Inside the studio of Benoît Janson,
wizard in contemporary art conservation
(Article published in the Huffington Post on October 9th, 2012; written by Alexia Guggémos, translated into english by Alexia Soldano)
“I am an illusionist!” states Benoit Janson, 53 years old, when trying to define his work. His job: art conservator. In his studio-practice of the rue Jean Bologne in Paris, this contemporary art emergency-doctor has saved close to a thousand artworks, victims of shock or attacked by micro-organisms from a basement. With his round glasses and his white coat, you could even call him Doc!
Trained alongside his fellow experts and conservators of the IFROA (Institut Français de Restauration d’œuvres d’Art – French institute of artwork conservation) from 1978, Benoît Janson is the son of surrealist painter Marc Janson, whose work was notably featured in the gallery François Petit (famous for its last show of Max Ernst works). “I grew up surrounded by cans of paint, he tells us. As a little boy, I already dreamed of collaborating with artists.” (photo: Benoît Janson in front of a work by Wang Dajun)
At the age of 5, Benoît Janson started growing admiration for the Romanian surrealist painter Victor Brauner. As a fan of Poliakoff, he knows every little working secret of the artist and treated over a hundred of his works. It was out of passion that he became an expert of the Figuration Narrative movement. From the style and period he can recognize the solid colours of an Adami, thick and dense, from those of a Télémaque, transparent and subtle. French
painter Pierre Soulages asks him to take care of the restoration of his works. “I recreate the artist’s touch with my methods and my own tools.” Tar is his sworn enemy. “Worst of all, are mixtures!”
Going to Saint-Martin de Bréhal (in the low Normandy region) to collect the same sand as Chinese artist Kim Tschang Yeul to fill material, or hunt a mercury vapour bulb to restore a Télélumière by Takis; explore shops on all corners of France to track down a plastic funeral wreath – identical to the one used by Jean-Pierre Raynaud in the seventies… This constitutes Benoit Janson’s daily routine.
At the back of his studio, a painting by Peter Klasen, which was slightly warped and in need of consolidation, is temporarily stretched. It will require several resin impregnations in order to stabilize the canvas. On the workbench, a plaster cast by Jean Arp fractured in several places and a metal wire sculpture.
“It is an unexpected work by Jacques Villeglé. The artist found this twisted wire in a blockhaus on the DDay beaches of Normandy, I have to re-weld it…”, he says. Elsewhere, materials of all sorts, such as horsehair to reconstitute the tail of an “injured” horse by Jean-François Fourtou. When faced with a tear, such as one found in a painting by Jean Hélion, he masters the thread to thread technique, which is to reposition the threads of the canvas in their right place, sometimes even restoring past restorations. (photo: the hands of Julie treating an artwork by Niki de Saint Phalle)
Benoit Janson’s recommandations are precious: avoid cotton canvases privileged by the great american artists of the New York school, and prefer linen or hemp. Be careful with plastic materials which are an inadequate support for acrylic paint. Neon lights, as another example, can only live about thirty years depending on the conservation conditions. Only the design drawing, used to create the work, can guarantee the lifespan of an installation to recreate it authentically if necessary. “With every artwork, conservation is a challenge and an adventure!”