Skinning the snake tree – The restoration of the Fontaine aux Serpents by Niki de Saint Phalle

Katharina S. Haider / Elke Cwiertnia

„Fontaine aux Serpents“ by Niki de Saint Phalle (315 x 355 x 225 cm) is a tree-shaped fountain sculpture with a crown of twelve water shooting serpent’s heads. It was made of painted and partially gilded glass fibre reinforced polymer (GFRP) in 1992. The talk will focus on the examination, conservation and restoration of the sculpture with a discussion about the minimal-invasive conservation approach applied.
As many sculptures of Niki’s late works it was produced by the French art production company Haligon, as an edition of 3, plus 2 artist’s proofs. The sculpture has been installed unprotected since 1995 in a water basin on a lake site. The past 22 years of permanent weathering and snow load caused long cracks and holes in the GFRP-structure and considerable degradation of the coating. The sculpture was repainted two times. The formerly extremely bright, vibrant and partly translucent paint is now covered by several layers of dull paint and thick greyed varnishes in various states of decay. Gilded areas are overpainted.

In contrary to the other two known pieces of the edition, located in France and Japan, this sculpture is still in use as a fountain. However, the initially installed spray nozzles, widening the water output into several thin water jets out of each serpent’s mouth were disposed, altering considerably the current appearance and soundscape of the fountain.
Tests showed that the original paint has been preserved in surprisingly good condition under the overpaint. The materials have been analysed using FT-IR, Py-GC-MS and XRF by the conservation science department at the Deutsches Museum. Detailed information about applied pigments and binding media and the comparison of our findings with other pieces of the edition helps to further understand the material and production.
The conservation campaign is currently carried out onsite and is due to be finished in summer 2017. Despite of the widely spread practise of stripping and repainting coated outdoor sculptures, this sculpture is restored using less invasive conservation methods. A series of tests ranging from blasting, solvents, heat/cold and mechanical treatments showed that the additional paint layers can be removed, revealing the original bright coating. Structural damage is treated from inside and outside. Materials used for filling, retouching and varnishing are chosen according to the material analysis. Golden parts will be re-gilded. The missing nozzles for the water outlet will be reconstructed based on historical photographs and similar snake fountains. The well system will be overhauled and the spouts will be adjusted according to the original drawing found in the owner’s archive.
The minor-invasive conservation approach during this case study may challenge the current approaches which often reconstruct the former colour of modern sculptures with new paint. Although modern materials may be difficult to treat, ever-increasing knowledge about their behaviour and better conservation methods call for re-thinking former approaches. The study can help to create new guidelines for conserving sculptures by Niki de Saint Phalle and possibly modern sculptures produced with similar materials.