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Exhibitions and Projects
Revelations | 1 April – 13 June 2021

Revelations: The Man with a Pretzel

Illusions, elusive truth and possible interpretations in The Man with a Pretzel

After almost eighty years, serendipity led us to see the paintings of The Man with a Pretzel and The Fowler again, which were lost and never seen in modern times. We knew them only from black-and-white reproductions in Monumenta artis Slovenicae II, France Stele’s overview of Slovenian art from 1938. Today, both genre pictures, unique in the oeuvre of Fortunat Bergant, are on display in the Permanent Collection of the National Gallery of Slovenia.

The black-and-white photos gave false impression that the man holding a pretzel in his hand had a skin disease. Examining The Man with a Pretzel in person revealed that the black dots seen on reproductions were not painted warts, but darkened retouches in places where damage was treated. The canvas punctures that occurred in the distant past are the result of vandalism. In the past, a painter or painter-restorer patched the perforated canvas with drops of wax and retouched it by applying paint over it. The treatment of these damages can be dated after 1850, due to the use of pigments that were not available to painters before that time.

The conservation-restoration intervention in 2017 was planned by an expert commission.

Determining what the “ideal state of the work of art” should be proved problematic, as technical facts and scientific analysis does not reveal actual aesthetic values that existed either at the time the painting was created or before or after any of the later restorations of the picture. The “ideal state of the work of art” is often just an assumption, an abstract idea realized on the basis of individual knowledge and experience, and a consensus of diverse opinions within an expert commission. In its most "pure form" it is manifested by the removal of all materials that, in our personal and professional opinion, obscure the ideal. Such an act is irreversible, because in addition to material information, we also remove the aesthetic, technical, historical, educational and emotional value of the work of art.

With The Man with a Pretzel, the expert commission decided on the opposite concept of treatment, which accepts the work of art "as is". Instead of removing the changed materials, we decided to add minimal material with the purpose to improve the structural qualities and aesthetic value of the work of art. We have preserved the condition of the work of art that came into being in 1761, including with all the changes in the original and added materials that occurred before 2017. Only the surface dirt on the last coat of varnish was removed. We have preserved and supplemented the changes that have occurred with aging only to the extent that we have supported the original, structurally stabilized it and established an aesthetic whole. We applied a new layer of retouches over the old retouches and overpaintings and repaired the varnish locally. This approach requires a more thorough analysis of the state of the work of art before the intervention and an intensive dialogue within the expert commission, while the restoration itself requires more creativity, cooperation, innovation, interdisciplinarity, knowledge and technical expertise.

The picture remains open to future interventions from both the material and ideological standpoints. The added materials have a high degree of removability and would not interfere with the removal of materials added in the past. However, we can predict with great certainty that the painting will in some (perhaps not too distant) future be considered within the concept of the “ideal state of the work of art”.

Simona Škorja

1 April–13 June 2021
National Gallery of Slovenia
Prešernova 24
1000 Ljubljana