Restoring Sculpture

The great lovers of antiquities restored out of piety.
Out of piety, we undo what they did. 

—Marguerite Yourcenar, That Mighty Sculptor Time 1

Restoring artworks—in this case, sculpture—is painstaking and complex work. Some are exterior installations, set up in public space; others are in the collections of museums, corporations or individuals, while others are part of the imposing corpus of our religious heritage. Whether we are dealing with damaged objects, or those weathered by the years… that irreparable outrage, their repair requires the services of qualified professionals who—besides manual dexterity—possess skills in physics and chemistry as well as knowledge of art history.

As Paul Philippot explains, it is not simply a matter of conserving the work materially, one must also keep in mind its historical context: “The progress in restoration over the last half-century has moved along two dominant and complementary lines: the development of a critical approach and laboratory studies. The first is characterized by the elaboration of an archaeological methodology and aesthetic that conceives of restoration as a instance of historical critique; the second, tied to the systematic study of materials, their structure and alterations, leads today to the creation of a conservation science.” 2

The country has many organizations and associations dedicated to this type of work, among them the Conseil du patrimoine religieux du Québec, the Centre de conservation du Québec, the Canadian Conservation Institute, the Canadian Association of Professional Conservators (CAPC), and the Canadian Association for Conservation (CAC). The latter have published a Code of Ethics and Guidance for Practice. In it one reads that “The fundamental role of the conservation professional is to preserve and to restore, as appropriate, cultural property for present and future generations; it is the responsibility of the conservation professional to strive constantly to maintain a balance between the need in society to use a cultural property, and to ensure the preservation of that cultural property; all actions of the conservation professional must be governed by an informed respect for the integrity of the property, including physical, conceptual, historical and aesthetic considerations; the conservation professional shall strive to attain the highest possible standards in all aspects of conservation, including preventive conservation, examination, documentation, research, treatment and education.” 3

One should also mention the involvement of DOCOMOMO (International working party for DOcument and COnservation of Buildings, sites and neighbourhoods of the MOdern MOvement), a heritage organization that has the aim of documenting and preserving Modernist buildings and artworks. In connection with this, one may recall that it was due to the vigilance and persistence of Danielle Doucet, responsible for public art at DOCOMOMO Quebec, that we were able to save from destruction Gerald Gladstone’s Orbite optique No. 2, a sculpture erected at the entrance to La Ronde for Expo 67. (For more details, read her text “La conservation de la sculpture de Gerald Gladstone: une controverse médiatisée“, published in Espace No 60, Summer 2002, pp. 36-37.)

Conserve or restore?

Do not let us talk then of restoration.
The thing is a Lie from beginning to end.

– John Ruskin 4

Over the years, important, sometimes turbulent, debates have swept through the community of conservators/restorers. François Mauriac, discussing the irreversible damage resulting from certain restorations of art, wrote in his Journal of 1937: “There, where American chemists have passed, nothing remains of the vibration of genius. The New World buys masterpieces from the Old and sends back corpses.” 5 The author of Thérèse Desqueyroux points to the endless duel between conservation and restoration. Between those seeking major, sometimes radical, interventions that may go so far as to “modify the original historical object in order to find a state supposedly close to its original appearance” 6 —that, one is told, would allow better readability of the work,—and those for whom more modest conserving gestures would suffice. Those whose aim is to preserve the integrity and the qualities of artworks, while bearing in mind that, thanks to technological advance, it is now possible to create reproductions without the slightest risk to the object itself.

If notions of taste and canons of beauty vary with the times, the same is true of the art restorer’s motivations and the principles guiding the work. When the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770 – 1844) was asked, in 1811, to restore marble figures from the temple of Aphaia at Aegina (500–490 BC), a so-called “exhaustive” restoration was in favour. One that would “complete” statues and add missing parts so these heroes could reclaim their initial splendour. Approaches have changed radically since then, and those works were quite simply “de-restored” a century and a half later!

The debate is still open and apparently still current. Witness Silvio Berlusconi’s 2010 decision to restore two classical marbles by replacing one of Venus’ hands and Mars’ penis! The affair got a lot of attention; it raised ire on one hand and mockery on the other, largely because the prostheses were resin and the operation cost close to 70,000 Euros! No doubt these statues will have a similar fate to those of Thorvaldsen’s since the additions are “reversible” reconstructions, held in place by magnets. The principle of “reversibility” has become important these days. By using products that could possibly be removed by someone else, one acknowledges that the role of materials and techniques will become even more pertinent in the future.

Must one restore to perfection, to the point of tricking the viewer? Must one inflict some plastic surgery that creates an effect of eternal youth or, contrarily, leaves the ineluctable signs of aging still visible? How to respond when the archaeologist and art historian Adolf Furtwängler (1853 – 1907) suggested revamping Venus de Milo by grafting to her the arm fragments unearthed when the celebrated goddess was discovered? To act against such abuses the Association pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique (ARIPA) suggests that complete information be inscribed on museum files, indicating the dates of any restoration and the names of those involved. For the same reason that we continue to favour a respect for the original work, the restorer can no longer focus on the “recreation” of missing elements.

Private/Public funding

Restoration, as one might suspect, requires significant financial means, the sums are provided sometimes by public institutions and sometime by the private sector. In some cases, the formula adopted will be that of a public subscription, which has seen some success in Quebec, notably with the monument to Sir George-Étienne Cartier by George William Hill (1862-1934). Installed in 1907, the work was restored through a subscription launched in 1912. (We also owe the creation of several public works to this type of support, notably Louis Jobin’s statue of the Virgin at Cap Trinité—see below—and the monument to the heroes of the Boer War, honouring Canadian soldiers who died in South Africa (1899 – 1902). The monument, also created by George William Hill, stands in downtown Montreal in what was formerly Dominion Square and is now called Dorchester Square and Place du Canada.) 7

Another original approach is that used by Château de Versailles. It set up a funding campaign to restore the sculptures in its gardens by inviting the public to “adopt” one of the statues. The initiative seems to have enjoyed brisk success since individuals, large and small companies, associations and collectives from around the world have adopted more than a hundred sculptures. In addition to enjoying the tax benefits—which can go as high as 66% for an individual—donors see their names inscribed on work site scaffolding during restoration, and on information tags for the restored work.

At the international level, UNESCO has a programme that attends to preserving at-risk cultural property. In 1954, following World War II’s massive destruction, member states adopted the Protocol to the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. It is “the first international treaty with a worldwide vocation focusing exclusively on the protection of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict. […] A review of the Convention was initiated in 1991, resulting in the adoption of a Second Protocol to the Hague Convention in March 1999.”8 At the time of writing this, the organization is completing a pilot project—financed by the United States—to document and catalogue the collections of the Kabul Museum and to restore the objects destroyed by the Taliban. Created in collaboration with the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture and the Society for the Preservation of Afghan Cultural Heritage (SPACH), the project has set up a computerized database of the collections and trained staff in conservation and restoration techniques.

Museums

In Canada, only a few large museums have art restoration departments. At the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the programme dates back to the end of the ‘70s and the hiring of painting restorer Robert Ashton and then Rogrigue Bédard. Before this, restorations were done on a contract basis in the private sector. With determination and perceptiveness, the latter dedicated himself to gradually building an actual department equipped with the up-to-date essential tools and supported by collaborators. Now headed by Richard Gagnier, the studio has six employees, four restorers and two technicians, each specialized in a particular field: painting, framing and gilding, sculpture, decorative arts, graphic arts, contemporary art, etc.

When we met last July, he indicated that he prefers preventative conservation in which intervention is minimal and any importuning as restrained as possible. “It can happen,” he said, “that one spends several years thinking before deciding to intervene on a piece, unable to identify the right technique, or the manner in which to proceed with it. That was the case for Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube, acquired by the National Gallery of Canada. The piece is a sealed plexiglass cube containing a few centimeters of distilled water in which droplets of condensation on the inside panels are created by vapour tension. Made by the artist, the top of the cube was not perfectly hermetic in two small areas and the humidity and stagnant air ultimately created a brownish mould in places. What to do? How to remedy the situation, how to access these zones to clean them without ‘dismantling’ the sculpture and, in so doing, risk damaging it? Iain Baxter’s Animal Preserve No. 2 presented a real ‘puzzle.’ In this work, plush animals are submerged in bottles of distilled water. Some animals were not sufficiently saturated with water before their immersion. Little by little they soaked up part of the liquid in which they were supposed to be immersed, creating a situation – given the restricted volume of air and extreme humidity—that encouraged mould. And what to say about Martin Honert’s Tilleul, in the collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Its internal structure has weakened in many places, probably during transport, causing sagging in the branches and general form of the tree. The ‘leaves’ on the branches are made up of several thousand pieces of confetti, resinated and glued on polystyrene blocks and the metal grid. How, then, to recreate the original appearance of the work—without further damaging the object—other than directly intervening on the internal framework given that access to the source of the problem is largely impossible. These kinds of questions face us regularly. Often, each case is unique and requires an appropriate response. What method should be chosen when works are created from organic materials, like jam or the wax cells from beehives, which is the case with Aganetha Dyck’s work? Another problematic example is that of pieces, which, by their very nature, cannot bear any sign of age. When cracks appear on an old painting, that’s acceptable; they become a historical measure of their authenticity. They are no longer acceptable, in any way, when the work is a Barnett Newman painting in which the ‘colour fields’ must stay ‘impeccable’ because it is colour and the idea of the sublime that are the very subject of the painting… For these reasons, we now establish, if possible, a ‘reinstallation protocol’ with the artist, clearly indicating the procedures to follow to preserve the desired presentation of the work. At the same time, the museum foresees setting up a ‘condition report’ when a work is acquired, which would allow us to record its actual condition and the possible steps to be taken for its conservation.”

Centre de conservation du Québec

Religious sculpture, which includes some works that date back several centuries, is certainly one of the most… thriving areas for conservators/restorers, notably those working at the Centre de conservation du Québec (CCQ). Here are a few well-known examples.

After an apparently “miraculous” healing, Charles-Napoléon Robitaille, a travelling salesman from Quebec, decided to erect a sculpture of the Virgin at Cap Trinité and called upon the sculptor Louis Jobin. Nicknamed The Madonna of the Saguenay, she was installed in 1881. A first restoration was done in 1913 and another in 1943, organized by the Société historique du Saguenay. Further work would be undertaken by the brothers Maurice and Pierre Ouellette and, in 2008, the Centre de conservation du Québec would take on the task of restoring its “original white colour.” (Éric Tremblay, www.riviere-eternite.com)

The Stations of the Cross at Ermitage Saint-Antoine de Lac-Bouchette in Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean brings together forty-three limestone figures created between 1919 and 1925 by Belgian artists Anselme Delwaide and Rodolphe Goffin, who had resided in Quebec since 1914. Isabelle Paradis notes that “these sculptors used the mountain on site to create their own version of Golgotha.” 9 The work was restored in 1999 by the CCQ. Still on the hermitage’s land, an exterior Calvary scene was set up under a pergola in 1918. Consisting of six figures, it is one of the most elaborate in Quebec. Good and bad thieves surround Jesus, while Mary, the apostle John and Mary Magdalene are at his feet. Sculpted by Louis Jobin and initially decorated by Charles Huot, it would also be restored by the Centre de conservation du Québec in 2003.

In 1975, Saint-Jacques le Mineur church was demolished to make way for Université du Québec à Montréal buildings, which now incorporate the bell tower and the façade of the south transept. One important element of the construction work was the restoration of the statue of Saint Jacques le majeur attributed to Olindo Gratton (1855-1941) and dating from 1889. It stands about 4.5 meters high and rests on a separate pedestal that is probably the work of ironworker-roofer. The sculpture is wood and covered in copper leaf. Sculptor Fabien Pagé carried out the restoration work at his studio in Donnacona. The old internal structure was replaced with a new one in stainless steel, and an anchorage system was added at the base, along with a ring in the head to facilitate the statue’s installation. A complete cleaning of the surface was also undertaken along with the application of a protective varnish that conferred a bright orange copper colour to the finish that will slowly age to pale green.

But the activities of the Centre de conservation du Québec are not limited to historical sacred art. Some thirty restorers, ten of which specialize in sculpture, work at the centre and it receives commissions from as many private individuals as museums and from public organizations such as the Société de transport de Montréal who awarded it the task of restoring artworks in the metro system. On my visit, I met Isabelle Cloutier who showed me several “cases” presently underway, including an exterior mural by Jordi Bonet at the Pouliot Building of Laval University. An imposing work created in 1963, it is 40 meters in length and composed of 3,591 ceramic tiles made by the artist in Belgium. While some of them came off the supporting wall due to gradual settling of the bricks, others had surface deterioration, notably the appearance of cracks in the glaze. As there is very little literature concerning exterior ceramics, significant research must be undertaken to find adequate replacement materials.

Appeals are made to professionals from outside the organization and to experts working in other departments as well, such as the furniture studio for the restoration of Irene F. Whittome’s imposing Château d’eau: lumière mythique (1997) that experienced some rot of the inner wooden structure. For Marco Lepage’s Involment No. 2 (1969), an interactive light work, for example, the services of a master electrician were required for an “upgrade” of the wiring, all while respecting the size of the original elements. The same procedure was needed for Denis Poirier’s Cerveau III recherche une idée (1974), made in collaboration with the group Homo-Ludens, a complex multimedia work combining interactive systems, light, and sound, optical and kinetic elements. First situated in the entrance hall of the courthouse in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, the work was moved when the building was enlarged. Significant damage to various electric or electronic systems was noted after it was dismantled and tested. Before reinstalling it in the new location, noted Stéphanie Gagné, “we needed to document and restore the piece: take apart various modules, find a supplier of Plexiglas sheets in fluorescent colours similar to the originals, reproduce the missing modules, consolidate and clean the various modules and elements.” 10 The ‘brain’ […] and electrical, light and motion sensing systems were also restored, which gives us a good idea of the complexity of a restorer’s work!

Exhibitions

In recent years conservators/restorers have tried to raise awareness of their discoveries through documentary and pedagogical exhibitions. These exhibits give the general public a better understanding of the study and protection of cultural goods while presenting cutting-edge techniques in conservation and restoration. One such show is Bunte Götter. Die Farbigkeit der antiken Skulptur, which has been travelling to various European museums since 2003. A conservator at the Munich sculpture museum, Dr. Vinzens Brinkmann, organized this show with the aim of correcting our erroneous vision of ancient art and demonstrating how the marble of Greco-Roman sculpture, contrary to popular belief, was not immaculately white but covered with lively colours.

Restauration en sculpture ancienne at the Musée du Québec in 1995, put together in collaboration with the Centre de conservation du Québec, was the first exhibition of this kind in the country. In it, the various aspects of restoration and conservation work were presented, along with the diverse types of treatment used to preserve and highlight wood sculptures. Among them: Louis Jobin’s statue of Wolfe; an angel’s head from the altarpiece of the Ursuline chapel in Quebec City; and a polychrome relief, Saint Martin partageant son manteau avec un pauvre (circa 1796 or 1809) attributed to François Guernon, called Belleville, which required more than 2,000 hours of work. “Museological restoration,” writes Suzanne Cott “differs from commercial restorations in its documentary concerns and minimalist approach [….] Documentation is a fundamental stage in restoration, especially as we now benefit from advanced technology: infrared photography, ultraviolet, radiography, spectrography, stratigraphy… the information is retrieved, organized and conserved in a database. Each piece of decoration is described: dimension, constituents, material, alterations, repainting, additions, excisions, breaks, etc. After having detailed the work’s state of preservation, restorers determine the treatments to be carried out on each part of it.” 11

New challenges

Many contemporary art practices present new challenges in the area of conserving/restoring works. The diversity of materials, and often their fragility, the variety of forms and techniques, the proliferation of technological components all require a reconsideration of traditional approaches. Which procedures to use when an ephemeral, conceptual or perishable work is at issue, or one constructed of machine-made parts? Or, to put it differently: how to reconcile transience and conservation? Another important factor: the obsolescence of materials. How to restore a Nam June Paik installation when the cathode ray screens of the past are increasingly difficult to find? And what to do with works that include slides when one can no longer find a projector on the market?

Since 2008, a research project on plastic polymers and modern materials has been underway in about a dozen European institutions. Financed by the European Commission, the POPART project (Preservation of Plastic ARTefacts in museum collections) has led to the development of a common procedure to better preserve plastic objects in museum collections. The collective shared their conclusions during several days of conferences held in Paris last March. After having identified diverse types of plastic and evaluated the degree of degradation, they defined various conservation treatments. In 2011, the Canadian Conservation Institute, in partnership with Library and Archives Canada, organized a symposium on adhesives and consolidants, substances that are found in numerous restoration treatments. Entitled Adhesives and Consolidants for Conservation: Research and Applications, the event brought together restorers and scientists from a number of Countries. (www.cci-icc.gc.ca)

Beyond mere investigations of materials, some researchers do offer new “notions” in order to reorient the work of conservators/restorers. Specialized in easel painting and contemporary art, Anita Durand advances the idea of “re-establishing,” which she stresses should not be seen “either as a work, or an unchanging translation of a pre-established protocol, but rather as a version of the work, similar to a musician offering us an interpretation of a score; the ambition being to perpetuate the meaning and value without distortion.” 12

Jon Ippolito, a curator associated with the Guggenheim Museum, developed another concept, variable media. “This concept,” notes Alain Depocas, “suggests we consider the description of works independent of the media on which they are based. Thus, rather than enumerating the physical components of the work, the variable media approach seeks to understand the behavioural characteristics and the intrinsic and constitutive effects of the work.” 13 In recent years, the New York museum joined with the organization Forging the Future and the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology to create The Variable Media Network and to develop an interactive questionnaire—the Variable Media Questionnaire— addressed to artists so they can provide guidance on presenting their work and its conservation (variablemedia.net). In this way terms such as installation, performance, interactivity, reproduction, duplication, coding, network and so on have been reviewed and redefined.

No doubt, contemporary technological advances will continue to supply more and more sophisticated research tools for an area of activity in full flower, and in which no less is at stake than the protection and perpetuation of our collective memory.

Translated by Peter Dubé

 


  1. Marguerite Yourcenar, That Mighty Sculptor Time, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Oxford: Aiden Ellis, 1992 p. 214 (Walter Kaiser, trans.)
  2. Paul Philippot, « La restauration des sculptures polychromes », Studies in Conservation, vol. 15 n. 4, Nov. 1970, p. 248.
  3. Code of Ethics and Guidance for Practice of the Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property and of the Canadian Association of Professional Conservators. Third edition. 2000 CAC and CAPC. See : https://www.cac-accr.ca/files/pdf/ecode.pdf. (Consulted September 29, 2012)
  4. John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, New York: John Wiley, 1884, Chapter 6, p.181.
  5. François Mauriac, Journal, 1937. Cited in the magazine Nuances, n. 22, November 1999, p. 6. (Translation mine)
  6. James Beck, “Un débat, au Louvre”, C. Vermont trans, Nuances magazine, n. 31, Spring 2003, p. 9. (Translation mine)
  7. The firm Dolléans Art Conversation was given responsibility for restoring the equestrian statue that crowns the monument in 2009.
  8. See www.unesco.org (Consulted Sept. 29, 2012)
  9. Isabelle Paradis, « Le chemin de croix d’une restauration », revue Continuité, no 97, 2003, p. 11. (Translation mine)
  10. Stéphanie Gagné, « Remue-méninges », revue Continuité, no 131, p. 16. (Translation mine)
  11. Suzanne Cotte, « Restaurer avec passion », revue Continuité, no 62, p. 39-41. (Translation mine)
  12. Anita Durand, “Valeurs, compromis et polémiques “ CeROArt [web], 4 | 2009, posted October 14, 2009 (Translation mine.) (Viewed June 26, 2012). URL : http://ceroart.revues.org/1259. (Translation mine)
  13. Alain Depocas, 2003. www.fondation-langlois.org (Viewed June 29, 2012). (Translation mine)