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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Fixing Art

Art conservationist, Dean Yoder, of the Cleveland Museum of Art.                         
Many years ago, as I was driving to work, I hit an icy spot on the roadway and did, as it's come to be known a "360." I ended up on the berm, shaken, the car undamaged, only my nerves any the worse for wear. That was not the case, however with a medium-size (16 X 24 inch) painting I had in the back seat along with my briefcase. A sharp corner of the briefcase had "attacked" the painting causing a six-inch tear in the stretched canvas. Upon discovering the damage, I almost discarded the painting; but then, inasmuch as it was no great masterpiece in the first place (a mounted guard at Buckingham Palace), I decided to see what I could do in restoring the work. Before anything could be done to the painted surface, I first had to restore the integrity of the base. I soaked a strip of raw canvas, somewhat larger than the tear, in gesso then took a brayer and rolled out the excess. Then I applied gesso to most of the back of the painted canvas, which allowed a tight bond between the original canvas and the new "Band-Aid" strip of canvas. Once that was thoroughly dry, I went to work on the front, first restoring the surface texture in the area of the tear to very nearly that of the rest of the painting, by filling in with modeling paste, gesso, followed by some delicate sanding. The final part, inasmuch as this was an artist-restoration undertaking, was simply a matter of repainting the damaged areas. I'm happy to say that, in the end, I'm the only one who could detect the restoration effort (from the front, that is).
A before and after restoration comparison of Michelangelo's Expulsion from the Garden, from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Vatican City, undertaken 1980-94.
Since that time I've had only one other opportunity to become involved in art restoration, again one of my own works, but this one involving a portrait highly discolored by a mere ten years of airborne grime from a wood-burning stove supplemented by a whole family of smokers (I never was sure which did the most damage to the painting). This was simply a careful, time-consuming, cleaning operation, for the most part using tiny amounts of grease-cutting detergent and water augmented with minor repainting in a few areas. This is typical of most art restoration; often more than half the effort involves the cleaning of many centuries of accumulated dirt and grime before any other type of damage can be repaired.
The Crucifixion of St. Andrew, 1606-07, Caravaggio (before restoration)
Dean Yoder at work, CMA.
Last summer I had the opportunity to observe some extensive restoration while visiting the Cleveland Museum of Art. There, on display was the museum's newly acquired painting by Caravaggio, The Crucifixion of St. Andrew as it was being restored by the museum's conservation expert, Dean Yoder. Painted around 1606-07, when the museum purchased it in 2013, Caravaggio's dramatic masterpiece was in what I would term "awful" condition (above). Yoder had his work cut out for him. First and foremost came the cleaning, not just of accumulated dirt, but "protective" layers of shellac and other varnishes applied to the work in making earlier restoration efforts. By the time I saw the painting last year, that chore was nearing completion. The painting (and Yoder) are no longer on display, both having moved to the museum's conservation lab where the task of restoration will not be completed until 2016, just in time for the museum's centennial celebration. The museum's most recent progress posting (below) shows what miracles Yoder's remarkable skill, effort, and knowledge have wrought on this work.
Caravaggio's Crucifixion of St. Andrew after two years of restoration.
Undoubtedly the greatest and most successful conservation/restoration project in the history of art involves Michelangelo's frescoes in the Vatican Sistine Chapel in Rome. First let me pause and note that restoration and conservation are not one and the same. Though often going hand-in-hand, conservation involves correcting past damage and preventing future damage to a work of art. Restoration, on the other hand, involves imagining the work, freshly completed by the artist; and then striving to achieve that same level of beauty and verisimilitude for the benefit of future art lovers. The two efforts overlap to some degree, but differ as to intent, techniques, and aesthetics. Conservation and preservation are largely synonymous (protect, while doing no damage). Restoration goes a step beyond in recreating the original with minimal repairs while doing no irreversible damage.
The Sistine Chapel, Daniel, before and after.

Bixi Stele, Harvard University,
Cambridge, wrapped for protection
against acid rain during the winter--
conservation by prevention. 
Both conservation and restoration were employed in work done on Michelangelo's ceiling (and other Sistine frescoes). In fact there was a great deal of heated controversy regarding the two--when to conserve, when to restore, and how much emphasis to place on each, often at the expense of the other. Further complicating the effort were previous, largely inept attempts to do both down through the centuries since Michelangelo threw down his brushes and stomped out declaring the work complete. Add to that centuries of candlelight, soot, smoke (the Catholics love their incense) and structural damage caused by water seeping down into the plaster (yes, the Sistine Chapel roof leaked). Conservation efforts from the past had included such "state-of-the-art" techniques as applying beef tallow to oxidization to make it transparent, animal glue to adhere loose plaster, and cleaning the surface with bread. Add to that the argument as to whether Michelangelo painted only into wet plaster (buon fresco), or sometimes did touchups on damp plaster (intonaco), or dry plaster (a secco). Conservation and restoration techniques differ depending upon the painting method (mostly buon fresco in this case). The results, after sixteen years, and $4.1-million were spectacular, but not without detractors and certain small areas of failure.

It's not the Sistine ceiling, but a massive undertaking nonetheless.


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