Sunday, January 9, 2011

In Search of the Ideal

      A book entitled Conservation Treatment Methodology does not signal that one is in for a “fun read.”  Yet, this well-respected work by Barbara Appelbaum is enjoyable and approachable.  To give one example, when  the author discusses the ethics of conservation and the way we value objects  she relates the process of repairing her family’s Thanksgiving motif napkins. (We don’t, unfortunately, get a photo of these napkins, but we can easily imagine what they’re like).  She sets up a Values History table for it (p. 229)  With regard to aesthetic value, the napkins “evidently [possess] some—perhaps only to the owners.” By contrast, the sentimental value is “major”. This Value Table ultimately helps the family decide whether it would be ethical to sacrifice one of the napkins so that its turkey motif may be cannibalized and sewn into the tears of the remaining napkins.  I won’t say too much about how the case was resolved, but I can tell you that it ends satisfactorily for all parties...including the about-to-be-sacrificed  turkey (napkin). 
                Another part of the Ms. Appelbaum’s book which has stayed with me, is her chapter,  (Chapter 6),  on the “ideal state” of an art object.  At the moment I am thinking about the ideal state of an easel painting. The simple definition is that a painting's ideal state would be achieved when it leaves the restorer’s studio looking like it did when it left the artist’s studio at completion. There are barriers to this ideal state though, the most obvious being the craquelure (tiny network of cracks) that develop over time and that are usually enjoyed by the owner for they testify to the age of the work.  The other issue, one that I encounter from time to time, is the preference of the owner for varnish that has yellowed or darkened over time.  Paintings are valued when they show their age, which once again proves that art does not necessarily mimic life.   Below is an example of a painting with a darkened varnish.                 

As the photo shows, the painting required repairs to the peeled areas toward the bottom.  The question was whether the inpainting (painting of the missing areas)should match the darkened, yellowed version of the color or should the entire painting be cleaned first.  In this case, the client was interested in having the work cleaned.  The result of the cleaning (along with the inpainting) is shown below.

The difference in color is definitely dramatic.  The colors are cooler and the modeling more articulated.  There may be those that miss the softness of the “before,”  but we can certainly see the artist’s handling of form and greater nuances of color.   Having said that, I can appreciate  Ms. Appelbaum’s reminders that  a painting’s owners may have very strong feelings and associations that  signs of age—including darkened varnish—be left as they are. Her book makes clear that besides correcting problems, a restorer must consider a work’s meaning to the owner.

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