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Sunday, 1 August 2010

Corrective Surgery

'Gross Clinic' Gets Out of Rehab

By Richard Carreño
Writers Clearinghouse News Service
The Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross, better known as The Gross Clinic and as Thomas Eakins' best known painting, has had a long and arduous journey since the artist created the work in his garret at 1729 Mount Vernon Street, Philadelphia, in 1875. And equally to its perch as the acclaimed finest painting of 19th century America by that century's greatest American artist.

'I have just got a new picture blocked in it & it is very far better than anything I have done,' the Eakins wrote, on April 13, 1875, to the then-prominent critic Earl Shinn.

Until then, of course. At 31, Eakins' appraisal of the Clinic could have been judged premature, considering the body of his work would still span four more decades until the artist's death in 1916 at 72.

Eakins' humanistic The Cruxification was just five years away, and that soulful depiction of Everyman's agony, portrayed by the culmination of Christ's Passion on the Cross, is sometimes thrust forward as the finer painting. Picking nits.

The monumental Clinic, now on majestic display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is, by any measure, a singular masterpiece. Eakins created a picture of undeniable, momentous import, capturing -- with the advantage of 21st century hindsight -- a grotesquerie of dark science and the imperiousness of medicine. This at a time in the late 19th century when physicians, in America, at least, were being first put on their legendary 'pedestal' that would only topple 100 years later. If Clinic were a moving picture, it would be 'film noir.'

I first saw the painting -- in my reverence for the work, my viewing was more like an 'audience' -- when it was ensconced at a former hideaway at Thomas Jefferson University, in a free walk-in gallery that was rarely visited and, even more sadly, little known. (The painting itself was a commissioned work. Gross was at the time Jefferson Medical College's 'star' surgeon, and the work was a PR gambit on his and the institution's behalf. If Philadelphia Magazine had been around in those days, Gross would have been billed as a Philly 'best.')

In 135 years, Clinic has seen halcyon days. Even before its paint was dry, it was the artisic centrepiece at the Phladelphia-based 1876 United States Centennial, glorifying the art of medicine. As a much aging debutante, it got a second 'coming out' to great applause at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in an Eakins memorial show in 1917. In 2001, it became the crown in the jewel in a 'blockbuster' retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum, later moving to Paris for even more fanfare.

After that, a silent repose fell upon the picture until 2007, when Jefferson, in a back-room fund-raising scheme, dramatically agreed to sell the painting for $68-million to a joint ownership cavil of a Wal-Mart heiress and the National Gallery. That skull-duggery -- whether it was a set-up, or not will probably never be known -- led a local drive to 'save' the picture for Philadelphia.

Thanks to late Anne d'Harnoncourt, at the time the whirlwind director of the Philadelphia Museum, who spearheaded the drive, $68-million in local and worldwide donations kept the painting at home. 'Home' being a joint custodial agreement by the PMA and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Ironically, the painting that the PMA and PAFA purchased was not the picture that Eakins created.

No, not fraud.But simply good intentions.

As is routine, all museum holdings are subject to cleaning and conservation, and the Clinic's last turn at getting a re-do, at the PMA, was about 90 years before. Intuitively, the PMA conservators sought to lighten the painting's dark hues. But, unbeknownst to them, 'brightening' the picture ran counter to the intended chiaroscuro that Eakins endowed the work.

This was not a happy place, Eakins tells us in depicting the operating theatre, seen with today's eyes as a macabre house of horrors. Even the patient's mother, cruelly invited to attend the surgery, for legal reasons that prevailed at the time, must shield her eyes from the hideous spectacle, overseen by the professorial and dispassionate Dr. Gross. (Is his height -- he's centred as the tallest individual in the painting -- elevated by an unseen pedestal?, one wonders).

Eakins, no Pollyanna, understood life's darker side. Though the picture putatively evinced Gross as the master surgeon, at the top of his game, Eakins didn't blind himself to bloody spectacle. Step forward, thanks to Eakins, a new school of American Realism.

Beginning in 2001, PMA conservators also started to understand how light figured in Eakins' paintings, concluding, contrary to previous interpretations, that darker shades and shadows were meant to be in his work. (A rethink of Between Rounds [1898-99] settled the matter).

And the Clinic?

Mark S. Tucker, the museum's vice chair of conservation, was tasked with the re-habbing. Not surprisingly, given the findings from the previously-conserved works, it was discovered, following X-rays and paint analysis, that Clinic had also been illuminated in a 1920s cleaning.

Tucker and his staff re-tinted the painting, and, despite the well-known findings from the previous restorations, the PMA presented this latest re-do as a modern marvel of investigative science and forensic technology. (With PR spin in full throttle, breathless articles of new discovery found their way to The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times).

Regardless of that hype, what has resulted is a Clinic that surpasses all its previous 20th century showings. Its presentation, in conception, stagecraft, and execution, is a tour de force. With in-door gallery lighting just so, refreshed pigments glisten, twinkling in pools of reflected light. The picture is, in fact, so enhanced that the viewer can't escape an almost-slide show narrative that darts from Gross, mother, patient, scribe, surgical instruments.

The PMA has been modest in titling this latest coming-out of Eakins' grande dame as 'Seeing The Gross Clinic Anew.' Thanks to Tucker and his crew, it's more like a rebirth.

The exhibition, in the PMA's Perelman Building, runs until January 9, when it moves to PAFA.