Art Conservation: Preserving the Past with Mixed Results

Stephen Kobasa
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DSCN2768“Time Will Tell: Ethics and Choices in Conservation”

Through September 6, 2009 

Yale University Art Gallery 

1111 Chapel Street, New Haven, Connecticut


Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, Antoine Pevsner, 1926, cellulite and copper (Yale Univ.)

 What might happen to Dorian Gray’s portrait after the story ends? Decayed by age, it has experienced the ultimate restoration, having been returned to a pristine original state by its subject’s effort to destroy it. This is an irony, of course, and one hopes that the murder of the artist and the suicide (if unintended) of the subject are not absolute prerequisites for the kind of resolution being sought by the various curators and conservators whose projects are on view in this necessarily wordy exhibition. 


Insert: Russian sculptor and Constructivist, Antoine Pevsner, with one of his sculptures, 1938

 But it is impossible not to think of the Oscar Wilde novel when looking at Antoine Pevsner’s assembled portrait of Marcel Duchamp, crumpled in upon itself, with parts of it turned to rust and powder. The composition of cellulose, copper nitrate and iron was a recipe for self-destruction. It’s gone, turned to something not unlike a desiccated corpse on the shelf of a monastic catacomb which, if it were displayed vertically as it was meant to be, would immediately disappear.


The Kahn Wing, Yale University Art Center

 But what it has become is extraordinary in its fragile futility. There is nothing to be done. A replica has been fashioned of different materials which current evidence suggest may be more stable than Pevsner’s original choices (the artist was aware of the work’s defects, and made alterations, which only hastened the damage), but is a chill approximation at best. And is there anything but a difference of degree which separates this piece from any other work that is not the “foster-child of Silence and slow Time,” (as Keats’s hidden Grecian urn briefly was) but rather, is held in the abusive care of its actual parent, ruin?

 Conservation begins by giving a definition of loss. But to know that there was a loss is not always to know precisely what the loss was. The absence may be in some way diminished, without being accurate. This is the case for a 1st century Roman figure with a right arm from some other sculpture attached to it. The mistake can be removed, but not corrected. No restoration can be absolute.

 Conservators sometimes develop ideas of salvation that resemble those of the army officer in Vietnam who reported having destroyed a village in order to save it.  A 6th century mosaic removed and embedded in concrete is a hulking fragment, alienated from both past and present. In contrast, repairs made to a Korean tea bowl and Greek drinking cup in their own time were meant simply to preserve them for use, not to guarantee their survival as museum objects. There is also accidental preservation as in the underside of a lid on an Italian wedding chest where the painting of a female figure, nude save for hips bound with a fringe of flowers and pubic leaves, was kept safe for its private audience of forsaken modesty.

 Among the mockeries of restoration and restorations as betrayal included here is a restoration as benign fiction. A 16th century painting, Conversion of St. Paul, not a forgery, was later remounted and then had old worm eaten wood applied to its back in order to make it appear consistent with its history.

 Thomas Wilfred’s early twentieth century light machines made use of a now obsolete technology which, if operated, would accelerate the complete breakdown of his slapdash electronics. But is the real question here one of reconstructing the effects or the mechanism? What would he have used had it been available, given that there was nothing permanent to what he intended?


Before Restoration (above) and After: The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Saints, from the workshop of Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1305-1310, tempera on panel (restored in 2004) Yale Univ. Art Gallery

 A drawing for Edward Hopper’s painting, Sunlight in a Cafeteria, contains what endangers it in its title – its charcoal on acidic paper, already unstable, is slowly erased by light. The painting itself is also on view, with a graph recording the “Fourier transform infrared spectra” of copal varnish used, and now darkening, on its surface. But I came away angry that I had been given this information. There are things that one should refuse to know for the sake of encountering the work itself, damaged as it might be. 

 The motives for restoration sometimes involve competing strategies, where later choices are a critique of previous ones.  A number of early European paintings in Yale’s collection were at one point reduced to only what was verifiably original work. What resulted in some cases resembled an primitive seafarer’s map, with islands and archipelagos of color isolated on a wooden sea. A 14th century Sienese panel of the, Virgin and Child Enthroned, that was subject to this imperious treatment has now been carefully, if only partly, repainted. Before that, according to one curator’s passionate assertion, it had been “too painful” to look at. 1959.15.17

 But, as I reflected later, perhaps that was the point that actually needed conserving. Losses require our attention, especially when ideal preservation would mean removing every work of art from our sight. This does not require making of the museum some chilled mortuary for dying paintings. Rather, we should stand in front of each and, like Yeats, “for every tatter in its mortal dress,” sing.

by Stephen Vincent Kobasa, Contributing Writer


 This essay first appeared in the New Haven Advocate, July 16, 2009

 Learn more about Constructivism as an art movement at:


  1. Amelia Lindauer October 12, 2014 1:38 pm

    On one of my visits to see my son, a teaching fellow at Yale, we aren’t one of many beautiful afternoons visiting the Yale Art Gallery. On this particular day, about 4or 5 years ago I took home a poster given out gratis about a restoration exhibit that had taken place. The poster image was by Antoine Pevsner of Marcel Duchamp. It was a beauty, even though it depicted the cruelty time had caused this piece. Unfortunately Hurricane Sandy hit our home and destroyed it. I was wondering if any more of these posters remain tucked away somewhere in the Museum. I would GLADLY pay for it and call it a donation. Kindly get back to me, one way or another.
    Thank you sincerely,
    Amelia Lindauer

  2. Richard Friswell October 13, 2014 10:46 am

    Amelia- I will pass along your request. The Yale Gallery is just down the road from ARTES. Thanks. Hope this works out. Editor

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