If F. Scott Fitzgerald was right when he wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” then conservators of Old Master paintings might be among the smartest people you’re likely to meet. Quite rightly, we construct and adhere to practical codes of ethics in our work, heartily endorsing such near-sacred precepts as the principle of reversibility, or stability in the processes and materials we employ, and so on and so forth. Yet many of the structural aspects of conservation treatments essentially are irreversible, and a removed layer of varnish or historic retouching is gone forever. Nonetheless, both as a student and a young practitioner I knew that the bad old days of 18th or 19th-century painter-restorers making drastic interventions, for example repainting vast sections seemingly more or less on a whim, were long gone, and I took comfort from the fact that it seemed to me that the fundamentals of what to do and how to do it felt as though they were essentially agreed upon—however intensely debate might rage within the profession over the details of varnishes, cleaning systems, and the like. Funnily enough, this was more or less the time of Fukuyama’s The End of History ideas about political systems reaching their evolutionary endpoint—maybe there was something in the air (or the water…).
However, one of the more interesting things about our oft-stated ethical conservation goals, important and useful as they are, is how they can create a comforting aura of objectivity and certainty about work that remains highly subjective in some very important respects within that wider consensus. For as long as we derive any kind of aesthetic or emotional pleasure from a painting, almost every act of conservation can be loaded with subjective interpretation; furthermore, many of the discrete phases of a given conservation treatment are inextricably bound with others. For example, it’s often hard to evaluate levels of cleaning without taking into account the approach to retouching—if two paintings in similar condition receive the same kind of cleaning but different levels of restoration, the less retouched work will often appear to have been more thoroughly cleaned, and so forth. Every single Old Master painting you see in a museum will look the way it does because of a chain of editorial decisions, sometimes centuries long, taken after it was made about its restoration and display. And so today’s conservator is merely the latest link in that painting’s history of interpretation, deciding about its physical structure, cleaning, level of retouching, format, varnishing—not to mention the more curatorial choices about framing, lighting, and hanging. There is much comfort and guidance for us to be had by our ever increasing knowledge of artists’ materials and original intention, or present-day material science, and our near-instant ability to share and access professional expertise worldwide—but the fact remains that the conservation treatments we present, usually achieved with a considerable degree of professional exchange and consensus, are always one of many available options.
This is not a bad thing, however; who would say that there is only one right way to perform a symphony? Any important monographic Old Master exhibition will show you a fascinating range of individual conservation histories and choices, and even if you think they are of unequal merit they usually have lessons to impart (I guarantee that if you spot a person in a museum looking up at an Old Master painting at a steep raking angle, standing as close as security will allow, it will be a conservator checking out the varnishing technique of the last restoration…). And I do have strong views, informed by science and history but nonetheless interpretive in varying degrees, about what I believe to be the appropriate conservation choices. I also have enough historical knowledge and life experience to see that today’s aesthetic certainties can look a little different relatively quickly—hence our entirely laudable aim to tread as lightly and be as reversible in what we do as circumstances allow.
I think that conservators have sometimes been uncomfortable about presenting themselves as both upholding scientific methodology and presenting nuanced aesthetic judgements. The recent explosion of social media communication is changing that, rapidly: the shift from writing for a professional journal read by hundreds to presenting a social media piece seen by hundreds of thousands is pretty mind-boggling. It’s impossible to predict how that might change the way we work in the future, but explaining and communicating what we do to such a vast audience is a fascinating opportunity, demanding a clarity that feels like a healthy tonic.