Monday, September 28, 2009

How to look at art

I am reading an interesting book published by the Getty as part of their Readings in Conservation series “Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage’. In it there is a fascinating excerpt from Kenneth Clark’s Looking at Pictures (he of the BBC’s Civilisation fame). It lays out how Clark looks at art and I was so struck by the fact that no one had actually ever told me how to do so, that I am blogging about it.

Here goes!

Clark sees 4 stages to the process, Impact, scrutiny, recollection and renewal:
Firstly is the impact, the first impression that takes in colour, form, shape and tone, and their relationship to each other. The initial contact with a painting is generally the most profound.
Secondly is the scrutiny, a period of inspection, seeing where the colour works well, identifying where particular skill has been used by the artist, enjoying the detail.

However this pure aesthetic sensation, as Clark calls it , rarely lasts longer than the enjoyment of the smell of an orange (about 2 minutes max) before one begins to tire, and it is time for the third stage. This involves what he calls recollection, namely recalling what we know of the artist, his life and times, the genre in which he operated, what was happening in his personal life at the time, the techniques he used etc. In Clark’s case, it of course helped to have an encyclopedic knowledge of such!

And finally there is the renewal stage, the collation of the previous stages and the return to looking once again at the artwork as a whole, and enjoying the aesthetic pleasure once again.
Try it. It doesn’t always work, but it gives a useful format for looking at art .

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Conservators as story tellers

I am at the AICCM (Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material) conference in Fremantle, WA being held at the WA Maritime Museum - what a great spot, right at the end of the docks looking out over the Indian Ocean. And it is showing all that is good about conservation, and ultimately why those of us lucky enough to earn our living in it as a profession are so fortunate. It is the sheer diversity of what we get to see and handle that has been reinforced in the first day of papers, from relics of the doomed HMAS Sydney to padlocks that held the Bounty mutineers prisoner on board the Pandora taking them back to trial in Britain.

But the thing that came home to me again was the ability conservators have to provide access to stories, to reveal the histories of objects. The Pandora lock is a case in point. Recovered from the shipwreck of the Pandora (she went down on the Barrier Reef drowning most of the crew and some of the mutineers), conservation has revealed the padlock is in the opened position and bears signs of damage. Is this the sign of the mutineers desperately trying to rid themsleves of their chains as the ship went down by breaking the lock?

Eve Graves from Camberwell School of Art in London, one of the great places to train as a paper conservator, tackled this story-telling issue from a different perspective. All her students have to compile a log book during their training about the stories behind the objects they are treating and how those stories influenced their decisions as to how to conserve them. This includes thinking about the way in which our senses give us access to objects. Thus an object may have remnants of a smell attached to it (perfume in gloves, tobacco smoke in books), which are a vital link to the original owner and why it is being conserved.

That's why conservation can be so rewarding.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Museums in the UK and Australia – is the scene that different?

One of the publications that I always look forward to is the monthly UK Museums Association Museums Journal. It is a much easier read than the rather densely packed American equivalent, Museum produced by the American Association of Museums. And the Australian equivalent produced by the Museums Association of Australia I am afraid to say is downright boring. One of the issues I find intriguing is where we are as a profession in Australia compared to the UK.

The immediate position is one of economic hardship big time in the UK, which at least in ‘avoiding-the-technical-recession’ Australia is not the present case. Councils across the land are laying off staff from local museums, the free admission to museums government policy is under threat (despite a massive impact on visits ranging from the Imperial War Museum up 75% to the V&A up 156% and the National Museums Liverpool up 240%) and the National Trust for Scotland is reducing its staff by one third. Overlaying all of this is also the cost of staging the London Olympics in 2012, which is sucking money out of the arts/culture sector. And then there is the problem of any spare cash being used to save art for the nation, the most recent being the serious money spent on Titian’s Diana and Actaeon jointly purchased for the small sum of £50 million by the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Gallery in London.
Against this of course are some great programs, one of the most successful being the Renaissance in the Regions which has had a massive impact on the regional museum scene.

So it is interesting to read the experience of Sara Holdsworth from the Manchester City Galleries who has just completed a three week exchange at the Art Gallery of NSW. In summary she found that:
· AGNSW was much better resourced (twice the staff and six times the budget for about the same size of collection)
· It was more collection focused and much less interested in diversity and audiences
· She couldn’t get over the cultural and social phenomenon of the Archibald and the amount of income it generates for the Gallery
Interesting stuff to ruminate on – we may be financially more fortunate at present but our horizons may also be more limited.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The future of museums according to the ABC

It’s good to see the subject of the future of museums getting some airtime on the ABC on 3rd September.

Frank Howarth, director of the Australian Museum, Louise Douglas from the National Museum of Australia and Angelina Russo from Swinburne University form a forum to discuss where museums are at and going to. It’s all good stuff, mainly talking about the close interaction between real and virtual audiences these days. It’s something that Frank has been an advocate for some time, and given he is a highly articulate speaker, he has become a bit of an international star on this front. Certainly the Australian Museum is looking good virtually (21 million visits of at least 4 minutes to their web site last year) compared to over 300,000 live visits. The ongoing question is how you link the virtual visitor to the real experience.

Louise started life at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney where I worked with her in the 1980s. It was a fabulous time to be there as the project was well funded, all sorts of new ways were being developed for planning exhibitions, there was an exciting new building going up, and we all felt the world was our oyster. In reality the Powerhouse project was truly a catalyst in the redevelopment of a number of major museums in the region – I think particularly of the Melbourne Museum and Te Papa in Wellington - and Powerhouse employees are to be found in almost every major museum in the land. However the building is now seen to suffer from some significant design faults, the most obvious being the lack of a major temporary exhibition space and an entrance that faces the wrong way, i.e. it needs a Darling Harbour front door.

Angelina is Associate Professor in the Design faculty at Swinburne specializing in museum communication. She pops up regularly in anything to do with social media and the web, and was a significant player at this year’s Museums and the Web 2009 conference in Indianapolis. I always find her contribution to be articulate and to the point. So whilst I don’t think much new comes up in the program, it is a useful summary of where a major aspect of museology thinking is at, and I suspect a bit of a revelation to wider audiences.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Cleaning paintings – surprising discoveries

I have blogged before on the subject of cleaning paintings, but there comes news this week of an unusual discovery whilst a painting undergoes conservation treatment. In summary a painting being cleaned in Sao Paulo, Brazil by a private paintings restorer turned out to have an erect penis that had been overpainted some centuries ago in what is termed 'an adjustment for modesty'. Almost as much a revelation is that the restoration has cost 150,000 euros ($257,500), no doubt partly because it is a large canvas, being 3.7m by 1.6 m. Here is the post restoration image.

But it reminded me of one of the great conservation revelation stories, which is told in the very readable 'The Art of the Conservator' edited by the former head of conservation at the British Museum, Andrew Oddy ( 1992 Trustees of the British Museum). A 1610 portrait of Henry Prince of Wales on horseback by Robert Peake the Elder, was sent to the Hamilton Kerr Institute at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge for cleaning. It’s no secret that it was privately owned by one Mrs Tritton, who in six degrees of separation fashion, turned out to be the aunt of one of our clients. The painting presented as per the ‘Before Treatment’ photo.

Before Treatment

However upon examination it became clear that the entire background had been overpainted with a landscape, quite at odds with the original background (see After Treatment photo). Amazingly the original background was in reasonable condition and was able to be recovered and conserved, in the process revealing a far more interesting and detailed painting, not least because of the presence of Father Time walking behind the horse, and the wonderful feathers on the Prince’s hat. The conundrum remains as to why it was overpainted. Despite the Prince dying soon after the painting was created, it is not thought that the figure represents Death stalking him. Rather the painting appears to have been altered ( not by Peake) to give it a similar feeling to van Dyck’s famous portrait of Charles 1st on horseback.

After Treatment

Conservation is an immensely satisfying profession to be involved in (almost all the time), but projects like this are the icing on the cake.