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Taking the wrong path: learning from oversights, misconceptions, failures and mistakes in conservation.

 Examples from wall painting conservation in Denmark
Isabelle Brajer

Résumés

Malentendus, idées fausses et erreurs dans l’intervention, opinion ou jugement reposant sur un mauvais raisonnement, ou encore négligence ou insuffisance des connaissances touchant  à la fois les aspects pratiques et théoriques de notre profession sont illustrés par une série de cas empruntés à la conservation de la peinture murale au Danemark. Les erreurs du passé ont  favorisé un progrès en démontrant la nécessité d’améliorations dans divers domaines, tels que le contrôle de la qualité, la documentation, la communication et la prise de décision.

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Texte intégral

The author is very grateful to Susanne Ørum, Yvonne Shashua, Kirsten Trampedach and Andrew Thorn for helpful comments.

Introduction

1In the preface of the 1891 edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote: “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” Detracting the irony from that statement, one can probably say that the evolution of every profession is at least partly based on learning from mistakes. That holds true for the conservation profession as well. The understanding of what a mistake is can be viewed differently depending on one’s perspective. Mistakes can cover such concepts as oversights, misconceptions and misinterpretations, and can affect both the theoretical as well as practical decision-making processes: making errors in the choice of materials or methods, or making incorrect decisions regarding aesthetic presentation based on misconceptions or misguided interpretations.  

  • 1  Brajer, I. (2002). The Transfer of Wall Paintings – Based on Danish Experience, Archetype Publicat (...)

2I will venture to say that a conservator who has not blundered in the course of his or her career is one who has not dirtied his or her hands. It is usually actions and not words that expose errors in their most conclusive form. The realization that one has made an error is often a horrifying experience, not something one would feel inclined to make known to professional colleagues or the wider public, but often it is a sure-fire guarantee that a similar mistake will never be made again in the future. I need only to recall my own cold-sweat-producing mishap when I worked on a wall painting in 1990 that had been detached five years earlier by a colleague from the church in Mårslet.1 The painting was removed from the wall during the uncovering of a Romanesque decoration of high aesthetic and historic value. The detached painting consisted of a simple painted drapery surrounding an epitaph that was inserted into the wall around 1726, damaging the central part of the Romanesque painting in the process. Not having been involved in the detachment phase, my job was to attach the paint layer onto a movable support and complete the transfer by mounting it and the epitaph on a wall in the church opposite of its original location (fig. 1).

Fig.1 Fragment of painted drapery

Fig.1 Fragment of painted drapery

Fragment of painted drapery transferred to a honeycomb support mounted with epitaph on south wall in Mårslet Church.

Photo: © Roberto Fortuna.

3When I arrived at the church with the transfer, I was shocked to discover that I could not get it through the door. I had built the new honeycomb support based on the measurements of the wall made by my colleagues, and reinforced it with an aluminium frame on the reverse side (fig. 2). But I hadn’t thought of measuring the door. Prevented from passing through the entrance of the church by 2 cm, I was left with the choice of re-detaching the paint layer from the support by ‘intervening’ through the intervention layer that I had inserted between the painting and the support (laminated paper), and then cutting the support so that it would fit into the church, and finally reassembling the transfer inside the church; or alternatively, I could remove two medieval bricks from the corner that had been untouched since the erection of the door opening in the 16th century so that the rigid transfer could slip through diagonally. I chose the latter.

Fig.2  Reverse side of transfer

Fig.2  Reverse side of transfer

Reverse side of transfer (see fig. 1) showing honeycomb plate and aluminum frame.

Photo: © Roberto Fortuna.

  • 2  Poggioli, S. (2003). Restoring Michelangelo’s David. NPR’s Morning Edition, Aug. 11, 2003. http:// (...)

4Needless to say, I will never make this kind of mistake again. However jarring an experience like this can be, such oversights and subsequent realizations do little more than to hone the unhappy individual’s planning skills and level of awareness. Professional maturation can occur as a result of an individual’s mistakes, but collective errors often have more impact on our profession, largely because of increased exposure. Progress is usually a result of more or less gradual realization that a particular method or material was detrimental for a certain type of object. This slow realization usually happens after we observe and communicate about failings on a number of examples, which happens over a course of time. Because of the collective past mistakes of our predecessors conservators nowadays are usually cautious to implement new treatments if they are not supported by hours of diligent scientific experimentation. Even treatments that can give stunning results, such as laser cleaning of stone, are not undisputed, and have not changed the way stone will be cleaned in the future forever, but are only an addition to the conservator’s repertoire, to be used in the right circumstances and with the necessary amount of skill. When it comes to advances in our profession due to the assimilation of new attitudes (or rejection of older ideas), the situation can vary from region to region, depending on the ingrainedness of local professional views. Relatively recent controversies instigated by vociferous protests over issues of cleaning and patina on murals and sculpture show that debate founded on theories and subjective aesthetic perceptions will continue to dichotomize our profession: scientists vs. aestheticians – two opposing factions, each considering the other to be mistaken or misled.2  

5Unsuccessful outcomes of treatments can be a result of several factors, such as inadequate training or deficient skill, oversights, lack of knowledge about the physical and chemical characteristics of a particular material, insufficient awareness of relevant philosophical or theoretical issues, and poor communication. Any of these, or combination of these factors can lead to the formation of convictions regarding the correct way to solve problems, which may be considered errant when evaluated at a different time or by other persons. We are also more opinionated or less forgiving when appraising the outcome of treatments undertaken in the near past – the immediacy of recent works provoke  harsher judgements, as our subjectivism is yet untempered by historical perspective.

Amateur middling and muddling

6It is common knowledge that artists worked as conservators in the years before the establishment of formal education in our profession. Many who received their initial training in front of an easel or in a bookbinder’s workshop supplemented it with more relevant studies during their apprenticeships in institutions, sometimes attaining a level of notable expertise. It is therefore difficult to understand how certain unqualified individuals were allowed to perform treatments beyond their capacity and independently of the established conservation milieu as late as the middle of the 20th century, creating huge problems for conservators in their wake.  

  • 3  Brajer, I. (2002). op.cit. p. 69-78.

7An example of egregiously poor skills in conservation and restoration is the Danish artist Elof Risebye (1892-1961), who worked for three decades as a conservator of murals, executing many detachments and transfers, the combined surface area of which exceeded 350 square meters.3 He was not aware that the success of transferring wall paintings is based on using glues of varying solubility parameters on the front and reverse side of the painting. Water-soluble glues used for the facing, for example, necessitate the use of water-insoluble adhesives on the back. Having anchored the detached paint layer to the new support with water-soluble casein (dissolved in borax), Risebye proceeded to wash the paint layer off when he removed his facing at the end of the transfer operation. The facing had been applied to the surface with water-soluble animal skin glue. Huge losses were over-painted. Risebye compounded the physical damage by ignoring the aesthetic and technical characteristics of the original paintings. It is easy to recognize his semi-abstract painting style and muddy palette in the over-painted areas. He retouched frescoes with oil casein paint. The paint was slapped on quickly with no attention paid to details, such as the borders of the lacunas in the original painting (fig. 3).  

Fig. 3 Frescoes in Viborg Cathedral

Fig. 3 Frescoes in Viborg Cathedral

 Example of Elof Risebye’s oil-casein retouching on the frescoes in Viborg Cathedral.

Photo: © Roberto Fortuna.

8It is hard to understand how Risebye achieved public acclamation for his restorations and why there was no outcry from the professional community. Maybe dim light veiled his crimes, preventing them from being scrutinized and descried. It is possible that the wall painting conservators employed at the National Museum – the leading conservation institution – simply did not know what Risebye was up to, or they were unwilling to criticize him. One can find numerous instances of loyalty toward colleagues in reports from the first half of the 20th century in the archive of the National Museum. In particular, the conservator Egmont Lind (active 1926-1966) was quick to lavish praise on freelance restorers who executed work under his supervision, even though the results assessed by conservators nowadays seldom warrant such accolades. Ignoring unsuccessful results continues to be a problem nowadays – it is an area that is hushed and overlooked, governed by taboos. Deeply ingrained social conventions must be overcome in order to directly confront failures, and frank appraisal usually results in psychologically uncomfortable situations. We would all like to believe that everyone active in the preservation of works of art in all of its manifestations has internalized conservation ideals.

9Quality control is an essential part of many professions. Extending the general principles affirmed by the Athens and Venice Charters is a range of charters and guidelines specifically addressing the needs of various fields, including those of wall paintings (Principles for the Preservation and Conservation/Restoration of Wall Paintings, from 2003).4 The current drive for professional accreditation in conservation of cultural heritage springs from a need to ascertain professional and academic excellence as a visible and effective opposition to dilettantism.5 Moreover, the establishment of standards has been initiated in Europe (CEN/TC 346) to promote common approaches and implement unified methodologies by establishing common terminology and providing guidelines for analyses and treatments.6 Ideally, we would like to eliminate the type of thoughts that plagued conservators all too often in the 20th century. How many of us have assessed the work of a predecessor or colleague and asked ourselves: How could that ever happen?

Interpretations

  • 7  Brajer, I. (2008). “Eigil Rothe, an early twentieth century wall paintings conservator in Denmark” (...)
  • 8  Rothe, E. (1916). Unpublished manuscript nr. 404/16, Jelling Church, Tørrild District, Vejle Count (...)
  • 9  Trampedach, K. (2005). ‘Treatment and presentation of Fragmentary medieval wall paintings in Denma (...)

10If there was one person in Denmark who was not shy about expressing his dissatisfaction regarding the work of his colleagues, it was one of the foremost conservators of his time, Eigil Rothe (active 1897-1929)7. Rothe’s criticism of the work carried out in Jelling Church by his former teacher borders on contempt.8 Julius Magnus-Petersen recreated the Romanesque wall paintings in the chancel in 1875 after a collapsed vault inflicted serious damage.9 Working in the artist-restorer tradition and under the influence of historicism – two major impacts on 19th restoration practice, Magnus-Petersen was unable to replicate the appearance of the Romanesque paintings, either due to his lack of visual acuity, the inability to free himself of the painting pedantic style he had acquired in the course of his education at the Academy, or his lack of knowledge of medieval painting techniques (or all three). The resulting decoration appears contrived. The general original composition was replicated as faithfully as possible on a new layer of carefully levelled plaster. On this alien surface, the original appearance and immediacy of the image was lost even more through stiff and overly meticulous application of the paint and erroneous interpretation of details and hues (fig. 4).

Fig.4 Paintings in Jelling Church

Fig.4 Paintings in Jelling Church

Detail from Julius Magnus-Petersen’s recreated Romanesque paintings (1875) in Jelling Church.

Photo: ©Kirsten Trampedach.

11In Rothe’s opinion, the paintings had no value whatsoever. “Can Danish medieval archaeology acknowledge this?” He would have liked to see this aberrant translation of medieval art covered with limewash, but only after “scientific” photographic documentation of the failure. Magnus-Petersen’s wall paintings still exist in the Romanesque church in Jelling, viewed by some as a thorn in the eye, marring the site entered on the World Heritage List – with the two Jelling Stones with 10th century runic inscriptions testifying to the Christianization of the nation standing at the entrance to the church, and the two great Tumulus mounds erected in the 10th century looming over the building. It goes without saying that the preservation of the original Romanesque murals – even as fragments – would have greatly enhanced the authenticity of the Jelling site. But what Rothe considered to be a misguided interpretation deserving effacement is assessed with different eyes today. No one would consider the option of covering these paintings with limewash. Enough time has evolved for these murals to gain historical value – they are now an interesting example of the effect of historicism our profession. We would not follow the footsteps of Magnus-Petersen today, but we also do not want to obliterate them.

  • 10  Personal Viewpoints – Thoughts about Paintings Conservation. (2003). ed. M. Leonard, GCI, Los Ange (...)
  • 11  Conti, A. (2007). History of the Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art, transl. of the 1988 (...)
  • 12  ICOMOS – Principles for the Preservation and Conservation/Restoration of Wall Paintings. http://ww (...)
  • 13  Brajer, I.  (2006).‘Theory, methodology and practice – Cesare Brandi and wall painting restoration (...)
  • 14  Brajer, I. (2009). ‘Authenticity and Restoration of wall paintings – Issues of Truth and Beauty.’ (...)

12Assessing the work of our predecessors is usually the stimulus ushering in new approaches. In the four decades that passed between Magnus-Petersen’s reconstruction and Rothe’s criticism, attitudes toward the appearance of medieval wall paintings had changed. In his numerous writings, Rothe implied more or less directly that his predecessors were wrong. The aim of restorations was not to try to replicate the way the paintings appeared at the time of their creation. For him, respect for the passage of time was paramount. The variegated surface of the paintings, with well-preserved colours interspersed with faded or lost areas, represented a truthful appearance, and this effect, according to Rothe, should be aimed for in reconstructions.      Respect for the value of the painting as a document recording the passage of time could be achieved by sensitive integration, but also by removing the heavy-handed over-painting of earlier restorers. Respect for the painting as a document of its time has also led to removal of additions. Examples abound in the treatment of easel paintings.10 Aesthetic interpretations can be decisive on how the paintings are viewed by the general public. For example, our vision of Italian Renaissance painting has been largely built on the appearance of works restored by Luigi Cavenaghi, who was considered to be one of the most cultivated and skilful restorers of all times.11  In Denmark, many Romanesque wall paintings are still viewed through the eyes of 19th century artists-restorers, such as Magnus-Petersen and Jacob Kornerup (active 1862-1904), and the lens of historicism. On the other hand, the next generation of conservators – Rothe and his assistant and follower, Lind – were talented imitators of the medieval painting style and the effects of time. Without the aid of historical photographic documentation, conservators nowadays sometimes cannot discern their work from the original. This kind of deception is considered wrong according to modern conservation principles,12 and has resulted in the implementation of discernable retouching techniques (tratteggio, pointillism, crosshatching) that unequivocally identify what areas of the image are genuine.13 This practice (first postulated in the Athens Charter of 1931) prevalent in the past several decades, is, in turn, currently criticized for creating uniform or repetitive patterns that can impose a general matrix dominating the artistic expression of the original painting.14

  • 15  Jakobs, D. (2005). ’Zur Präsentation Fragmentarisch Überlieferter Wandmalereien un Raumfassungen’, (...)
  • 16  Wong, L. (2003). ‘Documentation: Objectives, levels and the recording process’, in: Post-prints of (...)

13As our concept of what conservation of cultural heritage is and who its main stakeholders are evolves, so will the way we chose to present the objects we are treating to viewers. Aesthetical interpretations will usually reflect trends in conservation, such as minimal intervention emphasizing material authenticity or more extensive integration coaxing forth comprehension of the pictorial content.15 Therefore, the role documentation plays in our profession cannot be overly emphasized. In Denmark, we have benefited from the insight of Rothe, who – unprecedentedly for his time – introduced systematic photographic documentation. His photographs documenting the condition of the paintings prior to retouching are proof of his professional integrity. He may have retouched and reconstructed more liberally than conservators would today, but the point of origin was documented. Nowadays the obligation to document is universally acknowledged. However, some projects are accompanied by an accumulation of information that might be difficult to access or never used in the future.16 Primary data can be lost in a maze of over-documentation, and therefore decisions about the extent of documentation should be made judiciously.

Misinterpretations

14If conservators at times cannot tell the difference between additions and original parts of paintings, it is hardly surprising that persons less acquainted with painting techniques have also experience the same. It can sometimes require a great deal of connoisseurship and technical knowledge to detect that a layer of paint, for example, was applied on repair plaster and not on the original substrate. The following is a case where an art historian mistook a reconstruction for the original, influencing the interpretation of the scene. The wall painting depicting the Tower of Babel in Tirsted Church is dated to about 1425 (fig. 5).

Fig.5 Reconstructions from 1929

Fig.5 Reconstructions from 1929

Tower of Babel scene in Tirsted Church showing reconstructions from 1929.

Photo: © Roberto Fortuna.

  • 17  Gotfredsen, L. (1980). ‘Et Babeltårn i Tirsted’, Iconographisk Post 2, p.18.
  • 18  Brajer, I., and Thillemann, L. (2002).‘The wall paintings in Tirsted Church: problems of aesthetic (...)

15A small tower is being built on top of a hill. In the restored version of the painting existing from 1929-2000, a person is seen to the left of the tower, standing with a trowel in his hand, apparently just finished with the brickwork. On the other side of the tower is a second figure, turned away, with both arms stretched forward. The third figure, below the second seems to be falling down the hill. A plausible interpretation is that a tumult occurred as a result of the linguistic confusion, causing one of the figures to tumble.17 However, during the re-restoration of the paintings in 1999-2000, the original legs of the tumbling figure were discovered beneath numerous secondary limewash layers, showing the figure to be standing erect (fig. 6).18 The earlier version was a figment of the restorer’s imagination. A large loss in the area between the two figures on the right makes a definite interpretation of the scene impossible – maybe an object had being originally painted here, passed from one figure to the other, possibly indicating co-operation, not strife.

Fig. 6 Tower of Babel scene in Tirsted Church

Fig. 6 Tower of Babel scene in Tirsted Church

Tower of Babel scene in Tirsted Church after removal of secondary limewash layers and reconstructions showing the original position of the legs on the lower figure.

Photo: © Roberto Fortuna.

  • 19  Kierkegaard, B. (1990). ‘Transport af et 44m2 stort Asger Jorn maleri’, Meddelelser om Konserverin (...)

16Misinterpretation of pictorial content has been limited in recent decades by the use of discernable retouching methodology. In Denmark, aesthetic integration of wall paintings is more often carried out to diminish the visual impact of losses rather than out of concern for preserving the artist’s intent. That is because anonymous painters living hundreds of years in the past created most of the wall paintings in medieval churches, and they were never intended to function as works of art. However, modern murals are a different matter. One of the gravest acts of misinterpretation committed on any wall painting is in Denmark. It is a modern work of art created by Asger Jorn.  In a spontaneous creative act in 1965, Jorn executed a 44 m2 mural in the summerhouse of his friend, the Cobra art dealer, Børge Birch. Lively and colourful brushstrokes traversed from one wall to another, sliding around corners into a corridor, travelling up to an upper level – this was not a simple mural on a flat rectangular surface. Twenty some years later, Birch decided to donate the painting to the city of Copenhagen. He would not let himself be convinced that the mural belonged where the artist had created it. The painting was divided into manoeuvrable sections, detached and transported to Copenhagen, where it was mounted on a movable support.19 The fibreglass/epoxy support with an aluminium honeycomb core was constructed in a way that enabled a recreation of the original three-dimensional configuration in the interior of the Museum of Modern Art - Arken. Instead, the painting was hung as part of the permanent exhibition as seven individual units, separated from each other, and in random sequence (fig. 7a and 7b). One can no longer follow the sweeping brushstrokes over the large surface. There is no information about the painting’s origin or history. As a result, the viewer perceives this as a collection of easel paintings.

7a. Drawing showing division of the Asger Jorn mural.

7a. Drawing showing division of the Asger Jorn mural.

Section 1 was the test piece, which was mounted together with section 3 on one support.

Photo: © Roberto Fortuna.

7b. Current exposition of the Asger Jorn mural in The Museum of Modern Art – Arken.

7b. Current exposition of the Asger Jorn mural in The Museum of Modern Art – Arken.

Hanging sequence from left (corresponding to numbers on fig. 7a): 5, 6, 2, 3 hanging above 7 and 8, 4.

Photo: © Roberto Fortuna.

  • 20  Banik, G. (1998). ‘Dentist, Cook and Washerwoman – Models for Training Co-operative Skills in Cons (...)

17One can speculate whether the abstract pictorial content enabled such a grave violation of the integrity of the Jorn mural. Had it depicted a skein of geese flapping their way across the Nordic firmament, no curator would think of showing the panorama in sections. This disturbing result ignores the concept of the project and is flagrant proof for the need for better cooperation between conservators and curators. It also demonstrates the need for conservators to improve communication skills, as these are essential tools in conservation in the 21st century, complimenting manual and technical skills in our profession. Training co-operative skills between the various specialised fields involved in the preservation of cultural heritage – spanning from the humanities through scientific and engineering disciplines – is of high importance because the relationship between these disciplines is still strongly determined by prejudices and defence of particular interests.20

Undoing mistakes

  • 21  Brajer, I. (1999). ‘Aspects of Reversibility in Transferred Wall Paintings’,   Reversibility – Doe (...)
  • 22  Sease, C. (1981). ‘The case against using soluble nylon in conservation work’, Studies in Conserva (...)
  • 23  Cather, S. and Howard, H. (1986). ‘The use of wax and wax-resin preservatives on English wall pain (...)
  • 24  Isabelle Brajer. (2009) ‘The Carlsberg Preparation: An early 20th century surface treatment for wa (...)

18It is, of course, impossible to undo the damage inflicted on the Jorn mural by the act of detachment, which has affected many of its intangible values. Separated from its original location, it has lost much of its meaning, which would have even been true had the three-dimensional configuration of the room been replicated in the museum. Detachment and translocation of a wall painting is an extreme action, a one-way operation, which is disturbing in its finality.21 Impregnation is another action with very limited potential for reversibility. Professional literature is filled with examples of problems caused by the introduction of various materials into objects across all fields in conservation. A notable example is soluble nylon.22 In the field of wall paintings historical impregnations, such as wax impregnation in England,23 pose great challenges for contemporary conservators. Danish wall painting conservation contends with similar problems with resin impregnations and, in particular, a substance called the Carlsberg Preparation.24

  • 25   Brajer,  I. and Glastrup, J. (2008). ‘The examination and analysis of the historical treatments o (...)

19The Carlsberg Preparation (so-called because it was made at the Carlsberg Brewery Laboratory) was the brainchild of Rothe, who recognised the shortcomings of mastic resin, and was looking for a better substance for surface consolidation. The Preparation consisted of an alkaline soap solution, an oil resin varnish and an aqueous solution of casein (which was first dissolved in borax). This mixture was thinned with turpentine, and then a siccative, wax and camphor were also added. It was used in the period 1916-1932, primarily as a surface treatment that would impart water-resistance to lime-based wall paintings, so that they could be cleaned in the future with a sponge and water, the standard procedure for cleaning wall paintings since the middle of the 19th century. Rothe’s intentions were good, and he was more far-sighted than any of his predecessors. He was worried about removing soot from the surface of the paintings, which was the inevitable outcome of heating the churches with coal-burning stoves. His primary intention was to replace the old-fashioned stoves with steam radiators, but as this was often an up-hill battle with church communities, he used the Carlsberg Preparation as a backup plan. Because the substance was complicated to make and expensive, it was often only applied to the most important parts of the paintings, such as the figures and contour lines. In Undløse Church, the figures were impregnated after uncovering in 1918, which prevented many fine details and exquisite contour-lines from being destroyed when the soot was washed off with water thirty-five years later.25 However, there is a distinct affinity between dust and the organic components of the surface treatment, and today the figures are dirtier than other parts of the decoration (fig. 8). Furthermore, dirt rings are clearly visible around the perimeter of the figures, outside of the contour lines – most likely a result of the cleaning at the time of the re-restoration: the wet sponge drawn across the soot-covered figure quickly became saturated with dissolved soot, and in places where it crossed the border of the figure, the muddy solution was immediately absorbed by the non-treated (more porous) limewash (fig. 9).

Fig.8 Wall paintings in Undløse Church

Fig.8 Wall paintings in Undløse Church

Detail from the wall paintings in Undløse Church showing stronger dirt deposit on areas that were treated in 1920 with an organic consolidant.

Photo: ©Isabelle Brajer.

Fig.9 Wall paintings in Undløse Church

Fig.9 Wall paintings in Undløse Church

Detail from the wall paintings in Undløse Church showing dirt ring around the cleaned part of the figure, on the outside of the contour line.

Photo: ©Isabelle Brajer.

20Observation of negative effects on wall paintings treated with the Carlsberg Preparation (flaking, discoloration), particularly on salt-infested paintings, resulted in the discontinuation of its use after 16 years. However, the erroneous practice of sponging soot and dirt off lime-based wall paintings with water continued until the mid 1970s, when this method was replaced by dry cleaning methods. This happened at a time when many of the wall paintings were undergoing their first re-restorations. The poor results of the earlier cleaning with water were seen close up, and the difficulty of removing the dirt that had originally been a surface deposit, but was now stubbornly lodged in the porous structure of the limewash was experienced by the next generation of conservators. The availability of products, such as Wishab® sponges (presently sold as Akapad),26 also made this transition possible, giving the conservator other options.    

  • 27  Oddy, A. (1999). ‘Does Reversibility Exist in Conservation?’,  British Museum  Occasional Paper, 1 (...)
  • 28  Appelbaum, B. (1987). ‘Criteria for treatment: reversibility’, JAIC, 26, p. 65-73.

21The concept of reversibility was one of the basic tenets of conservation for years, and is a direct implication that conservators can make mistakes, that decisions taken in the past might be reversed in the future, and that materials can fail. Conservators were taught that reversibility must be applied to such operations as cleaning, stabilisation, repair and restoration.27 What was meant by this concept initially was that any material added to the object should be easily removable. Afterwards, it was extended to also include more general considerations, such as changes in the artist’s intent, changes to the original chemical composition on a micro-structure level, and reversibility of such actions as cleaning or transfer. Contemporary conservators have long acknowledged that the concept of reversibility is often a utopian aspiration (a view soundly concurred with at the 1999 London meeting Reversibility – Does It Exist?), and have instead focused on choosing materials and methods that will permit retreatbility in the future.28 In wall painting conservation in Denmark, emphasis on retreatability has given rise to the preferential use of lime-based products (limewater, lime dispersion, lime-based grouts) on the lime-based decorations.

  • 29  Bonini, M., Lenz, S., Giorgi, R. and Baglioni, P. (2007). ‘Nanomagnetic Sponges for the Cleaning o (...)

22The knowledge acquired through scientific advances in the study of material properties will hopefully prevent the future use of such inappropriate substances as drying oils, natural resins, wax and casein. However, there are very many wall paintings currently in need of treatment due to the use of such products in the past. Science and technology has given us a glimmer of hope. For example, recent experiments have shown that it is possible to solubilise and extract Paraloid B72® resin from wall paintings that could not be removed by using traditional cleaning methods.29  

  • 30  De Cruz, A., Wolbarsht, M., and Bracco, P. (2005). ‘The use of the Er:YAG laser in cleaning painte (...)

23However, the solutions offered by technology can get lost in translation went it comes to viable solutions on wall paintings often involving hundreds of square meters. For example, I recently tested the efficiency of an Er:YAG laser30 on dummy material replicating the problems on the limewash background in Undløse Church caused by the previous conservator, who washed the surface with water. The cleaning process was excruciatingly slow, requiring about 1 minute to remove soot from 3mm2. Assuming the cleaning in Undløse would be restricted to the unpainted limewash where the soiling was most visible, avoiding the more sensitive painted areas, it would take 75 weeks (at 37 hours per week) to clean 1m2. The decoration on the vaults in Undløse is approximately 100 m2. A decision to use laser cleaning in such a situation would be a misuse of the restricted funds available for the conservation of cultural heritage. In the process of undoing a mistake from the past, we would be committing a new one.

Moving ahead

24Having been able to assess the poor results of the earlier cleaning method using water at close range on several occasions, I have thought: Didn’t the person performing this job see that the dirt was being absorbed into the porous structure of the limewash? Was the previous restorer blindly following a method he had maybe seen being used on another wall painting, or was taught to use in other circumstances, and was just repeating the actions without regard to what was unfolding in front of his own eyes? How many conservators nowadays have resorted to the use of a method or material that they had no previous experience with, but were doing so because others had? For example, the widespread use of Paraloid B72® for surface consolidation might be perceived as a fashion in conservation. Retouching methodologies can also be seen as a fashion: the method chosen is the one everyone else is using in a given region, resulting in a certain degree of automating in the decision-making process.

  • 31  Bikhchandani, S., Hirshleifer, D. and Welch, I. (1992). ‘A theory of fads, fashion, custom, and cu (...)
  • 32  Burnum, J. (1987). ‘Medical Practice a la Mode: How Medical Fashions Determine Medical Care’, New (...)

25The conservation profession is most likely following the same trend as observed in other fields because it also is dominated by human beings. In 1992, a new observational learning theory was formally introduced that explained fads, fashion, custom and cultural change as a result of informational cascades.31 This phenomenon occurs when an individual, having observed the actions of those ahead of him, chooses to follow the behaviour of the preceding individual without regard to his own information. It has been shown that individuals rapidly converge on one action on the basis of very little information. In the medical field, for example, many doctors are not well informed about the cutting edges of research. When in doubt, they imitate. “Bandwagon diseases” are popularized by physicians who, “like lemmings, episodically and with a blind infectious enthusiasm [push] certain diseases and treatments primarily because everyone else is doing the same.” 32 It does not require much stretching of the imagination to transfer such an observation to our profession.  

  • 33  Van de Wettering, E. (1987). ‘Roaming the Stairs and Tower of Babel – Efforts to Expand Interdisci (...)
  • 34  Gawande, A. (2007), ‘The Checklist’, New Yorker, December 10, 2007. http://www.newyorker.com/repor (...)
  • 35  ‘The decision-making model for conservation and restoration of modern and contemporary art’, (1999 (...)

26There are several ways to prevent the making of unfounded or automated decisions in our profession – among them are improved education and intra-professional communication. In addition, conservators have been using graphically descriptive models as tools for decision-making processes relating to conservation issues since the 1980s. The early models did not lead the decision-maker through a series of choreographed steps, but rather functioned more as checklists, reminding the conservator to weigh such relevant factors as function, authenticity, historicity, aesthetic and perceptive aspects, ethical norms, economic and technical feasibility, and legal issues.33 In medicine, checklists have established a higher standard of performance.34 And, as in the medical field, expertise is the mantra of modern conservation. However, the super-specialist usually does not have the breadth of view required to orchestrate a series of complicated operations. The use of thought-process models, such as the 1999 model for the conservation and restoration of modern and contemporary art,35 identifies and facilitates the participation of various actors at specific stages of a larger operation, breaks down complex decisions into manageable steps, making it easier to substantiate them, and hopefully will help prevent mistakes.  

Conclusion

27Undoubtedly, mistakes have been made in the conservation profession, as in many others. Controversies, such as those involving the cleaning of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, or his marble sculpture David, show that a wide range of positions exists, critical of both the technical and theoretical aspects of conservation. It would be a shame if such controversies would discourage conservators from sharing their difficulties and erroneous decisions with colleagues. Hopefully this article has shown that misunderstandings, misconceptions and errors in action, opinion, or judgement caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, or insufficient knowledge are an interesting part of our profession. The implementation of standards, emphasis on documentation, improvement of communication skills, use of decision-making models all point to our acknowledgement that we have made mistakes in the past and that we want to learn from them.

28We have not had many “Eureka” moments in our profession – experiences where our knowledge base made a quantum leap forward, at least not published. Rather, the book of conservation knowledge has been written very slowly, with much editing involved. There are undoubtedly many unpublished “Oops” moments in conservation, like the discovery that one forgot to measure the door to a church. This article does not mean to place blame or shame on anyone, live or dead, but to open discussion on a topic not focused much on in our profession – taking the wrong path.

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Notes

1  Brajer, I. (2002). The Transfer of Wall Paintings – Based on Danish Experience, Archetype Publications, London.

2  Poggioli, S. (2003). Restoring Michelangelo’s David. NPR’s Morning Edition, Aug. 11, 2003. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1390379  assessed 27.01.2009.

3  Brajer, I. (2002). op.cit. p. 69-78.

4  International Charters for Conservation and Restoration – Monuments and Sites I, ICOMOS (2004).

5  See, for example website of ICON- Institute of Conservation - http://www.icon.org.uk.

6  http://www.ndt.net/article/art2008/papers/174Fassina.pdf  assessed 25.01.2009.

7  Brajer, I. (2008). “Eigil Rothe, an early twentieth century wall paintings conservator in Denmark”, CeROArt – Conservation, Exposition, Restauration d’Objets d’Art, Number 2: Regards contemporains sur la restauration, assessable on-line from Oct. 2008, http://ceroart.revues.org/index426.html .

8  Rothe, E. (1916). Unpublished manuscript nr. 404/16, Jelling Church, Tørrild District, Vejle County, Archive of the National Museum of Denmark.

9  Trampedach, K. (2005). ‘Treatment and presentation of Fragmentary medieval wall paintings in Denmark’, in: Die Kunst der Restaurierung, ICOMOS Heftes des Deutschen Nationalkomitees XXXX, Bayerisches National Museum, p. 160-4.

10  Personal Viewpoints – Thoughts about Paintings Conservation. (2003). ed. M. Leonard, GCI, Los Angeles, p.  20-25, 64-76;  Bergeon, S. (1990). «Science et patience» ou la restaurationdes peintures, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, p. 168-177.

11  Conti, A. (2007). History of the Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art, transl. of the 1988 publication Storia del restauro e della conservazione delle opera d’arte by H. Glanville, Elsevier, p. 365-76.

12  ICOMOS – Principles for the Preservation and Conservation/Restoration of Wall Paintings. http://www.international.icomos.org/charters/wallpaintings_e.htm assessed 28.01.2009.

13  Brajer, I.  (2006).‘Theory, methodology and practice – Cesare Brandi and wall painting restoration in Denmark in the 20th century.’ International Seminar – Theory and Practice in Conservation, (eds.) J. Delgado Rodrigues and J.M. Mimoso. National Laboratory of Civil Engineering, Lisbon, May 4-5, p. 109-118.

14  Brajer, I. (2009). ‘Authenticity and Restoration of wall paintings – Issues of Truth and Beauty.’ Postprints of International Meeting: Art, Conservation and Authenticities: Material, Concept, Context. University of Glasgow, 12-14 September 2007. In print, forthcoming 2009.

15  Jakobs, D. (2005). ’Zur Präsentation Fragmentarisch Überlieferter Wandmalereien un Raumfassungen’, in: Die Kunst der Restaurierung, ICOMOS Hefte des Deutschen Nationalkomitees XXXX, Bayerisches National Museum, p. 141-159;  Brajer, I. (2008). ‘Values and Opinions of the General Public on Wall Paintings and their Restoration: A Preliminary Study’, Conservation and Access, Preprints of the contributions to the London IIC Congress, p. 33-38.

16  Wong, L. (2003). ‘Documentation: Objectives, levels and the recording process’, in: Post-prints of the conference – Conserving the Painted Past, London 2-4 December, 1999, English Heritage, p. 46-54.

17  Gotfredsen, L. (1980). ‘Et Babeltårn i Tirsted’, Iconographisk Post 2, p.18.

18  Brajer, I., and Thillemann, L. (2002).‘The wall paintings in Tirsted Church: problems of aesthetic presentation after the fourth re-restoration’, ICOM Committee for Conservation Preprints, 13th Triennial Meeting, Rio de Janeiro, p. 153-9.

19  Kierkegaard, B. (1990). ‘Transport af et 44m2 stort Asger Jorn maleri’, Meddelelser om Konservering5-6, p. 251-77.

20  Banik, G. (1998). ‘Dentist, Cook and Washerwoman – Models for Training Co-operative Skills in Conservation Science and Practical Restoration’, Preprints of the Jubilee Symposium – 25 years – School of Conservation, Konservatorskolen, Det Kongelige Danske Kunstakademi, Copenhagen, p. 29-37.

21  Brajer, I. (1999). ‘Aspects of Reversibility in Transferred Wall Paintings’,   Reversibility – Does it Exist? eds. Oddy, A., and Carroll, S.,  British Museum Occasional Paper 135, p. 63-71.

22  Sease, C. (1981). ‘The case against using soluble nylon in conservation work’, Studies in Conservation 26, p. 102-110.

23  Cather, S. and Howard, H. (1986). ‘The use of wax and wax-resin preservatives on English wall paintings: rationale and consequences’, Case Studies in the Conservation of Stone and Wall Paintings on English Wall Paintings, Preprints of the Contributions to the IIC Bologna Congress, p. 48-53.

24  Isabelle Brajer. (2009) ‘The Carlsberg Preparation: An early 20th century surface treatment for wall paintings in Denmark’, Zeitschrift für Kunstteknologie und Konservierung, in print, forthcoming in issue spring 2009.

25   Brajer,  I. and Glastrup, J. (2008). ‘The examination and analysis of the historical treatments on the wall paintings in Undløse Church’, ICOM Committee for Conservation Preprints, 15th Triennial Meeting, New Delhi, p. 519-526.

26  See product data sheet: http://www.conservation-by-design.co.uk/pdf/datasheets/Wishab%20Sponge%20Product%20Data%20Sheet.pdf, assessed 01.02.2009.

27  Oddy, A. (1999). ‘Does Reversibility Exist in Conservation?’,  British Museum  Occasional Paper, 135, Reversibility – Does It Exist?, (eds.) Oddy, A. and Carroll, S. p. 1-5.

28  Appelbaum, B. (1987). ‘Criteria for treatment: reversibility’, JAIC, 26, p. 65-73.

29  Bonini, M., Lenz, S., Giorgi, R. and Baglioni, P. (2007). ‘Nanomagnetic Sponges for the Cleaning of Works of Art’, Langmuir, 23, p. 8681-8685; Giorgi, R., Chelazzi, D. Carretti, E., Falletta, E., and Baglioni, P. (2008). ‘Microemulsions for the cleaning of wall paintings’, ICOM Committee for Conservation Preprints, 15th Triennial Meeting, New Delhi, p. 527-533.

30  De Cruz, A., Wolbarsht, M., and Bracco, P. (2005). ‘The use of the Er:YAG laser in cleaning painted surfaces: Theory; Application; Laboratory Models’,  AIC PSG Postprints, 17, p. 65.

31  Bikhchandani, S., Hirshleifer, D. and Welch, I. (1992). ‘A theory of fads, fashion, custom, and cultural change as informational cascades’, Journal of Political Economy, 100, no. 5, p. 992-1026.

32  Burnum, J. (1987). ‘Medical Practice a la Mode: How Medical Fashions Determine Medical Care’, New England Journal of Medicine 317 (November 5, 1987) p. 1222 [cited by Bikhchandani et al].

33  Van de Wettering, E. (1987). ‘Roaming the Stairs and Tower of Babel – Efforts to Expand Interdisciplinary Involvement in the Theory of Restoration’, ICOM-CC Preprints, 8th Triennial Meeting, Sydney, p. 561-565.

34  Gawande, A. (2007), ‘The Checklist’, New Yorker, December 10, 2007. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/12/10/071210fa_fact_gawande?currentPage=1  assessed 04.02.2009.

35  ‘The decision-making model for conservation and restoration of modern and contemporary art’, (1999). In:  Modern Art: Who Cares? (eds.) Hummelen, I. and Sillé, D., Amsterdam.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig.1 Fragment of painted drapery
Légende Fragment of painted drapery transferred to a honeycomb support mounted with epitaph on south wall in Mårslet Church.
Crédits Photo: © Roberto Fortuna.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/1127/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 28k
Titre Fig.2  Reverse side of transfer
Légende Reverse side of transfer (see fig. 1) showing honeycomb plate and aluminum frame.
Crédits Photo: © Roberto Fortuna.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/1127/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 20k
Titre Fig. 3 Frescoes in Viborg Cathedral
Légende  Example of Elof Risebye’s oil-casein retouching on the frescoes in Viborg Cathedral.
Crédits Photo: © Roberto Fortuna.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/1127/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 28k
Titre Fig.4 Paintings in Jelling Church
Légende Detail from Julius Magnus-Petersen’s recreated Romanesque paintings (1875) in Jelling Church.
Crédits Photo: ©Kirsten Trampedach.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/1127/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 36k
Titre Fig.5 Reconstructions from 1929
Légende Tower of Babel scene in Tirsted Church showing reconstructions from 1929.
Crédits Photo: © Roberto Fortuna.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/1127/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 28k
Titre Fig. 6 Tower of Babel scene in Tirsted Church
Légende Tower of Babel scene in Tirsted Church after removal of secondary limewash layers and reconstructions showing the original position of the legs on the lower figure.
Crédits Photo: © Roberto Fortuna.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/1127/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 28k
Titre 7a. Drawing showing division of the Asger Jorn mural.
Légende Section 1 was the test piece, which was mounted together with section 3 on one support.
Crédits Photo: © Roberto Fortuna.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/1127/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 8,0k
Titre 7b. Current exposition of the Asger Jorn mural in The Museum of Modern Art – Arken.
Légende Hanging sequence from left (corresponding to numbers on fig. 7a): 5, 6, 2, 3 hanging above 7 and 8, 4.
Crédits Photo: © Roberto Fortuna.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/1127/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 16k
Titre Fig.8 Wall paintings in Undløse Church
Légende Detail from the wall paintings in Undløse Church showing stronger dirt deposit on areas that were treated in 1920 with an organic consolidant.
Crédits Photo: ©Isabelle Brajer.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/1127/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 52k
Titre Fig.9 Wall paintings in Undløse Church
Légende Detail from the wall paintings in Undløse Church showing dirt ring around the cleaned part of the figure, on the outside of the contour line.
Crédits Photo: ©Isabelle Brajer.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/1127/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 54k
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Isabelle Brajer, « Taking the wrong path: learning from oversights, misconceptions, failures and mistakes in conservation. », CeROArt [En ligne], 3 | 2009, mis en ligne le 21 avril 2009, consulté le 26 juin 2016. URL : http://ceroart.revues.org/1127

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Auteur

Isabelle Brajer

Isabelle Brajer received a master’s degree in the conservation of paintings from the Faculty of Conservation at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow (Poland) in 1983. Since 1987 she had worked as a conservator of wall paintings at the National Museum of Denmark, and presently holds the title of senior research conservator. Her primary research areas are in the history and theory of conservation and restoration, particularly issues regarding aesthetics. Address : The National Museum of Denmark, Department of Conservation, I.C. Modewegsvej, Brede, DK-2800 Kgs. Lyngby, isabelle.brajer@natmus.dk

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