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A Look at Art Conservation in the News.

Ruth Osborne

In order to get a better sense of how conservation is presented to and perceived by the public today, ArtWatch has undertaken an overview of art conservation as it has appeared in the media over the past year.

Thoughts and opinions on the purpose of conservation have developed and changed over the past 150 years as society considers new scientific technologies.  Noticing trends in news coverage of conservation interventions, as well as the state of the field as a whole, will allow for an understanding of the role of conservation as it is understood in the 21st century. This post will consider the following:

(1) How are conservators represented in relation to the works they’re treating?

(2) What is given precedence in reports of current conservation treatment, the work itself or benefits for the field at large?

(3) According to news coverage, what is the ultimate goal of modern conservation and what is being put in place to further this goal?

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Patricia Favero, conservator at The Phillips Collection, with Picasso’s The Blue Room and showing its under layer. Courtesy: Evan Vucci/AP.

Art conservation as a field was born of the need to care for works of art as they experienced the ravages of time and misuse. Taking this into consideration, would it not come as a surprise that so many news stories covering the work of conservators focus on the promise of discovery instead of preserving the physical nature of the work from further deterioration? Is the act of prodding for findings beneath layers of paint with infrared imagery to discover an underlying image that the original artist painted over considered “conserving” the work from future deterioration? Regardless of how this fits into contemporary or classical theories of conservation, research into Picasso’s The Blue Room was still presented in the media last June as being part of the work’s conservation.

Just this week, The New York TImes reported on a new “discovery” of Jackson Pollock’s technique revealed by conservators treating his 1947 Alchemy at the Guggenheim Venice. His intentional, rather than random, paint-splattering technique has in fact been acknowledged by scholars before. Time magazine’s art critic Robert Hughes wrote in 1982 that: “…Pollock–in his best work–had an almost preternatural control over the total effect of those skeins and receding depths of paint. In them, the light is always right. Nor are they absolutely spontaneous; he would often retouch the drip with a brush.” It is certainly interesting how computer imagery can unpack the layers of this painting. But cannot the eyes of connoisseurs already perceive his technique by examining the painting and its underlying grid in a thorough visual analysis, instead of relying on computer analysis to reveal his method?

But dialogue is being pulled away from connoisseurship and its capabilities and towards a heavy reliance on science to achieve “objective” proof. Is science truly as definitive and free of error as is assumed by the media?

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Leonardo da Vinci, La Belle Ferronière, 1490-96. Courtesy: Louvre, Paris

After announcement was made in February 2014 of the Louvre’s plan to restore the extremely vulnerable La Belle Ferronière by Leonardo, and after Michael Daley of ArtWatch UK questioned the safety of this plan, several months later it was revealed that it was to be the first Leonardo to show in the Middle East. Its planned transportation to the Louvre’s new satellite museum in Abu Dhabi was released to the press in October. This risky proposal to transport an extremely important confirmed Leonardo was precisely what necessitated its conservation, no doubt, as Louvre representatives related: “For such an important painting it is very important for us to have time. The first [restoration] committee met last week and now we will restore the painting and take all the time we need [and then] we will be very proud to show the restored painting.” But how does one simply gloss over the danger of transporting an already vulnerable painting overseas for temporary exhibit? Is it to be assumed that restoring it will make it less susceptible to damage? We have already had our share of works severely ruined on transport within the same country – even within the same museum building.

On another Leonardo panel surrounded by much controversy is his Lady with an Ermine, which has been altered by several restorers over the centuries.  In 2007, ArtWatch reported on the promise of the picture’s digital reconstruction through a multispectral high-res camera. In these investigations, the role of conservation proposes to help undo the work of past ill-treatments and restore a more authentic version of the original. However, as we wrote:

“It is critical to remember that the conclusions drawn as a result of these diagnostic tests are not necessarily correct. Even the most ‘objective’ scientific evidence requires interpretation, and so many of the public announcements that have been made, touting the newest discoveries of the original intentions of the artist, are not universally agreed upon, nor should they be…the concern lies in the knowledge that historically latest technologies have often been used to promote rather than replace restorations. The fear in this case is that believing to fully understand what lies beneath the surface of an artwork will embolden restorers and justify their aims to go looking, with their preconceived notions, for what they now expect to find.”

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Digital imaging showing three different versions of Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine. Courtesy: BBC News.

Come 2010, ArtWatch UK argued against its traveling to London on loan for a National Gallery exhibition. To prevent damage in transit, and to ready the painting for blockbuster exhibit, pieces are often sent to the conservator’s studio with the hope of increasing stability in the work. But the more a painting is handled and touched, the more its integrity is altered, no?  BBC coverage last fall revealed conservators were still working with the panel to reveal “extraordinary revelations” about Leonardo’s work through this process. The reporter highlights the promise of new discoveries about Leonardo’s method as this digital digging has used “intense light” emitted from a multi-lens camera to make visible three different stages of the canvas. Who knows what this might mean for any future proposed traveling exhibitions on Leonardo’s process for which this work could be put at risk again?

Conservators’ abilities to unravel mysteries about the artist and his subjects with the help of technology was certainly a popular theme in 2014.  It was seen in the multiple reports on the “artist’s original intention” that emerged from Gustave Cailleboite’s Paris Street; Rainy Day at the Art Institute of Chicago. Revelations about the artist’s true palette and the canvas’s true dimensions abounded. Here, the conservator serves to uncover a truer version of Cailleboite that had been “hidden” for decades since its last restoration (of an unknown date). Under old varnish, the sky was found to be a more saturated blue and to contain greater light and movement in its surface gradation. Sharper details overall, according to this report, have now altered relationships between the figures and buildings in the composition.

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Art Institute of Chicago conservator Kelly Keegan with Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day. Courtesy: Art Institute of Chicago.

One article on the Art Institute’s website even suggests that: “The result is a transformed sense of light and atmosphere that is likely to change the way viewers respond to Caillebotte’s vision of 19th-century Paris and its people.” But does the woman’s hand inserted into the central man’s arm not still indicate their relationship as walking partners? Though the skies have cleared up a bit, wasn’t it presumed this would happen with cleaning of the varnish? Even if the sun may be about to come out, does it really reveal all that much about the artist’s true intentions, as the figures’ umbrellas are still up to protect from rain?

Meanwhile, the The Wall Street Journal reported that this treatment is now the reason to confirm the artist’s designation as an Impressionist: “As a result, curators now believe Caillebotte is likely to be viewed more as a bona fide Impressionist and less a traditional realist.” But wasn’t this already assumed by scholarship? Is this treatment really a breakthrough, as the media might have us believe?

These breakthrough discoveries were only made possible by a series of scientific tools, including infrared imagery, microscopy, and UV light and X-Rays, apart from the actual cleaning via swabs. While it is certainly important to have a solid understanding about a work’s makeup before treatment, will all works now expect to reveal hidden secrets every time they are cleaned? Have the expectations on a work of art increased, and will this help or hurt the integrity of works in the long run? The notion about conservation revealing hidden secrets in a painting continued in coverage of Villanova’s two-year treatment of the Triumph of David in September. In this case, the news report touted the x-ray and infrared tools that allowed conservators to “see into the painting.” According to this coverage, conservation once again aims to return works to, what is presumed to be, a more authentic state.

In a related issue, conservation has also been promoted for its “forensic” capabilities for authenticating authorship of works. Last March it was reported that two canvases by the nineteenth-century American romantic painter Martin Johnson Heade underwent testing at the Atlanta Art Conservation Center to prove their authorship through the existence of the artist’s finger print and brushstrokes, after being denied by Harvard’s Fogg Museum. In this press release, lab testing is referred to as “forensic science” that should take precedence alongside the connoisseur’s trained eye: “…the public needs to realize that connoisseurship has to adapt to a new and demanding educational standard. That standard I believe will become the future of proper art attribution…”

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Henry Lie, Director of the Harvard Straus Center for Conservation. Courtesy: Index Magazine.

Hand-in-hand with the claimed abilities of science and technology to do what the human eye is no longer trusted to, came unreserved praise for new high-tech conservation lab techniques. Reports on the newly re-opened Harvard Art Museums emphasized above all the dynamic influence of science in the origins of modern conservation: “it was really the beginning of the field…the first time a science-based approach was taken to looking at these materials.” Meanwhile, the role of new “optical illusions” was the focus of one article on conservation studies at American universities. According to this article, the microscopy, nanotechnology, and x-ray tools conservators use allow them to bring back to life that which was once considered lost. Terms like “forensic tool” are used. But can we truly bring back something from the past? Will all traces of time truly be wiped away? That seems to be what this reporter would have his audience believe is possible.

Finally, the last line from an article entitled “What does a conservator do?” adds rather presumptuously: “Above all they are soothsayers, probing cultural materials to reveal the secrets of how and when they were made, and how they will survive into the future” (emphasis added).

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On the “Pride and Prejudice” of Conservators: Lecture by Dr. Salvador Muñoz-Viñas a the IFA.

Ruth Osborne
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Dr. Muñoz-Viñas at the IFA.

Last week, the IFA (NYU) hosted a lecture by visiting professor and conservator Dr. Salvador Muñoz-Viñas of the Universitat Politència de València in Spain. As the author of the insightful Contemporary Theory of Conservation (2005), Dr. Muñoz-Viñas argued for the need for a more open dialogue about conservation treatments and their difficulties. Rather than presenting conservation as a dogmatic science, he took a rather humble and honest opinion that we at ArtWatch find refreshing and, indeed, necessary for the future of the field.

 

Muñoz-Viñas began by asserting his presentation would be thought-provoking. Choosing from a wide array of opinions from professionals in the field over the past two centuries, he asked the audience to consider the reasoning behind conservation treatment. The speaker did not shy away from such harsh criticisms for and against those removers of varnish, including Ernst Gombrich’s label of  “radical stripper” versus John Constable’s “grime-loving connoisseur.” He admitted to the risky nature of removing varnish, but did not display any kind of defensive attitude towards those who questioned the work of the conservator

 

The larger goals of conservation came into question: what is the logic behind such a risky endeavor? Is it to attain a closer, more “authentic” vision of the artist’s original intent? Actually, M-V argued that the classical narrative of artist’s intent is vaporous, highly hypothetical, and doubly subjective, as our minds attempt to delve into that of the artist. Pointing out the conflicting statements on the purpose of conservation in the classic essay by Neil Maclaren and Anthony Werner (1950)[1], he gave a warning to the audience (which consisted of both professional conservators and students in conservation): the logic of the field has the potential to be misleading. It can almost act as a mythology. Do we even care about the artist’s original intent when, for example, we display an ancient Egyptian sarcophagi on a white pedestal in the middle of a gallery? Certainly not. Intention behind conservation is more complicated than that. This near-mythology dangerously supposes that the individual utilizing it – the conservator – is a robot carrying out a basic procedure. He or she either obeys a command or does not.

 

However, as M-V went on to explain, there are elements of “pride” and “prejudice” in the conservator that will inevitably impact the work they are treating. Quoting connoisseur Sir George Beaumont’s famous line “A good picture, like a good fiddle, should be brown,” he insisted that there is aesthetic prejudice inherent in anyone’s mind. For a conservator, this will alter the way one thinks a painting should be treated, and to which aesthetic preference to which it will yield when its treatment is complete. Psychologists’ study of modern aesthetic preferences, M-V pointed out, is just now beginning. This should have the potential to help us understand what visual prejudices are behind the work of conservators that then end up on a treated canvas.

 

Pride, too, is at work in the hand of a conservator, for why wouldn’t one want to be noticed for their painstaking work behind-the-scenes? While “greed” and “avarice” have been presented as the major threats to artworks at the hands of the conservator, M-V countered that these are easier to deal with than the pride that inevitably impacts the conservator’s treatment. This pride, he believes, is part of the necessary process of going about planning to treat a painting. A conservator must have a pre-conceived notion of how a painting should look look (or, at least, about how a painting should not look) that is an essential part of his or her approach to the point of its “cleaning.”

 

This insistence that we acknowledge a conservator’s humanity, that he or she is not an objective “scientific” robot participant, is essential in opening the dialogue about how works of art are cared for. If anything, working towards a better understanding of the conservator’s preconceived point of view, their own aesthetic curiosity, sense of beauty, etc. that impact their hand and eye in treatment, is a step forward in the discussion of artistic stewardship.

 

By Ruth Osborne

 

[1] Neil Maclaren and Anthony Werner, “Some Factual Observations about Varnishes and Glazes,” The Burlington Magazine. 92 (1950), 189-92.

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Conversing with Conservators

Angelea Selleck

While I was a graduate student I had the opportunity to interview two conservators for a research project. After reading extensively about cases of botched restorations, I felt it was important to get the opinion of professionals in this field in order to gain a deeper insight into how such atrocities can occur and how it is viewed in the conservation community.

It was clear that the conservators were aware of these issues and the mentioning of botched restorations is a sensitive topic. However, I was assured they strictly adhere to and respect the code of ethics and such cases are few and far between. Below, are accounts of my interactions with two conservators.

 

I spoke with a Swiss conservator who works at a very prestigious institution in Zürich. This conservator was very open and welcoming of questions, even if they were rather probing. Her methodology and practice was very conservative and had an approach of “less is more” when it came to cleaning paintings. While this is the approach that the majority of conservators apply, there are unfortunately ones who do not adhere to this method. Some of the most devastating cases are Vermeer’s painting at the National Gallery or the restoration of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. In-painting is where the majority of restorations can go wrong. However, for the Swiss conservator, in-painting is considered to be a technique of the past and resorted to only on a few occasions. However, she did have clients that requested objects in the painting to be painted a different color or elimination of a tree or shadow because the owner believed it would look better. With these clients, the conservator laughed and said she would never do any sort of thing but mentioned that there are other conservators who would. Indeed there are conservators who would restore a painting to the tastes of the client instead of preserving the integrity of the work. When this happens, the conservator is taking his or her own artistic license with the original work. In these unfortunate scenarios, the conservator’s code of ethics is not being adhered to. Are conservators under any authority that reprimands when one’s responsibility first and foremost to the work of art is tossed out the window?

 

Conservators either work for institutions (i.e. museums and galleries) or operate for private clients. The private conservator I interviewed was quick to emphasize that there her and her colleagues all strictly abide by the conservator’s code of ethics and place the interests of the work before those of the client. In addition to an interview, she also showed their lab, which was a large warehouse-like appendage to their offices, as well as some of the projects that she and her colleagues were working on. They were all curious and welcoming to a foreigner and answered any questions I had. Their projects ranged from a small faded portrait on wood to a large contemporary piece that needed some cleaning after being outside in the Swiss winter. My experience at this institution was positive and I did not get a sense that they felt I was intruding or looking for a scandal. They were aware of the bad publicity that conservators sometimes receive but viewed malpractice as the exception and not the rule. However, if botched restorations are isolated incidents, how do they happen to well-known works of art in major institutions around the world?

 

I also reached out to an American conservator who works for a museum in the United States. He knew very well the work of Art Watch and the reputation of James Beck and Michael Daley. After sending him a section of my dissertation, which focused on art restoration and advocated for greater reform, I did not hear back from him. It is unclear whether my association with ArtWatch caused him to not get back in contact with me or perhaps was too busy to reply.  In any case it is a shame. He is an accomplished conservator who would have had a lot of insight. It was a real surprise that he never replied back after showing genuine interest in my work.
Over the years, art conservation has made an effort to become a more serious and credible institution with strict codes of ethics and dedicated to preserving our world’s greatest works of art. However, mistakes and poor judgement can still transpire. Unfortunately, as we have discovered over the past 20 years, some conservators are reluctant to disclose any unfortunate mishaps on the job, which only conceals the problem for future caretakers and could result in greater damage to the work. When this happens it is important for conservators to be as transparent as possible in order to prevent further cases of destruction to our artistic heritage. And it seems they are making steps in the right direction.

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Vermeer Interrupted: A Study of Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl Interrupted at Her Music” at The Frick Collection

Ruth Osborne

In October, ArtWatch opened a discussion on the state of Vermeer paintings in New York collections, with the aim of establishing a greater understanding of each work in its multiple layers of conservation.  Unsettling examination of a Vermeer in the Royal Collection at St. James’ Palace by ArtWatch UK has energized our study of Vermeers on this side of the Atlantic.

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Visitors snapping shots of Mauritshuis’ Girl with a Pearl Earring at The Frick’s 2013 exhibition. Photo: AFP/Getty Images.

While Michael Daley calls London’s National Gallery to task on the blind eye they took to conservation in their recent “Vermeer and Music” exhibition, it appears quite the opposite is being done currently by the Frick. The Frick’s current show, “Masterpieces of Dutch Painting,” begins with conservation propaganda from the Mauritshuis that serves to build up a wall of defense around the changes made as a result of treatment efforts. The first large room (of only two for this exhibition) focuses the viewer on two simple items: Vermeer’s famed Girl with a Pearl Earring and a panel on the scientific “discoveries” of its conservation treatment in 1994.[1]
The Mauritshuis’ publication Vermeer Illuminated states that, as of the spring of 1994:

The Girl with a Pearl Earring was in a relatively good state of conservation. There were no imminent threats to the material condition of the painting…However, from an aesthetic point of view, the painting was not in good condition. The varnish had yellowed considerable and the old retouches had discoloured to such an extent that they looked like dark shadows.”

So essentially, conservators at the Mauritshuis put their hands once more to Vermeer’s canvas to undo previous bad restoration work. This is not something out of the ordinary for conservators, but the degree to which it lends to the debilitating of an artist’s oeuvre over several decades is astonishing. In Vermeer Illuminated, Mauritshuis makes sure to mention that their in-house conservators and restorers only set about the 1994 treatment “after consulting the international support committee,” which would no doubt give them the green light on removing the old varnish and touch-ups only to “sparingly retouch with stable materials” and revarnish.[2]

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Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) Girl Interrupted at Her Music, 1658–59 (detail). Oil on canvas. The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Michael Bodycomb.

This post will focus on the first Vermeer to enter Henry Clay Frick’s hands, Girl Interrupted at Her Music (c. 1660). There is a general lack of knowledge about his oeuvre until being put on the map by Gustave Friedrich Waagen and Théophile Thoré-Brüger’s monograph survey essay in the early nineteenth-century. This gap of scholarship creates considerable problems for understanding the various damages and retouchings that occurred in subsequent decades.

Even before Girl Interrupted at Her Music entered Frick’s collection in 1901, Vermeer scholar Hofstade de Groot reported in 1899 on issues of inconsistency within the canvas. He noted the existence of a bird cage and violin painted-in by a later hand, which had by that point been painted over with the picture of Cupid that still appears today. The website “Essential Vermeer,” devoted to a close examination of the artist’s works, acknowledges both de Groot’s grievance and other issues due to “heavy-handed restorations.”[3] De Groot also took offense at the bird cage and violin hanging on a wall in the background which appeared to be a recent addition. In 1908, seven years after the painting entered Frick’s collection, de Groot relates conservation treatment with these issues of pictorial inconsistency:  “This picture of Cupid became visible when the work was cleaned. Its place was formerly occupied by a violin and bow, noticed in the catalogue of the Smeth van Alphen sale of 1810.”[4]  In 1995, Martin Bailey maintains that Girl Interrupted at Her Music is “in worn condition and the birdcage hanging on the wall near the window may be a later addition by another artist”[5]; the present day conservator of the Frick Collection backs this judgment.[6]

Girl Interrupted was also not so highly-admired among Frick’s purchases of this time. Today, the Frick places heavy blame on restorers who ruined the canvas with treatment between the time of Frick’s purchase and the painting being brought into the collection. Secondly, they place blame on the Knoedler dealer Charles Carstairs, who worked with Frick in his purchasing from the gallery:

“By all accounts, Frick’s 1901 acquisition of Vermeer’s Girl Interrupted at Her Music seems to have been a wise although not a calculated decision…Whatever his motivation, Frick paid Knoedler $26,000 for the Vermeer, a high price when compared to the amounts his contemporaries had spent for their Vermeers about this time. As was the common practice, the Girl Interrupted at Her Music, which had been in a private collection in Britain for almost a half century, was thoroughly cleaned shortly before it was sold. As a result, a violin hanging on the back wall, described in the 1810 auction catalogue, was removed by the restorer, who judged it a later addition. The birdcage to the right of the window, which may not be original to the painting either, was left intact. Although Frick probably was not aware of the fact, the Girl Interrupted at Her Music was only the fourth authentic Vermeer to come to America.”[7]

Only three years after the acquisition, Frick allowed Girl Interrupted at Her Music to be placed on loan for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904.5 Considering the ill-repute the canvas already held on its entering the collection, it is difficult to say the traveling and handling involved with the St. Louis Expo would not have heaped even more damages. It was again lent in 1909 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Hudson-Fulton Celebration, another grand, city-wide affair honoring an anniversary in U.S. history.[8] Unfortunately, the catalogue from the 1909 exhibition only reproduces the picture with overly-enhanced areas of contrast so that the level of detail in the picture disappears.

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Girl Interrupted at Her Music from Kenyon Cox’s 1910 publication. Photo: The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs (Jan. 1910).

As is evident from Kenyon Cox’s reproduced image of the painting in The Burlington Magazine of that same year, Girl Interrupted shows a few thick areas of shadow around the lower portion of the man’s upper lip and neck, which no longer appear today. Cox remarks in his short essay, that Girl Interrupted (listed as Music Lesson) is “difficult to classify.” He goes on to remark that, while the painting shows “exquisite passages” and “characteristic lighting,” it still “does not seem quite to hang together. The composition and the values are confused. There has evidently been some retouching needed, and the work of the restorer may account for the puzzling effect.”[9]  Other critics after Cox also remark upon the awkward treatment of light and shadow.  For example, Philip Hale suggests in 1913 that the “ridiculous folds” of the girl’s dress “may have been repainted by some clumsier hand than Vermeer’s.”  Furthermore, as with Cox, Hale also takes issue with the execution of light that fails to fall across the figures in the way Vermeer typically demonstrates.[10]

So what, then, would be the point in bringing “restoration” to a painting that has already been handled by supposed “restorers” and has come out damaged on the other side? Just how did those in charge of Frick’s collection see any possibility of bringing out the “true” Vermeer Girl Interrupted? It is the myth of the profession of paintings conservators that a hand skilled in minutiae and a mind steeped in chemistry can heal blemishes that occurred in the name of conservation in the first place. The loan of Girl Interrupted in its early years in Frick’s collection resulted in the damage one might assume from travel wear.  As a result, some minor work was performed on the canvas stretcher and surface. However, by the late 1930s enough concern arose to recommend a complete overhaul of the painting’s appearance in order to attempt a recovery from centuries of abrasion and poor past restoration efforts.

 

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Suhr (center) in his Berlin Studio, ca. 1920. Photo: Allison Stewart.

The conservator who would complete a full conservation treatment on Girl Interrupted was the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s very own William Suhr. Suhr has been examined by ArtWatch UK as the fateful “restorer” of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights at the Clark Institute. This treatment met an unfortunate end in the disappearance of a second steamboat; meanwhile, the trustees presented the final product as an “effectively new picture.” Indeed it was.  The Clark Turner was a case of re-restoration, just as the Frick’s Girl Interrupted. In both cases, we are left with muddled or flattened canvases that confuse the eye and disrupt the original artist’s hand.

Suhr’s background at the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, later work under William R. Valentiner (then-Director of the Detroit Institute of Art) in the 1920s, and performance for private collectors on both coasts of the U.S. eventually led him to a great appointment to restore Frick’s Polish Rider by Rembrandt.  His approach to treating Frick’s Girl Interrupted in 1949 was quite typical, but not revelatory in results: he removed the poor inpainting from former restorers, and in so doing was forced to remove old varnish, uncovered an even more abraded and stripped canvas (an image of which ArtWatch is prevented from publication at the request of The Frick Collection), and then proceeded to retouch Vermeer’s original brushstrokes and cover with a final revarnish.

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Girl Interrupted, as appears in Blankert’s 1975 publication. Photo: Albert Blankert, 1975.

A post-cleaning image of Girl Interrupted is reproduced in Albert Blankert’s Johannes Vermeer van Delft, 1632-1675 (1975).  Here, one sees that Suhr had attempted to fix the “ridiculous folds” of the girl’s hood.  He has repainted the hood so that it now appears with less-defined folds on the side. Also altered is the area where her red jacket meets her blue skirt and the sheet music she is holding. Now, it appears her jacket comes to a point at where it hadn’t before.[11] 

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Girl Interrupted, 1910 (detail, pre-restoration)

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Girl Interrupted, 1975 (detail, post-restoration)

Suhr’s treatment, the most extensive conservation work recorded on the painting while at the Frick, quickly fell into disfavor with examinations in the following decades. What followed is exactly what is to be expected: yet more minor retouching and revarnishing performed.   Restorations done over in the span of only three decades do not bode well for the health of the canvas. ArtWatch UK has produced bountiful evidence on the damage of re-restoration on a Vermeer at the National Gallery in London.  ArtWatch UK Director Michael Daley is right in asserting that conservators’ hands have as much to do with the current handed-down appearance of a painting as do the abrasions and wear that Museum displays and exhibitions tend to emphasize.  In the case of Girl Interrupted, one sees this in the Frick’s website’s mention of inconsistencies due to bad restorations pre-Frick’s ownership.

It is astounding to think that, while Suhr was certainly considered one of the top conservators in his day, his treatments just a few decades later received major criticism, and rightly so.  Suhr’s work attempted to recover what others before him had failed to fix. Come 1981, Arthur Wheelock addresses lingering issues in Girl Interrupted: “Unfortunately, this painting is in very bad condition. Only the still-life area preserves something of its original surface qualities.”2   Just as Suhr’s work on the Clark’s Turner was gone over again by David Bull a few decades later, so too did his pass at Girl Interrupted prove to be unsatisfactory for restorers in the 1980s. Does this not provide a clear warning as to the abilities (or lack thereof) of the conservation profession in restoring truly damaged paintings?

 

While over-restoration has clearly proven of no assistance to this picture, is it possible the canvas has been so dismantled over the years that it now lacks significant trace of Vermeer’s original hand?  Photographic record only goes back to the late nineteenth-century and the author has been unable to turn up any illustration from the 1810 auction catalogue (its first illustrated appearance, which is cited by de Groot in the 1908).  Additionally, various elements in the painting tell of the portmanteau compositions churned out by forgers in great numbers at the turn-of-the-century, just when this painting first arrived in publication and exhibition. For instance, several pieces of this canvas relate quite closely to Vermeer’s Glass of Wine (National Gallery, Washington): the angle of the chair by the window with lion’s-head finials, the painting of Cupid in the same spot on the back wall, the composition and placement of the two main figures, and finally, the angled position of the stringed instrument on the table.  Admittedly, the chairs, window, and musical instrument are also all elements that Vermeer carries throughout other canvases (The Girl with the Wine Glass at the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Baraunschweig, Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, National Gallery, London, and The Music Lesson, Royal Collection, London, among others). The Frick has also permitted Girl Interrupted and their other two Vermeers for several forms of scientific analysis that would prove it originates in the proper time and place for it to be considered a Vermeer. Still, the small, now much weakened, canvas is unable to stand on its own without a series of explanations as to its excessive damage and overworked surface.

 

What strikes the eye when viewing Girl Interrupted is indeed the sheer flatness of the picture, lacking the detail of more delicate light and shadow. In cleaning, Suhr’s attempt to adjust previous conservators’ over-painting and marks of abrasion only resulted in a picture stripped of its dimensional qualities. Whatever mistakes were made by nineteenth-century restorers, Suhr’s treatment, along with other pressures on the canvas from travel, only made what was already bad a little bit worse. It is understandable that one would want to do whatever was possible to improve upon a $26,000 investment. However, the evidence presented 100 years after Frick’s purchase shows touching and retouching a painting does not always do the trick.

2013-12-29 - The Frick Collection Vermeer South Hall

The Frick Collection’s 3 Vermeers as they appeared in a 2008 display in the South Hall. Photo: Art and Living.

Today, Girl Interrupted at Her Music appears above a French tapestry-covered chair in the Frick’s South Hall, balanced at the other end of the room with a quite different-looking Vermeer canvas entitled Officer and Laughing Girl (c. 1657).  While these two paintings are spaced a good deal apart, the eye cannot lie. The varying shades of light and color, as well as the surface texture (or lack thereof) relates to the viewer the canvases divergent restoration histories. As we have stated in a previous post, Vermeer paintings in New York collections appear as if they were composed by completely different artists. Similar issues exist in works by Vermeer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which will be discussed in a later post.

 

 


[1] Jørgen Wadum, René Hoppenbrouwers, and Luuk Struick van der Loeff, Vermeer Illuminated: A Report on the View of Delft and The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer. (The Hague: V+K Publishing/Inmerc, 1994) 18-23.

[2] Vermeer Illuminated, 22.

[3] “Girl Interrupted at Her Music by Johannes Vermeer,” Essential Vermeer. http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/girl_interrupted_in_her_music.html (last accessed 22 November 2013).

[4] C. P. Hofstede de Groot, with W.R. Valentiner. Translated and edited by Edward G. Hawke, Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most eminent Dutch painters of the Seventeenth Century. Vol. 1 (London: MacMillan and Co., Limited, 1908). Listed in de Groot as “A Gentleman and a Young Lady.”

[5] Martin Bailey, Vermeer. (Phiadon Incorporated Limited: London, 1995).

[6] “Girl Interrupted in her Music by Johannes Vermeer,” Essential Vermeer. http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/girl_interrupted_in_her_music.html (last visited 20 September 2013)

[7] Esmée Quodbach, Assistant to the Director of the Center for the History of Collecting in America, “Frick’s Vermeers Reunited,” 2008. The Frick Collection: Exhibitions. http://www.frick.org/sites/default/files/archivedsite/exhibitions/vermeer/frick.htm (last accessed 17 November 2013).

[8] Wilhelm R Valentiner, Curator of Decoartive Arts, Catalogue of Painting by Old Dutch Masters, Hudson-Fulton Exhibition, Catalogue of a loan exhibition of paintings by old Dutch Masters held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in connection with the Hudson-Celebration, September-November 1909 (Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York, 1910) p. 139 (no. 138)

[9] Kenyon Cox, “Dutch Pictures in the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition-II,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 16, No. 82 (Jan. 1910) 246.

[10] Philip Hale, Jan Vermeer of Delft. (Boston, 1913), 254-55.

[11] Albert Blankert, Johannes Vermeer van Delft, 1632-1675. (Utrecth: Spectrum, 1975) 201.

2013-12-14 - Isenheim Altarpiece Colmar France

The Isenheim Altarpiece: Yet Another Tale of Unauthorized Restoration in Colmar, France.

Ruth Osborne

 

2013-12-14 - Isenheim Altarpiece Chapel Musée d'Unterlinden Colmar France

Isenheim Altarpiece installed in Chapel of Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar, France.

In 2011, the sixteenth-century Isenheim Altarpiece by German artist Mathis Gothart-Nithart underwent restoration. However, a  report last month in The Art Newspaper describes the treatment as both unauthorized and performed in an “unorthodox” manner.[1] This, as well as the events leading up to the altarpiece’s restoration, have recently revealed controversy and division rife within the ranks of the French restoration establishment and government-sponsored conservation efforts.

 

 

 

It all begins with a familiar story – an old building with a bad roof. The chapel at the Musée Unterlinden in Colmar, which previously housed the altarpiece, required serious attention; the state-supported museum was then enforced with the removal of the altarpiece by Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France (C2RMF), all in the interest of safety during the roof repairs. What followed was an unexpected restoration, the controversial nature of which stems from the fact that neither the government officials nor the scientists involved saw it as necessary.  The Schongauer Society, the private Alsatian organization of civil society volunteers that operates the museum, gave the green light for the stripping of old varnish and subsequent revarnishing of the work.

 

What is most startling about the stripping of the Isenheim Altarpiece is that it took a mere six days to remove the varnish on one section of the rather large altarpiece.This was then followed by a “test” removal of the varnish on another portion of the work. In stark contrast is the span of 1-2 years it took Louvre conservators to lighten the varnish on Rembrandt’s Supper at Emmaus and Da Vinci’s Saint Anne. According to The Art Newspaper, “no specific scientific examination or evaluation was conducted before or during the 2011 intervention.”[2]

 

The disturbingly rash “conservation” treatment produced an appropriately troubled response from the public brought to the attention of French culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand. Mitterrand and his colleagues at the C2RMF (Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France), France’s main body of art conservators and restorers, have thus far observed the rapid, one might consider careless, work on the altarpiece. The yellowed varnish, found to be from 1946, has been mostly removed from the surface, and the C2RMF has exhibited fears that the solvent used could move towards the top layers of the paint. The Isenheim Altarpiece will now go before the C2RMF for a more thorough judgment. They are soon slated to issue a report on the current condition of the work, as well as recommendations for future treatment and preservation procedures only now necessary because of its recent stripping.

 

2013-12-14 - Isenheim Altarpiece Colmar France

Portion of Isenheim Altarpiece handled by staff after being moved for transport.

Unfortunately, the story of the Isenheim Altarpiece has become a familiar occurrence; ArtWatch reported on the unauthorized “conservation” treatment of eighteenth-century Qing Dynasty frescos (see here) in the Chinese province of Chaoyung earlier this year, while last year the world was stunned by the “restorative” work of Cecilia Gimenez (see here). According to our news source, there are two separated camps surrounding this restoration: “those who think restoration should be based on scientific studies and the old school, who have faith in experience and resent the criticism of their colleagues by the media. The French authorities have never managed to provide a technical framework or protocol for restoration in museums, but with tensions running high on all fronts, the Isenheim project is unlikely to bring this any closer.”[3]  If anything, the quick work of the conservators’ hands, behind the back of the CDRMF’s authority, relates the explicit need for greater strictures on works considered for treatment.  If there is no specific framework, set out by the scientific guidelines conservators so claim to rely on and benefit from, then how many works will suffer from half-done ill-performed treatments?

 

 


[1] Vincent Noce, “French fall-out over restoration: Museum’s treatment of Isenheim Altarpiece exposes rifts in French attitudes towards the care of the country’s cultural treasures,” The Art Newspaper. Issue 252, December 2013. http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/French-fallout-over-restoration/31094 (last accessed 7 December 2013)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

 

2013-09-11 - Bank of America Art Conservation Project

Conservation Funding and Corporate Interest – A Look at the Bank of America Art Conservation Project

Ruth Osborne
2013-09-11 - Bank of America Art Conservation Project

Bank of America: The Art Conservation Project.

The price tag on conservation for a major work of art is rather steep. The funding of such a project allows a global corporation such as the Bank of America to exhibit its benevolent side to the public. Bank of America’s website for its Merrill Lynch Global Art Conservation Project boasts that it has provided grant funding for “museums in 25 countries for 57 conservation projects” since it began in 2010.[i]

One must also consider that they were one of several U.S. banks to receive billions of dollars from federal bailout in 2008-9, and suffered accusations of fraud and downsizing the very same year the Conservation Project began. The act of doling out millions of dollars to arts non-profits around the world is not without ulterior motive, and support offered to collections on six continents will not go unnoticed by public opinion. This year, Bank of America sets out to fund conservation on many masterpieces in collections around the world, including the following:

Museum of Modern Art, New York City: Jackson Pollock, Number 1A, 1948 (1948); One: Number 31, 1950 (1950); Echo: Number 25, 1951 (1951)                                                                                * Read the Dec. 2012 ArtWatch article on MoMA’s Pollock restoration by Einav Zamir

New Bedford Free Public Library, Massachusetts: Alfred Bierstadt, Sunset Light (1861), Salt Lick in Sunset Glow (c. 1886), Mount Sir Donald (1889)

National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin: Daniel Maclise, The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (1854)

National Portrait Gallery, London: Pheonix and Armada portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (c. 1575 and c. 1588); Portraits of Edward VI and Edward VI and the Pope (c. 1542 and c. 1570)

National Gallery, Prague: Rembrandt van Rijn, Scholar in His Study, 1635

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna: Titian, Ecce Homo, 1543

Musée d’Orsay, Paris: Gustave Courbet, L’Atelier du peintre (1854-55)

 

This project places Bank of America’s funding behind the promotion of culturally and aesthetically revered works of art on six continents. It has promoted, in the case of conservation at the National Gallery of Ireland, a series of study videos examining the themes and artistry behind the paintings. In this video, the Arts and Culture Manager for Bank of America in Ireland explains the financial corporation’s generous desire to improve and “redeem” artistic heritage “for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Their selection process takes into account works of significant cultural importance; a way to ensure their name remains at the forefront of art research and publication. Conservation treatment on the portraits of Queen Elizabeth I in London, for instance, is “fittingly coincident with the celebrations of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II 60 years ago.”[ii] Condition reports on restoration needs include canvas stabilization, yellowed synthetic varnish, pigment fading, flaked paint, and surface abrasion.[iii]  A section on the Bank of America’s project website is devoted to showing the public works of art in the process of restoration: http://museums.bankofamerica.com/arts/Conservation/Detail.

Detailed images and ultraviolet photographs reveal the work of the conservators and curators as it is being done, allowing the curious public a privileged behind-the-scenes view.[iv]  These also control the way audiences perceive restoration efforts and encourage them to understand the necessity of treatment. Rather than bringing conservators to greater accountability for alterations made to a painting, their work serves to captivate the public and convince them of the importance of the profession.

 

Conservator at National Gallery of Ireland with Maclise canvas.

Another set of research images  and conservation videos available on the National Gallery of Ireland’s website shows conservation specialists meeting the challenges of restoration: http://www.nationalgallery.ie/Home/Conservation/Strongbow_and_Aoife.                                Taken together, these glimpses make the public aware of all possible changes undergone by the painting over the course of restoration; convenient in case anything is done to significantly alter the painting from its former state.

 

 

2013-09-11 - Rembrandt Scholar in His Study National Gallery Prague

Rembrandt, The Scholar in His Study, 1635. Courtesy: National Gallery, Prague.

According to the National Gallery of Prague’s press release concerning Rembrandt’s The Scholar in His Study, this will be both a restoration and research project set to unveil “anticipated new findings about the painting’s technical aspects.” These discoveries will then be suitable for publication in book format as well as on a new international Rembrandt Database: http://www.rembrandtdatabase.org/Rembrandt/.

The project anticipates and promises breakthroughs that will allow the public to learn about a Rembrandt they had never before known.  Furthermore, interested audiences will also be able to watch and track the restoration on a website called “Tracing Rembrandt.” By making these discoveries public, the National Gallery of Prague looks to conservation so that its collection might gain renown and international exposure. Vít Vinas, acting General Director of the National Gallery in Prague, hopes this work will stabilize their Rembrandt so that it may now travel in exhibition.[v]

 

One must understand the different motivations for a painting to undergo conservation. Such treatment forever alters the visual and chemical nature of a work of art, and therefore should not be taken lightly. When a global corporation funds major conservation projects around the world, collections can be poked and prodded at the bequest of eager directors.  Though the powers that be will insist conservation treatments are essential to the wellbeing of their collection, what results is not always the case. For such unfortunate evidence, see ArtWatch UK articles on the cleaning of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party in 1954 (http://artwatchuk.wordpress.com/2011/01/08/8th-january-2011/), and the repainting of Eakins’ The Gross Clinic in 2010 (http://artwatchuk.wordpress.com/tag/thomas-eakins-the-gross-clinic/). We at ArtWatch will certainly be awaiting the results of the upcoming Bank of America-funded conservation treatments.

 


[i] Bank of America Arts & Culture – Art Conservation. http://museums.bankofamerica.com/arts/Conservation (last visited 22 August 2013).

[ii] Arts News – Herald Scotland. June 6, 2013. http://www.heraldscotland.com/arts-ents/visual/arts-news.1370484298 (last visited 22 August 2013).

[iii] National Portrait Gallery – The Pheonix and the Pelican: two portraits of Elizabeth I, c. 1575 http://www.npg.org.uk/research/programmes/making-art-in-tudor-britain/the-phoenix-and-the-pelican-two-portraits-of-elizabeth-i-c.1575.php (last visited 4 September 2013); Steve Urbon, “New Bedford’s priceless paintings get gift of restoration. South Coast Today. SouthCoastToday.com.  18 June 2013. http://www.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20130718/NEWS/307180356 (last visited 22 August 2013); “New Bedford Free Public Library. New Bedford, Massachusetts.” Bank of America Arts & Culture – Art Conservation. http://museums.bankofamerica.com/arts/Conservation (last visited 4 September 2013).

[iv] Bank of America Arts & Culture – Conservation in Detail. http://museums.bankofamerica.com/arts/Conservation/Detail (last visited 22 August 2013).

[v] NG Prague – News – “Tracing Rembrandt: The Famous ‘Scholar in His Study’ Leaves the National Gallery in Prague.” Press release, June 18, 2013. http://www.ngprague.cz/en/128/3667/clanek/tracing-rembrandt-the-famous-scholar-in-his-study-leaves-the-national-gallery-in-prague/ (last visited 4 September 2013).

2013-08-13 - pump probe laser Puccio Crucifixion Duke University

Art Under the Laser – New “Noninvasive” Conservation and Analysis Treatments

Ruth Osborne 
2013-08-09 - art laser advertisement

1997 ad that appeared in the professional journal “Studies in Conservation.” 

“Shooting a laser at a priceless 14th century painting may seem problematic. But, precisely tuned and timed, the laser system may be the only non-destructive way to get into the mind of long-dead artists…”[1]

This is indeed a troubling statement for the future of art conservation.

 

ArtWatch has focused attention on the developing relationship between scientific study and the work of art conservators in recent years.  The troubling consequences of untested scientific methods applied to renowned works of art has been a concern since before the launch of ArtWatch International in 1992.  Founding Professor James Beck and current ArtWatch UK Director Michael Daley have examined such issues in the cases of the 1984 conservation of the Brancacci Chapel frescos and that of the Ilaria del Carretto in 1989.[2]  These studies establish the dangerous relationship between scientific developments and their application to irreplaceable cultural works.

 

Within the past year, molecular biologists at Duke University worked to develop a laser for melanoma diagnoses, and shortly thereafter proposed its benefits to the field of art conservation: “Dr. [Warren S.] Warren assumed that, just as with skin lesions, yellowed varnish and paint layers could be imaged by his laser to distinguish original paint from restoration, helping us understand the intended beauty of centuries-old paintings.”[3]  This technique, known as pump-probe laser imaging, creates 3-D cross-sections that show conservators layers of color and material in a work of art, and possibly the materials’ sources in future examinations. Pump-probe laser imaging is described as a way to “uncover the mysteries underneath layers of paint.”  This promotes the restoration of paintings as motivated by promised discoveries beneath the surface, rather than for the welfare of the work itself.[4]

 

2013-08-13 - pump probe laser Puccio Crucifixion Duke University

Pump-probe laser imaging being used at Duke to analyze The Crucifixion (1330) by Puccio Capanna.  Courtesy: William Brown.

John Delaney, a senior imaging scientist in conservation at the National Gallery in D.C., has admitted that the pump-probe laser is not sufficiently tested to be considered ready for serious use in the field: “It’s not ready for prime-time, but it’s showing some real promise, and that’s exciting.”  One would hope concerns and doubts already exhibited by specialists in the field would halt or at least slow down work with the laser on paintings.  And yet, it was first used on a small fourteenth-century painting by Puccio Capanna, The Crucifixion, part of the Kress Collection at the North Carolina Museum of Art.  How and why was the decision made to use this laser on this ca. 1330 painting without sufficient testing, and despite doubts circulating in the field? The hand of the conservator/detective works quickly.  Examination revealed a layer of materials that could help authenticate the painting as part of a Vatican altarpiece; and NCMA conservators express a hope they might learn more about the origins and the artist’s intent with future analysis.[5]  Similarly appealing discoveries that promised authentication and a new view into the artist’s intent were claimed with the Brancacci Chapel and Sistine Chapel restorations in the 1980s.[6] Will this promote the search for the “true” artist’s hand and authentication of even more works of art with lasers, even if their condition does not necessitate attention from restorers?

Another laser currently being used by North Carolina Museum of Art conservators is the Er:YAG. Dr. Adele de Cruz, adjunct associate professor of chemistry at Duke, invented this tool fifteen years ago for the purpose of removing “old, degraded varnish coatings.” Two videos, produced by Duke University in 2012, show conservators using both lasers to clean and examine the Capanna painting and an ancient Roman marble urn.[7]  Newspaper coverage of the pump-probe laser emphasizes its “noninvasive” methods, compared with other techniques of conservation analysis. It is promoted as a tool that can remove what is aesthetically unappealing and leave behind the original work, undamaged.[8]  Notions of what might be judged aesthetically unappealing and unoriginal are problematic and potentially question-begging. Meanwhile, such news articles gloss over the dangers posed to the work of art should the conservator’s hand as much as waver.  A paper published by Duke University acknowledges the risks that come into play when lasers are utilized in conservation efforts.[9] But while scientists responsible for such inventions may perceive the likelihood of misuse, how much will this really impact the spread of laser treatment throughout the art world?[10]

 

Doubts still persist in the conservation community as to the consequences of laser work that may be revealed in years to come. These tools require highly skilled hands working with meticulous accuracy and control. They also emit extreme heat levels to the surface of the artwork with each pulse.  Changes in a painting’s substrate, binder, or pigment can occur with exposure to such high temperatures. Furthermore, it must be considered that a laser that might have proven effective on the uniform mineral composition of a marble statue will not have the same impact on the softer, more various organic components of an oil painting.

 

Wolfgang Neustadt, M.A., a German conservator/restorer who works with an Italian laser company and two private international conservators, offers ArtWatch a look into the possible negative effects of laser work. According to Mr. Neustadt, while lasers have proven to be effective in removing centuries of dirt and grime, these tools can also remove parts of original surface material along with that unwanted grime.  In some instances, it may be that the laser is not being properly operated and that no supervising body of specialists is overseeing the work being done.  Critically, one must consider how the original surface of an artwork changes when cleaning takes place. Unfortunately, what is most often emphasized in reports on conservation treatments is that the cleaned surfaces “look like new,” which, again, begs the question.

 

2013-08-09 - Adele Cruz conservator laser Duke University

Duke University professor Dr. Adele de Cruz and chief NCMA conservator William Brown using the Er-YAG laser in the Museum conservation lab. Courtesy: NCMA / Karen Malinofski, photographer.

In Mr. Neustadt’s experience, those who use modern techniques believe them to be sustainable. New scientific developments, such as those at Duke, are often quick to be slated for use in other restoration projects: “The team is still testing and standardizing the laser system. If the research and development continues…the laser system could be turned into a portable device, making this type of analysis easier for conservation scientists and art conservators around the world.”[11]  There is great danger that after laser cleaning tools find favor with highly-skilled conservators, these same lasers will soon after be promoted as low-risk solutions for those with less skill to handle them. Such a development could only increase the risks taken to an artwork undergoing treatment.  What would greatly benefit the welfare of our cultural and artistic heritage is some properly accredited and composed authority be established to oversee how, by whom, and in what circumstances conservation tools are handled.  How can one tell what the NCMA’s 14th century Capanna painting will look like in 50 or 100 years because of its exposure to the laser now? And how can we ensure that these lasers will be used by the best-trained conservators in future projects? Underlying all practical considerations on the long term effects and consequences of new technical treatments is the question of whether aesthetic, interpretive and historical judgements can ever be devolved to purely technical experts.

 

At this point it would seem safe to say that not enough time has elapsed to see the changes that might occur and yet, already, these lasers are seen as tools that can help further the abilities of the conservator. In this (optimistic) view, it is thought that art, like science, should improve along with new technologies. William Brown, chief conservator at NCMA, maintains, “paintings once considered impossible to clean by conventional methods can now be returned to their former glory.”[12]  While these new laser systems at Duke may ultimately prove more effective than older methods in conserving and examining works, at the same time, we hope those in the arts perceive the possible dangers still posed when handling and treating irreplaceable piece of cultural heritage.  With more and more developments in the fields of science and art conservation, who presently is in place to ensure objectively that ethical standards are enforced?

 


[1] Ashley Yeager, “Lasers ID Ancient Artists’ Intent – A new laser system aids art conservation and restoration,” Duke University Research. Posted 20 August 2012,http://research.duke.edu/stories/chemists-lasers-could-id-ancient-artists-intent

[2] James Beck with Michael Daly. Art Restoration: The Culture, The Business, and the Scandal. (W.W. Norton & Co.: New York and London, 1993) 23-62.

[3]  “North Carolina Museum of Art Announces Collaboration with Duke University: Partnership offers art imaging and conservation research opportunities with new laser system,” http://thesnaponline.com/statenews/x541272866/North-Carolina-Museum-of-Art-Announces-Collaboration-with-Duke-University (last visited 18 July 2013).

[4] Martha Waggoner, “Pump-probe lasers expose art mysteries without causing damage,” posted July 4, 2013. Boulder Daily Camera. http://www.dailycamera.com/art/ci_23601526/pump-probe-lasers-expose-art-mysteries-without-causing (last visited 26 July 2013).

[5] Waggoner; “Pump-Probe Laser Imaging to Improve the Arts,” phototonics.com July 2013 Research & Technology. Posted July 16, 2013. http://www.photonics.com/Article.aspx?AID=54419 (last visited 26 July 2013); Yeager.

[6] In the case of the Brancacci Chapel, conservators sought to authenticate specific sections of the frescos as authored by either Masolino or his younger associate Massccio. Meanwhile, the unveiling of a “new Michelangelo” was promoted with the first of the Sistene Chapel cleanings. Beck and Daly, 78-81.

[7] Laser Helps Reveal Details of Ancient Art:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=RRHyJW7GKTk (last visited 26 July 2013); Laser Analysis Yields Art History Clues: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=7iY-tRVUfrE (last visited 26 July 2013).

[8] “Pump-Probe Laser Imaging to Improve the Arts.”

[9] Adele De Cruz, Myron L. Wolbarsht, Susanne A. Hauger, “The Introduction of Lasers as a Tool in Removing Contaminants from Painted Surfaces,”http://monalaserllc.com/Article6.pdf (last visited 1 August 2013), 157-62.

[10] There is already laser conservation underway on delicate frescos at the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii: http://www.quantasystem.com/root/en/mediaroom_news_1412.aspx. The lasers for the Villa of Mysteries project are being provided by the Italian El. En. Group. They have provided lasers for art conservation work since 1994. El. En. Group: Light for Art. http://www.elengroup.com/frames.php?F=MAIN&lang=ENG&menuvoice=home&azienda=LIGH (last visited 1 August 2013). Additional work is also in progress at Diocletian’s Palace in Croatia:

http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Diocletians-palace-gets-laser-facelift/30058

[11] Yeager.

[12] “North Carolina Museum of Art Announces Collaboration with Duke University.”

2013-07-11 - art conservation SUNY Buffalo
,

The Education of Art Conservators – Examining the Field at its Foundations

Einav Zamir & Ruth Osborne

2013-07-11 - art conservation SUNY Buffalo

Student at SUNY Buffalo, MA Art Conservation Program.

About ten years ago, popular media outlets such as National Geographic News and the Boston Phoenix started reporting on what has come to be colloquially known as the “CSI Effect.” According to many American legal professionals, jurors in criminal trials increasingly favor forensic analysis over eye witnesses or circumstantial evidence, possibly as a result of popular television programs, such as CSI (Crime Scene Investigation), that inflate the role of forensics in the investigation and prosecution of major crimes.[1] In other words, the general public has come to trust digital scans over their own eyes, test strips over personal experience. A similar trend seems to be happening in the world of art conservation. More and more, historical knowledge and technical skill have been neglected in favor of scientific know-how. This development is perhaps best demonstrated within the training facilities for prospective conservators. In the past few weeks, the ArtWatch team has done its own crime scene investigation in order to determine what young and often impressionable individuals are being taught about the role of conservation in the study of art.

A statement by a recent graduate of a bachelors program in California is particularly illuminating: “My mother is an artist. My father is a family physician. With my new major (art conservation), I am almost exactly in the middle.” [2] Perhaps a more accurate way of putting it would be “I am almost exactly one fourth, if not less, knowledgeable in both areas.” You wouldn’t expect someone who had taken only one or two courses in archaeology to have the skills and expertise to conduct an archaeological survey, but students of conservation are led to believe that with very little training in art history and studio art, they are qualified to make key decisions regarding the treatment of extremely delicate and irreplaceable objects of cultural and historical significance.

Another undergraduate program, based in Chicago, promises to provide solid training in chemistry, materials science, studio art, and the humanities in preparation for either graduate study or for work in the field. Like other BA programs, they offer a studio component, but with little emphasis. They recommend only one studio course for credit each year (Drawing I for 2012-2013) – in fact, only one class is required for completion of the degree. [3] Their mission to foster “a deep understanding of the scientific basis of art and materials conservation,” [4] engenders a sort of mechanical and removed approach to objects, rather than the kind of intimate understanding that an artist might have. This impression is further supported by the fact that the program is housed within the Science and Mathematics Department, rather than Art History or Museum Studies departments. In mentioning this fact to an admissions coordinator, we were informed that “More and more, programs have been moving toward a greater scientific emphasis. We think of our coursework as belonging more to chemistry than to history.” Similarly, the curriculum claims to address issues surrounding the philosophy and ethics of art conservation, yet there is not a single course, aside from a somewhat perfunctory capstone, that addresses anything that resembles basic ethics. [5] Lastly, and perhaps most shockingly, only two Art History courses are required for the degree (Art History 101/102) – not to be taken until the second year. In speaking with the admissions department, we were told that “most conservators have suggested that museums and labs are not interested in art historical knowledge or artistry. They want someone who has the scientific background to perform the processes needed to conserve materials. Any art historical knowledge that you need can be gained throughout graduate coursework or on-site training.”

2013-07-11 - University of Delaware art conservation student lab

University of Delaware BA student in conservation lab.

A third undergraduate institution based out of New Mexico, provides a greater emphasis on both Art History and Studio Art than the aforementioned programs, with an essentially equal credit count for each discipline required for completion of the degree. The program website also warns that “becoming an art conservator requires graduate training.”[6] What does a student actually gain from this additional training, and is it enough to create a qualified restorer?

According to Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner, professor at the University of Delaware’s conservation program (WUDPAC) and Director of its doctoral program: “The NYU, Winterthur-UD, UCLA, and Buffalo programs are all very concerned about these new undergraduate programs that have sprung up in Chicago, New Mexico and elsewhere … In most cases they don’t even have a professional conservator involved with the curriculum or the requirements, have no track record of applicants, graduates, etc.” She goes on to speak of undergraduate art conservation training as akin to pre-med programs intended to lay the framework for future field experience and graduate-level study.[7]   This critique of undergraduate “preparatory” programs implies a need for high standards when educating future art conservation professionals, yet it is unclear whether anyone is actually responsible for upholding these strictures.

Speaking with an alumna of the undergraduate program at Delaware, it would seem that students view this type of study as preparatory. For both Kelsey Adams (’11) and Danielle Swanson (’10), it provided what they believed to be a more interdisciplinary approach to working in museums and historic collections.  After finishing the program, emerging conservators typically complete 2-3 years of training before applying to graduate programs in art conservation. Graduate work is then followed by 2-3 years in additional internship positions.[8]

As it stands, there only four graduate art conservation programs in the country (those mentioned above), and it is also generally acknowledged that professional work requires further training beyond that which these curricula provide. This preparation includes deeper immersion into art history and related fields in order to better understand an artist’s hand before treatment.  Students at WUDPAC are required to take 6 courses in object-based art history during their study. Furthermore, those who are accepted have “more than 2000 hours of practical experience, letters from conservators to vouch for their patience and hand skills, and coursework far more than the required courses listed.”[9] Dr. Stoner maintains it is essential for conservation students at the master’s level to have a solid foundation in art history in order to go on to work professionally in the field: “We want those who go into conservation science and research … to also have a reasonable understanding of how to carry out art-historical research…so they do not think that finding lead-tin yellow pigment PROVES the painting is by Vermeer…”[10]

2013-07-11 - University of Delaware Masters art conservation decorative panel

UD MS student conserving a decorative panel.

Of the students currently enrolled in the masters program, those already possessing degrees in Art History factor greater than those with backgrounds in studio arts or chemistry[11]. However, Delaware’s program also communicates to its applicants that it maintains a somewhat scientific emphasis – the degree offered is a Master of Science[12], rather than a combined Master of Arts in Art History and Advanced Certificate in Conservation (as is offered at NYU)[13]. Tessa Gadomski (’14), a current graduate student at Delaware, characterizes her education within the main framework of conservation treatment methodologies and ethics. She finds this an essential part of graduate conservation training, as art historical knowledge and studio skills can be gained in experience outside the program, but treatment expertise is fundamental in first obtaining these outside internships[14].  It seems from a study of the requirements and curricula of these undergraduate and graduate programs, that the training of an art conservator depends as much, if not more, on their independent experience within the field, than on their choice in university. In every case, there appears to be a strong emphasis on acquiring technical experience through internships (rather than coursework). Gaining art historical knowledge, then, is merely peripheral by comparison.

What’s perhaps most surprising, is the lack of advanced studio training at the graduate level. Typically, these programs require a portfolio to demonstrate “hand skills and mastery of materials,”[15] but do not offer any studio based courses as part of the curriculum. Rather, courses that focus on technical training are strictly lab based and concern treatment and restoration methods.[16] Students are not provided the opportunity to develop as skilled artists. This is particularly problematic when one considers that restorers often rely on their artistic ability to emulate the hand of extremely skilled craftsmen.

The field appears to be less interdisciplinary as one might expect. Art conservation has been described as a three legged stool, with each leg representing the different areas of knowledge required to form a solid foundation – art history, chemistry, and studio art. Experience tells us, however, that the expertise required in each of these fields is far more comprehensive than any coursework, and perhaps even practical experience, can provide. While it is encouraging to hear that on a fundamental level, programs such as that at Delaware understand the need for intensive training both inside and outside the classroom, one must always remember that no-one, regardless of their level of expertise, is entirely infallible. Now that the field of art conservation is beginning to enter its “CSI” phase, and the “stool” becomes increasingly unstable, it is all the more important that we (conservators, art historians, artists, and the general public alike) learn to trust our eyes again and abandon the notion that scientific knowledge somehow supersedes all other considerations when ensuring the future of our artistic heritage.


[1] Roslyn Weaver, et al., “The CSI Effect at University: Forensic Science Students’ Television Viewing and Perceptions of Ethical Issues,” Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences (2012): 381-391.

[2] Scripps College, “About the Art Conservation Program,” http://www.scrippscollege.edu/academics/department/art-conservation (last visited 3 July 2013).

[3] Columbia College, Chicago, “Degree Requirements,” http://cccjbar.colum.edu:9040/cgi-bin/public (last visited 3 July 2013).

[4] Columbia College, Chicago, “Art and Materials Conservation,” http://www.colum.edu/Admissions/Programs/Art_Materials_Conservation.php (last visited 3 July 2013).

[5] Columbia College, Chicago, “Degree Requirements,” http://cccjbar.colum.edu:9040/cgi-bin/public (last visited 3 July 2013).

[6] New Mexico State University, “What is Art Conservation?” http://artdepartment.nmsu.edu/programs/museumcons (last visited 3 July 2013).

[7] “…a very important aspect of undergraduate programs is having the student truly learn if she or he is actually suited to working under the microscope setting down tiny flakes of paint, re-weaving tears, etc. under the supervision of a skilled conservator who can demonstrate some of the typical tasks, teach basic standards of reversibility and photo documentation etc. while the student begins taking all the necessary coursework.” Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner, e-mail interview conducted 4 July 2013.

[8] Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner, e-mail interview conducted 4 July 2013.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Art Conservation at the University of Delaware: Current Students. “Class of 2015,” “Class of 2014,” “Class of 2013,” http://www.artcons.udel.edu/masters/current-students (last visited 4 July 2013).

[12] “General remarks about pre-requisites for the University of Delaware-Winterthur Museum program application,” p. 1; Art Conservation at the University of Delaware: Chemistry Courses, http://www.artcons.udel.edu/masters/admissions-requirements/chemisty-coursework (last visited 4 July 2013); Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, “Advanced Certificate in Conservation,” http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/fineart/pdfs/academics/Conservation.pdf (last visited 4 July 2013).

[13] “NYU requires more art history in general and we require more science (after all we award an MS in science—the others award MA’s).  NYU doesn’t require experience, but graduates of NYU usually have to have more internships and residencies after graduation to make up for this difference or they may go into more research-oriented positions.” Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner, e-mail interview conducted 4 July 2013.

[14] Tessa Gadomski, e-mail interview conducted 9 July 2013.

[15] Buffalo State, “Apply – Art Conservation,” http://artconservation.buffalostate.edu/apply (last visited 11 July 2013).

[16] Buffalo State, “Major Program Assessment Plan,” http://artconservation.buffalostate.edu/sites/artconservation.buffalostate.edu/files/Upload/Documents/assessment.pdf (last visited 3 July 2013).