Friday, October 2, 2015

The Art of Conservation

Copyright © Edward Riojas

First, do no harm.

Like the Hippocratic Oath that binds the medical profession, conservators of art take a calculated approach in the treatment of those under their custodial care. Conservators are the guardians of museum artwork. With strict monitoring and occasional inspection, the objects are kept in pristine condition.
“Expulsion from Eden”
Masaccio. 1426-27.
(Brancacci Chapel,
Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence)

Pieces of art, however, are destined to rot and decay as is everything else in this fallen world. After a few centuries, a handful of works seem as fresh as when they first saw the light of day. Others are in need of various kinds of help. Some are beyond any such consideration.

The root of the problem often occurs when the artist first touches his material. Best practices of different media are taught in art academia by the voices of experience. This has been so throughout the centuries, but there is a modern mentality capable of undoing the most enduring methods impressed on students. There are also inferior materials, lack of patience, and sheer stupidity that become factors in the longevity – and lack thereof – in any particular piece of art. In my own experience, I have paintings that have not visibly changed at all, and I have at least one painting that is already cracked in a most unhealthy way. And my pieces are relatively newborn.

What of the pieces who have endured the ravages of history and remain our dearest friends? How is the care of centuries-old beauty managed? This is where art conservation steps in with its painstaking research and applied science, exhaustive methodology and a host of treatment options that are all meant to be utterly invisible.
“Madonna of the Yarnwinder”
(The Lansdowne Madonna)
Studio of Leonardo da Vinci.
c. 1500 (Private collection)

Conservators also work under an umbrella of ethics that runs parallel with medicine’s first tenet, and they are as concerned over their “patients” as the most skilled surgeon. Of course, their patients are not human, but millions of dollars are often at stake, and so is the reverence of descerning art lovers and patrons. And every case is different.

Take the fresco, “Expulsion from Eden,” by Masaccio. It needed general restorative cleaning. But there was another consideration: Like an improperly-set bone, Masaccio’s masterpiece suffered a slight makeover 300 years after it was first painted, and the question of correcting the historical event became an ethical question. Should the conservators “re-set” the alteration done by Cosimo III de’Medici, or should it remain unchanged? Was the hundreds year-old change more important that the original intent of the artist? These kinds of questions are undoubtedly the source of migraines for conservators.

For Masaccio’s piece, it was decided to carefully eliminate leaves painted over Adam’s and Eve’s privates. The original intent trumped the later addition. That was a relatively easy fix. Sort of.
“Harvard Murals”
Mark Rothko. 1961-62.
(Harvard Art Museums)

Now consider one of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Madonnas of the Yarnwinder,’ and more specifically, “The Lansdowne Madonna.” This piece may not have been entirely done by da Vinci, but it most certainly came from his studio and bears the master’s signature handling in some of the details. Like some paintings on wood, this piece had extremely serious problems that required radically invasive surgery. More pointedly, it needed an entire body transplant. Leonardo da Vinci’s image was fine; the wood on which it was painted, not so much. It was rotting.

The remedy was based on the traditional manner in which an oil painting surface was prepared in the first place – a water-based glue “size” was brushed on the surface, followed by gesso, followed by the oil paint, followed by varnish. The plan was to transfer the painting from the wood to canvas, and the water-based glue size was the key.

The process is nerve-wracking. First, canvas saturated with water-based glue size is laid on the FRONT of the painting. Layers of the canvas are built up, and the whole is allowed to dry. Then the painting is laid face down, and the wood support is carefully planed away from the back until it is a mere film over the original layer of glue size. Water is then carefully applied in sections to dissolve the original glue size and allow remaining wood fibers to be removed. Once the wood is totally gone, the painting is laid on new, sized canvas support and allowed to thoroughly dry. Finally, the canvas on the painting’s face is carefully removed by dissolving its glue sizing. Ugh! The process gives me hives just writing about it.
“The Black Madonna”(”Our Lady of the Pillar”)
1508. (Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France)

Of course, conservators weren’t quite finished with this Madonna. The painting was later removed from the canvas and re-laid on a new wood panel to reflect the original intent.

Folks at Harvard University also sought original intent when it came to restoring a badly-damaged mural by modern master Mark Rothko, but with a far different technique. The mural had suffered extreme fading in a room whose window area exceeded the collective intelligence of those who studied therein, but the remedy was brilliant.

An original panel not included in the final mural was located in storage. It had been painted with the same colors as the mural, but was kept from light. A highly sophisticated program digitized the panel’s colors and, pixel by pixel, the difference between the original colors and the faded paint of the remaining panels was calculated. A low-light projection system compensated for the missing color, allowing viewers to see what was originally intended. All this without any invasive or irreversible conservation technique.

While conservation techniques have advanced light-years since crude attempts were first made a few centuries ago, the ethics of conservation can still be a challenge. The Chartres Cathedral is a case in point. Like many pinnacles of architectural and artistic achievement, the structure was in need of restoration both inside and out. So it was finally restored in a project beginning in 2009. But many did not take kindly to the brutal results. At all. And when the French get mad, it’s never a pretty thing.

The Chartres Cathedral’s poster child of nasty restoration was its “Black Madonna.”  Beloved to parishioners and patrons alike, the wooden sculpture’s patina had darkened the skin tones of Mother and Child to a rich ebony. And then it was restored. A rather low-budget technique used what appears to have been a steel brush and Janitor-in-a-drum. The Madonna is no longer black, and the French are not pleased.

But at least the Chartre Madonna is still recognizable as the Mother of our Lord. It is nearly impossible to do an internet search of painting restoration without stumbling over countless images of the worst restoration fail ever that happened not so long ago in Spain. Unapproved restoration efforts on Elias Garcia Martinez’s fresco of Jesus Christ were attempted by an elderly amateur.  All of the original brush strokes were painted over without a hint of conservation research or artistic talent. Not only is the face of Christ unrecognizable, but the resulting primate is also hysterical.
“Ecce Homo” Elías García Martínez. c. 1930
(Santuario de Misericordia, Borja, Spain)

When you finally stop laughing, please remember that the care of artwork – even those pieces you might have in your home – is serious business. Resist the urge to haul out a jug of 409 all-purpose cleaner when considering that old painting over the fireplace mantel,  and remember: First, do no harm.

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