Freshly painted frescos at Tate Britain


UNTIL I WAS SIXTEEN, my parents took me to Florence (Italy) every year, except in 1967 – the year after the city had been devastated by a flood. My parents were crazy about Italy, the Italians, and Italian art. In Florence, we used to view many frescos in churches and palaces and even those removed from their original locations and placed in museums.

Traditional fresco painting was a laborious process, which produced durable images on walls and ceilings. To create a fresco, first a couple of layers of plaster are applied to a surface (wall or ceiling) and allowed to dry. Then, the artist(s) sketch the image that will eventually be created. Next, a part of the sketch is covered with fresh plaster. The extent of this is the area which the artist can paint during one day. While the plaster is damp, the artist paints that section of the picture with water-based coloured paints. As the plaster dries, the paint becomes incorporated within it, producing a surface more durable than if the paint had been painted onto dry plaster. Day by day, section by section, the process is continued until the whole image has been finished.

I mentioned that some frescoes have been moved into museums. The Italians developed a method for doing this. The fresco to be moved is covered with a cloth sheet coated with adhesive, Then the cloth is pulled away from the wall or ceiling. As it is peeled away, it takes with it that layer of the fresco that contains the paint-absorbed layer of plaster. When this layer has been removed, the artist’s sketch becomes revealed. This is of great interest to historians of art, who can learn how the artist developed his final product from his original sketch. This whole process fascinated me when I was a child, and still amazes me.

Most of the great Italian frescos were created many centuries ago, and the process has fallen out of fashion. Well, at least that is what I believed until I visited a lovely exhibition at Tate Britain. On show until the 7th of May 2023, it is a display of works created by Hannah Quinlan (born 1991) and Rosie Hastings (born 1991). They have created six large, colourful images depicting, to quote the Tate’s website:

“…street scenes showing groups of people portraying various power dynamics, class and social relations and positions of authority.”

Attractive and fascinating as these works are, what really intrigued me is the way that they were made. The paintings, which have been created during the last few years, have been executed using traditional fresco technique such as I described above. In an interview recorded on the Tate website, they were asked why they used this archaic technique, and they replied:

“Fresco painting is often found in places of political, legal and educational importance and is executed at a monumental scale. Traditionally, frescos depict scenes loaded with ideology and symbolism while presenting themselves as neutral or universal. A fresco often represents the moral code of the time within which it is painted, intended as an instructional and educational medium that reinforces dominant perceptions.”

I can understand this, and like their reasoning. I enjoyed the exhibition, and encourage others to take a look. Enjoy the frescos, but do not omit to examine the lovely drawing the artists created using graphite.

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