NEW YORK—Art historian Ana Galeano Bustamante (aka Maggie Kwon), stumbled across another extraordinary work of art while cataloging her own work as an intern at Christie’s in 2016. She quickly realized, however, that the art history community had yet to catch on. After all, it wasn’t until October 2017 that she discovered Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (1903-04), and from this point on her life began to revolve around the rich material in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.
“Though it took three years for the art community to really grasp how significant this was, I noticed immediately that the museum had pulled it from their collection, and almost immediately I started looking on websites,” she says. Bustamante was especially impressed with work on what may be the first photo of the Picasso painting in 1966, which an artist she had never heard of, Edward Tufte, now has a major book on (Tufte produced images for the first ever pictorial reproductions of Les Femmes d’Alger).
But it wasn’t just paper records, scans, and Bifocals. Earlier this summer, Lady Bird Johnson donated the painting’s well-preserved primary colors to the National Gallery of Art. Even with these bright, precise remnants of the original, the process became a monumental task.
“We called in two independent mechanical engineers to recreate the painting,” she says. “And in order to understand this, we can’t just look at the reality—it has to be seen and felt in a museum. With these technicians we were able to examine the tension between the paints, the binding that holds the paint into the canvas, the brush strokes and colors.”
One of the priorities for Bustamante and her colleagues involved the composition of the canvass. Some believe that when Picasso etched a giant pomegranate on the canvas, he copied it from a print he used at the time. They then set out to recreate his looser signature on top of the 16-figure arrangement on the main surface.
Bustamante did so based on the police sketch of Picasso’s alleged teenage lover, and on the two prominent distinctions that he made on the canvas. By examining images of Picasso’s handwriting and bearing in mind the important style breaks that were originally written on the canvas, she reconstructed the poem composed beneath Les Femmes d’Alger. “When we started studying this, we realized there were a total of 576 letterpress reproductions [of the work] around the world,” Bustamante says.