28 Mar 2020
*The Conservation Dept. at Kunstmuseum Basel is responsible for the preservation and technological research on the extensive collection. The main focus is on damage prevention and preventive conservation of works of art. And sometimes the examination with the X-ray scanner also reveals surprising things – for example in Pablo Picasso's painting "Les deux frères".
In the spring of 1906 Pablo Picasso completed his painting Les deux frères in the Pyrenees – one of the top works in our collection. A boy carries his little brother on his back. It seems as if the two are merging together. What is particularly interesting in this work is the relationship of the two figures to the space: the older brother steps out of the picture, facing us at an angle. Through the smaller brother with his blurred facial features, he is at the same time tied to the background of the picture. Nothing distracts from the two brothers, who seem to be made of the same material as the background. Only a line in the lower part of the picture makes the space three-dimensional.
In 2018, our conservators examined the picture with a digital X-ray scanner, among other things. With the help of X-rays it is possible to penetrate the artwork without damaging the picture. The penetrating radiation is weakened, absorbed or reflected to varying degrees – depending on its materiality – and converted into visible information by a digital camera. During the X-ray examination, the conservators discovered a third face in the upper part of the painting, between the faces of the two brothers. The original and searching pictorial concept of Picasso, which was obscured by the second artistic version, was now visible.
This gives us a completely new idea of how Picasso worked on the painting. Before the investigation, it was assumed that the artist had had a clear idea of the composition of the painting through his preliminary studies on paper. But the x-ray proves that Picasso initially positioned the older brother's head in such a way that he looks directly at the viewer. In the end, however, Picasso decided to paint the head in half profile.
In the lower half of the image, the X-rays also produced a completely new figure. We recognize a seated figure in profile, holding something or making a gesture with its arm stretched out. It becomes clear that Picasso began with a different composition under the picture visible today, which does not correspond to the subject of the two brothers. During the creative process, he turned away from his first draft, to execute a seated figure, and then in the second step, which is visible to us today, he executed his masterly painting of the two brothers.
Written by: Werner Müller, Head Conservator, Head of Art Care