Art Insider: Benoit Janson, art restorer in Paris

How long have you been a restorer of works of art?

I started catering at 19, in 1978, after my parents, who were painters, asked me to choose a path. I did not have a state degree. I was trained with a conservator, Édouard Déchelette, a rentoileur at the Louvre and a professor at the French Institute for the Restoration of Works of Art (IFROA) which opened the same year.

Didn’t you want to be an artist like your parents?

Not. Whereas I was born in a pot of paint! When I was a child, my father was in contact with many intellectuals like Roland Barthes, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Patrick Waldberg… I was surrounded by paintings and books. From the age of 6, I was flipping through the books and decreed that my favorite painter was Victor Brauner. But I wasn’t brilliant in my studies. When my parents asked me what I wanted to do, I immediately said, “restoration.” It was clear to me. My father had a creative soul. He had more imagination, an inner reflection and could shape an idea in a painting. I do not have that ability. I was more into observing and decomposing materials. This is the first thing that attracted me when I started in the restaurant industry: to be in search of the artist’s veracity and technique. I’m not here to betray him, or to put myself in his shoes. A restaurateur must not bring something, but blend in and respect his creation. I had the chance to meet a generous restaurateur who wanted to help and share his know-how. He trusted me, gave me a lot of freedom, and it gave me confidence.

When did you open your own workshop?

In 1989, I gradually gained my independence while continuing to work in the workshop with Edward. I had a studio in Montparnasse, furnished with a large bed and two easels. An intern came to work there in the morning. My training alongside Edward was more concerned with painting of the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. At the same time, I was interested in modern and contemporary painting. In 1978, university courses were quite restrictive in this field, more focused on ancient painting. A modern and contemporary branch was missing.

How does the restoration of ancient painting differ from that of modern or contemporary art?

We had more scientific hindsight in terms of ancient materials and works, whereas modern and contemporary painting used new materials that we didn’t know much about. We were embarking on a kind of adventure. My training, classical and scientific, gave me a rigor, ethics and ethics for the realization of the restoration of modern and contemporary works. If we generalize, an old painting is based on a stratigraphy and materials always more or less similar despite technical developments. While a modern or contemporary work is made up of recent industrial materials as varied as surprising. Right now, we have two paintings by Georges Mathieu from 1970 and 1979 in the workshop. Let us take the example of these works, whose surface appearance is matte. If, by chance, you intended to make it “beautiful”, it would imply a stroke of varnish to give it more sparkle. It would mean damaging the painting and betraying the artist’s original intention. In addition, chance also plays a good part, because it is a spontaneous and gestural painting. We cannot reproduce this gestuality in restoration in the same way as the artist, but we must take it into consideration. Several factors are taken into account in the restoration: the technique used by the artist, the materials used, the conservation environment of the work (movement, humidity, etc.) and the resulting alterations. “A restaurateur must not bring something, but blend in and respect his creation.”

What types of works and damage do you face most frequently?

I consider myself a “specialized generalist.” Today, I deal mostly with modern and contemporary art, but we continue to deal with ancient paintings because it is my heart of learning. We work in oil, acrylic, vinyl, glycerophthalic, airbrush, as well as resin, wood, ceramics, metal, paper, etc. Our experience in all kinds of media allows us to address virtually everything. I created the workshop to exchange and work as a team and do not see the job of restaurateur as an isolated craftsman, in front of his easel, keeping his secrets. Each member of the team arrives with his personality, his specialty, and that’s the whole point. We can talk and we move forward together. If I feel that we do not have the capacity to do an intervention, I do not hesitate to work with specialists. Our job is to make a work without us speaking to the naked eye. Although I do not hide it, since I transmit reports of expertise, conditions, status statements, which explain the methodology of the intervention and the result before/after.

“Like a spy, I would go into the workshops and write down all the products they used. »

If we imagine today the restoration of a contemporary work, often more tinkered, at least less traditional than the old painting in its manufacture, would it be wrong to think that this work will be less easy to restore?

It is true that artists are generally more interested in the process of creating and rendering their works than in the composition of the materials used. I guess they don’t necessarily think about the sustainability of their works. It is the restaurateurs who generally realize that the materials are not suitable at all. There is indeed this “do-it-yourself” aspect, although I do not like the term. With the experience of all the materials we use, we learn to mix them together and incorporate them in order to achieve a consistent result. From a scientific point of view, it is true that we have less hindsight. We don’t know what our work will look like in 50 or 100 years (this is the estimated duration of a restoration). Beyond that, will our restoration influence the preservation of a work or will it be the artist’s materials that will continue to evolve badly?

What are the basic materials of a restoration?

When it comes to retouching and reintegration onto boards, pigment is the starting point. It’s the basis of all colors. We either mix them with the right binders, or we buy the products assembled commercially. In any case, we are guided by ethics and ethics, that is, we try to use materials that are reversible over time, that can be removed overnight without altering the original painting. As for contemporary art, we are sometimes forced to use products that we do not know how reliable in the long term and which may pose some problems. On the other hand, these products allow us to arrive at a result of good quality in aesthetic terms, which is most frequently requested for modern and contemporary works.

We know you for having, among other things, restored many works of narrative Figuration…

Yes, it is true that I dealt with a number of pieces from the Narrative Figuration in the early 1980s. As I went to the galleries, I saw artists emerge. Typically, when I saw a job like Peter Klasen’s, I thought we’d struggle to restore these kinds of works! Because they are part of an unusual technique, which is the airbrush. In this, I consider myself an avant-garde of the modern and contemporary, because I went to see all the artists of the Narrative Figuration – Adami, Monory and others – in order to try to understand their way of painting. Like a spy, I would go into the workshops and write down all the products they used. We ended up working together because they realized that I was interested in their work. They had the ability to create, but not all of them had the ability to restore. I became their regular restaurateur. Ditto for Soulages. My studio, including my collaborator Julie, has restored more than a hundred of her works from the 1950s. We also work a lot with the Niki de Saint Phalle committee and have seen superb old works that are also in their hundreds.

What are the profiles of customers who come to drop you off works to restore?

I work a lot with merchants, public sales, institutions that are the originators of all the paintings that are in commerce and in museums. They are obviously in the front row to release masterpieces. I then work directly with collectors who want to be concerned about the conservation of their works, as well as in the past with museums, mainly those of the City of Paris. I was certainly the only non-graduate who worked for museums! Today, it would be impossible to exercise without the required pedigree of the perfect restaurateur and curator. Finally, my training – that is, experience – is not so bad! I am fortunate to have been able to work with museums and on the most beautiful paintings that exist in the world. And it goes on. It’s the work of a team. All this is also thanks to my collaborators.

Restoration has to come at a cost. Don’t we tend to delay the deadline?

Indeed, restoration is not a necessity. A painting can remain in its state for 10, 20 or 30 years without any intervention. If this is a structural problem, there is an urgency that should not be overlooked. Collectors who are true enthusiasts consider that there is a need, no matter what it costs, almost. The price of a restaurant is always a prerequisite. But generally, they consider it necessary to keep.

What is the price range of a restaurant?

The first restaurant price here starts at 230 euros, a flat rate for a small intervention that does not require much time. Some restorations can reach larger sums, from 1,000 to 50,000 euros. It all depends on the number of hours spent responding, the complexity of the intervention, and it is sometimes quite difficult to quantify them. But I am one of those restaurateurs who, barring an exceptional problem, rarely change their quote.

Are you a collector?

Yes, it’s my vice! I’ve been collecting since I was 16. I have many paintings and sculptures, rather modern and contemporary. In the years 1978-1980, as a teenager, I went to galleries all the time to look at the works, for personal pleasure. The merchants saw that I was passionate and let me pay several times. I have many paintings by my father, Marc Janson. As he has always sold everything he painted, I bought it in auction rooms or from collectors to build up a collection of the most representative. I think he is a very good painter, both technically and aesthetically. I also had the pleasure of acquiring works by many artists. I am very open to many forms and am more and more eclectic in my favorites.