Meet Julian Baumgartner, the restorer whose mesmerizing YouTube videos of art restorations have gone viral
Soft scraping, dabs of solvent, methodically swabbing a painted surface inch by inch: art restoration videos are an ASMR gold mine.
In this kind of niche, restaurateur Julian Baumgartner is a real celebrity, with a YouTube channel that has amassed millions of views. Beyond their satisfying soundtrack, Baumgartner’s videos capture the detailed methodology and meticulous approach to restoring works that pass through the doors of Baumgartner Fine Art Restoration, the Chicago studio founded in 1978 by his father, R. Agass Baumgartner, a Swiss immigrant.
Julian Baumgartner learned the intricacies of the trade as an apprentice from his father from 2000 until his death in 2011. Four years later, Baumgartner decided to make a video of a restoration, although he had no no first-hand filming experience. “It’s a modus operandi among restaurateurs in general: if you need a new skill, you teach yourself,” Baumgartner said.
He appears to have succeeded, with his channel recently surpassing 1.5 million subscribers. We caught up with him to discuss his catering pet peeves, his revealing moments, and why, exactly, he thinks people are so mesmerized by his videos.
What was the first video you made and why did you decide to start making videos?
I received a very large William Merritt Chase painting that was horribly damaged. I thought it would be great to document the process and give a really romantic and beautiful nod to conservation. So I hired a videographer and we did this project. I dumped it on YouTube, where it languished in obscurity and somehow forgot about it. At the time, I was focused on Instagram, where I had direct interactions with other curators and was generally very satisfied. Our Instagram account went viral in 2016, and then our audience got much bigger. I realized that the stories I wanted to show just couldn’t fit Instagram’s format at that time, so I decided to take another shot on YouTube. The rest is history, so to speak.
Your videos range from short clips to series that span over an hour. Yet these are condensed timelines compared to your actual process. What is the longest working time on a single piece of art?
I think the longest I’ve ever worked on a piece was about nine months, on a painting that required paint film transfer. An incredibly damaged painting had been glued to plywood and then covered with a silk and polyurethane scrim. The polyurethane had to come off the front of the artwork, but it also had to come off the plywood. In the process I discovered that the canvas was so rotten and deteriorated and there was almost nothing left, hence why it had been mounted on plywood, so I had to remove the layer of painting of the canvas, which was effectively completely disintegrated. This process took nine months of very methodical, very slow work – an hour or two a day, and maybe not the next day. Eventually, as you advance brick by brick, step by step, you reach the finish line.
What is the most indispensable tool in your studio?
My best tool is my brain, right? It gives me the ability to synthesize information and be creative. Then, on a more practical level, my hands, because while I can theorize or research an interesting approach, I still have to execute it. Conservation is still a profession. Despite all the scientific advances, the practitioner still needs to have the technical ability. In terms of equipment, without a doubt, my heated tables: they are at the heart of any modern conservation workshop. You can certainly practice conservation without them, but it’s like being a chef without a stove or a carpenter without a table saw. There are ways around this, of course – curators found ways for many years before the advent of heated vacuum tables – but they allow a degree of control and a wide range of processing.
In your videos, you often joke about your hatred of the basic products that past restaurateurs or owners have used. What are some of your pet peeves when it comes to restoration and conservation?
Staples, of course! It’s just a joke that arose from the fact that I complained in one of my videos. In fact, I would say my biggest frustrations are with well-meaning people whose hearts are in the right places but who lack the technical and intellectual know-how. It’s really frustrating to receive a painting that has been worked on in the past, and the workmanship is not good or the materials are incorrect. I have to undo this just to get to a point where we can start to deal with the ongoing issues properly. It costs time and money and is completely avoidable. I think of building contractors who come in to remodel a house and find that someone has done something crazy — it’s going to slow down the project.
Another pet peeve is seeing contemporary work with outdated materials. I see a lot of people using approaches that were popular a hundred years ago. I just have to wonder why: we have newer, purpose-built materials that have proven to be much safer, much more stable, and more easily reversible. If I had to boil it down to one particular approach that I find breathtaking, it’s rabbit skin glue liners. We know so much about the fallibility of rabbit skin glue and its effects on canvas that I find it hard to understand why this would be an option.
I’ve heard restaurant owners say, “Well, that’s traditional. My answer is that 200 years ago when doctors had to amputate, they gave you a shot of whiskey and told you to bite on a stick. In fact, the treatments and materials we use now may be considered archaic a hundred years from now. And that’s good, it means that conservation has evolved. We Conservatives are like parents who want their children to succeed beyond their own abilities.
What is the most satisfying part of restoring a painting? What is the hardest or most tedious part?
Everything and everything! There are two aspects that are incredibly rewarding. One is the cleaning process. I might be the first person in over 200 years to see a painting as the artist saw it. There’s a kind of magical little moment where I can see the room as it was originally planned. For a brief moment, it’s private and very special.
The other rewarding aspect is the editing process. This is where all damage is reversed and the room begins to come together. The tear in the face is retouched and the model becomes a person again. Or the hole in the landscape disappears and you can see the forest, not the trees.
These are also the most frustrating parts, because they are very intense. Cleansing is a reductive process: you have to be very, very careful and be very, very focused. If you take something off, you can’t put it back. It takes a lot of intellectual and emotional energy. Retouching, on the other hand, is a process of extreme restraint. We must constantly try to do as little as possible while obtaining the maximum results. We can’t just repaint the background, even if there are 10,000 little bits of paint lost; we must limit ourselves to adding paint only where it is lacking. Sometimes the damage is really extreme and it seems impossible to unify the picture. You know, if you’re in the right frame of mind, you appreciate it. If you’re not, you walk away and find fruit within reach.
Do you have a favorite job or moments that you are most proud of?
The cheeky answer is this, right? The one who hasn’t walked through the door yet. I’m proud of all the work I’ve done, and I’m proudest of those who have tested me and really pushed me beyond my comfort zone. The big names are not really interesting. I joke with my clients that you don’t want to have brain surgery and your doctor is like, “Oh, is that you? Oh, damn it, I’m nervous now. You don’t want your restorer to see your Monet and say, “Oh my god! You want them unaffected. The best works are those that forced me to research new materials and find new solutions and techniques.
Now let’s really go. Why do you think people are so fascinated by these videos?
I had many years to think about it. I think this is due to several factors. To the most basic, the world of art is independent for most people, and the world of art conservation is even more remote – that it even exists is something that the majority of people have no idea . To see it, it reveals something new for people to peek into.
Beyond that, there is a long history of committed, creative and dedicated people solving a problem with their hands. A TV show like This old house has been a success for 40 years because we like to see craftsmen in love with their craft and handling it wonderfully.
It’s to pull back the curtain, to see that the Wizard of Oz isn’t an all-powerful wizard, he’s just an incredibly hard-working man, or Mr. Rogers shows us around a pencil factory and it blows our minds . Expanding a knowledge base feels good.
It’s soothing, for some reason. I find that these videos really calm me down.
There is an aspect of salubrity in the videos: there is no antagonist. There’s a certain level of dad humor and cheesy, harmless jokes that resonate with people. There’s no shouting or swearing or throwing chairs. Nobody is the bad guy. It’s all about a positive resolution, and when there are surprises, it’s no one’s fault or detriment. It’s good to watch. The past two years have been existentially difficult, and getting lost in a half-hour video that doesn’t make you feel bad—that momentarily captures your full intellectual and emotional capacity and rewards you for it—is satisfying. These paintings start out bad and you know that in the end there is going to be a big transformation. Success awaits us at the end. Conservation is not magic; he’s really just a dedicated craftsman working with his hands, employing materials and techniques with patience and care. If, in my studio, with a scalpel and brushes, I can save this magical work of art, then you, at home, with all the tools at your disposal, whatever ability you have, can bring a positive change somewhere in your life.
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