Door Nienke Woltman, paintings conservator Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 2019
Junior Painting Conservator at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam provides us with her reflections on a thought-provoking summer school course, Conservation as a Human Science. She emphasises the importance of being a reflective practitioner and of placing conservation treatment within a humanities and social science context rather than just a science-led, materials-based framework.
In the summer of 2019, for the first time, the Bard Graduate Center (BGC) hosted a week-long summer school titled Conservation as a Human Science. The BGC is a research institute in New York that offers master and PhD programs, launches research initiatives and organizes exhibitions and public programmes in which new ways of thinking about decorative arts, design history and material culture are being explored. The aim of this summer school was to bring the latest humanities-originated thinking and discoveries about material culture to early career conservators and conservation scientists. Although the inter- and multi-disciplinary of the modern conservation field is now largely established, there has been an emphasis on collaboration with material- and data sciences, which are contributing greatly to our understanding of materials and the processes of change. But besides these fields, conservation research needs to be embedded in the humanities and social sciences as well. This summer school intended to do exactly that, by presenting conservation as a human science, capable of questioning and revealing many things about human interactions, beliefs, and existence rather than only about the materials and preservation of (museum) objects. The aim of the programme was to develop this competence by focusing on writing. It was hoped that through the creation of new contexts in which conservators could write about objects, new genres and skills in conservation writing could be developed and cultivated.
Being an early career conservator, I have recently been questioning myself as to what exactly is and should be the role of a conservator. For the past five years I have been working as a paintings conservator in the conservation department of the Rijksmuseum, based in the atelierbuilding in Amsterdam. This location is an inspiring interdisciplinary environment, where all thinkable research facilities are available, and where conservators, scientists and (technical) art historians work side by side. As a museum conservator, I perform many different conservation-related tasks. Besides treating paintings, my work includes condition checking, supervising installation and packing, courier duties, loan administration and related remedial conservation treatments. I also carry out treatment-related and technical research. All these activities have one thing in common: the object itself. The focus either lies on assessing its condition or on researching its creation or decay.
Working in a busy museum, unfortunately there is not sufficient time to deepen and further develop my critical thinking about the conservation profession on a regular basis. I applied to participate in the Bard Summer school, because I felt that it would be a great opportunity to immerse myself in an environment where I would be challenged to think differently. To think of the art objects that I work on in a larger perspective, not only from the point of view of their materiality, but from their meaning in a broader sense of their complete lives. Moreover, I especially wanted to investigate how I could take back some of these new insights and integrate them in my day to day conservation practice.
The group of participants consisted of conservation students, early career conservators with different specializations and conservation scientists, from various institutions in the USA, UK, Canada and The Netherlands. The programme consisted of several sessions in which different viewpoints of conservators and cultural heritage scientists alongside those of anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, art historians, and philosophers were presented. Participants were asked to bring an object, either real, virtual, or imagined. The seminar meetings each explored a different approach to the object and offered opportunities to study conservation’s engagement with this particular approach. Participants were expected to reflect on their objects from each of these particular perspectives over the course of the week and to write about it nightly. On the final day the cumulative writing project was presented to the group.
The object that I virtually brought with me, was a landscape painting by Jan van Goyen (figure 1) that I had restored a few years before. This treatment was truly unremarkable in the sense that it went very smoothly without encountering anything unexpected. Exactly because of that reason I had never written about it other than the treatment report that I saved on the Museums digital documentation drive. There just wasn’t something ‘new’, no scientific discovery or problem that would lend itself for scientific publication. Because of the uncomplicated treatment and the unambiguity of the materials of the painting I felt that it formed a good and fairly straightforward example to investigate my thinking on conservation. I wrote my essay, which you can read below, being inspired by many of the things we discussed during the course of the week. A few aspects especially stayed with me. Firstly, in current painting conservation we tend to objectify our role as conservators. Secondly, conservation has a complicated relationship with change. Finally, paintings are valued more for their aesthetics than for being material evidence of history. Although these statements are generally well-known in the conservation field, I wondered if we are truly aware of their meaning and implications.
Participating in the summer school has been valuable as it has broadened my perspective on the conservation profession and my role in it. I gained new insights from the humanity field, which have developed and will keep evolving my critical thinking. I didn’t return to the Rijksmuseum with concrete answers to many of my questions, but I have been given the opportunity to think about them, something I will continue to do, maybe not on a daily basis, but definitely on a monthly one.
This letter is for you, like a personalized archaeological marker. It serves as an addition to my conservation and treatment report of Jan van Goyen’s painting A View of a Town on a River,(Figure 1)which I restored in 2016, and during which I continuously listened to music by the Canadian folk band The Deep Dark Woods. It’s strange, but only now it strikes me how well this fits with this painting.
Van Goyen was one of the most productive Dutch landscape painters of the seventeenth century. About 1200 paintings and 800 drawings by his hand of specific Dutch places as well as fantasy landscapes have survived. Towards the end of his career he shifted to a more monochrome palette and produced a vast number of quickly painted landscapes. The large canvas View of a Town on a River was painted and signed by Van Goyen in 1645 and belongs to this last group. The painting has been in the Rijksmuseum collection since 1808 and is currently not on view in the galleries. I want to share some reflections on this specific treatment and my profession, which is usually not perceived to be appropriate for a conservation report, but possibly gives you an idea of the context in which and by whom this painting was restored, something I wish that conservators from the past had done for me. As the treatment and technical research of the painting turned out to be satisfying yet unremarkable, appropriate given the general name of the painting, my research does not lend itself for publishing in professional scientific literature either.
Conservation training in the Netherlands has recently become a proper scientific study and I was one of the first students to enroll in the newly founded programme at the University of Amsterdam in 2007. One of the things that I learned as a student was that the aim of a conservator is to bring a work of art back to its original appearance, as much as possible. When, after my studies, working in Turkey in 2012- 2013 on a Rijksmuseum conservation project of the Presidential painting collection, it was not the original appearance that mattered most, if it’s possible to retrieve that at all, but the cleaned look of the newly restored paintings. I learned that the audience there was far more interested in the aesthetic appearance of the paintings, than in the authenticity of the aged materials. At the time I was convinced that my ethical values, namely conserving the materiality of the objects, were far more important than how they were viewed by the Turkish people. Now, I realize my lack of understanding that art works are active, on many different levels. Materials are activated by the act of making them. The act of conservation adds another level of activity. And there are many more.
Conservators are becoming increasingly aware of the implications of these ideas, as proven by the growing amount of research into aging processes and interest in conservation history. Inherent to the understanding that materials are active is the awareness that all matter continues to change, also our views on change, which makes the matter even more interesting. Currently the objective of conservation is seen as themanagement and documentation of change. As a conservator, I am aware of being an active agent. This somewhat stands in contrast with a recurring theme in my studies, namely objectivity or to be more precise, the rejection of subjectivity. Being trained as an objective scientific conservator, I was taught not to document any personal opinions or reflections on the treatment and the context in which I work. Possibly that has changed whenever you read this.
Inherent to the understanding that materials are active is the awareness that all matter continues to change. Also, our views change, which makes the matter even more interesting. Currently, the objective of conservation is seen more as the management and documentation of change. But if from a material perspective we assume that art objects are active and that conservators manage change, what does that imply for the often-used term ‘stability’? In the recently formulated vision document of the conservation department of the Rijksmuseum, the word is frequently used. One of the three pillars of this document is that when interventions are carried out, our aim is: ‘to stabilize the object’. Yet, in the light of our understanding of materials as dynamic, the term ‘stabilizing’ can be viewed as somewhat problematic. When used by conservators, it is usually not the intention to make active matter passive. The word is used for example to describe if paintings can travel, whether they can be handled or if they are, in need of conservation treatment. Hence the term ‘stable’ refers to a particular moment in time, without completely realising that nothing actually is stable and is subject to change. Maybe the recognition that everything will change eventually, despite all our efforts, is difficult to accept. At most we can slow down change. In the end, art works are mortal, just like us. Or do you think that I am too gloomy?
Two weeks ago Van Goyen’s painting popped up in my memory, when after a long and busy day, I finally climbed into bed. Various unrelated thoughts went through my mind, and suddenly I remembered that I had forgotten the name of the tree on Van Goyen’s painting. I found it very strange, as I thought of and talked about this tree often and always remembered its name. Although I was tired I decided to go through the letters of the alphabet, hoping to recognize the right one. Arriving at the letter Y none of them had rung any bells and I dozed off.
I restored Van Goyen’s painting more than three years prior to the day that I forgot the name of the tree. The curators decided that it was going to be part of a Rijksmuseum exhibition travelling to Sydney in 2017. The obscuring yellowed varnish and discoloured retouchings along the original horizontal seam were considered to be disturbing. (figures 2, 3)Through one sentence found in the Rijksmuseum archives, I knew that the painting had been wax-resin lined in 1965 and when I started my treatment it was structurally stable enough for transport. I didn’t know what other treatments were carried out in the past, because none of our colleagues that touched the painting before I did, had left me a message. After removing the yellowed varnish and discoloured overpaint with organic solvents, without visually affecting the underlying original paint, the beautiful tonality with its pale grey sky and green and brown tree leaves (re)appeared (figure 4). In present day painting conservation, the original materiality of a painting is seen as the most important thing to conserve and protect, but not necessarily to present. While removing the non-original varnish, overpaint and fillings, the original horizontal seam connecting the two pieces of canvas became visible (figure 5). I was delighted when I saw the stitching, because it’s something that usually cannot be seen and was not meant to be seen. Exactly this made me feel very close to Jan van Goyen, who besides my earlier colleague was probably one of the only people who had seen the same. From the cross-sections that I took, I learnt that when Van Goyen started working on this painting, he applied two thick, oil-based ground layers, which covered the seam and provided a smooth surface to paint on (figures 6, 7). He applied the subsequent paint layers, without making any preliminary drawing, very thinly and vigorously. XRF spot analysis combined with investigation of several cross sections, shows that Van Goyen’s paint consisted of lead white, bone black, smalt, verdigris, lead tin yellow and several earth pigments. The pressure and heat applied when the painting was wax-resin lined more than two centuries later in 1965, had pushed the original stitching through the ground and paint layers to the front of the painting. Because of this, the paint got damaged along the seam, which resulted in the need of my predecessor to fill and retouch the paint losses that had occurred here.
Unlike in archaeology, in painting conservation damages are less accepted to be seen. Should we strive for bigger acceptance of showing or presenting damages in painting conservation Cesare Brandi would have agreed on this matter. However, currently in western European painting conservation the aesthetic experience, or legibility of paintings is regarded as more important, unless a damage is considered to have historical value. But aren’t all damages equally historical? Younger damages are generally more readily covered up and younger restorations are more readily taken off. The same trend can be seen in archaeological conservation. This is problematic, because at some point the young will become old. And what if a damage reveals evidence of the original making of the painting? Underdrawings that have become visible through aged transparent oil paint layers are generally left to see for the visitor. To what extent can the exposed seam on Van Goyen’s painting be regarded as a similar historical trace of the making of the object? And is it something that should be presented somehow? Van Goyen did not intend this stitching to be visible, but history happened. Did he think at all about where his painting would go after he had made it? Was it meant to be viewed in a home setting? I am absolutely positive that he never would have imagined his painting hanging in the external storage of a museum next to a depressing highway exit in Lelystad, where it is currently located. As managers of change, do we actually accept change enough when it interferes with our aesthetic experience? What is acceptable change? What and how much change needs to occur for an artwork not to be an artwork anymore? Reflecting on questions like these during every conservation treatment sharpens my thoughts. I am so curious to hear your thoughts about it. Make sure to write them down.
And off course, these questions should be raised by conservators and discussed with curators, collection managers and scientists on a regular basis. The discussions should also be opened up to others that have associations with the objects as well, the public, artists, and scholars from other disciplines. The conservation of an object is a moment to engage the various stakeholders to share their opinions. Here lies a great social task for museums, with their accessibility to a wide and diverse audience. Something that I have to accept, even though I prefer to work on a painting in solitude.
If in your time the value of materiality is considered more important than aesthetic experience, I am pleased to tell you that the fillings and retouchings that I applied to conceal the original seam on Van Goyen’s painting can easily be removed with water. The final varnish that I applied after that will not yellow, but if you want to remove it, use organic solvents (figure 8). Looking at the painting for many hours during this treatment, I noticed the little leaves of the large tree in the middle of the painting, painted with just one quick dot of green or brown paint (figure 9). Somehow the leaves seem to slightly vibrate, changing position every moment. At the time I wondered what type of tree this could be and also how I was going to find out, since the location of the painted landscape is unknown. It turned out to be easy, I googled ‘seventeenth century Dutch tree’ and somewhere in the search results I found an image of a tree with similar quivering leaves, even on photographs (figure 10). Google told me that it was a poplar tree. In the following days I saw poplar trees everywhere around me in the Netherlands, confirming my belief that Van Goyen’s tree indeed was a poplar tree.
These thoughts must have gone through my dreams that particular night two weeks ago, because when I woke up the next morning, the first word that came up in my mind was: poplar. I am absolutely sure that I will never forget the name of this tree anymore, because during that night it unconsciously became consolidated in my memory.
I’ll end this letter by recalling Herodotus, who writes in The Histories, that his researches are set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples. That is what I have tried to convey to you.
Wishing you all the best,
A printen version of this article ‘Dear conservator in the future…’ is published in the Picture Restorer issue 56, Spring 2020. The Picture Restorer is the biannual journal of the BAPCR. It is the only British periodical devoted to painting conservation. https://www.bapcr.org.uk/the-picture-restorer/