Sarah Pfannenschmidt is a research intern in the Prints and Drawings Department and is finishing her degree in information science, with a focus on digital humanities.
In the spring of 2012, as an intern for the curator of exhibitions, I had the pleasure of researching the theory and practice of fine art conservation in preparation for the exhibition, Restoration and Revelation: Conserving the Suida-Manning Collection on view in the Blanton‘s Odom Gallery. The exhibition presents the viewer with an opportunity to go deeper into the history and materiality of a work of art.
Conservation is a kind of ‘meta-art’. While I realize this may sound circular, allow me to define conservation: the art of seeing a painting not only for its aesthetic beauty but also for its materiality and applying practical solutions to ensure the long term survival of that object. Conservators approach this blending of artistic vision and materiality in a unique way. They train for years in chemistry, biology, and physics so that they can address the problems that affect the physical structure of the object. As an example, consider wood and paper, two common supports for works of art. Most of us see the wood and the paper insofar as we are looking at the image on the surface. But did you know that both wood and paper are also hygroscopic materials, which means that they are sensitive to changes in the water molecules of their environment? A conservator approaches these materials with the scientific knowledge of how wood and paper react in certain environments and under specific conditions. They then determine what can be done to balance the effects of these factors on a work of art.
Conservation is as much an art as it is a science. This is nowhere more apparent than in the decisions a conservator makes to stabilize an object. To accomplish this goal, conservators have to balance the physical needs of the object with its artistic integrity. This process is what conservators refer to as ‘ethical stewardship’. Consider our Danae painting, on display in the exhibition now: at some point in the painting’s history two figures were painted over. The conservator, Michael Heidelberg, had to determine what parts of the painting were altered and whether these more recent alterations best represented the original vision of the artist. That’s a lot of pressure, especially when we consider how difficult it is to even know what the original artist may have intended.
Another of the paintings in the exhibition, Antonio Carneo’s The Death of Rachel, also posed these ethical challenges to conservator Stephen Gritt at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. The painting had several areas of severe paint loss; Gritt and his team had to stop the painting from further losses and inpaint where the damage had been significant, all without interfering with the original paint that remained. Thankfully, before ever beginning to work on the object, Gritt and his team looked long and hard at every detail and then documented their process. For the conservator, every brushstroke, every layer of applied paint, is a clue that reveals the history of the object.
It is the conservator’s combination of skills that allows us, the viewers, to witness something truly remarkable: the continued availability of these works of art centuries after the artists made the first stroke with brush or pen. Every work of art is a witness to history, and Restoration and Revelation presents an opportunity to come in and learn about how the Blanton works with conservators to ensure that our cultural treasures long endure the wear and tear of time.