The modern role of a professional paintings conservator has, in many ways, been shaped by controversy. Each accusation of insensitivity or misunderstanding has generally resulted in a reexamining of the evidence, a recalibration of what one needs to know to make the right decision—and of course, to never ever cause damage. The problem is that with a great painting “damage” does not necessarily equate to the Mr. Bean removal of a head from an iconic work. No, “damage” in this context takes us into rather more subtly treacherous terrain.
Unfortunately, controversies frequently shape the issues in crudely simplistic terms. Our defense is, understandably, to fall back on objectivity and science. Facts are our armor-plating and the more they are grounded in scientific analysis, the more impenetrable that plating feels. Of course, a deeper knowledge of the materials and techniques employed by artists and how those very building blocks are subject to change and decay is fundamental to the interpretation of works of art and the approach the conservator adopts during the course of treatment. The truth, however, is that understanding these factors completely—if that is even possible—does not necessarily lay out a clear path ahead when it comes to treatment. It lays out a range of choices and ultimately a set of values.
Trying to understand what the artist intended—was this work experimental or standard, a concert performance or a utilitarian exercise?—may impose different weighting to types of change or damage. Then there is the sticky topic of hierarchy. Is the approach to compensating for abrasion in a Velázquez portrait inherently different to tackling the same condition issue in a painting by his son-in-law and studio assistant, Mazo? What is the framework that guides our choices and who should have the last word?
There is no one, simple answer to any of these questions. The philosophical intersects with the practical and when discussed in the abstract this tends to create an impenetrable labyrinth of potential cause and effect.
Cleaning, the removal of discolored varnish and overpaint, is probably the source of both the glamour and the suspicion and occasional vilification associated with painting conservation. It can dazzle—since the lifting of a deadening layer of varnish from a great picture is a very seductive thing to behold. But the discussion of its pros and cons can also exasperate, with its indulgence in the conflicting intangibles of overcleaning and patina—essentially the meat and potatoes of every controversy on the subject. From the outset paint has different, complex physical properties depending on the pigments employed, the ratio of medium required, what additives may be present, how these components interact, how they age and what conditions and interventions they have been subject to in the past. Looking down a microscope at the varied topography of a paint film should deter anyone from believing that it is possible to easily and uniformly return to the original surface—there really is no original to return to. I have never liked the term over-cleaned, though I admit to using it. It is too frequently applied to recent treatments when the crimes may lie in the past. Also other choices besides cleaning may play an equally important contributory role in making a figurative painting appear harsh, disjointed, or discordant. An overly fastidious approach to retouching can create a disconcerting, uniformly high finish to an object that we know in our gut is old and cannot possibly really look that way. The selection of varnish can be the difference between encountering subtle, velvety transitions and high-contrast, surface glitter. Lighting and display also play their role. Anyone who has watched a painting literally transform on being moved from under a penetrating, artificial spotlight to the soft wash of diffuse daylight will likely never forget the experience.
Despite the complexities inherent in treatment, I remain a champion of practical work, of sensitive intervention. The transformation I see take place during conservation is one that reaffirms the qualities and status of a work of art. With great pictures this is always humbling and not infrequently transformative.
At a recent meeting a curatorial colleague commented that cataloging should not only encompass what an object is, but how it speaks and why that matters. I firmly believe that the conservator has a role in that exploration. And here, I don’t mean the research into materials and technique, although that is absolutely crucial. What I mean is, the way choices we make as conservators during treatment underpin or undermine how the object speaks. There is always more than one solution, and so we must genuinely embrace the subjectivity inherent in compromise, subjectivity as a fascinating, dynamic component, a constant and poignant reminder that the objects in our care truly do have lives of their own.