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How do you restore a masterpiece? Carefully. And, in this case, in public.

Starting this week, one of the stars of the museum’s collection—painted by candlelight in the depths of World War II—will be transformed before your eyes, in Gallery 370. Restoring a Masterwork III: Max Beckmann’s Blind Man’s Buff pulls back the curtain on the conservation staff from the Midwest Art Conservation Center (MACC) as they give the painting a full cleaning and restoration.

“Wait!” you say. “Restoring a Masterwork THREE?!” Yes, indeed. If you missed the cleaning of the Castiglione in 1999, or the Guercino in 2004, now is your chance to see how art conservators make the magic happen, courtesy of a generous grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project.

Helga Fietz, Max Beckmann in his Amsterdam studio, 1938. Max Beckmann Archiv.

Max Beckmann in his Amsterdam studio in 1938, shortly after fleeing Germany. (Photo by Helga Fietz, Max Beckmann Archive.)

Which works get the public treatment? That’s easy—paintings too large to fit into the laboratory. And Max Beckmann’s Blind Man’s Buff certainly qualifies. The linchpin of the MIA’s holdings of 20th-century European art, it’s a massive triptych—Beckmann’s largest piece—and the work he considered “his most outstanding picture.”

Researching this painting was one of the most interesting tasks I’ve ever undertaken as a curator. Beckmann chronicled the making of Blind Man’s Buff in his journal over the course of 13 months. I gained a great deal of insight into his working process (and personality!) by translating, then reading, these entries. Even more amazing are the conditions under which he created this monumental work. Beckmann worked on it by candlelight in an attic apartment in Amsterdam during the winter of 1944–45. Earlier that fall, Nazi Germany had cut off all supply lines to the city, leaving its citizens to starve without food, coal, or electricity.

But that’s just the contextual stuff. Once you see the science involved in restoring a painting, you’ll be captivated. One of the very best parts of my job is the chance to confer with conservators about artworks. Conservators really are the wizards of the museum world—both lab scientists and art historians. They have all the dangerous chemicals and they know all the great stories.

Come see the project as it gets underway, and follow the progress online with blog updates, behind-the-scenes stories, and much more context.