We covered a lot of territory in our last post, documenting Echo’s condition and treating the discolored canvas. Our efforts have produced satisfying results. Using deionized water to remove some of the degradation products from the top section of the canvas, we were able to evenly decrease the yellowing in that area.
The gradation of discoloration that we originally observed is now barely perceptible under most lighting conditions.
Anything a conservator does to change a painting is referred to as treatment, but there can be a variety of rationales behind the decision to intervene. One of the primary concerns in conservation is the physical stabilization of the artwork. If a painting is in immediate danger of losing material, conservators will take measures to halt the degradation. Other concerns, as with Echo, are focused on the visual changes to the work and thus bring aesthetic judgments to bear on the treatments considered.
Once a work is stable, we evaluate possibilities for damage mitigation and prevention. Choosing to alter the current appearance of an artwork requires consideration of artist’s intent, aesthetic unity, and acceptable change. Treatment that addresses existing problems often involves minimizing visual disruption caused by factors that the artist did not anticipate such as damage, accumulated grime, old restoration, and, as with Echo, differential discoloration of the canvas.
Because the artist is, more often than not, unavailable to speak directly about his or her work, aesthetic treatment decisions are always informed by extensive research and consultation. And, when possible, conservators only add materials that can be easily removed. However, these caveats don’t guarantee a straightforward consensus about a treatment. Within the profession and elsewhere, the philosophical and practical implications of conservators’ actions are continually debated.
Over the past 30-odd years, conservators have increasingly emphasized strategies for preventive care. Preventive conservation is exactly what it sounds like: taking steps to minimize the potential for damage and to slow degradation processes, thereby postponing or entirely avoiding hands-on restoration of the work. This paradigm is most widely manifest as environmental standards for displaying and storing art, but preventive conservation can also take the form of physical intervention.
With Echo, for example, we knew that we were dealing with a smoldering degradation problem. For 60 years, Echo’s canvas has been mounted over a wooden stretcher, and aging wood is acidic. So here’s the equation: wood against canvas over time equals brown, brittle, deteriorated canvas.
In the case of Echo, this extreme discoloration has begun on the back of the canvas, and, left untended, it would eventually make its way to the front surface. Because Echo doesn’t have a continuous paint layer to hide the degradation, it would become visible on the front of the painting as a brown grid echoing the stretcher.
To prevent this, we chose to isolate the wood from the canvas. We removed Echo from its stretcher and adhered a thin, inert film (Marvelseal) to the wood surfaces that rest against the canvas.
At five mils thick, the film won’t add bulk at the edges of the painting, and, being chemically inert, it provides a barrier that will prevent the two from coming into contact, interacting, and degrading.
Meanwhile, nearby…One looms large in the conservation studio.
Next up we’ll return to One, looking at the similarities that have allowed Echo’s treatment to inform our approach to the big painting and the limits of that comparison.