Some Thoughts on the Conservation of Prints and Drawings.
ArtWatch Summer 2000
This essay was published in the Summer 2000 edition of ArtWatch with the title ‘Marks must be read’
The role of the fine art conservator should be to preserve the entrusted work by doing whatever is possible to prevent deterioration without harming it. Such action might be mechanical such as repairing tears or holes, or relining, or chemical such as de-acidifying or treating for fungus. Clearly it is no part of the conservators job to try to ‘improve’ or ‘complete’ the work whatever its state may be. Such attempts can be nothing but forgery. These principles are very clear, and adhering to them should present the conservator with no difficult ethical decisions whatever the financial or other pressures from unscrupulous or misguided dealers, curators or collectors. Difficult decisions can arise, however, concerning the removal of alien substances whether applied by another hand than that of the artist, or accruing accidentally in the passage of time. Retouching, for example, which might be the work of an earlier restorer, or accidental staining.
What are the guiding principles which will help the conservator make the right decisions in this area? The first safe rule surely must be, “if in doubt, do nothing”. You won’t be making matters worse, and a later mind and hand may be able to accomplish what you cannot. Secondly a conservator should never make an irreversible decision based on an estimate of artistic merit. It is not their job to judge art, merely to look after it. This has led some to argue that the conservator should be a scientist alone with as little aesthetic knowledge as possible lest it should influence his actions. The objection to this is that in order to look after something you need to understand what the something is – what it is that needs looking after – and here artistic knowledge is needed.
We must now consider carefully the “fact” coming into the conservator’s hands; what it is and what it is not. Let us take the example of a drawing with a piece torn off and missing from one corner and with some holes and tears. Careful identification leads us to the safe assumption that the paper has discoloured since the drawing was made, and some liquid, possibly tea, has been spilt over a part of it. This is the “fact”. First, then, the drawing is no longer complete as it was when it left the artist’s hand. Or so we assume, for he may have torn off the corner and made the holes and tears (or some of them), either for some obscure artistic reason, or out of anger or despair. What is certain however, is that if it is not now complete it never again can be, and any attempt to bring this about is nothing but forgery and must be utterly rejected in however small a degree.
A drawing is a decorated or patterned surface, in this case a piece of paper patterned with pencil marks, and others too possibly we must assume, such as thumb prints or smudges. It is vital that one does not think that the drawing is the marks alone, with the paper there merely to support them. To think this (even a little) is to completely misunderstand the nature of two dimensional design, yet a measure of this misunderstanding does seem to exist in most people, conservators and curators included, as I hope to show.
If we complete the rectangle of our drawing by adding, not the missing corner, for that is missing, but another one, and patch the holes, are we not forging a complete drawing from the “fact” of an incomplete one, just as we would be if we were to add, i.e. forge, some missing lines or tone? Yes, we most certainly are. It may be argued that no great harm is done; that we can safely assume that the missing corner must have been the same as the rest of the paper. But has any good been done by deceiving the viewer into thinking that he is seeing what he is not? The inescapable “fact” is the incomplete drawing. What is gained by suggesting that it is otherwise? There are disreputable answers to this question of course. From the dealer, “I can sell it for more”; from the curator, “It looks better”. Why does it look better? “Neater then”. What of it? “It displays better”. How? Why? And again, what of it?
There are also two reputable answers which we must consider carefully. The first is to do with mechanical strength and therefore preserving the future of the drawing. The holes and tears need to be repaired to prevent further deterioration; a corner replaced for the same reason and to facilitate mounting. Fair enough, but we are adding supporting material, not completing the drawing, so let this distinction be clearly visible. Let there be no deception, so no invisible mending, no careful colour or texture matching. We want to see the “fact”.
The second argument centres on the idea of distraction. We are told that it is distracting to have a hole in the middle of a drawing or, if we have agreed on the need for a strengthening patch, a visible patch. But from what are we being distracted? Not from an appreciation of the complete drawing because we have not got the complete drawing. The “fact” is the incomplete drawing. The right question is; how can we best appreciate and enjoy what we have got – the incomplete drawing? Surely not by being deceived into thinking that it is complete or being made to wonder whether it is or not? That would be distracting. This is not to say that any mechanically satisfactory patch could do equally well. If the drawing was in pale pencil on whitish paper then a bright red patch or a black, or silver, one would certainly be distracting.
Drawings are structured wholes – the decorated or patterned surfaces I spoke of earlier. One part is understood in relation to another, or others, or all others, and it is the context which gives precise meaning to the elements. A short straight line which in a Rembrandt drawing becomes the mouth of Christ is, without other marks, just a short, straight line, no more. In looking at a drawing the eye is always moving from one place to another so as to discover the precise meaning of somewhere conferred on it by elsewhere, this growing comprehension leading to an experience of the artist’s expression, or as much of it as we are fitted to share. This interrelatedness, very strong in great drawings, means that just as the precise meaning of the part is given by the whole so, to, an extent, the part is present within the rest of the whole and its other parts. This is why great art suffers less than might be expected when bits become destroyed. A Greek figure or one by Michaelangelo is so perfectly balanced that the relative weight and spacial distribution of any part is manifest in the rest of the figure which can therefore, as it were, complete itself should some part, a head, or arm perhaps, become destroyed. Complete itself that is in the mind or experience of the receptive viewer. Something is lost of course, but far from all. Art can generate a formal momentum which will carry the perceiver across breaks and voids.
We want our incomplete drawing to communicate as much as possible of its original content or expression as it is capable of. We will not help it to do this by forging a seeming, but lying, and therefore distracting, completeness, nor will we help by making our repair work visually “noisey” so that it disrupts the visual flow generated by the part of the drawing that survives. What we want is clearly visible but unobtrusive repair work. This is what will not distract our attention from the “fact”.
In the case of discolouration and staining, and any previous forgery (earlier restoration, for example) we have to proceed very carefully applying the same reasoning. In considering these changes it is necessary to separate the “fact” into two. The “fact” of additions or changes not intended by the artist (can we be sure what he intended?), and the “fact” of what survives of the drawing as the artist left it. Can we be sure of disentangling these in thought; and can we then be sure of removing or minimising the former without reducing or changing the latter?
If a drawing is made in bright sunlight and later viewed in weak artificial light, tungsten say, the difference is rather like the drawing being viewed in the original light but through a darkish warm filter (a tea stain for example). It’s not just like that of course, but the point I wish to make is that the perceiving brain is amazingly good at adapting to different, even changing, conditions and compensating for them. It has evolved into its highly complicated form to recognize and go on seeing the same thing in constantly changing conditions. The pattern on the retina is always changing and never twice the same but we see the same people moving about the same room. The daylight fades and we turn on the bright yellow tungsten lamps, yet most people go on seeing the same colours: the page still looks white, our trousers, blue, the carpet, olive green. What the brain can do astonishingly well is go on detecting invarients in the changing array. In almost all viewing conditions the drawing you are looking at will not be evenly illuminated. One side will be brighter and there will be a tonal gradient across the drawing. Your brain will register this, unconsciously, and compensate for it so that you will ‘see’ the tonal pattern the artist intended for you. (To be strictly accurate I should say that the brain makes the artist’s tonal pattern available, as it were. Whether you actually see it is determined by your visual and artistic education which are beyond the artist’s control). The same kind of compensation can be made for more drastic changes, provided the brain can separate the two types of pattern. With a little concentration one can stop seeing a shadow cast across part of a drawing so that one sees only the artist’s intended tonal pattern. The same can be done with surprising success for really rather bad stains, providing their pattern is arbitrary and can be disentangled and detached from the intended one (if it cannot then the conservator would have no business touching it). Tears, scratches, even lines or scribbles by another hand, providing they are randomly made with respect to the original patterns of the drawing, can with surprising success be ignored or discounted. There are cases where artists have made drawings over other drawings, either out of expediency or to save paper, and it is perfectly possible to pay attention to either.
The brain is eager to make sense of what is put before its eyes and the drawing is keen to complete itself in the mind of the viewer, if I may put it that way. Such additions may be very annoying but they do not destroy the drawing they overlay. But if a badly discoloured drawing is bleached, or even washed and if this action does not affect all parts of the pattern equally, if unmarked paper is lightened more than the marks are in other places, for example, then the tonal balance of the drawing will be irreversibly altered and the light giving harmony of the drawing lost for ever.
We have to ask ourselves, can we wash, or bleach or remove in the certainty that we will not be upsetting the balance and harmony of what remains of the original, and if we are sure that we can, will our actions reveal that balance and harmony more clearly?— Only if we are sure that we can reveal more of the intended “fact” that remains without losing any in so doing, should we proceed. There is no way that we can regain what is lost; any attempt at this is deception – forgery. Our aim must simply be to preserve and further reveal what is still there but only the last if it can be done in the certainty that more of the artist’s intention will be gained than lost, but, since this implies a value judgement, probably only if we can be certain that nothing of his manifest intention will be lost.