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The Back of the Painting

The Back of the Painting, Secrets and Stories from Art Conservation

Painting conservators are the forensic pathologists of the art world. While they cannot bring their subjects back to life, they do provide fascinating insights into the precise circumstances of a painting's creation, its material authenticity, and constructive methodology. Linda Waters, Sarah Hillary, and Jenny Sherman are three such art detectives whose work is highlighted in this handsomely illustrated volume from Te Papa Press (pictured above, right to left). They explore in great detail both the backs and the backgrounds of thirty-three paintings now held in the collections of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

Painting conservation is a very small field, especially in New Zealand, where there are just six painting conservators working in-house at public institutions. The three authors therefore comprise precisely half of Aotearoa's professional painting conservators. Waters is Conservator Paintings at the Te Papa and has particular interests in the treatment of paintings from the mid-twentieth century onwards and how the material nature of artworks contributes to their narrative. Her specific area of expertise is the microscopy and analysis of paint cross-sections and research on the chemical constituents of pigments.

Hillary is Principal Conservator at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and specialises in the study of historical artist’s techniques. She has published research on Colin McCahon, Rita Angus, and Frances Hodgkins, as well as international artists James Tissot and Guido Reni. She has also been involved in curating exhibitions about artist techniques and remains a practicing artist herself.

Sherman is the Conservator at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery whose speciality is European Old Master paintings, with particular emphasis on Italian works. She has carried out treatment and technical study of paintings ranging from the thirteenth century to the present day and has worked at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Conservation Center at New York University. She also ran a private conservation practice in New York for many years.

At the recent book launch, each of them focused on one painting which they felt told a particularly interesting story about the painting's construction and history. Sherman demonstrated how Antonio Veneziano's Head and Shoulders of a Bearded Saint (c.1380) had beed removed from its original polyptych by a Victorian collector and ended up in the British Museum. Hillary flipped over Ralph Hotere's Long Red Line (1965) to reveal the cast-aside TV packing boxes he had found on a London dump and brought back from the UK. Waters showed the buttonhole on a shirt that Tony Fomison used to reinforce and absorb the paint from the hessian sackcloth canvas he used on Wildman (1973).

As Waters points out in her introduction, art conservators are generally concerned with the preservation of paintings and therefore need to combine a sense of aesthetics and a knowledge of art history with both technical competence and an understanding of chemistry. This is particularly challenging when a painting has been damaged, as was James Tissot's Still on Top (c. 1873), which was badly slashed after being stolen from the Auckland Art Gallery and took several years to repair.

In the past, the untutored approach to art conservation was inclined towards restoration, whereas contemporary practice is to mend and repair locally in ways that do not obliterate or hide whatever exists on the reverse of the canvas. Today, the back of an artwork is recognised as being crucially important in terms of providing cultural clues and historical information. Paintings are now treated more in terms of three-dimensional objects, rather than simply two-dimensional surfaces.

There are other conservation specialities (including frames, paper, photography, textiles, three-dimensional objects, sound, time-based media, and conservation science) which can be broken down into further discreet areas of expertise such as outdoor sculpture, works of art on paper (as distinct from archival material), and so on. Te Papa employs conservators for paintings, paper, textiles, and objects, Auckland Art Gallery covers paintings, paper, and objects, while Dunedin has only a single paintings conservator.

At its core, painting conservation involves structural and cosmetic work - repairing tears, securing lifting paint, cleaning dirt from surfaces, or removing discoloured varnish. It also involves research into materials, either on the painting itself, or an classes of related materials, in order to determine how best to approach treatment and restoration. Since all paintings (especially modern acrylics) are easily altered by solvents, a knowledge of advanced chemistry is necessary in order to formulate appropriate cleaning solutions which work selectively on whatever needs to be removed (dirt or discolouration), without affecting the original paint itself.

Professional conservators are also called upon to advise on the environmental conditions in which paintings are housed, displayed, or transported, since temperature, light, humidity, and vibration can all affect a painting detrimentally. Their work overlaps with that of curators in so far as it affects the material manifestation of cultural activity that forms the core of their shared professional research and interests.

All three conservators agreed that the most interesting and satisfying aspects of their work involves the unique combination of practical expertise and analytical process, gaining and refining the necessary skills to perform the correct treatment, and the privilege of being “up close and personal” for an extended period of time with great paintings. In addition, there is a visceral thrill that accompanies figuring out exactly how they were made and uncovering previously obscure historical narratives that would otherwise go unseen. Among the many stories that can be found on the reverse or backing of other paintings involve the seal of the Prince of Yugoslavia, an icon that protected persecuted Russians, and a canvas that was repurposed by Monet. Such are the stories told in this fascinating book, which reveals and explores the backs of a wide variety of artworks, ranging from the fourteenth-century to the present day.

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