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Wars - Page 3
is a bit of a problem with the academic art historian, and James
Beck is one," says Stoner, who is also a member of ArtWatch.
"They have very little contact with real works of art. They
work from theory, as opposed to the practicing art museum historians
for whom the physical presence of a work of art is a daily part
of their lives. It's a growing problem in the whole field of art
history because so many people are being trained completely just
by looking at photographs of art."
it's not just Beck who is unclear about conservation, says Erik
Inglis '89, assistant professor of art history at Oberlin: Most
people have a hazy understanding of what conservators do and who
they are, which leads to an even hazier understanding when controversies
arise about restoring Da Vinci’s Adoration or cleaning
the Sistine Chapel, a 20-year project that ended in 1999. Inglis
believes that many people think conservation involves a hocus-pocus
approach to treating art, an impression created in part by newspaper
articles that portray the profession as cloaked in mystery. "People
don't realize that conservators undergo rigorous training, and that
the profession has strict standards of practice much like medicine
or engineering," he says.
draw on all fields of the liberal arts," says Heather Galloway,
an associate paintings conservator at the ICA in Oberlin, and Inglis'
wife. "They must have scientific knowledge, manual skills,
and an understanding of history. It takes about as long to become
a conservator as it does to become an MD."
of the confusion stems from the fact that there is a difference
between restorers and conservatorsa difference conservators
take great pains to distinguish. Restoration is a craft tradition
with ancient roots; restorers often have no formal training and
still use "secret formulas" that have been passed down
through the generations. Conservation is a fairly young profession
that evolved from, but quickly grew apart from, traditional restoration.
Since the turn of the 20th century, and especially after World War
II, the application of scientific methods and a more rigorous study
of art history have steadily transformed conservation into an exacting
profession with a strict code of ethics. Today's conservators are
taught to appreciate and protect all the values of a painting or
objectartistic, historic, religious, cultural, and other values.
While conservators may occasionally restore a work of artreconstruct
its aesthetic appearancethey spend far more time protecting
and preserving objects by controlling light, air quality, temperature,
humidity, and exposure to insects or mold. To qualify as a fellow
in associations such as the AIC or the International Institute for
Conservation, conservators must have their applications rated by
peers who scrutinize their portfolios and backgrounds.
uncredentialed, hack conservators and untrained restorers exist.
Although few are likely to work with a major museum or collection,
they can still find work with small-scale collectors, art dealers,
and galleries. "Anyone can go to art school, hang up a sign,
and advertise in the yellow pages as a restorer," says Ann
Shaftel '69, a professional conservator in Canada with an international
clientele of museums, governments, and private collectors. She also
hosts a radio show about art conservation.
is what I say on the radio when callers ask whom they should hire
to restore their family treasure: It's buyer beware. You have to
ask for credentials and look at treatment records and portfolios
from previous work."
complicate matters further, there are vast philosophical differences
among even the most highly trained and principled conservators,
as well among the institutions that employ them. Some believe that
the mark of time on a work of artyellowed varnish on a painting
or incrustations on a sculpture—are part of the work's legacy,
a patina of age that demands respect. The Louvre is one of the museums
that adheres to this school of thought. The most famousand
perhaps most controversialproduct of its
philosophy is the Mona Lisa, which is covered by many layers
of varnish dating back to the 18th century.
Louvre has made the decision that old paintings should look old,
even if they looked new when they were painted." says Inglis.
"So even though the sky was a brilliant blue when da Vinci
painted the Mona Lisa, when you look at it now, the sky looks
coppery because you're looking through a quarter-inch of centuries-old
varnish. That look has nothing to do with da Vinci."
the other hand, some conservators and museums believe they should
apply the best scientific practices of the profession to clean and
restore a piece of art so that viewers can "read" more
of the artist's original vision. The National Gallery in London
belongs to this school. It routinely removes yellowed varnish from
its paintings and applies a clear coat, knowing the process may
have to be repeated in another 25 years. One could look at two paintings
by the same great master at the Louvre and the National Gallery
and see two entirely different effects.
a cleaningan innocuous-sounding word to the laypersoncan
be problematic. As varnish and dirt are removed, the surface of
the artwork can be affected in subtle ways. These changes are irreversible,
so conservators approach cleanings with great caution, usually after
consultation with others within and outside their institution. But
today's conservators are often removing the earnest, yet wrongheaded,
efforts of older generations of conservatorsand undertake
new efforts even while knowing that the best techniques today may
seem equally crude in 30 years. It is this kind of repeat intervention
that incenses James Beck.
" In the rhetoric of this conversation, [the conservators]
say that the previous restoration was no goodnow we're going
to make a really good one," Beck says. "It's like having
a facelift. How many times can people go through one without their
poor faces looking like an orange peel?"
is it even possible to restore the artist's original vision of the
painting? Most conservators say no. "We constantly teach that
you cannot turn back the clock," says Joyce Stoner. "You
cannot make the painting look as it did in the beginning, but you
can remove dirt and grime." Furthermore, conservators rarely
know how the artist might have wanted future generations to handle
the inevitable aging of their works—including the dirt and
grime. A rare exception is Whistler: His collection of letters reveals
that he himself took his five-year-old paintings to a restorer to
replace yellowed varnish with a clean coat.
conservators can't travel through time to consult with da Vinci
about the restoration of his Adoration, they can ask today's
artists how they want their work treated in the future. In a pioneering
effort, Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, director of Harvard's Center for the
Technical Study of Modern Art and director of conservation at the
Whitney Museum, oversees the Artist Documentation Project in which
she interviews artists about their materials, techniques, and intentions
for the future of their work. So will this prevent the conservation
controversies of the future?
from the artist is fundamental, and our profession is working to
expand artist interviews and make them generally available,"
says Irene Konefahl '71, associate conservator of paintings at Boston's
Museum of Fine Arts. "Even so, major conservation decisions
will remain complex because of the uniqueness of each work and its
history; legitimate variations among well-trained, skilled conservators;
and, for works privately held, issues of ownership. All this speaks
for open dialogue, which is what conservators want."
what does the public wantthose of us who believe that the
world's great art patrimony belongs to us rather than the Whitney,
the Louvre, or the Uffizi? Many of us cut our aesthetic teeth on
images taken from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel; some of us still
have those images on our t-shirts, watches, and mouse pads. When
the Sistine cleaning was under way and began to effect a dramatic
change in the look of the ceiling, a huge controversy brewed as
to whether the project was damaging the frescoes and stripping away
paint laid by Michelangelo. Although most of the world's conservators
and art scholars were later convinced that the restoration was a
masterful job, othersincluding Beckfound it an assault.
Many people loved the Sistine Chapel's subtle hues and shadowy figures
and were dismayed by the brilliant pink, turquoise, lapis blue,
and tangerine now uncovered from beneath centuries of candle smoke
and other gunk. Through the dramatic transformation, these people
lost what they had lovedeven if they might have gained a masterpiece
more similar to what Michelangelo had created.
consensus is clearly impossible, conversationmore of itshouldn't
be. According to Beck, the goal of his campaign is to force open
discussion of how these great works are treated so there can be
vigorous debate. However, he often seems unwilling to face those
who bear the brunt of his criticism. Albert Albano invited Beck
to address the American Institute for Conservation's annual conference,
but the invitation was spurned. Joyce Stoner says conservators have
invited Beck to other conservation seminars and meetings, but he
refuses to come. She herself attended an ArtWatch meeting but was
shouted down whenever she tried to join the discussion.
get his newsletter," says Stoner, with just a hint of frustration
in her voice. "One of the things I've seen him say is, 'Sorry,
members, I haven't been in the papers lately.' He seems to be more
interested in publicity than in working with others in the best
interest of art."
Ohlson is a freelance writer in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.