There's an old bromide that goes like this: life is short and art is long. A doctor said that – Hippocrates in ancient Greece - but while he was clued into human mortality, he had art's longevity wrong. Yes, a painting has a longer shelf life than a person does, but they're both prone to decline just the same, especially if the artist uses impermanent colors. Deterioration is a historical inevitability, which is why restorers ought to be as treasured as the museum collections they save.

An unavoidable end

The latest examples of a declining artwork, though visible only microscopically thus far, are the stems and petals in Van Gogh's “Sunflowers.” Scientists say the yellow pigment used to render the blooms will turn olive-brown owing to the light-sensitive pigment called chrome yellow.

The naked eye can't see this at the moment, but the fading is unavoidable, which is like learning you're genetically programmed to suffer a massive coronary. Yellow is the very heart of this painting. As the artist wrote to his brother Theo, he had two problems - making a living and finding a color that expressed the hope he sees in the color of a sunrise. And when he found that particular shade of yellow he told Theo that he was putting the sun in his flower painting - “with the gusto of a Marseillaise eating bouillabaisse.”

Gauguin saw it coming

Van Gogh loved yellow so much that he planned to decorate his studio with nothing but his flower paintings. Was he so fixated on the power of the sun's color that he failed to pay attention to the properties of his paint?

His roommate saw his way with his tubes of color as undisciplined, noting this in diaries (“Paul Gauguin's Intimate Journals"), pointing out the disorder in the jumble of tubes of colors crowded together in a paint box that never could be closed. Despite the mess, though, Gauguin conceded that “something shone out of his canvases.” The British Public Service Broadcast (BBC) has suggested that it was chrome yellow that did all that shining and that in the artist's zeal to capture the sun, he surrendered to a newly-manufactured intensely vibrant pigment that proved sensitive to the very light it sought to enliven.

Art in formaldehyde is dead in the water

Of course, everything fades in time, even objects preserved in formaldehyde. I'm thinking of British artist Damien Hirst's pickled tiger sharks titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death,” which is getting flabby and wrinkled, not unlike the way people age. This is no loss, as far as I'm concerned.

That goes double for his two halved pigs, with one half moving back and forth on a mechanized track so the animal looks like it's being perpetually halved. Had this work lasted as “Sunflowers” faded, it would have been the death of art as we know it.

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