September 1998 Volume 21 Number 1

Conference Review

by Joyce Hill Stoner

Observations on IIC Dublin Congress: Painting Techniques: History, Materials, and Studio Practice, 7-11 September 1998.

The forty papers given at the IIC Dublin Congress were selected from nearly 200 abstracts from 30 countries that were submitted. Almost all of the papers were of exceptional quality. The presence of David Bomford in a senior role for the IIC and for the National Gallery in London appears to have helped to stimulate a boom of excellent publications on "technical art history," including the three National Gallery of Art in the Making publications (on early Italian paintings, Rembrandt, and the Impressionists); the 1995 Leiden symposium postprints; Looking Through Paintings, Archetype, 1998; and a small but solid National Gallery Pocket Guide, Conservation of Paintings, 1997.

Bomford, IIC Secretary General, noted in his introduction that the Dublin Congress is a "sequel" to Leiden. A cadre of experts on certain artists or centuries is clearly emerging for our field, enriching its scholarship. Nearly every paper made use of cross sections; papers generally reflected thorough grounding in art-historical research combined with serious technical support. A number of the speakers had earned doctoral degrees focused on the subject matter they presented. Topics covered technical art history in the Western world from the 12th century to 1940.

The congress was also unusual in that due to a change in the location, the designated auditorium could not hold the desired number of delegates; an overflow room was provided for latecomers with a simulcast video of the speakers. As another unusual result, the main room was thoroughly full at 9:00 a.m. when the sessions began. Bomford gamely circulated into both locations, noting at the podium that it was easier to come and go in the overflow room, and that food was allowed only in that location.

There were also a number of excellent posters and especially good receptions, in the Dublin Castle, the Hugh Lane Gallery (contemporary art), the National Gallery of Ireland, and the Trinity College Dining Hall featuring singers, instrumentalists, and costumed step dancers.

Some remarks on the papers (as the preprints are available, I will not report on all papers but on those for which I have additional notes): The Forbes Prize Lecture by Ashok Roy (not in the preprints, but due to be published in the IIC Newsletter) was about the kind of science practiced in the service of conservation tracing technical research in pigments from the early 19th century through a substantive tribute to Joyce Plesters.

Excellent papers related to some of the authors' dissertation topics were presented by:

E. Melanie Gifford on Esaias van de Velde's technical innovations: translating a graphic tradition into paint, discussing the development of naturalistic landscapes by artists working in Haarlem and Amsterdam around 1610. Aviva Burnstock and William Bradford on Daumier's materials showing the similarity of techniques used for works on paper, canvas, and panel. Sarah Cove on Constable's oil paint mediums c. 1802-1837. Joyce Townsend, Leslie Carlyle, Aviva Burnstock, and Jaap Boon on nineteenth-century paint media. Thea Burns on the politics of art and techniques with regard to pastels in France around 1750.

Melissa Katz did a remarkable job of incorporating manuscript illuminations into a convincing discussion of the artists' techniques used to apply polychromy to stone in Toro, Spain. Marco Ciatti told us that panel paintings in Tuscany from the 12th to the 13th century were not necessarily done on poplar -- he listed a number of examples of the use of chestnut.

The students of the Hamilton Kerr Institute carried out technical examination of 22 painted panels of a 15th-century Castilian retable from 1991-1997. Two papers were given on this project, one at the IIC meeting and one at the add-on ICOM-CC Paintings Working Group day following the IIC Congress.

Following the conference, I felt much more informed on the techniques of a number of artists (in addition to those listed above), especially: Sir Henry Raeburn (paper by Leslie A. Stevenson) his use of a pre-primed twill weave, his wet-in-wet foliage, and his attention to buttons, buckles, and watch chains -- he had been a jeweler. J. E. Millais (Libby Sheldon) and his use of local wet white grounds especially for jewel-like areas of leaves and flowers, zinc-primed canvases, and strikingly bright greens. G. F. Watts (Jacqueline Ridge and Joyce Townsend) and his use of absorbent grounds and lean paint, his attempts to avoid a "greasy" or "slippery" surface, and the surprising lack of instability in his paintings (defying predictions). A contemporary had compared his surfaces to Stilton cheese; the opening slides were macrophotographs of a Watts painting and of Stilton cheese (my personal favorite slide pairing). Giovanni di Paolo (Elyse Klein, Eric Gordon, and Karen French) and his increased speed of production and the changes evident in his later works. Rogier van der Weyden (Catherine Metzger and Michael Palmer) and his abstract sensibilities. Lucas Cranach (Gunnar Heydenreich) and his efficiency and speed in formats and techniques for his workshop. Degas, Puvis, Klein, and Rothko (Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutynski and H. Travers Newton) and their pursuit of low gloss surfaces or a fresco sensibility.

If I had to assign my students only one paper of the conference it would be Jill Dunkerton and Marika Spring, "The development of painting on coloured surfaces in sixteenth-century Italy." This excellent paper brought together in charts the paint samples from nearly 140 sixteenth-century Italian panels and canvases from the many years of careful analysis carried out at the National Gallery , London, and showed that Correggio and Dosso can be credited as innovators of colored grounds much more than previously thought. (After one moves past the pure beauty of a good cross section, one is often tempted to ask "so what?" This paper resoundingly answered a number of "so what's" for the interpretation of a large collection of documented cross sections.) Understandably, there was much talk at the conference of establishing digitized data bases of cross sections in compatible formats for international use.

This was a very worthwhile conference, at Trinity College, topped off by an equally good day of papers at the National Gallery, Ireland, sponsored by the ICOM-CC Paintings Working Group on "The influence of conservation treatment on the interpretation of paintings."

The theme was especially well elucidated by Joyce Zucker who spoke about the treatment of the Frederick Church paintings at Olana and the curators' desire to have them treated to look the way they would have looked when Church died in about 1900 -- preserving that degree of discolored varnish and Church's "corrections" to the Old Master Paintings he collected. Ernst van de Wetering presented a most interesting paper about the mis-transcription of Rembrandt's handwriting in a letter. It turns out that the actual word translates to "sparkle," and the speaker talked about the importance of the visual sparkle in various Rembrandt paintings and the conservator's obligation to research original appearances.

Other topics included a history of structural treatments, the mechanics of strip lining, icons, The Oranjezaal of Paleis Huis ten Bosch in The Hague, the Hamilton Kerr treatment of the Santa Marina retable (mentioned above), the removal of overpaint from an 18th-century church painting in Canada, and decisions made about treatment at the Louvre. (I gave a talk about working with a living artist -- Andrew Wyeth -- and how he wishes his surfaces to be interpreted and how they have been changed by conservation.)

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