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The changing state of conservation

9 March 2015

View Festival had a pleasing emphasis on the materiality of artworks this year. One of the programme’s three overarching themes looked at ‘Preserving and Restoring’, with events and discussions ranging across buildings, paintings, furniture, textiles and, more conceptually, the ‘spirit’ of a site or lost collection. The headline debate for the theme brought together three leading European conservators to consider the question ‘how do the preservation and restoration of artworks determine the course of art history?’

Through a series of case studies of works conserved at the Courtauld Institute, the Polo Museale di Firenze and the Centre for Research and Restoration of the museums of France, a number of questions emerged. Most obvious, perhaps, is the way in which scientific analysis of works of art for conservation can reveal previously unknown dimensions. An under-drawing revealed by x-radiography or infrared might show an earlier composition, or re-use of a panel or canvas that includes a sketch for another work, sometimes even a work by an entirely different artist. This can raise interesting questions about the market in artist materials, or change the date or attribution of a work.

Such discoveries, however, are clearly only useful when carefully evaluated and interpreted. Discovery of how pigments have faded over time can change art-historical interpretation of the iconography of a painting: perhaps the artist didn’t make such an unusual choice of colour for the Virgin’s robe as previously thought. But, equally, some artists were clearly aware of how their pigments would change over time and planned accordingly. Where, then, do we draw the line? To what point do we ‘return’ a work of art when restoring it? Any work will have multiple moments in its history, which are part of its material heritage. Do we preserve Victorian varnish or damages with an interesting story? To some art historians or audiences that might be the most interesting moment in a work’s past.

That brings us to the tricky question of the audience. All the speakers touched on the issue of who makes the decision. Increasingly, conservation studios and techniques are being opened up through sharing information online, or even projects carried out in public. Conservation of well-loved works attracts intense interest, but can garner equally intense criticism if seen as actively changing rather than preserving. There are fashions in conservation just as in any other aesthetic practice, and permanent changes made by conservators of the past might now be seen as a negative impact on an artwork. Today’s conservators emphasise work that is reversible, to respond to future preoccupations.

Of course, reversibility is itself a fashion that may in future by criticised. I was surprised how resistant all the speakers seemed to the relatively new practice of digital reconstruction. This allows, for instance, colours to be projected onto works to get a sense of how they have changed. This seems to me the ultimate example of non-intrusive, reversible conservation that leaves the work itself untouched. It seems inevitable, given the growth of digital in all parts of our lives, that this will become more fashionable. The issue becomes, as always, how these methods are used and interpreted.

One means of interpretation that most materially affects the course of art history, and that I hadn’t previously considered, is the appeal of conservation discoveries to contemporary artists. The ghostly artworks made visible by imaging technologies, and the imaginative possibilities opened up by reconstructing faded colours or historic materials have a perhaps unsurprising attraction for post-modern artists. They challenge the established understanding of the artistic canon, and therefore open up new avenues to intervene in it. Perhaps, overall, this debate emphasised how work to preserve and restore works of art changes art history by constantly bringing attention back to the materials, whether that be the artist’s, the conservator’s, or the public’s.

‘View: A Festival of Art History’ was at the Institut français du Royaume-Uni, London, from 27 February–1 March 2015.

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Decorated and Replicated: the Cave of Pont-d’Arc (Maggie Gray)

A New Lease of Life for Jackson Pollock’s Mural (Jonathan Griffin)

Open the stores: conservation, collections and the museum of the future (Crystal Bennes)

Preservation vs Presentation: is digital display a solution for museums? (Katy Barrett)

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One comment

  1. Conservation is not an aesthetic practice any more than it is an historic practice. It is, first and foremost, a social practice. Reversibility has long been questioned for being chimerical; retreatability is preferred today. The theme and the debate seemed promising, but apparently they didn’t go too far and would have been better answered by the reading of English Heritage’s Principles.

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