Art of Conservation
As regards cultural heritage, great works of art hold an insurmountable value entirely of their own. After all, art allows us a glimpse of the architecture of our culture, of inspired moments in time expressed through various creative forms, and of the direction in which our civilisation is travelling. Its conservation, therefore, is of paramount importance.
Without art conservators we might fail to see the true intention of the artist in all its impact. At its essence, art conservation safeguards the longevity of artworks, and in doing so, it ensures the continuity of culture itself.
The past decades have seen a deep and profound evolution in the protection of artworks, something which has given rise to the contemporary profession of the art conservator. Scientific advancements have allowed a more precise understanding of how factors, such as climate conditions, lighting, transport and handling have the potential to alter an artwork, distancing its appearance and impact from the original intention of the artist. In much the same way, these advances in knowledge have likewise allowed further insight into how damage caused by such influences can be both avoided and rectified, and the artwork preserved for the generations to come.
The practice and science of art conservation sits at the frontier of preserving artworks for posterity, and involves the combined technical expertise and insight of a number of different specialists working alongside one another. In this essence, it is fundamentally an interdisciplinary approach, and one which gives equal standing to art history as to scientific analysis and material sciences, and in which the ultimate aim is to stabilise, document, and preserve the artwork for an ongoing cultural future.
In spite of common public confusion between the two, the science of art conservation differs greatly from the craft of art restoration. Restoration theory of the past commonly focused on altering works of art to look perfect and pristine. The original state of the artwork was often subjectively assumed without any information or research to support the restorative measures and decisions. Conversely, art conservation involves an altogether more holistic approach and relies strongly on art historical and scientific research. The aim, rather than to impose any intervention upon the artwork, is to document, analyse, and anticipate what the impact of time may be – and to take the necessary measures.
Photo credit ©Fondation Beyeler.
Based in Riehen, Basel, and overseeing one of Switzerland’s greatest art collections, Fondation Beyeler has one of the world’s most prestigious Art Conservation Departments. Led by Chief Conservator Markus Gross, Fondation Beyeler’s conservation team combines classical approaches with truly cutting-edge insights, allowing for the preservation of artworks including Claude Monet’s Le bassin aux nymphéas (ca. 1917-1920), and pieces by Warhol, Picasso, Max Ernst, Jenny Holzer, Marlene Dumas, and many others.
Markus Gross is clear about the importance of art conservation, and its role in wider culture, stating that “art forms a key part of our society. As a private museum, displaying and preserving art is central to what we do. This is where the importance of art conservation becomes evident.”
The role of the art conservator is one which is beset by no shortage of difficulties and obstacles to overcome. Each and every work of art the Fondation Beyeler is tasked with conserving is unique, and as such, presents individual issues relating to how it has been stored, exhibited, handled, or created, calling for agile approaches in order to do both the artwork and artist justice. As Gross explains: “The unique and greatest challenge is to always bear the artist’s intention in mind, and to preserve this intention for present and future audiences. This requires a multi-faceted approach, which involves conservation, preservation, documentation, and continuous monitoring.” In the recent past, works of art of various materials from artists such as Henri Rousseau, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol and Philippe Parreno have thusly been treated at the Fondation Beyeler with a wide range of successful techniques and approaches.
While certain methods of art conservation have remained unchanged across the years, a range of technological breakthroughs, from detailed analyses, digital multi-imaging processes to advanced microscopy, have driven the profession forward considerably. “Technology and technique have evolved,” Markus continues, “and we at Fondation Beyeler have fantastic opportunities to deeply and meticulously examine artworks, thus identifying individual issues that need addressing for successful conservation.”
It is upon this inventiveness, and an approach of treating each individual artwork as unique as the artistic vision which led to its creation, that Fondation Beyeler’s Art Conservation Department has built an international reputation of the highest standards. By perfecting skills and techniques which will preserve artistic treasures for generations to come, Markus Gross and his team aren’t just conserving artworks. They are slowing down the march of time.