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Art Restoration Master Brings Fountain of Youth to Aging Paintings - 2004-09-12

Perhaps you've heard of the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon and his search for a magical Fountain of Youth. He never found age-reversing waters in the Caribbean and the Florida Peninsula. But his dream is alive in thousands of medicines, tonics, and cosmetics. And now Roy Berns is reversing the ravages of time in art as well. Mr. Berns might well be called the Ponce de Leon of paintings!

Ever since he studied art in high school in Los Angeles, Roy Berns has been fascinated by color and light. First, he mastered the chemistry of fabrics and dyes. He even designed some of the dazzling carpets you see in Nevada casinos. Then he got hooked on computers, cameras, and digital printers and how they and the human eye look at light and color quite differently. Now, he's a professor of what's called imaging science at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York State. And he's working with museums around the world to see what would happen if he could - as he puts it - un-age works of the great painters.

Vincent Van Gogh, for instance. He loved vivid pigments, including one called geranium red lake. "The problem was that this particular pigment was not light-fast. Pretty much right after he painted it, this color started fading. In some of the letters that he wrote to his brother, he talked about how some of these colors were somewhat fugitive, so you should apply them on even more thickly than usual - which was why some of his paintings were so garish," he says.

Geranium red lake didn't just fade. It turned completely white over time, spoiling the stunning effect of some of Van Gogh's paintings.

Except in cases where paintings have been badly damaged, museum curators are not about to apply touch-up paint to perk up their masterpieces. But museums sell lots of prints and notecards, on which they'd like to see the most vivid images possible.

In his photo and computer lab, Roy Berns had already shown that he could deduce the original colors that an artist had applied to a canvas -- and then replicate that color on any and all copies of the painting.

And he got his chance to show off this un-aging on one of the grandest stages in art.

At the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the world's most famous paintings - an almost life-sized work by Georges Seurat called A Sunday on La Grande Jatte - has hung for 80 years.

Seurat - the young, nineteenth-century French impressionist who introduced the technique called pointillism using dots and dabs of paint - made the same kind of mistake as Van Gogh. According to Art Institute curator Gloria Groom, Seurat got some bad advice from his friend Camille Pisarro. He made liberal use of a new pigment called zinc yellow in his most ambitious painting, which depicts people strolling, fishing, and idling on La Grand Jatte island in the Seine.

"The canvas is a series of violet-purple shadows and yellow-orange sunlit areas. And in those sunlit areas where it's supposed to be maximum luminosity, it doesn't show up so much from afar, but when you get up close and you CAN see these little dabs of color, it's like measles. They're dark colors against a light background," she says.

But how would the great painting look if Seurat's colors had not, as the art world calls it, gone fugitive? Enter Roy Berns, who gingerly ran an instrument called a spectrophotometer over the priceless Seurat. He says "somebody was behind the painting, holding a block - like a foam block - so that when I touched the painting, I didn't [punch a hole in it!]"

The spectrophotometer converted color and light into numbers and graphs, readable on Roy Berns' computer screen.

"And what we can see here is that the amount of light that's reflecting is quite low. After I go through the 'un-aging' and the rejuvenation process, replacing that bad yellow with the modern yellow that didn't age, we can now see how there's a lot more light that's reflected, turning the color from brown to yellow," he says.

However, Mr. Berns says "if I brought only those dots back to 1886 and left the rest of the painting alone, they would really look garish. In a sense, I was going back too far, and it didn't look right. So what I wanted to do was to make it 2004, but make it 2004 using a pigment that didn't turn brown."

Un-aging, then re-aging, La Grande Jatte with vibrant yellow dots rather than brown-speckled measles. The result was a life-size, computer-programmed poster of Seurat's master work. At a special exhibit that closes September 19, the Art Institute of Chicago hung the original masterpiece in one room and Roy Berns' copy in another.

Professor Burns has also used spectral imaging on the Star-Spangled Banner - the original American flag that inspired the U.S. national anthem. The idea here is not to take Old Glory back to 1814, when it flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore. The flag is too faded for that. Instead, Mr. Berns precisely measured its color properties to help the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington devise the proper lighting to halt the deterioration.

Mr. Berns says his un-aging techniques could also be useful in detecting art fakes. "If a pigment were to show up that hadn't been invented yet, that would certainly be an indication of a forgery," he says.

Roy Berns at Rochester Institute of Technology is no longer dying casino carpets. But he WAS recently called as an expert witness in a civil trial, in which one toothpaste company was suing another over teeth whiteners! Right now, he's in Amsterdam, helping a museum figure out how to un-age a Van Gogh.

On the radio, it's hard to visualize the Seurat that Roy Berns worked on. So to tweak the imagination, we thought we'd close the show with a musical version of La Grande Jatte, written and performed by Frenchman Phillipe Saisse.