Volume 16, Number 1, Jan 1994, pp. 9-10

An Urgent Request

by Caroline K. Keck

In the Spring of 1943, fifty years ago and just ten days before he entered the United States Army, Sheldon Keck attached a facing of mulberry tissue to a flaking canvas painting. He used Gettens Formula starch paste; the facing adhered excellently; he considered that he had temporarily secured the painting from further loss of pictorial surface. His examination report with estimate for cost of work to be done had been accepted, and agreement had been reached with the owners--a New York club--that further treatment could await the allied victory and Sheldon's release from military service.

He had been in uniform less than three months when all hell broke over my head. I was informed by mail and telephone that Sheldon had ruined, "irrevocably," a valued portrait in the club's collection and the directors were outraged. It transpired that an artist member chanced to see the faced portrait in storage and was horrified to find paper stuck all over its surface. He proclaimed this fatal destruction, and to prove his point, sponged away a section of the protective tissue showing how the paint came away with it. Nobody but nobody would listen; nobody would read what I wrote, quoted, explained; nobody was interested in any second conservation opinion. The furor that artist stimulated was awful. Only the ambience of patriotism (I was a Soldier's Wife) spared me from lawsuit and punishment for my husband's inexcusable malpractice. When the affair was finally closed, I was so stunned and so relieved I lacked the courage to inquire after the fate of the other victim, the poor painting.

Half a century later, reading about conservation of the Nefertari tomb (GCI Newsletter, Volume VII, No. 3, Fall 1992, p.6) I learn that after the scientific survey was completed in 1987, "...emergency work commenced. About 10,000 small strips of fine-grained Japanese mulberry bark paper were applied to cracks and loose plaster fragments to prevent their collapse." I am willing to bet that, had this preservation been interrupted prior to completion, non-professional viewers would have shrieked, "Malpractice!" to a responsive news media, and disaster could well have followed.

Our profession makes no effort to acquaint the public with the whys and hows of what we do. Everybody recognizes the need for conservation of natural resources. How would it be if by the mid- 21st century, everybody understood the need to take care of man- made inheritance? Not only the need, but preventive procedures for maintenance? If we neglect this opportunity to tell the public our story, too, we are as guilty of destructive loss in artifacts as vandals, and quite as thoughtless.

We have persisted in talking to ourselves or to a little world of cognoscenti. We devote time to impressing one another, worrying that if we employ terms that are too simplified, analogies too commonplace, our listeners will fail to realize how learned we are. A century ago, procedural details were closet stuff, and restorers opted to be little Houdinis, perhaps to avoid answering questions, perhaps to cloak their shaky status at least in mystery. The outside world was only aware that museums engaged in the activity of repairing paintings when bad-mouthing--due to rabid opinions on altered appearance of familiar pictures--slopped over into the scandal press. Dealers rarely wished to be informed on the physical condition of the paintings they bought and sold. Collectors relished the illusion that a proffered masterpiece had been owned by a little old family whose ancestor had acquired it directly from the widow of the artist, and down through the years not a finger had touched it. True that in the 20th century, certain fantasies have given way under scientific study and that we do have a small following who comprehend the difficulties we confront, but we still face an unwarranted and extensive antagonism.

We need to make friends.

Artists are seldom enamored of us. Few of them have any interest in the behavior of the materials they employ and resent our viewpoint. Edwin Dickinson, for example, knew precisely how he wanted his paintings to look and swore he never used varnish. He painted slowly, meticulously, often recording the number of "sittings" (3-400!) it took him to complete a picture. When I questioned him about sunk-in surfaces occurring during a long work period, he assured me he never continued development before brushing "retouching medium" over the entire paint he already had in place. Another occasion, when I mended a badly damage "headless nude" to his pleasure and amazement, Edwin remarked how too bad he had not known me earlier, especially now we lived near Lake Otsego, in Cooperstown. His father had owned a painting of that lake which the family admired until it had fallen off the wall and been ripped--so of course they threw it away.

Georgia O'Keeffe was familiar with her materials but she did not want her paintings "restored." She liked good maintenance: ordered dirty finger marks, dents, and scratches removed; corner draws eliminated. If crackle developed, she wanted a lining to hold it down; flaking was another matter. If flaking was microscopic (and this did occur in a few areas of single color) she permitted repair; if the painting had been sold, she paid for the repair herself and had to pass on it after treatment. I plead in vain to save a handsome "Daffodil" painting with extensive cleavage and very slight loss, all the result of improper housing at the seashore plus a hurricane. Cleavage with flaking doomed a canvas; she destroyed it herself, deliberately cutting out the central portion of her painting, leaving small bits attached to the stretcher rim, sufficient to identify the mutilated whole. The summer we were her guests at Ghost Ranch, I saw ten or more intentional remains in a storeroom at her high place in Abiquiu. Is the person who created the work of art privileged to destroy it? Can a damaged and restored painting be returned to birth image? Is only the artist fully justified to make the decision? Ethical and legal aspects may be argued by owners, dealers, groups who object to such loss. The headache and heartache persist. What we try to regenerate is inanimate but the emotions involved in its preservation inflame disparate shores of an art stream. We can at least clarify our procedures, demonstrate the limits and the extent of our abilities.

I dislike hiring non-professionals to produce our PR: too often they miss the main issue, and time after time they are sloppy with salient details. I also object to the notion of "educating the public." It carries more than a whiff of condescension and snobbishness. People whose confidence we hope to gain have individual expertise usually better communicated than ours. Few persons are willing to devote time to reading an entire book on our work, and not many find it absorbing to watch for more than ten or fifteen minutes--even at a "before" and "after" of the Vatican ceiling. A large part of this disinterest stems from lack of understanding what is going on and why it should. When sports are selected on television, viewers where the game is best known are tuned in, while viewers turn off a sport whose rules and reasons of play are foreign.

A group as large as ours has become must contain colleagues with the skills we need: run competitions for the best magazine and TV scripts, get the communication going. The least each of us can do is make our treatment reports to owners lively and readable, attractive enough so these are left on the cocktail table to show off to guests for perhaps two weeks. Maybe conservators don't take the oath of Hippocrates when they commence practice, but the majority of us would never have entered the field if we hadn't been deeply concerned over preservation of man's historical evidence. If we fail to assume responsibility for publicizing a fine image of ourselves, our work and the need for that work, no one else is likely to. It is a sorry profession which is unappreciated because it chooses to bury its head in the sand.

Caroline K. Keck
Cooperstown, New York

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