Art: Sliding Portraits

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In the great wave of romanticism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, some painters became so absorbed in expression that they lost sight of the limitations of their materials. Ralph Albert Blakelock, the American romantic landscapist (1847-1919), delighted in the rich gloss of bitumen, a poor-drying, brown pigment, which he used so excessively that the paint ultimately slipped on the canvas (e.g., in one of his landscapes owned by the Brooklyn Museum, paint ran down and over the frame). Edgar Degas, the French impressionist, striving for certain effects, sometimes reduced his paint to what he called essence by thinning it with gasoline. Now some of his oil paintings have turned chalky and are exhibited under glass.

In The Netherlands, Dick Ket, who died at 37 in 1940, painted brilliantly in the school known as magic realism. Some European critics were sure that Ket's 44 paintings, many of them self-portraits, would eventually yield enduring fame. But the young artist, conscious of a weak heart and the imminence of his own death, was careless with his materials, bought pigments and oils in the nearby hardware store. One day in 1951, a rich Dutch butcher paused to admire his prized Ket, a self-portrait that was as exact and detailed as a reflection in a still pond. To the butcher's horror, the pond now seemed roiled; the paint, soft because of impure linseed oil, had started to slide down the subject's face (see cut). Frantic, the owner turned the portrait upside down, hoping that the paint would run back into its proper place. But, as one museum expert wryly remarked, paint does not know its proper place.

Since 1951, several other Ket paintings have leaked wet paint, and last week, in the Municipal Museum of Arnhem, an expert gingerly fingered a bulge in the eye of a fifth. Covered by the dried surface film was a tiny pool of wet paint. The museum director, who has two other deteriorating Kets, took a deep breath and put in a call for a restorer who might be able to put Ket together again.