Conservation crews will begin removing a massive mosaic by modern master Joan Miro from an art museum at Wichita State University next week as part of a five-year, $3 million restoration effort to stop the work from raining down pieces of Venetian glass and marble.
Measuring 26 feet by 52 feet, the Personnages Oiseaux mosaic depicts surrealist, fantastical birds. It was installed in 1978, five years before the death of the Spanish artist best known for his shock of blues, greens and reds overlaid with black lines outlining creatures with enlarged heads and pinched faces.
"It puts Wichita and this university on the map of the art world," said Patricia McDonnell, director of the Ulrich Museum of Art. "It's incredible."
Unfortunately, the stained glass studio in France that created the outdoor mural based on a Miro painting affixed the approximately 1 million pieces of Venetian glass and marble to particle board. The freezing and thawing cycle of three decades of Kansas winters has caused pieces to pop off, recently as many as 400 a year. Conservationists have been reattaching the pieces, but the museum decided more needed to be done to save the artwork.
The school has raised $1.3 million and hopes to raise the rest after a fundraising campaign goes public Tuesday at an event dubbed "See Miro Go!" that that will coincide with workers beginning to take down the mural's 80 panels.
McDonnell said the restoration, being done by Russell-Marti Conservation Services based in California, Mo., will include flipping the mural panels face down in molten gelatin. Crews then will remove the wood backing and clean the backside. After that's done, a substance — something McDonnell likened to "super, super glue" — will be used to adhere the pieces to perforated stainless steel. The final step of the restoration will be to peel off the gelatin and clean more than 30 years of grime from the mural.
McDonnell acknowledged that the price for the restoration gave her sticker shock.
"And yet," she said, "because it's a world masterpiece, it must be saved."
The Wichita State mural is one of only four Miro murals in the United States and the only one made of glass. His others are made of ceramic or oil on canvas.
Miro had earlier painted portraits, traditional canvasses. But the 1920s and 1930s were a time of great experimentation and movement in art, and Miro claimed in 1927 that he wanted "to assassinate painting."
He began to give up the traditional paint-based mode of representation and started using new materials. After cubism forever changed representational painting, surrealism was in full swing. Miro became one of the leading artists in the School of Paris along with Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall.
When Wichita State was building a new art museum, its founding director decided it needed an outdoor mural and approached Miro. The school paid him $100,000 for the painting that was the basis for the mural. It also covered the fabrication and shipping costs for the mural, but it was unknown how much those expenses totaled.
"He was very much enamored with the idea that this would be an outdoor mural that would also be on a university campus because he was inspired to have something that would touch students' lives," McDonnell said. "That itself is a phenomenal story."