A late post on Thursday’s morning paintings sessions

Program Chair Bart Devolder put a lot of thought into grouping talks by topic, and before the morning break we were treated to three that spoke to the present, past, and future of conservation.

First, we had a taste of the past–Erica James presented on her experience with Anselm Kiefer’s works. Erica divided her talk into two parts. In the first, she described the treatment and study of Anselm Kiefer’s beautiful mixed media work, “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom.” The piece, like much of Kiefer’s oeuvre, is made of inherently unstable materials Through conversations with the artist, James was able to tap into his philosophies about his work and degradation and she raises the question, “Are these condition issues or creation issues?” The ultimate treatment was minimal and preventive in nature, and was a collaborative process among many conservators. This led to the second half of the talk, which explored the question of how conservation, and conservation training, has changed and perhaps has moved away from the emphasis on hand skills. “Are we training to treat paintings, study paintings, or both?”

Pam Betts of the Shelburne Museum then spoke to the past of paintings conservation in a look at the work and thoughts of Alice Dibble, a restorer who treated many of the Shelburne’s paintings in the 60’s and 70’s. Pam Betts shared the story of Dibble through archival research and the examination of the works that Dibble treated. We were treated to several sound bites of the charming Dibble discussing her work on a radio program. At times, Dibble brought a minimal and modern approach to her work, avoiding lining when possible, retaining original stretchers when they were replaced, and gently if unevenly cleaning paintings. However, Betts also showed examples of harsher treatments, particularly on panel paintings, which were aggressively flattened. Betts left us with the excellent question of how our own generation’s work will be viewed.

The next talk focused on the future of conservation. Kathleen Martin and Bonnie Rimer tackled the problem of the treatment fatty acid crystals on the surface of modern oil paintings. She outlined desired qualities of a successful treatment – permanence, no affect on the aesthetic, inert, reversible, non-toxic, and readily available. She proposes a 2-step process. In the first, excess fatty acid crystals would be removed, possibly with a mild solvent. After, the crystals would be dissolved, disrupted, and/or dispersed. On paint-outs and mock-ups, she tested approximately 6 different solutions, including several components of oil paint itself, glycerol and oleic acid. She has experienced some success with both of these products, but the research is preliminary. It will be very interesting to hear how the project progresses. In the question and answer session, several people expressed a strong desire to know more about the mechanism of formation of the fatty acids.

After the morning break was Bart’s “Romantic Session,” featuring works that had been separated and reunited. All three talks also happened to focus on Italian art. Jean Dommermuth presented “Two portraits by Giacomo Ceruti, An Examination.” NYU’s Villa La Pietra owns 2 beautiful large portraits by the 18th century artist Giacomo Ceruti, a horseman and a hunter. Using the bare minimal examination equipment – only those available to them at Villa Pietra – Dommermuth extracted an amazing amount of information about the paintings. Through examination of the condition, materials, and compositions, Dommermuth made a compelling argument that the pair represents two of perhaps 8 paintings from a decorative interior scheme. One very interesting point of her talk examined the fact that the paintings are not — and never have been — varnished. Dommermuth described Ceruti’s practice as a fresco painter and a painter of reverse paintings on glass. He would have, she argues, had a very keen sense of how gloss affects the viewing of an artwork. As these paintings are large and were likely hung high, the low gloss would have aided in a clear viewing.

Stephen Gritt then presented, “Approaches to Reconstruction and Presentation of Veronese’s ‘Butchered’ Petrobelli Altarpiece.” The Petrobelli altarpiece was cut up by a dealer in the late 1780’s. the incomplete pieces of the altarpiece have been altered and have ended up scattered across the world. The National Gallery of Canada owns the upper portion, which was heavily damaged in the 1920’s. Another fragment from a collection in Texas has only recently been identified as the head of the central figure. Each of the [pieces has been treated slightly differently in their respective collections, so the conservators faced quite a challenge in the reintegration of the extensive losses. Non-mimetic inpainting was used.

Finally, Serena Urry presented on the “Technical Examination And Treatment Of Three Panels Of A Predella By Sassetta.” Urry was able to aid in the reconstruction of an altarpiece by careful examination and measuring of the evidence in the x-rays and paintings themselves. Existing nails, the grain of the wood, and evidence of old nails all aided in this project.