The State of the Art: Insight into the Conservation of Prints and Drawings

Art Institute of Chicago, Photo: Jane Janeczko
Art Institute of Chicago, Photo: Jane Janeczko

Harriet Stratis, the Head of Paper Conservation and Senior Conservator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, gave a lecture in the art library of the Block Museum on May 30, 2012 to discuss “The State of the Art: Insight into the Conservation of Prints and Drawings.” Stratis recently helped the Block Museum restore a Mary Cassatt drawing for its permanent collection. This talk covered restoration procedures, common ailments in collections, and some of the specific projects at both the Art Institute and the Block Museum.

Stratis’ department at the Art Institute comprises of seven conservators and restorers who collaborate to heal works that have been damaged, some by time and some by negligence. The Prints and Drawing Conservation department at the Art Institute has pieces dating back to the early 13th century to present day. It is common for conservators to specialize in certain works. For example, one member of the team specializes in Asian works of art on paper, of which the department has over 60,000 items. In addition, the department hosts approximately 100,000 works of Western art. Due to the large volume of pieces, the work never truly ends and instead is ranked in order of importance by the pieces that are set to go on loan or head to exhibition.

To give some perspective on the struggles that conservators face in trying to restore a work, Stratis outlined some of the most common issues that appear in art works. These issues include staining from light exposure, mat burn from acidic matting materials, discoloration from various tapes and glue, undulations in the paper from moisture, tears, creases, deformations, darkened white heightening, foxing, mold damage, and insect damage. A majority of these problems can be fixed with bleach, water treatments, and carefully controlled exposure to intense daylight. In the case of light discolorations on paper, the conservators try to wash the paper in order to repair damage, either by immersing or wetting the paper on a blotter to wick the coloring out of the paper with a focus on pH to remove discoloration. In the worst-case scenario, the paper undergoes a light bleaching process to try to even out the tones and create continuity.

One of the more creative ways in which conservators reintroduce moisture to damaged works is by blotting the piece with Gortex, which is most commonly used in athletic clothing to wick moisture away from the body. Conservators use this material inversely to delicately reintroduce water. One audience member remarked, “How did anyone come up with that idea? It’s so clever.” Stratis replied simply, “We’re always looking for new ideas.”

The most important element of conservation, according to Stratis, is structural integrity so the work can safely be handled and displayed. Occasionally, the tears and flaws in the paper can affect the art itself. In cases such as this, restorers are sometimes brought in to re-add certain lines and colors. It is important to make the work look finished, but there is always an ethical line when making estimations about certain works, however, according to Stratis it is important to be conservative but not dogmatic.

Restoration in the United States tends to embrace whiter and flatter, however, in certain works such as a Rembrandt whiter and flatter is not ideal. Good conservation should look flawless, effortless, and natural.

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