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Conservation Wars - Page 3

"There 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."

But 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.

"Conservators 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."

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that there is a difference between restorers and conservators–a 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 object–artistic, historic, religious, cultural, and other values. While conservators may occasionally restore a work of art–reconstruct its aesthetic appearance–they 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.

Still, 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.

"This 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."

To 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 art–yellowed 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 famous–and perhaps most controversial–product of its
philosophy is the Mona Lisa, which is covered by many layers of varnish dating back to the 18th century.

"The 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."

On 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.

Even a cleaning–an innocuous-sounding word to the layperson–can 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 conservators–and 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 good–now 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?"

And 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.

While 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?

"Input 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."

But what does the public want–those 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, others–including Beck–found 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 loved–even if they might have gained a masterpiece more similar to what Michelangelo had created.

While consensus is clearly impossible, conversation–more of it–shouldn'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.

"I 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."

Kristin Ohlson is a freelance writer in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

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