THE HUFFINGTON POST : Inside the studio of Benoit Janson, Art restorer in Paris

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!”

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Barneby’s: Discovery of a painting from Le Brun’s school behind a false partition

A monumental 17th century painting was discovered behind a false partition during the renovation of the future fashion boutique Oscar de la Renta, located on Rue de Marignan in Paris. The expert Stéphane Pinta revealed that it was a work of 1674 made by a collaborator of Charles Le Brun.

Arnoult de Vuez, The Embassy of Charles Marie Olier, marqui sde Nointel, Palestine, 1674, oil on canvas, discovered in the Oscar de La Renta boutique in Paris, image ©Julien Mignot/NYT-REDUX-REA
Arnoult de Vuez, The Embassy of Charles Marie Olier, marquis de Nointel, In Palestine, 1674, oil on canvas, discovered in the Oscar de La Renta boutique in Paris, image ©Julien Mignot/NYT-REDUX-REA.

The discovery, announced by the New York Times a few days ago and then relayed in the Daily Of Art, was a well-kept secret. The work has been known to the CEO of the luxury brand for almost a year, but it had formally prohibited anyone from revealing its existence, in order to coincide the news with the start of Paris Fashion Week.

The shop was due to open this week, allowing Oscar de la Renta to have a foothold in the French capital during the most anticipated fashion shows of the year, although the brand does not have a show to its credit. Only last year, during the renovations of the new 4 rue de Marignan space, the director of the brand, Alex Bolen, received a call from his architect, who asked him to go there immediately to judge a “discovery”.

Image©Julien Mignot for The New York Times
Image©Julien Mignot for The New York Times.

The construction workers were put on the trail of the painting by noticing the existence of a 19th century panelling ceiling, consisting of 29 square panels encrusted and painted with heraldic seals, preserved for decades under a second ceiling. It was by knocking down a partition a little later that the team discovered a painting of six meters by three meters, blackened by time, extending over the entire surface of the wall. Riders wearing 17th-century clothing are depicted in front of the city of Jerusalem, whose mosque can be discerned in the distance.

Renovation work was immediately halted, delaying the opening of the shop until May 2019, in order to restore the damaged paint. While discoveries are quite common in castles or other historical monuments, they are much less so in this type of space, said Nathalie Ryan, the brand’s architect. Bolen had rented this old apartment, in an immutable that he considered “un charmless”, knowing that everything had to be redone.

Restaurateur Benoît Janson at work, image ©Julien Mignot for The New York Times
Restorer Benoît Janson at work, image ©Julien Mignot for The New York Times.

Following the discovery, the CEO called on Stéphane Pinta, an expert in master paintings at Turquin, who established that it was a 1674 oil on canvas painted by Arnould de Vuez, a Flemish artist who worked for the court of King Louis XIV on the side Charles Le Brun.s. Pinta traced the origin of the masterpiece through a book by Albert Vandal recounting the travels of Charles-Marie-François Olier, Marquis de Nointel and Angervilliers, and Louis XIV’s ambassador to Palestine. A print similar to the large painting appears on page 129 of the book: it depicts the Marquis of Nointel arriving in Jerusalem accompanied by his cavalry, during a tour of the Middle East in 1673.

Since the masterpiece was glued to the wall, experts decreed that it would be too dangerous to try to move it. As a good businessman, Bolen negotiated with the owner of the building to keep the work in the shop once it was opened (the rental is planned for 10 years), offering in return the full support of its restoration.

The team hopes to finish the restorations by May 2019, image ©Julien Mignot for The New York Times
The team hopes to complete the restorations by May 2019, image © Mignot Ledian for The New York Times.

Restorer Benoît Janson and his team have been working for several months to ensure the restoration of the painting, considered “rare and exceptional in many respects”. According to Janson, the painting has already undergone several renovations. Most of the work now involves removing the various layers of varnish that cover its surface and regaining its original colours. The long process should be finished for the month of May, in time for the opening of the shop which, thanks to a stroke of fate, will be absolutely unique of its kind.

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Courrier International: An exceptional 17th century painting hidden in a Parisian boutique

This 17th century painting was discovered during work for the Oscar de la Renta boutique in Paris. Julien Mignot/The New York Times.

During work, workers discovered a painting executed under Louis XIV, The New York Times reported. Six meters long, the painting was hidden behind a wooden panel in Parisian offices being transformed for the boutique of fashion designer Oscar de la Renta.

The new American luxury boutique was due to open this week for paris fashion shows, but Oscar de la Renta’s general manager, Alex Bolen, was forced to change his plans, Reports The New York Times.

Last summer, Nathalie Ryan, the architect in charge of the works, announced by telephone that he had made “a discovery” that he had to come and see for himself in Paris. On the second floor of the building of the future store in the middle of construction, Alex Bolen discovers at the bottom of the room an oil painting of three meters by six meters depicting a French nobleman, on horseback, surrounded by courtiers entering Jerusalem.

“It’s very rare and exceptional in many ways,” Benoît Janson, who oversees the restoration of the work, told the New York Times, “by its historical and aesthetic quality as well as its size.”

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France Inter: A treasure hidden behind the wall

A 17th century painting discovered by chance in a shop in Paris

by Delphine Evenou published on October 21, 2019 at 6:04 a.m.

During the interior works in of a Parisian luxury clothing boutique, the architects discovered, hidden behind a brick wall, a monumental canvas.

The Marquis of Nointel arriving in Jerusalem
The Marquis de Nointel arriving in Jerusalem © Radio France / Delphine Evenou

The canvas is six meters long and three meters high
. It could have stayed out of the light and the eyes for a very long time, if the fashion house Oscar de la Renta had not decided to open its first boutique in Paris rue de Marignan, a stone’s throw from the Champs-Élysées. During the restructuring and landscaping, the architects knocked down a brick wall. Behind is another wall, covered with what looks like an old painting.

An all-black picture

“The painting was all black, but my instinct told me there was something behind it,” recalls restorer Benoît Janson, who was able to see the work “in his juice”. Oscar de la Renta’s general manager, Alex Bolen, clearly had the same intuition: when the discovery was announced, he jumped on a plane from the United States. When he arrived in Paris, he decided to finance the restoration of the painting, to the tune of tens of thousands of euros.

The canvas sits at the bottom of the Oscar de la Renta wedding dress salon
The canvas sits at the bottom of the wedding dress room Oscar de la Renta / Delphine Evenou

For six months, with his team, Benoît Janson will lighten the old varnish, remove the layers of paint dating from previous renovations, also retouch the areas of the painting. After careful work, the gigantic canvas regains its original brilliance and delivers its story, or at least a part.

The work has not delivered all its secrets

The painting, dated 1673, depicts the Marquis of Nointel and his escort upon their arrival in Jerusalem. French Ambassador to the Middle East, Charles Marie François Olier, whose real name is Charles Marie François Olier, was sent by Louis XIV to establish trade links. The author of the work, however, remains difficult to determine: it could be Arnould de Vuez or Jacques Carrey, both students of Charles Le Brun’s school.

This painting is part of a set of four paintings on display on the walls of the apartments of the Marquis de Nointel in Constantinople, before his mission as a diplomat ended and the paintings, rolled on themselves, dispersed. One of the works is in the Athens Museum, two others have disappeared. The last one is now in a boutique in the chic districts of Paris, amidst the luxurious Oscar de la Renta wedding dresses.

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The New York Times on Benoit JANSON: The treasure behind the wall

The treasure hidden behind a wall
(The treasure behind the wall By Vanessa Friedman)

Something in the new Oscar de la Renta boutique in Paris was not what it seemed.

Photo credit Julien Mignot for The New York Times

Alex Bolen, the chief executive of Oscar de la Renta, planned to have his new store in Paris open around this week, just in time for the couture shows. He planned to have a presence in the city even if he didn’t have a show. He had it all figured out.

Then, last summer, in the middle of renovations, Mr. Bolen got a call from his architect, Nathalie Ryan.

“‘We made a discovery,’” he remembered her saying. On the other end of the phone, Mr. Bolen cringed. The last time he received a call like that about a store, their plans to move a wall had to be scrapped because of fears the building would collapse. He asked what, exactly, the discovery was.

“You have to come and see,” she told him.

So, gritting his teeth, he got on a plane from New York. Ms. Ryan took him to the second floor of what would be the shop, where workers were busily clearing out detritus, and gestured toward the end of the space. Mr. Bolen, she said, blinked. Then he said: “No, it’s not possible.”

Something had been hidden behind a wall, and it wasn’t asbestos. It was a 10-by-20-foot oil painting of an elaborately coifed and dressed 17th-century marquis and assorted courtiers entering the city of Jerusalem.

“It’s very rare and exceptional, for many reasons,” said Benoît Janson, of the restoration specialists Nouvelle Tendance, who is overseeing work on the canvas. Namely, “its historical and aesthetic quality and size.”
Boutique renovations, like most renovations, are often delayed. They frequently run over budget. But rarely are they delayed and over budget because a mysterious artwork more than three centuries old has resurfaced.

In the arms race for the most unique! most authentic! store currently underway, when only-in-person experience is what differentiates retail from e-tail, a cultural treasure surrounded by a puzzle straight out of a Dan Brown novel may be the ultimate accessory.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Mr. Bolen had been looking for a store in Paris for a long time. In the early 1990s, the company had a small boutique in the city during Mr. de la Renta’s tenure as couturier of Balmain, but the boutique closed after he left the brand in 2002. (He died in 2014.)

In 2017, Mr. Bolen was offered the former Reed Krakoff store on Rue de Marignan, a diagonal side street off the luxury thoroughfare Avenue Montaigne, which terminates on one end at L’Avenue, the high-fashion canteen.

Mr. Bolen liked the location, and the building, which had been built in the 19th century and remained largely in the hands of one family, many of whom still lived in the upstairs apartments. Still, he wanted a larger site, and when the office space that spanned the second floor became available, he grabbed it.

“It was pretty charmless,” he said. A former insurance brokerage, it had a dropped ceiling with fluorescent lighting, particleboard walls and industrial carpeting in its rabbit warren of offices. “We knew we’d have to take everything out,” Mr. Bolen said.

The idea was to link the two floors with a grand staircase. The ground floor and part of the second would serve as the boutique, and a room at the end would be used as a showroom and event space, with other space for offices and storage.

The interior, designed by Jeang Kim and Will Kim of Oro Studio, would feel less like a big white box than a home for “young people who had just moved into their grandmother’s grand apartment,” according to Ms. Kim (who is also the sister of Oscar de la Renta’s co-creative director Laura Kim; she is not related to Mr. Kim).

Photo credit Julien Mignot for The New York Times

Benoît Janson, restoration specialist, working on painting. The restoration is expected to be done by May. Photo credit Julien Mignot for The New York Times

Not long after the demolition began, a discovery was made. A workman, tearing down the dropped ceiling in the last room on the second floor, said there was something “strange.”

That would be a paneled ceiling that had been underneath the visible one, composed of 29 inset squares, eight of them painted with different heraldic seals, and a central diamond. Dating from the mid-19th-century, they were well preserved since they had been recessed within the coffers of the ceiling.

Still, while that was an interesting reveal, it was not unprecedented in a building of that age. It was when workers began removing the particleboard along the side and a chunk of the wall came off too that things got interesting.
“Oh my God, it was — wow,” said Ms. Ryan, who was the in-house architect for Dior for many years and opened her own company, Kirei Studio, in 2010.

Behind the wall a single painting, dark with age, ran from end to end. “Sometimes when you work on castles, you find something, but usually it’s a hidden fireplace, or in Italy, maybe a fresco,” Ms. Ryan said. “But in an apartment? In a store?” She had never seen anything like it.

“Everyone freaked out,” Ms. Kim said. “It was like finding a mummy. I turned off my phone immediately and just looked at it. Nothing like this had ever happened in my work before.”

Demolition was halted to figure out what the painting was and how it came to be in what was about to be a shop. Seeing the aristocrats on horseback and the mosque in the picture, Mr. Bolen said, visions of Crusaders and Knights Templar began to dance in his head. “I think maybe I have seen too many movies,” he said.

A Whodunit

In the game of six degrees of separation, this was a good one: Mr. Bolen’s mother-in-law, Annette de la Renta, had cousins (via her mother, Jane Engelhard) who had married into the de La Rochefoucauld family, storied members of the French aristocracy. One of those family members happened to live across the street from the new de la Renta boutique.

So when the painting was found, and it became clear Mr. Bolen would have to talk to the building’s owners, whom he had never met (the lease had been negotiated through a broker), his relative was able to make the introductions. Another de La Rochefoucauld, who happened to work at the Louvre, got a recommendation for an art historian: Stephane Pinta of the Cabinet Turquin, an expert in old-master paintings.

Mr. Pinta determined that the painting was an oil on canvas created in 1674 by Arnould de Vuez, a painter who worked with Charles Le Brun, the first painter to Louis XIV and designer of interiors of the Château de Versailles. After working with Le Brun, de Vuez, who was known for getting involved in duels of honor, was forced to flee France and ended up in Constantinople.

Mr. Pinta traced the painting to a plate that was reproduced in the 1900 book “Odyssey of an Ambassador: The Travels of the Marquis de Nointel, 1670-1680” by Albert Vandal, which told the story of the travels of Charles-Marie-François Olier, Marquis de Nointel et d’Angervilliers, Louis XIV’s ambassador to the Ottoman Court. On Page 129, there is a rotogravure of an artwork depicting the Marquis de Nointel arriving in Jerusalem with great pomp and circumstance — the painting on the wall.

But how it ended up glued to that wall, no one knew, nor why it was covered up. There was speculation that maybe it happened during World War II, given the setting. It could be “a fog-of-war issue,” Mr. Bolen said.

What everyone did know was that it would be dangerous to move because of how the painting had been attached to wall: backed by gauze and glued on. And, Mr. Bolen said, his wife, Eliza, told him, “If you move that painting, you will have 100 years of bad luck.” He thought she was probably right.

The Next Mystery

Instead, Mr. Bolen reached an agreement with the building’s owners: He would restore the painting if they agreed to let it remain in the store while the store was a tenant (the initial lease is for 10 years). Mr. Janson got to work in late November.

“It was very dark because of all the overpaint from earlier restorations and varnish,” Mr. Janson said.

For the last two months, a team of three to five people have laboriously swabbed away some of the varnish to allow the colors to come through. They hope to be finished by May, Mr. Janson said, though Mr. Bolen believes it will be sooner than that. Slowly, details that confirmed the painting’s provenance have begun to emerge: the mosque, the Western Wall, the elaborate brocades of the visiting Frenchmen.

The discovery demanded something of a interior rethink as well as some practical changes. Ms. Kim has been haunting auctions for furniture from different periods to link past to present, including Marcel Breuer chairs and pieces from Pierre Bergé’s estate.

“We’re not going to put a wall of dresses in front,” Ms. Ryan said. Security will be increased, and the 10 floor-to-ceiling windows on the second floor equipped with treated glass. The plan is to open in late spring.
In the meantime, Mr. Bolen has not given up the search. “I need to get a heraldic expert in to look at the ceiling,” he said, sifting through photographs and pointing at some of the shields. “That one has three stars, a royal crown — and fish?”

He looked at another one. “What do those three stars mean?” he wondered. “I don’t know. But that’s worth finding out.” He looked excited.

Shoppers with a yen for a conspiracy theory or a taste of history may be, too.

Benoit JANSON and his team. Photo credit Julien Mignot for The New York Times

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