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.


  1. I agree with Richardson’s emphasis that a conservator needs to have a great understanding of the significance of a piece of art, such as the artist’s intent, the movement or style of art to which the piece belongs, and methods and techniques in order to best approach the artwork’s preservation. To maintain the significance of a Cubist painting’s surface and techniques, long-lasting preservation must be achieved differently than a painting without this value. I am intrigued with Richardson’s argument that the surface texture is as crucial to Cubist paintings as the color itself, and because no conservator would dream of deliberately changing the colors of a painting, they should not change the surface. Similarly, Bassett makes a good point that an object’s specific type of value and context should be evaluated by a number of experts before a conservator makes preservation decisions. For example, a Chinese bronze vessel used for burial ceremonies gains value with the presence of ceremonial substances and should be cared for differently than an object that is significant for the intricate designs which are unnoticeable if the object is not cleaned.

  2. Novik: Although I understand the value of 'historically significant dirt' or varnish that reflects the original context of an item, the current use for the majority of the pieces we are examining is public viewing. If a Greek vase is no longer in the dining room filled with wine, it is in a museum. When a garment from an ancient wardrobe is no longer wrapped around a body, it is behind glass for the public to see and learn from it. If the garment or the vase is covered in dirt and deteriorating quickly, then it is no longer serving its new purpose. The original context of these items can no longer be prevalent because they have taken on a new role. For this reason, it is important to make the object the best it can be for its current role. A viewer will be negatively distracted by dirt or mold on an object. The viewer will not know that the dirt is ancient, so it will just appear dirty. I acknowledge that the dirt is an important historical consideration, and it can most likely tell you things about the object, but these test should be made and studied, and then the object should be cleaned. It is irrational to believe that the object can continued to be viewed in his past contexts because these contexts are no longer there and cannot be brought back. The most logical next step is to study the object to the best of our ability and then to make the object look the best it can so that viewers can appreciate it clearly.

  3. Carambelas: After reading Novik’s comment about context I’ve been thinking about the role of soil in an object’s narrative. (I should mention outright that this is really limited to artifacts, and does not include art works.) Beyond being useful in laboratory tests, for example determining an object’s provenance, soil can transmit information to a viewer in ways a text label cannot because it is multisensory. It impacts the visual, olfactory, and (sometimes) tactile senses; it engages the viewer and creates an intimate experience. Visually speaking the type of soil and its appearance informs the viewer about an object’s age, context—primarily because it is all the remains of the context—and use. I’m not trying to romanticize dirt, but seeing it on an artifact informs the viewer the object is indeed old, ancient in most cases, in a way words cannot. The appearance of dirt can tell the viewer if the item was buried or in continual use, whether infrequent or on a more regular basis. The smell of dirt is distinct and to some degree reinforces the visual aspect of the object’s age; it also forces the viewer to fully engage with the object. The smell may indicate a variety of contexts (for example geogaphic: cedar is naturally found in mountainous areas or usage: specific herbs may indicate domestic or ritual use). All of these things depend upon how close the viewer can get to the object, but they are still important qualities for a scholar when studying the item. Certainly conservators must act in the best interest of the item, but I think it’s important to remember that dirt is not always negative.

  4. Cummings: Yes, the context of the art is much different in a museum then where it originally was, but I think Eastop and Brooks were giving examples when dirt made the piece more interesting. The blood on Nelson’s coat when he was killed is more historically significant than the dirt on a vessel where when removed and documented, more information can be discovered. Like Carambelas says, dirt is important and should be studied, but I agree with Novik that in some cases it can be distracting when on display. I agree with Bassett and Chase that the primary objective should be stabilization because without the art in question, there is nothing to study. A conservator should then determine what info could be lost or gained by removing the dirt before considering the aesthetics and in what new context it should be placed. In the video link about contemporary art conservation, Gwynne Ryan brings up the question of artist’s intent when she asks whether it’s the material or experiencing the piece that is more important. She says that by putting works of art on display, its life span is inevitably diminished. Isn’t being able to experience the art the entire point? Preserving “Fishman” at the Smithsonian would require a dark, controlled room. Art then loses its ability to “transmit” to us. Whether storing it away, or changing the painting’s color or surface with a varnish or other conservation techniques, conservators should keep in mind the purpose of the piece and even the purpose of art. Otherwise, Golding and Richardson agree, the piece becomes “a dead thing embalmed.”

  5. While aesthetics is an important component, the artwork's durability and significance should override potentially detrimental treatments. One can never get that piece of tar back on the pants or have those historic pigments that only exist in the corroded layer. Jane Basset and W.T. Chase emphasize in their article "Considerations in the Cleaning of Ancient Chinese Vessels"that it was a blessing that society considers the green patina fashionable therefore preserving the objects for a longer period of time. The readings, however, do present scenarios that challenge the idea that artist intent and historical significance are the most important values to uphold such as in the case of blood and bacteria. This is a difficult and permanent decision. In the case of the chinese vessels, what is most important to see the age or the intricate patterns? What happens when society has fallen in love with a painting or sculpture that has become an icon in art history that the experimenting creator wished to disappear from viewing after its "death?" Conservators obviously should not rush to alter a piece, mend it to new, or erase its intrinsic components, but their choice is more difficult than some of the articles admit.

  6. Amy Hughes: My interpretation of the Eastop and Brooks paper, "To Clean or not to Clean: The Value of Soils and Creases" is that they intend for conservators to differentiate between two classes of textiles: historical/evidential artifacts and aesthetic works. For example, the worn and filthy 19th century workman's breeches may not be beautiful, but are valuable as a rare historic document and as Emily describes it above, also an "intimate" link with the past. I imagine that a vintage Dior couture gown with sweat stains would be cleaned before being placed on display in a museum because its value is primarily aesthetic. Eastop and Brooks refer to this value (historic and/or aesthetic) as the "true nature" of an artifact which is to be preserved (688).

    The harsh treatment of the bronzes in the Chinese Imperial Palace collections (polished down and waxed) mirrors the treatment of so many wax-lined and varnished Cubist paintings Richardson criticizes in his letters to the New York Review. It seems that there will always be a sector of the art audience with a certain taste for the sparkly-shiny and for masterpieces "jazzed-up" by restorations. At least in the case of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon the varnish and older restorations were actually reversible!

  7. Martinek: I think Amy makes a great point – no matter what the prevailing attitude is towards a piece of art, there will always be a sector of people attracted to the “jazzed-up” restorations. However, as Eastop and Brooks point out, conservation is defined as “the means by which the true nature of an object is preserved.” This means looking at all aspects of a piece of art and weighing them equally, whether we want to see them that way or not. Not to say that the true nature of a piece of art can never be “sparkly” or “shiny,” but if we restrict ourselves to this viewpoint in every instance there could be major consequences for pieces that were never intended to fit that interpretation.

    Kelly brought up the need to preserve an artwork’s ability to “transmit”– if the way we approach a piece has already been compromised, how can we expect to gain any of the knowledge that piece has to offer us? To clarify, how we originally interpret a piece when we first see it can (and probably will to some degree) change after we spend some time studying and learning about it (the author’s intent, history, function, current context, etc…..this doesn’t necessarily have to take a lot of time: it could be as simple as seeing the object on display and glancing at its description!), and it is this final understanding that I consider the “transmission.” But, all of this requires us to keep an open mind. In terms of conservation this becomes even more important because then the question becomes not just one of skewing our own interpretation, but one of permanently blocking someone's ability to interpret the piece as they choose.

  8. Kate Payne de Chavez: Professor Balanchandran sent an invitation out to the professional community inviting our participation in your class blog, so I hope that you do not mind my two cents on the matter of the importance (or lack there of) of "dirt" on museum objects. The question of the importance of accretions is often critical in the preservation and treatment decisions made for museum objects. Luckily, in a museum setting it is not generally a question conservators face alone.

    I was reminded of the issue of approximately 4000 shoes from the Holocaust ( which were dirty from use during the lifetimes of their owners. The objects at the Holocaust museum are being preserved and shown to the public to evidence one of the greatest tragedies of human history. I hope you will take a moment to read the Newsletter publication I've sent you above to see how the conservators and other museum professionals agreed to care for this unique and profoundly important collection. Some accretions were deemed valuable and preserved, some were considered detrimental to long-term preservation and were removed, and some, the day to day dust accumulated through visitor traffic must also be occasionally selectively removed.

    Every object, from a Picasso to a Federal pier glass to a child's shoe from the Holocaust has its story, and that story does not end when an object comes into a collection situation. Will it be used as an educational example with children, as evidence of an historic event, or will it be admired as an example of human ingenuity and talent? A decision to clean and/or treat and object is never simple, and sometimes compromises are necessary, such as the removal and preservation of accretions for later study or the retention of an uncleaned exemplar area.

    My best to you all as you explore the fascinating world of conservation.

  9. Thanks for your response and the link! The shoes at the Holocaust Museum are a really useful example of the way conservators treat "dirt" selectively from object to object and helps prove that cleaning doesn't have to be all or nothing.