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Conservation videos and care

| Thursday, November 1, 2018

A woman leans in close to a painting, propped up on an easel, with a magnifying glass. With light pressure, she swabs gently over the lacquered surface, working from a small section in the middle of the painting out in short, methodical gestures. Conservator Nicole Ryder is cleaning — painstakingly removing bits of age-old grime, varnish and dust particles from the surface of an oil portrait of King Edward VI at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Maybe, to other trained professionals, this looks routine. To me, it looks like magic. But whereas a magician disappears with an explosion and a sweep of a cloak, the old varnish is slowly coaxed off of the dried paint over the course of weeks and months. Small cracks, barely-discernable to the naked eye, are smoothed over and erased.

Conservation videos live in a weird and specific corner of the Internet, on the YouTube channels of museums and conservation companies, falling somewhere between art historical instructional content and Bob Ross videos. While not viral, conservation videos are also not niche — a video of a conservator restoring a Jackson Pollack painting from MoMA can attract more than 30,000 views on YouTube, for example.

I can imagine that this kind of close work with precious objects might be conducive to stress. But in its video form, the sometimes year-long process of restoration is fast-forwarded for the viewer — eliminating the risk and mundanity, and instead evoking a surreal, contemplative calm.

I first learned of the phenomenon of the conservation video from Abbi Jacobson’s short-lived podcast with MoMA, “A Piece of Work.” In one of the ten episodes, Jacobson visits the MoMA conservation studio to listen to conservator Ellen Davis talk about her work restoring Yves Klein’s radiant “Blue Monochrome” from 1981. Even tiny variations in texture, Davis explains, have significant bearing on how the Klein’s trademark color is perceived by the human eye. Often, part of the work for conservators is to undo the mistakes of previous caretakers, and here is no different — Davis is fixing a botched previous conservation effort, slowly restoring the exact vibrancy of Klein’s cool hues. For weeks, she slowly chips away at the paint and reapplies it with surgical tools, to match the texture of the original brushstroke.

One of the most striking things about the videos — and part of their captivating charm — is how little rush is involved. Conservators take their time. They are precise. They do chemistry experiments, collect samples, test materials, research. To rush, it seems, would be to risk harming the object, but it would also be a disservice to the work. Preservation of cultural heritage requires labor, time and care.

At the end of Nicole Ryder’s process, King Edward’s white ruffled collar stands out starkly from his dark jacket, and a delicate gold chain strung around his neck gleams anew. It’s closer to how the painting would have looked when it was first made, the conservator says to the camera with a smile. Through her work — long hours, exacting study and close, watchful care — she has made the painting new.

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About Nora McGreevy

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