Don’t They Know We Exist?

[With thanks to Walter Henry who told me about this movie]

Framed“, a made for television movie first aired on BBC One on August 31, 2009 (and released on PBS Video on January 11, 2011), is based on a children’s book by Frank Cottrell Boyce which tells the story of a young boy in the poor Welsh village of Manod whose life is changed when a convoy of trucks containing the masterworks of the National Gallery (London) arrives in his village. The National Gallery has flooded and the works are to be stored in the mines outside of town where they were sent for safekeeping during World War II. The man in charge of the operation is Quentin Lester, a curator and not one of the National Gallery’s many conservators.

Did neither Boyce nor the producers of the movie know that the National Gallery has had a Scientific Department since 1934 and a Conservation Department since 1946?

Are there others?

Peter Carey’s most recent novel, The Chemistry of Tears (Faber, 2012), is set in the fictional London Swinburne Museum of clocks, watches, automata, and wind-up engines. It focuses on Catherine Gehrig, a conservator who is mourning the death of her colleague and long-time secret lover. To help her get over her grief, Catherine’s boss gives her the challenging project of restoring a 19th century mechanical duck. Catherine’s project is based on the real life conservation of a silver swan automaton undertaken by Matthew Read of West Dean College.

We have all heard that Daniel Silva’s character Gabriel Allon is very loosely based on conservator David Bull. Are there other, less well-known instances of fictional conservators who are based on real conservators or of fictional conservation projects that are based on real conservation projects?

“Conservation fiction” as outreach?

Two novels published in the past two years which feature conservation, forgery and/or damaged works of art have garnered more attention than most novels. “The Restorer”, by Daniela Murphy Corella, in which a conservator-restorer uncovers a lost fresco in a remote Italian church, was awarded First prize in the 2012 International Rubery Book competition. “Duel”, by Joost Zwargerman, a novel in which a conservator is an important character and in which a valuable painting by Mark Rothko is copied, stolen, and accidentally damaged, was commissioned in 2011 as the “Book Week in the Netherlands” giveaway book and distributed to hundreds of thousands of people free of charge.

If even a small number of the readers of these books and other works of “conservation fiction” gain from them some understanding of conservation, then these novels will have served a valuable outreach function.

Does Kurt Vonnegut’s satire of an artist and his materials still resonate?

While not a new novel, Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut (1987), the “autobiography” of Rabo Karabekian, an artist who was associated with the most famous mid-20th century Abstract Expressionist painters is a cautionary tale about the use of untested art matrials. Karabekian himself is best known for the fact that due to unforeseen chemical reactions between the sizing of his canvases and the Sateen Dura-Luxe acrylic wall-paint he used “whose colors according to advertisements of the day, would ‘… outlive the smile on the Mona Lisa”, all of his paintings destroyed themselves when the paint detached from the canvas not too long after the works were completed. Moreover, Sateen Dura-Luxe has been found to degrade over time into a very deadly poison and is almost impossible to dispose of legally.
Are today’s artists more conscious about permanence and safety of their materials than Vonnegut’s fictional artist of the 1960s?

Will she have time to do any conservation work once she meets her prince?

According to a profile in The New Yorker (“Letter from Rome: The Renovation”, by Ariel Levy, November 28, 2011), Principessa Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi (the former Rita Jenrette) is writing a thriller titled “Caravaggio’s Treasure”. She says that it is about “a blond art conservator with impossible long legs who is totally unaware of her good looks which make women hate her. She is sent to Rome where she meets a handsome prince.” One wonders if the conservator will have time to do any conservation work once she meets her prince. More seriously, one wonders whether such images of conservators do much to promote the seriousness of our work.

Another tale of love and loss and art conservation

Fugitive Blue, by Claire Thomas
Allen and Unwin
A young painting conservator working in a studio in Melbourne, Austalia comes to treat a fifteenth-century panel painted with large quanitities of ultramarine pigment (which makes the title quite bewildering as ultramarine is not a fugitive pigment). As she restores the painting, her fascination with it and its history grows and we learn the story of the painting from its creation until its arrival in Australia after World War II as one of the possessions of a Greek family.
As with many similar novels, there is a love story involving the conservator who has more trouble taking care of her life than works of art.
A sample quote: “I spent so much of time restoring things, trying to reclaim their original beauty. All day, I looked at deteriorating objects with their parts exposed like a person with her heart on the outside. I could touch these paintings, make a decision and watch them transform. Done. But then there was us.”

Swabbing away the varnish in the basement

When one is reading a work of fiction not specifically concerned with art conservation or conservators, one sometimes comes across a casual description that seems to set back the public image of the field by decades. The most recent one I encountered came early in Michael Cunningham’s 2010 novel, By Nightfall. Peter, an art dealer, mulling over his career, says to himself : “He’s an art history guy, maybe he should have become …what? … a conservator, say, one of those museum-basement people who spend their lives swabbing away the varnish and overpaint, reminding themselves (and eventually the world) that the past was garish and bright…”    With all of the thoughtful coverage that conservation projects have received in the popular press,  hadn’t we thought that the field had once and for all come above ground in the public’s mind .