Bilbao Fine Arts Museum exhibits recently restored paintings by Ignacio Zuloaga

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Bilbao Fine Arts Museum exhibits recently restored paintings by Ignacio Zuloaga
These four paintings are part of a devotional ensemble that Ignacio Zuloaga painted for the main Baroque altar of Our Lady of Arrate Sanctuary in Eibar (Gipuzkoa).

BILBAO.- On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the artist's birth, the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, in collaboration with the Ignacio Zuloaga Museum and the Gipuzkoa Provincial Council, presents a project of conservation, restoration and dissemination of the four canvases that the Basque painter Ignacio Zuloaga (Eibar, Gipuzkoa, 1870-Madrid, 1945) made for the altarpiece of the sanctuary of the Virgin of Arrate (Eibar).

These four paintings are part of a devotional ensemble that Ignacio Zuloaga painted for the main Baroque altar of Our Lady of Arrate Sanctuary in Eibar (Gipuzkoa). Installed by the painter on both sides of the chapel that houses the image of the Virgin, they contain pilgrimage scenes of pilgrims and worshippers praying as they are going towards the Gothic carving of the Immaculate Conception. They were painted on Zuloaga’s own initiative—apparently he promised them to the Virgin if she interceded in improving the health of his daughter Lucía—in 1904, during the artist’s most fruitful and prolific stay in Seville.

The paintings reveal the main features of the style that Zuloaga was consolidating at that time with which he was revolutionising international figuration. In them, he deploys his artistic talents to capture the figures’ physical and psychological essence; they stand out over an expressive sky halfway between symbolism and naturalism, creating a very theatrical scene. In addition to the construction of Zuloaga’s characteristic background-figure binomial, what also stands out is the use of a clear, luminous palette, especially blue, pink and violet tones, which were common in Zuloaga’s output between 1903 and 1905 but are exceptionally intense here. The works suffered from a series of vicissitudes which forced the artist to restore them several times. The last one was because of the Spanish Civil War, when they were stripped from the altar and temporarily moved to Bilbao. Now, after a long restoration undertaken by the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, considered the top expert in treating and restoring Zuloaga’s work, the original appearance of all four paintings has been restored. After being displayed in room O (Otherness) in the museum’s Alphabet, they will all be reinstalled in their original location, the main altar in Arrate Sactuary, in early September.

In terms of the restoration, the first visual analyses conducted in 2019 revealed major alterations in the paint layer. Specifically, the colour had several whitish blooms which altered both the composition and the colours of the ensemble. The technical examinations of the degradations confirmed that the spots were due to a chemical process of saponification. These alterations occur because internally some fatty acids from the oil binder have combined with the metal particles found in certain pigments, a reaction that ends up blooming on the paint layer through the formation of soaps or metallic salts.

The treatment started by disassembling the four paintings from the altarpiece and moving them to the museum. Upon their arrival, technical studies with X-rays and infrared reflectography were conducted which revealed major compositional changes in two of the works, as well as other alterations in the support and the paint matter. After halting the biological damage via a process of anoxia (total controlled deprivation of oxygen), solubility tests were conducted focused on the intervention on the metallic salts, the surface stratum and the varnishes. Then the canvases were treated in the low-pressure table to correct deformations and consolidate the paint matter. Finally, the colour and varnish were restored.

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