Jean Charlot Fresco Conservation

Read more about BMCM+AC’s project to conserve one of Black Mountain College’s most iconic artworks.

Summer Art Institute of 1944

By 1944, Black Mountain College was firmly established at the Lake Eden Campus. There was no longer a need for students to vacate for the summer as they had during the years at Robert E. Lee Hall. This change led to one of BMC’s greatest innovations, the Summer Art Institutes. The legacy of these summer sessions can’t be overstated, with influential artists, educators, and visiting students gathering at Black Mountain to discover and experience the most pressing issues in art, music, and other disciplines.

The inaugural Summer Institute in 1944, is commemorated by two frescos painted on the concrete pylons of the Studies Building. Jean Charlot was invited by Josef Albers to teach that summer. During his time at BMC, Charlot produced the frescos Inspiration and Knowledge. He was aided by students in the painting of the frescos as well as the preparation of the concrete pylons, with Faith Murray Britton serving as student assistant on the project. Painted in the true fresco style, these murals depict two allegorical figures whose bodies contort to the shape of the pylons. Inspiration, on the Northside, holds a drafting instrument and gazes up at the sky in thought. Knowledge, at the South, is shrouded in a cloak, its body wrapped around a book.

Jean Charlot

Jean Charlot (1898-1979) was born in France to parents who owned an import-export business. He grew up among his family’s collection of art from pre-Hispanic Mexico, and was proud of the Aztec ancestry he shared with his family on his mother’s side. 

His life and career parallel the four main places he lived: France, Mexico, the continental US, and Hawaii. As an artist, he started out at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but his education was cut short when he was drafted into the French army in 1917. In 1920, he and his mother left to live with family in Mexico. In Mexico, Charlot was briefly an assistant to Diego Rivera. Charlot worked with Rivera on the mural Creation, during which time he also began working on his own mural, The Massacre in the Templo Mayor. These works were the beginnings of the Mexican Mural Renaissance, an artistic movement that celebrated indigenous and mestizo traditions rather than looking back to European art or the aesthetics of Spanish colonial art. 

Charlot holds a unique position among the artists of this era in Mexico because he was also involved in archaeology. In 1928, he was hired as a staff artist along with Ann Axtell Morris to record Mayan painted walls in Chichen Itza before the colors faded into history. Charlot’s aesthetics were powerfully influenced by his spirituality as well as pre-colonial art: his painted figures are sculptural and monolithic with a rhythmic geometry; his colors reflect the jewel tones he saw on the walls of Chichen Itza.

After the archaeological expedition, Charlot moved from Mexico to New York. In the continental US, he wrote, lectured, and had a career as a cartoonist, illustrator, and lithographer. Charlot was also a lifelong educator. He taught at the Art Students’ League, Chouinard School of Art (later merged into CalArts), the Florence Cane School of Art at Rockefeller Center, UC Berkeley, Smith College, and the University of Georgia before arriving at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1944. 

Teaching or not, he was patient with beginners and always willing to let others have a hand in his work—bystanders, students, “almost anybody,” Dennis McCarthy of St. Benedict’s College art department recalled. “If you were around the painting site for more than half an hour,” McCarthy explained in a 1995 article, “he’d give you a brush and say, ‘Now go and do this.’” At Black Mountain College, students assisted in preparing the concrete pylons and painting Inspiration and Knowledge. 

In 1949, Charlot accepted an invitation to spend the summer creating a mural in Hawaii—and there he stayed. For the last thirty years of his life, he embraced learning about Hawaii’s history & native culture just as he had done Mexico’s. He accepted a position as a professor of art at the University of Hawaii, learned the Hawaiian language, and produced hundreds of works of art.

Today the Jean Charlot Foundation supports further research about his life and impact.

Conserving "Knowledge" and "Inspiration"

Over the years, the frescos had lost their presence, degrading due to issues related to human and environmental causes. This year, with the support of The Marion Stedman Covington Foundation, as well as our partners at Camp Rockmont, conservation was completed on the frescos “Inspiration” and “Knowledge,” with additional measures recommended to maintain the historic frescos into the future.

The work began in 2018 with an assessment from conservator Christiana Cunningham-Adams. An on-site examination of the frescos revealed that they were impacted by environmental factors such as shade, light, insects, and moisture, as well as wear and tear from human contact.

Cunningham-Adams advocated for conservation and restoration of the frescos to a level that would make them legible once again rather than attempting to bring them back to their original 1944 state. She advised to only do what was necessary to preserve their imagery for future generations and to make subtle changes in the surroundings which may dissuade human interference.

The conservation treatment was conducted in the Fall of 2020 by conservators Craig Crawford and Maho Yoshikawa. Using their knowledge of frescos from the period, as well as historic records and photographs, Crawford and Yoshikawa stabilized the surface of the frescos and restored lost pigment,  bringing out shapes and details which had been completely lost to time.

Conservator Log Transcript

October 6

Hi, this is Craig Crawford. I’m doing the conservation work on Jean Charlot. It is October 6th, and I just wanted to talk about what we did today. We surface cleaned the paintings with a dry cleaning method and not very much dirt came off, although there were mud dauber nests and up in this corner, and just cobwebs and little accretions on the surface, and stuff that we took off. Then we coated the paintings with a very dilute solution of Acryloid B-72, which is a stable synthetic resin. That was done to kind of saturate some of the colors, and to consolidate any friable plaster material, and try to hold that together a little better. We did not want that to sit on the surface, so most of it absorbed below the surface. And then we’ve gone in and filled some of the losses, as you can see, we’re still working on some of the filling. We did that with the tone vinyl film material, and then we’ll go back over that with the Acryloid B-72. 

So we’re in the process of kind of completing that, and starting to get a feel for the in-painting. You can see here where some of the painting has been done in these areas of abrasions, and loss. Mostly, you know, that’s what we’re focusing on first. You can see Maho is over here, in-painting just little areas of abrasions and damage. And you can see here some of the graffiti we filled as well, to try to get the surface smooth again, relatively smooth again compared to what it was before. So that’s where we’re at and we will continue tomorrow.


October 8

It’s Thursday, October 8th of the conservation project on the Jean Charlot paintings, and today we just continued in-painting the paintings, mostly just closing in areas. As you can remember, in this area, there was a lot of graffiti visible, and now it’s pretty much disappeared. Tomorrow I’ll be working on the second half, top half of this area. 

And on this one [turning from Inspiration to Knowledge] we’re kind of flushing in some of the areas that were completely missing, and trying to to get the form into those areas where nothing was present except the scoring in the plaster, and you can see I’ve also filled some more small little indentations and gouges that were distracting, so I’ll be cleaning those fills tomorrow, and just continuing to in-paint. So that’s pretty much where we’re at today, and I feel like it was pretty productive.


October 10

Okay, it’s October 10th, and we are just updating the progress on the Charlot murals. Today we just kept tightening up some of the in-painting, and trying to determine the form, some of the forms in the fabric draped around the legs in this figure [Knowledge]. We’ll be working on that more tomorrow, trying to get in some shadows and a little more three-dimensional quality, and sort of figuring out what details are in the book that we can pull out or sort of hint at, that were original to the piece. So, still tightening up things.

And here [Inspiration] we’ve also been doing the same, and Maho has mostly been getting in some of the values a little closer to how they were originally, particularly along the bottom and top and some around the edges. So this one’s getting pretty close to being complete. We’re just going to have some final things to do, but it’s getting pretty close, and so we’ll just keep working on them.


October 11

It’s October 11th, and just an update on the Jean Charlot paintings. Today we just worked on this side [Knowledge], mostly trying to even out the fabric around the legs and try to get a little more form to it. Then we worked on the book, trying to get some of the pages that were slightly visible, but hints of that, so we just wanted to make sure they were more visible on the pages. We also did a little more work in the background, and still working on the arm here, and just other little things on this one. This was the only one we focused on today.


October 13

Okay, this is October 13th on the murals, and what we did this morning was just tighten up some areas, particularly down here in the lower corner. Some of this darker area, we wanted to make it more consistent with some of the original down there, and we evened out some of the painting in here. And then on this side [Inspiration], we worked some in this corner, evening out a little bit of the in-painting, and some in this section as well. Then the murals were sprayed with a very dilute UVS matte varnish, very dilute with mineral spirits, and just misted with it to kind of saturate some of the in-painting. And that’s what was done today on the 13th.

With thanks to The Marion Stedman Covington Foundation and Camp Rockmont for their support of this conservation project

Image credits: Maho Yoshikawa and Craig Crawford with conserved “Inspiration” and “Knowledge” at historic BMC campus at Lake Eden, now Camp Rockmont. Photo courtesy Alice Sebrell | Above: “Knowledge” Below: “Inspiration” (details) courtesy of the Western Regional Archives. | Jean Charlot at work on “Inspiration,” Black Mountain College Summer Art Insititute of 1944. Courtesy of the Western Regional Archives. | Faculty Group Portrait, Summer Institute 1944 (from left: Jose de Creeft, Jean Charlot, Amedee Ozefant, Bernard Rudofsky, and Josef Albers). Courtesy of the Western Regional Archives. | Jean Charlot, “Masacre en el Templo Mayor” or “La Conquista de Tenochtitlan,” 1922-1923. Fresco and encaustic. San Ildefonso College, Mexico City. | Jean Charlot, “Hawaiian Drummers,” 1950. Fresco. Courtesy of The Jean Charlot Foundation. | Conservation progress photographs courtesy of Alice Sebrell. | Conservation log courtesy of Craig Crawford. | Footage for Jean Charlot Conservation courtesy of BMCM+AC and Camp Rockmont.