Students watch as Joan Gorman, a senior paintings conservator at the Midwest Art Conservation Center, restores an artwork at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Minnesota Public Radio photo / Jeffrey Thompson

Students watch as Joan Gorman, a senior paintings conservator at the Midwest Art Conservation Center, restores an artwork at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Expert restores painting hidden from Nazis

By Dan Olson

Minnesota Public Radio

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MINNEAPOLIS – In 1944, the German artist Max Beckmann lived in exile in Amsterdam, laboring secretly over a painting he dared not show in public.

Beckmann had been the toast of Germany’s art world. But after the Nazis came to power in Germany, Beckmann’s work no longer was exhibited. He lost a prestigious teaching job and was forced to flee to the Netherlands, where he created the painting in 1944-45.

Seventy years later, art conservator Joan Gorman is at work on the same painting. But instead of laboring secretly in Amsterdam, she’s working before an audience in Minneapolis.

The painting is “Blind Man’s Buff.” It measures almost 7 feet by 14 feet, and shows a cabaret scene. No one is smiling, but the colors are vibrant and jump off the canvas.

“Deep blacks and navy blue to bright reds, yellows, light blue, greens,” Gorman said in her gallery workspace in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. “It’s spectacular.”

Diminutive and precise with delicate fingers, Gorman seems well matched to the detailed and meticulous work. She peers through a binocular microscope to locate sections of flaking paint. Using a very fine brush, she fills tiny gaps with special resins.

Conservators strive to stay in the background, Gorman said, and make sure their work shows no hand but the artist’s.

“We do our work so that the viewer, the eye, is not interrupted by damage,” she said.