Saturday, February 27, 2010

What Cleaning Art Can Reveal or Take Away—Spiegel

Cleaning works of art and artifacts can have many benefits, but this week’s readings showed that it can also have many negative consequences. Although cleaning has been and continues to be widely used by conservators, it is irreversible, unlike some of the other techniques employed by modern restorers. Kenneth Clark argued in 1938 that the primary issue is one of aesthetics: would the work look better restored or not? Many modern conservators, however, err on the side of caution and pratice “minimal intervention.” Sometimes, as Eastop and Brooks point out, dirt or patina can have great historical significance (in terms of context) and should be left in place, rather than return the object to its original appearance. Likewise, Bassett and Chase note that cleaning ancient bronzes can not only remove important pieces of evidence, but it can even damage otherwise stable areas.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon Before (above) and After (below) Cleaning

A conservator must weigh the benefits against the risks. What is more important: minimal intervention or aesthetics? Should irreversible steps be taken to preserve an object for the long-term even if that means removing potentially valuable or historically significant dirt or corrosion? Do the rules change, so to speak, when an object or painting is unique or extremely rare? What about the question of the artist’s original intent? The “Crimes Against the Cubists” debate draws on these questions and most people seem to prefer minimal intervention to surface/appearance changing restoration. Nonetheless, many times cleaning is both necessary and beneficial.

Close-Up of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon: after the varnish is removed the painting's original texture and matte appearance become apparent. Early restorations had added the varnish to the surface in an attempt to preserve the painting.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Conservation “Mistakes” and their Consequences—Barr

From the pesticide-infested relics of the Hopi to the botched Chinese wall paintings of the Fogg Museum, it often seems that in the effort to preserve a historic object, the piece suffers further damage. As with any profession, error and trial are part of conservation. Isabelle Brajer's statement "a conservator who has not blundered in the course of his or her career is one that has not dirtied his or her hands." Mishaps range from misconceptions to logistical faults to poor aesthetic decisions. They incur shame but enlighten others who can learn from the misstep. Technical mistakes such as transferring the Chinese murals in the same manner as Italian frescos or miscalculating dimensions like Brajer are the most understandable errors. It is also easier to forgive earlier restorers who did not undergo the same training or possess the same scientific capabilities. However, Brajer also points out the difficulty in interpreting abstract works. Conservators inherently reflect the values and trends of their times that extend beyond the physical treatment of the materials to the manner they approach the art. We ask what is the role and worth of preservation mistakes. What should be regarded as error? In our society, the brazenness, reckless experimentation, and gross disrespect for the object and its context (particularly cultural) that characterized previous generations would be fundamental sins expressed through the irrevocable damage they frequently inflicted. Nevertheless, are flawed works worthless to hang in a gallery or can they teach us about the attitudes, perceptions, and technical blunders of our predecessors? What lessons can we glean from these failed initiatives, and what does it say about the institutions that hide these pieces from public viewing?

Pictures Found at:

Sunday, February 14, 2010

How has Conservation Changed Through History?—Balachandran

Is contemporary society prepared for art works to change in “real time”? Our readings this week suggest, alternatively that current society is either too skittish, too scared of changing the past to make any definitive, oeuvre-changing restorations to venerated art works OR, that society has always been this way, but that changes are inevitable for works of art to function as cultural, religious and artistic objects. But how do these works actually function? Do they have to be seen within a complete architectural and cultural framework in order to be truly understood? Carrier and Phillipot suggest, then, that we have lost the meaning of most art works in our care in museums. I remain intrigued by Carrier’s attempt to categorize art works as artifacts, organisms or artificial beings, and as much as I think that this categorization is ultimately futile, I wish that art works had that internal self-preservation mechanism of organisms, i.e, the ability to self-regulate, regenerate and come alive again. But as they cannot, the work of the conservator (and art historian, archaeologist, cultural or religious descendant, and so many other stakeholders) is to carefully consider how these works can live (if only briefly) again.
Photographs from the exhibition "Gods in Color". What do we want to see--the degraded white marble or imaginations of what the past might have looked like?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

How Do Conservators Make Decisions?--Balachandran

What values—and whose values—do we preserve when we conserve artifacts and sites? Any object or site embodies a multiplicity of values—from aesthetic and historic values to spiritual, religious, cultural, emotional and use values. So how then can the conservator (and often the museum) appropriately retain all of these values and make them accessible to viewers? This week’s readings—Clavir, Brandi, Phillipot, and Taylor and Cassar—all point to the complexity of conservation practice and acknowledge that in order for some values to be preserved, others may have to be downplayed or even sacrificed. Whose values, then, do we take as paramount—the museum’s, the descendant community who claims the artifact, or the “general public” (a rather nebulous body)—to name but a few stakeholders? As a conservator, I’m torn between two desires: to keep artifacts “safe” in environmentally controlled vitrines where any member of the public who can visit the museum can see them; and to see artifacts in their original contexts, being used as objects of cultural renewal, spiritual devotion, or public engagement by the specific community to which they “belong” (again, a very contentious term). But both of these desires are motivated by my knowledge that artifacts mean something, they transmit something (to use Brandi’s words), but that something is both immediately recognizable and impossible to define. [Images show south Indian bronze idols in worship during a festival, and on view at the Government Museum, Chennai, India.]