condition of the canvas that encouraged the 19th-century restorer to overpaint the background with drapery, add the family coat of arms and turn the natural support on which the affably-looking baron “logically” leans into the corner of some furniture. The fact that Pavel Künl (1817–1871) meticulously overpainted everything except the very figure, thus placing the sitter into a drawing-room atmosphere, clearly shows what troubled the following generations. A counterpart to this piece, also of the same format, is the portrait of Codelli’s wife, Baroness Elisabeth Codelli, née Königsbrunn; it was formerly attributed to Bergant but is a work of a less skilled hand.

The oval canvas by Bergant, featuring the portrait of Baron Codelli, held a prominent place in the permanent exhibition of the National Gallery of Slovenia not so long ago. However, the undoubtedly masterly painted bourgeois portrait had been concealing a story that was only unveiled by the recent conservation-restoration intervention, when the true image of the painting came to light. Namely, the portrait had been considerably reworked in the 19th century. The painter-restorer had “altered” it in a way that had greatly changed its compositional as well as colour effect.

In 2006, the Gallery's conservation-restoration department received the painting for treatment. A detailed optical examination revealed that the background behind the figure was completely overpainted. Under the supervision of an expert commission the painting was probed at several points. On the grounds of further optical and material examination the commission decided that the overpainting should be removed. The alteration was done to the portrait relatively soon after its execution and hence firmly stuck to the original layer of paint. However, it proved possible to remove the stubborn oil overpainting, provided it be done extremely cautiously.

After a long process of removing the overpainted layers the original image of the portrait has been recovered; however, the painting now makes an impression of being unfinished. The background appears to be an exterior but only cursorily indicated – as if the painter had been losing the battle with the painting? Might this have been the reason of the subsequent “completion”? The interim version was by all means so different and misleading that it had to be rejected and the overpainting removed.

The work of art has now been “exposed” to us and it is just before the end of the conservation−restoration treatment. Showing its original image again, the portrait is, in spite of its apparent non finito and incompleteness, more genuine and really by Bergant’s hand alone. It is up to the viewers to decide for themselves whether the painter finished his composition or stopped before the end.

Andrej Hirci, Ferdinand Šerbelj

Translated by
Alenka Klemenc

6 September–3 October 2018
National Gallery of Slovenia
Prešernova 24
1000 Ljubljana