The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

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JUL-AUG 2019 Issue
Editor's Message Guest Critic

Unvarnished Truths

Science is an essential and integral part of the conservation process, but it is only part of the equation

Portrait of George Bisacca, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of George Bisacca, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

“There are two ways for a painting to perish, the one is for it to be restored, the other is for it not to be restored.”
—Étienne Gilson

“Restoration is a necessary evil.”
—Max Friedländer

Diego Velazquez, Portrait of Pope Innocent X, c.1660, oil on canvas. (Detail)

“No one wants the alien presence of another mind coming between him and the work of art. Decisions made in the treatment of a work of art are an exercise in connoisseurship. Since one is dealing with visual values, anything that affects the look of the work of art must affect the meaning. In fact, the look is the meaning.”
—John Brealey

The history of restoration–today we call it “conservation” in order to distinguish it from a misbegotten 19th-century notion of returning the work of art to some imagined pristine original state–is fraught with controversy. The apprehension of any work of art is by its nature a subjective experience; it depends on one’s personal level of visual acuity, of their accumulated cultural knowledge and context. And there will always be some with greater, more sophisticated understanding and refinement than you. This dictum, of course, applies to conservators as well, and therefore logically implies that conservators’ abilities may always be inadequate to the task. What might pass as an acceptable, even exemplary conservation treatment for some, will be deemed glaringly heavy-handed by others. This is the nature of aesthetic discrimination.

From the moment a work of art leaves an artist’s studio, processes of degradation begin. Materials alter over time. In the case of Old Master painting, many materials become increasingly transparent with age, allowing underlayers to assert themselves more strongly than originally intended; certain colors tend to yellow, others to sink and become cloudy or opaque. Paint films shrink and eventually form a network of cracks. Natural resin varnishes oxidize, turning yellowish-brown and losing transparency. Tonal values are always shifting–and this is a best-case scenario for an untouched painting in “perfect” state. Add to this accidental mechanical damages, problems caused by fluctuating environmental conditions, and, worst of all, abrasion of the surface during past cleanings by incompetent “restorers” using caustic solvents–and it is a wonder that anything of value has survived.

In previous centuries, artists made most of their materials and so had an intrinsic understanding of their working properties. They were grounded in an artisan tradition in which recipes and techniques were practiced and mastered. Naturally, the greatest artists experimented and pushed the boundaries of convention beyond accepted methods, but a major shift occurred in the late 18th century with the appearance of commercially available artist’s materials and the loss of a crafts-based formation. Gradually, artists began to employ materials more out of expediency rather than longevity. By the mid-20th century, they were commonly using industrial materials not specifically made for art production, including cheap house paint, newspapers, epoxies, tar, found objects, straw, and literally anything else that served the immediate purpose; they diluted liquids, mixed together different substances, and applied layers with near total disregard for compatibility or aging properties, often setting up irreversible and unresolvable problems which manifested over a very short span of time. Many contemporary artworks alter more in 20 years than Old Master paintings do in 400.

George Bisacca with Gerlinde Gruber of the Kunsthistorisches Museum looking at the Rubens Stormy Landscape, Vienna.

This should not necessarily be taken as criticism. The pace of change in the contemporary world has accelerated to the point where those 20 years may well be in some sense roughly equivalent to the 400 years of change since the Renaissance. In order to achieve the impact necessary to communicate meaning to a contemporary audience, traditional methods may prove woefully inadequate.

This disparity between Old Master and contemporary painting requires different sets of skills for present day conservators. One major difference is surface texture. An Old Master painting might sustain considerable damage which is then painstakingly addressed by the conservator through a series of technical and aesthetic considerations including balanced cleaning with solvent mixtures, filling of losses, three-dimensional imitation of surface textures, and judicious retouching to minimize or mask the prominence of the damages. Upon completion, the entire painting is then varnished (usually necessary for the correct saturation of the pigments and uniformity of surface gloss). Modern and contemporary painting on the other hand is rarely varnished and, consequently, surface textures can be exponentially more complex. Porous underbound paint surfaces are microscopically complex and refract light in very different ways that are nearly impossible to replicate accurately. A small surface scrape on a Rothko can prove far more compromising to the integrity of the image than a larger loss in an Old Master painting. Conversely, integrating the abraded subtle glazing transitions in an Old Master painting is infinitely more difficult and critical to resolve than reconstructing larger losses in the thick abstract brushstrokes of a huge Stella.

Before conservation emerged as a professional discipline, painters were usually tasked with repairing damages to paintings. But without the necessary professional training, most attempts were invasive and unsuccessful. Retouching routinely extended far beyond the losses to “feather in” the damage, covering significant amounts of original areas, often without any prior “filling” of losses up to the surface level. The goal of treatment was total integration, whatever the compromise to the original. Respect for the original and regard for reversibility would later become tenets of modern conservation.

Issues regarding the methodologies, ethics, and aesthetics of the cleaning process came to a head in the so called “cleaning controversy” at the National Gallery in London. More than 70 paintings were treated during the Second World War under the direction of chief restorer Helmut Ruhemann and then exhibited in 1947 in a show entitled simply Cleaned Pictures. The strident appearance of the paintings, in particular Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, led to considerable public criticism. The controversy played out in the pages of the Burlington Magazine between 1947 and 1963, pitting Ernst Gombrich of the Warburg Institute against Cesare Brandi of the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro in Rome. Brandi denounced the National Gallery’s cleaning methods and argued that artists tempered vivid colors and softened transitions with subtle transparent glazes to achieve a coherent tonal unity which was being disturbed or even completely removed by restorers. These arguments eventually led to the establishment of the Gallery’s Scientific Department (similar departments are now common in most major museums).

Scientific analysis soon became a means for justifying any conservation treatment and served as a defense of any action taken. Conservators often hid behind pseudo-scientific credibility, donning lab coats and referring to the workplace as a lab instead of a studio.

In their attempts at objectivity, though, conservators often relinquished their responsibility to understand the object in a wider aesthetic sense, ignoring the inevitability of making subjective judgements. Belgian theorist Paul Philippot claimed that an overreliance on science “emphasizes the material to the detriment of form, and indicates the predominance of a hygienic interest in the object over an aesthetic interest in the image.”

Science is an essential and integral part of the conservation process, but it is only part of the equation. Any action—including no action—is a subjective decision. In order to treat a painting responsibly, the conservator must have knowledge of the cultural milieu in which the artist operated; she or he must be able to deduce the “state” of the object—what changes are due to the natural aging of materials and which to interference. This requires a knowledge of chemistry, materials science, art history and criticism, manual skills of all kinds, and a developed sense of aesthetics. All of this must be brought to bear on the precise nature of the problem, what can and should be done about it, and in deciding exactly what to do and what not to do—and when to stop. Conservators’ creativity lies in understanding how to effectively minimize the disturbance to the extent possible without imposing anything of themselves on the work of art.

P.S. The purpose of this guest critic page is to present aspects of the role of conservation and to foster ongoing dialogues generating from both the conservator's and artist's perspectives. Please write to [email protected] if, after reading these contributions, you wish to add to the discussion.


George Bisacca

George Bisacca is Conservator Emeritus at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

All Issues