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“How Much Do We Need to Know?”

By Charles Henry

Recently CLIR, the Research and Academic Program of the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute of Art, and Washington University-St. Louis sponsored an exceptionally engaging colloquium at the Clark entitled, “Preservation and Its Intellectual Framework,” exploring the threaded intellectual activities of preservation and art historical interpretation.

The theme of the colloquium was precipitated by the observation that too often, preservation and scholarly interpretation are separated topically and thematically; each has a lexicon and practitioners as well as formal organizations and professional societies. This colloquium programmatically and intentionally brought these fields together, framed by the following questions: what are the decisions made in choosing a particular method of preserving a work of art? What are the alternative methodologies, and why are they not used? What aesthetic and scholarly issues obtain in making such decisions? How are art objects seen and understood before and after selected examples of preservation? Are these changes at times significant and transformative? How determining is an act of preservation on the meaning of an object? What are the philosophies of preservation? What are some of the salient questions an art historian must ask when confronting a newly restored work of art? Are there any arguments against preservation? What are the histories of preservation as scientific and philosophical discourses?

In the opening presentations, Mariet Westermann, vice president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, raised fundamental questions that emerged when framing preservation/conservation as an ethos: what are the guiding ideals or beliefs our community ascribes to these activities? Who decides what gets preserved? How do we choose at what point or moment—at what state of its history—to preserve an object? The temporal dialogue inherent in preservation and conservation was also explored. Conservation assumes responsibility for keeping an object intact, as a kind of dialogue with the past, while preservation attempts to secure an object into the future. Conservation can also entail conserving information about an object, such as x-rays of a painting and other methods of obtaining latent information. She concluded by articulating the need for art historians and preservationists/ conservationists to work together, noting that conservators make ethical decisions every day, and the tradition of separating these professions does not serve well the continuity of our cultural legacy or the complexity of the decisions that it entails.

Fenella France, chief of the Preservation Research and Testing Division of the Library of Congress, spoke eloquently about new technologies that are non-invasive, and the information that such technologies and techniques can reveal. A main focus of her presentation was the problems that arise when an object’s conservation or preservation is treated as separate from its scholarly import. The Library of Congress has adopted an approach that considers various options of conservation-related analyses, and the contextual information that each option may reveal: information that can in turn effect the interpretation of the object. The original copy of Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence was used to illustrate this point. There is a prominent smudge on the manuscript that for decades was impenetrable: whatever was crossed out was not visible to the human eye. Modern, non-invasive hyperspectral imaging yielded the answer: Jefferson had originally written ‘subjects’, and forcefully smudged that word over and wrote instead ‘citizens’, a change of powerful historical significance. Other poignant examples included latent information that was obtained from analyzing the Star Spangled Banner (the flag from Ft. McHenry that inspired the national anthem), and a subsequent decision not to restore the flag to its original look; a 9/11 World Trade Center archive; and a 1513 Ptolemy Geographia/Atlas. Fingerprints on the Gettysburg Address have been revealed through imaging, and work is underway to determine if they are indeed the president’s.

Christian Scheidemann delivered another lively and provocative presentation entitled, “What is the Original Artwork?” This was in part a recounting of experiences he has had as a conservator of contemporary art, a body of work that is characteristically in flux: decomposing, often reworked, sometimes purposefully discarded. An example of the fluidity of much contemporary art can be gleaned by the question: when does a work of art begin? Is it upon completion of the object by the artist; when the object appears in a catalog; when the object is sold; when a newer version is created? All of these have been identified as benchmarks by various artists, muddling the concept of origin. Continuity is similarly beset. One example used was a series of an artist’s head and shoulders, one set made from chocolate, the other from soap. The artist licked the chocolate busts, and rubbed the soap versions, to soften and disarticulate the details as symbolic of the artist’s concept of being. Over time, the media of each set deteriorated, softening and shattering. The artist would then make a new set: what is the original work of art?

A final presentation, by Samantha Stout from the University of California San Diego, was entitled, “The Leonardo Project and the Futures of the Field.” The Leonardo Project is an investigation at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, research that can be characterized as pursuing a mystery or a hunt for a priceless treasure. Leonardo Da Vinci was commissioned to create a fresco of the Battle of Anghiari on a wall of the great room of the palace, and there are records that he did. Today, however, no evidence of that work is visible. Rather, a painting by Vasari occupies the space believed to have been where Leonardo’s commission was supposed to appear. The UC-San Diego team employed sophisticated technological tools and resources to determine if there is a space behind the Vasari painting and a second wall and, if so, to determine if traces of pigment minerals can be discovered that would suggest an earlier, covered over work. X-rays, thermal analyses, and other analytical approaches determined that there is a space behind the Vasari painting and a second wall. With permission from the Florentine government, the team was allowed to drill into the Vasari painting (at a point of 19th century reconstruction, so the original was not violated), and minute scrapings of the hidden wall were made and collected for spectral analysis. Those scrapings have been analyzed, and the results will appear in a scientific journal later this year.

It was noted in a subsequent discussion that even if the material evidence of the scrapings were to prove that paint of some sort was indeed on the secreted wall, no one would remove the Vasari, and there would be no way to prove that the paint had in fact been applied by Leonardo. In sum, what is the purpose of this expensive, technology driven research? What is gained by the accumulation of knowledge and a vast amount of data gathered by the team? It turns out that answering a fundamental question—how much we need to know about any work of art—is truly a matter of perspective.

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