The Caf Balzac mural is the largest and one of the best known ‘survivors’ of the Australian Pop Movement of the early 1960’s. The work was commissioned in 1962 by Georges Mora, the proprietor of the Caf Balzac, East Melbourne. The mural was painted as individual panels by three Sydney based ‘Annandale Imitation Realists’: Colin ‘Countdown’ Lanceley, Mike ‘Pancho’ Brown and Ross ‘Pride of Day’ Crothall in exchange for meals and accommodation. In the 1960’s, The Caf Balzac was a key artist meeting and eating place in Melbourne, and Ross Crothall’s panel has an inscription ‘To George(sic) Mora, with love. The painting is characterised by a use of found materials: toys, crushed tin, bottle tops, cigarette papers, women’s magazines, wine labels, paint tins and commercial paint and adhesives. Unlike other major works from this time, it did not enter a public collection immediately, but hung in the place it was created for 26 years before entering the Queensland Art Gallery collection in 1988.
In 1992, Lanceley noted, ‘I didn’t have a care in those days for the lasting qualities of materials It never entered my head that any of these things might be of interest to future generations’ (1). These assemblages were not much appreciated by Australian artists at the time they were made, though they had good critical response. Debate has ensued about whether to clean the dark-yellow patina from The Caf Balzac mural since its acquisition by the Queensland Art Gallery in 1988. For 26 years the mural hung in the caf developing its patina of organic material, most likely cigarette smoke and cooking residue. In 2005, investigation into the possibility of treating the mural was also prompted by the increasingly more common occurrence of Conservation being alerted to parts of the mural dropping from the work to the plinth below while on display. Previous cleaning tests had been undertaken which showed that the paint and sculptural
elements could clean up quite nicely but the paper and collage elements were likely to remain degraded in their appearance. Ethical dilemmas arose regarding the sense of patina g given the mural’s strong and important link to its years in the Caf Balzac – and also
regarding the impossibility of balancing the colours and level of degradation of component parts.
Consideration of whether to clean included discussion with Colin Lanceley. Lanceley noted in his reply that he was amazed the condition of the work appeared so good. ‘I agree with your plan for cleaning and getting rid of the nicotine, it would enhance the piece no end, for one thing, the yellowish tinge spoils a lot of colour. The newspaper collage of course can’t remain perfect, but is part of history. My view would be to clean the yellow staining and then consider what if anything further needs to be done’ (2). Exactly the plan! Water based cleaning options were explored, with low concentration tri ammonium citrate and methyl cellulose gels found to be most effective. FTIR analysis (John Dixon, Wattyl Paints, Brisbane) revealed that the glue used to adhere some of the paper components is a poly vinyl acetate which has become very dark and disfiguring. Treatment decisions required consideration as to whether the darkened PVA should be reduced and how the paint/collage tonal balance would be affected. Analysis undertaken on the paint (Deborah Lau, CSIRO) and the dirt layers (Lou Rintoul, Queensland University of Technology) are outlined, including a description of the collaborative approach required to clean this modern painting. I’d like to acknowledge Nicola Hall, Samantha Shellard, Liz Wild and Amanda Pagliarino who collaborated on the treatment of this painting.
- 1 Deborah Bogle, ‘Art Movement’ The Australian Magazine June 22-23 1992
- 2 Personal communication 7 March 2004