In Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, the main character, the abstract expressionist artist Rabo Karabekian, makes his works with Sateen Dura-Luxe paint. The paintings destroy themselves when the Sateen Dura-Luxe separates itself from the canvases, turning to ribbons.
Fact follows fiction. The modern materials used by artists from the last century onwards are falling apart, because plastic doesn't last as well as oil paint. A project called NanoRestArt plans to fix this, using nanotechnology to repair and restore these real-life versions of Sateen Dura-Luxe.
"We can perhaps safely say that many current modern and contemporary works of art will probably not be accessible to visitors/users in a hundred years due to rapid degradation, as they degrade beyond restoration," says the project. "Post-1940 artists and early artists (1880s-1940s), used and experimented with materials that are so radically different from the ones used in classic art, that they cannot be preserved using the currently available methodologies."
NanoRestArt is almost entirely funded by the EU and will work with galleries to bring technology to restoration and preservation. Even cleaning modern works can be a difficult task, which is why the project is researching new kinds of solutions that use nano technology and material science to develop new restoration techniques. That’s right. The EU has supplied almost $11 million to research new stain-removal techniques.
But the funding isn’t just altruistic. The market for restoration and conservation is estimated at around almost $6 billion per year.
One of the participating museums is the England’s Tate, which will help evaluate the new techniques "using a range of prepared test samples and through research related to case studies of works of art from Tate’s collection."
The hope is that these nanoscale products can get inside the polymers that make up the artworks, cleaning them from the inside, as well as stabilizing the materials. The project will also research how the different materials in an artwork can affect other artworks—"an important step because degradation byproducts—gases, for example— can also damage nearby objects in display cases," says the Scientific American.
The project is running for three years, until 2018, with the participation of 27 museums, universities, and chemical companies, by which time the new techniques should have started to co-mingle with time-tested restoration techniques. Maybe such a project could have saved Rabo Karabekian’s paintings.
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