45th Annual Meeting- Paintings Specialty Session, June 1, 2017- “Mapping a Way Forward: Bringing an artwork back from self-destruction, by Per Knutås and Samantha Springer”

Confession time. Having done my third-year intern in the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), I was already familiar with the artwork and treatment involved in this presentation. The first time I heard about it, I was shocked, then curious, then awed. The complexity of the problem and solution never ceases to impress me and make me question my previous opinion, a feeling familiar to those who specialize in the conservation of modern and contemporary art.

Mapa estelar en árbol. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Per Knutås, Paintings Conservator and Chief Conservator at the CMA, and Samantha Springer, Conservator at the Portland Art Museum and former Objects Conservator at the CMA, gave a joint presentation on the issues and treatment process of Gabriel Orozco’s Mapa estelar en árbol (Stellar Map in Tree). Their presentation was a drastic change of pace from the previous two lectures that dealt with 15th-16th century European altarpieces (the Ayala and the Monopoli altarpieces), both of which coincidentally had problems with the formation of insoluble oxalates on the surface (a possible topic for a future symposium?). Although a three-dimensional object, the thought here was to look at Mapa estelar en árbol as a modern panel painting which is how the artist conceived the piece. The treatment crossed traditional conservation specialty boundaries and required collaboration between conservators and the artist.

The artwork

Mapa estelar en árbol is a 30-40 cm thick cross-section of a salvaged mango tree trunk, 70 cm in diameter. Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco wanted to resurrect the tradition of panel painting and used the tree trunk as a modern and unconventional panel. He prepared the end-grain surface in the classical manner by covering it with fabric and layers of gesso. The geometric sgraffito design was created by applying graphite all over the gesso and then incising into it with a compass, another tool that has fallen out of use. The back (other end-grain surface) was sealed with a waxy material. The work debuted at the Kurimanzutto Gallery in Mexico City in 2009. A CMA curator bought the work on opening night.

Detail of the damaged surface. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The problem

Mapa estelar en árbol arrived to the CMA months after its debut in Mexico City. The work had already developed hairline cracks and delamination in that short amount of time. It was unexhibitable within a year. The wood had shrunk with changes in RH, the canvas buckled, and the gesso/graphite layers were severely cracked and lifting from the surface. No conservation treatment, however extraordinaire, would be able to mask the damage and restore the pristine surface. It would leave a scarred surface and the viewer would only see the hand of the conservator. From the CMA’s point of view, the piece was dead.


The meeting

Hoping to get a replacement or get the work re-made, the CMA team got in contact with the gallery and the piece was sent back to Mexico City to be examined by the artist and his team. The Mexico City meeting included Per Knutås, Reto Thüring (Curator of Contemporary Art at the CMA), Gabriel Orozco, his fabricator (who also happens to be a conservator), and the Kurimanzutto Gallery. While the artist initially said he didn’t mind the changes as they spoke to history of the piece, he then suggested his fabricator/ conservator carry out a restoration treatment to fix it. The CMA reserved the right to reject the restored work if the appearance didn’t meet their standards and expectations as this was an option they had previously discussed and rejected in-house. After a failed attempt by the Mexico City fabricator/ conservator, a new arrangement was reached.

The Solution

Refusing to have the work remade in the same way as the original, the CMA staff proposed the addition of a new layer to the original stratigraphy: an inert substrate that would serve as an interleaf of sorts between the dimensionally unstable wood and the fabric. After several rounds of mock-ups and testing back in the Conservation Department at the CMA using green cuts of Mulberry trees (no mango trees to be found in Cleveland) to mimic the original, they settled on the use of a stainless-steel plate that would be adhered to the wood with a custom-made silicone adhesive that could be flexible enough to move with the wood. The canvas would be wrapped around the stainless steel and adhered with BEVA Film. Per traveled to Mexico City where he adhered the canvas-wrapped stainless-steel plate to the original tree trunk. Gabriel Orozco and his team completed the rest of the recreation.

Samantha Springer doing materials testing. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Per Knutås in the artist’s studio adhering the fabric to the stainless-steel plate with BEVA Film. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.



Mapa estelar en árbol as it is currently displayed in the CMA galleries. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The second iteration of Mapa estelar en árbol returned to the CMA months later, where it was left under watch in the Conservation Department for several months (this is when I first met the piece). The new inert layer worked perfectly and no changes or damages have since been observed on the piece, which is now happily displayed in the Modern and Contemporary galleries. The original creation date was kept as they deemed it to be too confusing to list a new intervention date. Also, the artist created another version of this piece (now in a private collection), and he wanted both to be a pair with the same dates.

While the artist retained the traditional conceptual role, this treatment put the conservators in the unusual role of producers driving the process and pushing ethical boundaries. Most would question if it even is the same work of art. Many in the audience struggled to come to terms with it. The Q&A session was dominated by questions on whether they tried to do any consolidation or transfer techniques before deciding to scratch the original surface. An audience member brought up an interesting point. Where Per and Samantha acting as conservators or collaborators? They were not using their technical information as conservators. They were collaborators and technical resources for the artist and as such, the ethics of our profession didn’t apply. This was one of the longest Q&A sessions I have been in, a clear sign that the presentation provided much food for thought.

45th Annual Meeting- Paintings Session, June 1, 2017- “Our Lady of Mercy: The discovery of a hanging scroll painting by José Gil de Castro, by Mónica Pérez”

Our Lady of Mercy with St. Peter Nolasco and St. Raymond Nonnatus. Oil on canvas. ca. 1814-1817, 74.8 x 53.3 cm. Image courtesy of Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago de Chile.

Mónica Pérez, Paintings and Frames Conservator at the Centro Nacional de Conservación y Restauración in Santiago, Chile, introduced us to the painting Our Lady of Mercy with St. Peter Nolasco and St. Raymond Nonnatus, the painter José Gil de Castro, the independence movements of Chile and Argentina, and hanging scroll paintings. There is a lot of history, iconography, and treatment to unpack here. I was initially interested in blogging this presentation as I have a special interest in Spanish Colonial Art, and am currently research Our Lady of Mercy and the development of the devotion during the colonial period in South America. My interest was further peaked by the fact that it was a hanging scroll painting as many of these rarely survive in their original format.

José Gil de Castro was a Peruvian portrait painter who worked in Chile and Argentina in the first half of the 19th century. Gil de Castro started by signing his name in Latin and writing the date in numbers to show he was a cultured man. He progressed to writing out the date in letters, and later switched to writing in Spanish. Gil de Castro was involved in the liberation movement of Chile in the 19th century so his move towards writing and signing in Spanish could be seen as him adopting a more patriotic stance. He transitioned from painting Spanish leaders and royalty to painting military leaders, local aristocracy, and patriots, and is considered the father of Chilean national painting. Starting in 2008 a team of Latin American scholars conducted a six-year study on José Gil de Castro that resulted in the Getty supported publication Más allá de la imagen (Beyond the Image) as well as the colloquium Gil de Castro contemporáneo. El pintor en su tiempo y en el nuestro. I was not able to access the publication Beyond the Image online, but I did find a blogpost related to it in The Iris, the Getty’s blog. Unfortunately the existence of Our Lady of Mercy with St. Peter Nolasco and St. Raymond Nonnatus was unknown at the time and the painting was not included in the publications.

Our Lady of Mercy with St. Peter Nolasco and St. Raymond Nonnatus (1817) is in the collection of the Museo O’Higginiano y de Bellas Artes de Talca, Talca, Chile. The painting, measuring 74.8cm x 53.3cm, is a typical depiction of the Virgin Mary as the crowned Virgin of Mercy wearing the white habit typical of the Mercedarian order and with arms wide open. In one hand she holds the Mercedarian scapular and in the other a yoke, symbol of the order’s original dedication to the ransoming of Christians taken captive by the Moors. In the lower part of the painting are St. Peter Nolasco on the left and St. Raymund Nonnatus on the right. At the very bottom of the painting is a banner with an inscription that indicates it was commissioned by María del Carmen Ruiz Tagle from Santiago, Chile, in 1817 and signed “Fecit me Josephus Gil”. In terms of the iconography, Mónica Pérez talked about how devotion to Our Lady of Mercy was transferred to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who became the patron of the liberation and was adopted as the patroness of Chile in the 19th century. This information, couple with what we learned about the evolution of the artist’s signature, could be used to place the work within the context of Gil de Castro’s shift from vice regal to patriotic painter.

Our Lady of Mercy before treatment. Image courtesy of Centro Argentino
de Investigadores de Arte.

Interest in the painting and its subsequent 2015 treatment at the National Center for Conservation and Restoration was motivated by its inclusion in the then upcoming exhibition José Gil de Castro, Artist of Liberators at the National Fine Arts Museum in Santiago, Chile. The painting as well as its frame were in need of repairs. The painted canvas was nailed to a plank of wood. Although it is common for Spanish Colonial paintings to be nailed or glued to the front of a strainer, paintings nailed to a full board are not. There were horizontal distortions and tears, particularly towards the bottom of the canvas. There were losses to the paint layer and overpaint over the text at the bottom of the composition which made it hard to read, all topped by a yellowed varnish. These are all common condition issues found in paintings and as such, they proceeded with a treatment proposal typical for an easel painting which included removal of the discolored varnish, removal of planar deformations, lining, and compensation for loss. If you read the title of the presentation then you know they were in for a big surprise!


Detail of ribbon around the edge of the painting. Image courtesy of Centro Argentino de Investigadores de Arte.

Upon unframing the painting, they came across signs that this was not a typical easel painting. There was a silk ribbon hand stitched around the perimeter of the canvas which combined with the horizontal cracks and distortions, suggested this was a hanging scroll painting. The scroll format and a note containing a prayer suggested the painting was used for private devotion. The painting would have initially be composed of the extant canvas with a rod and case attached at either end, all together making a single unit. Study of other paintings by Gil de Castro shed further light into his use of the scroll format. Displayed on the wall behind two other sitters that the artist painted were hanging scroll painting of Our Lady of Mercy. Paintings within paintings! In addition to this, IRR analysis revealed that the artist modified the date at the bottom of the painting. It was initially painted in 1814, that same year Gil de Castro made two other versions with similar iconography of Our Lady of Mercy. Pérez did not venture to guess why the change of date.

Detail of portrait of José Manuel de Lecaros Alcalde (1814) by Gil de Castro. Notice the hanging scroll painting of Our Lady of Mercy on the back wall. A more close up detail on the image to the right. Image courtesy of Centro Nacional de Conservación y Restauración and Centro Argentino
de Investigadores de Arte.


In light of this new discovery, the team of conservators in conjunction with a team of curators, art historians, and the painting’s owners decided to re-evaluate the initially proposed treatment. They wanted to preserve the evidence of the original format and history of use of the painting which meant limiting themselves to addressing issues that affected the interpretation of the image. Although cracks affected the visual appreciation of the painting, they attested to its intended use. They removed the painting from the board, removed the yellowed varnish, relaxed the planar deformations, carried out tear mending with the application of welded stitches, did some visual reintegration, revarnishing, and placed a Crepeline ribbon over the edges to protect the original ribbon. The painting was then mounted like a hanging textile. The treatment provided a new interpretation and context for the painting, and added to the understanding of Gil de Castro’s materials and techniques.

You can read more about the treatment of this painting at the Centro Nacional de Conservación y Restauración’s website, including images of the painting’s original condition and examination. The National Fine Arts Museum’s website also has some online resources related to the exhibition José Gil de Castro, Artist of Liberators as well as the catalogue in pdf form . Most of the resources are in Spanish so time to brush up on it!