April 20, 2011  |  Artists, Conservation
Conservation and a Different Kind of Guitar God

No matter one’s specialization, there are certain questions that all art conservators are asked, including:

Aren’t you scared to do what you do? The answer to this question is sort of a bluff: Our training and experience greatly inform our decision-making about conservation interventions, which are preceded by extensive testing. Nonetheless, some treatments are still a little scary.

And, Have you ever damaged an artwork by mistake? The official answer here, of course, is: No! (And if I did, I‘m not sure I would share that with you.) Mistakes do happen, but testing and decision-making skills help to significantly minimize their risk.

Or, the eternal fascination: What’s the most important object you’ve treated? The answer according to the Code of Ethics of the American Institute for Conservation—a document that we follow as professional conservators—is that all the objects under our care are equally important. Whether faced with the Portrait of Olga in a Fur Collar or a portrait of Great-Aunt Mildred in her Sunday best, we approach every job with the same level of professionalism, care, and concern. That said, there’s important…and then there’s important. I can’t deny that I was completely awestruck when presented with the chance to examine and treat Picasso’s important cardboard guitar of 1912 and the related sheet metal version of 1914.

As a fledgling college student of art history I learned of these two landmark Cubist sculptures from second-hand textbooks and washed-out slides, never suspecting that one day I would be so well acquainted with the details of their materials and construction. The two videos in this post were made in conjunction with the exhibition Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914. The video above deals with the cardboard guitar, focusing on the two major physical changes related to its current display—the addition of the cardboard tabletop and the replacement of the triangular headstock, which had been earlier replaced. The video below spotlights the physical relationship between the cardboard and metal guitars and summarizes long sessions of close measuring and comparison of the two objects.