The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, June 8, 2003
'Art and Soul

To study, conserve & restore
B. N. Goswamy

WHAT, one might wonder, do a 15th-century painting attributed to Hans Memlinc, a 17th -century Persian drawing based upon a European engraving, a 19th-century landscape in the manner of Turner, and a 20th-century Japanese print on paper, have in common? This, that they have all been treated in a distinguished art conservation laboratory in San Diego: the Balboa Art Conservation Centre (BACC). Some years ago, I would not have known what this acronym stood for, but now I do. It is located in the magnificent Balboa Park which houses countless other institutions and I have had the pleasure not only of being inside it, but of working, however briefly, with some of the most engaging conservators I have ever met.

What took me there was a discussion about the condition of some Indian paintings in the great collection of the San Diego Museum of Art next door. But I could have stayed on there forever: there was so much to talk about, and so much to learn.

There was this painting from Bikaner: Krishna and Satyabhama winging their way atop the great sun-bird, Garuda, towards the fortress kingdom of the demon-king, Narakasura. It is a beautifully painted work, precise and crisp, containing delicious vignettes, like the series of fortifications around the hill fort, or a lake where lotus plants grow in profusion but no flowers bloom. At the physical level, the painting needed some attention even though there was, seemingly , little damage to its surface: no obvious flaking, no abrasion, no design loss, no serious cracks or tears. But, beyond this, the work needed to be studied for aspects like the quality of paper, the relationship between the painting and added border, the nature of the gold used, the under-drawing that showed at places. Some of these things my colleague, Caron Smith, senior curator at the museum, and I could see for ourselves, but then Janet Ruggles, Chief Conservator of Paper at the centre, took us on a slow and stately tour of the painting, as it were. Under raking light and with the help of highly sophisticated equipment, a different world revealed itself on that small work on paper: the direction of brush strokes, corrections made by the painter in the under-drawing, the precision in the detail of the pearls in the necklaces, the sophistication with which pigments had been mixed and laid. With every viewing, new things kept showing up. All of it took some time, but there was delight in the exercise, and much instruction.

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I am certain that there are other laboratories, other conservation centres, where all this could also have been seen, or revealed. But what makes this place special in some ways is the level of engagement with works of art that I saw for myself. Janet Ruggles—and I am assuming that this must be true of her other colleagues at the centre, too—was interested in the work of art as a work of art, not merely as another patient wheeled into an operation theatre. She wanted to know all that we, as art historians, brought to the work: the period, the style, the hand of the painter, information about other paintings from the same series, and the like. We spoke at length about the kinds of papers that Indian painters of the past had access to, the revealing manner of tooling in the gold used, the possibility of learning something about the preferences and idiosyncrasies of the painter of this work even if we did not know his name. She had questions of her own to raise, and she was not always in agreement over all the things she was hearing. For, behind that warm and friendly exterior, was the rigour of her discipline at work, the quiet confidence of someone who has been in this field for a long, long time. At the same time, everything interested her. It was as if, besides enriching herself, she was looking for some hint, some clue, that might help her, as a conservator, in treating a work of art. One could see her filing away all information in her mind for later use.

This is what conservation is - or should be - all about. Not simply the treatment of a work of art but a cultural understanding of it, and of the physical and artistic matrix from which it comes. Indian paintings are not all that the BACC is concerned with for, all kinds of objects from all cultures come to the centre for conservation and advice: works on paper and on canvas or wood, sculptures, ceramics, textiles, photographs, and the like. Undoubtedly, the same level of attention that I saw being devoted to the Indian painting I have spoken of, goes to just about everything. It cannot be an easy task, for in its 25-year history, the centre has treated about 6000 works to date. But then there seems to be a sense of mission here.

Starving for information

With its pronounced emphasis on transparency, and owing to a desire to share information—both a part of its philosophy—the BACC, I noticed, keeps a detailed, step-by-step record of each treatment that it gives to a work of art, most of it being reversible. And I could not but contrast this in my mind with what happens at some of our similar institutions in India. Years ago, I recall, the Calico Museum of Textiles at Ahmedabad—an institution with which I have been associated for many years now— handed over to one of our prominent conservation laboratories for treatment a delicate little piece of carving from one of those magnificent wooden brackets that Gujarat is so rich in. The work came back after being restored, a fine job apparently having been done on it. But no information accompanied it. On its part, the foundation wanted to know, for its record, what treatment had been given to the object. It was like wanting to update the history of a patient. The laboratory was contacted several times, the information was promised always, but never provided.


This feature was published on June 1, 2003