A new Getty exhibition illuminates the treatments and techniques that modern conservators use to protect and preserve rare andÂ fragile works on paper.
Entitled The Secret Life of Drawings, this exhibition is currently on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center until February 13, 2011.
Works on paper are inherently more fragile-in terms of sensitivity to light and handling-than mediums such as canvas, panel, bronze, or clay, and often show the passage of time more acutely than their counterparts. Frequent handling by artists in their workshops and later by collectors, combined with poor storage and display conditions, often leads to distracting damage. As a result of their fragility, drawings in the Getty Museum’s collection spend much of their life inside solander boxes in climate-controlled storage areas, where they”™re protected from light, mold, insects, and other threats to their preservation; and, the fascinating “secrets”-of how they were made and displayed, damages they sustained, and treatments they were given-often go untold.
The Secret Life of Drawings, on view November 23, 2010 through February 13, 2011 at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, brings together 30 drawings from the Getty”™s stellar collection to explore the role played by paper conservators in reducing the effects of handling and the passage of time with treatments such as filling losses, reducing stains and mold, repairing tears, and treating white highlights that have turned black. The exhibition also reveals the secrets conservators discover, such as unknown drawings hidden beneath mounts or watermarks that help authenticate the date of the paper.
The Getty Museum has four conservation departments charged with the oversight and care of the collection: antiquities, paintings, paper, and sculpture & decorative arts. The Paper Conservation department cares specifically for the Getty’s collections of drawings, manuscripts, and photographs, whose materials share a common vulnerability to the environment: they are all highly reactive to changes in humidity, and tend to be light sensitive. In addition to examining and treating works on paper, the conservators also monitor how frequently the objects are on exhibition, and the light levels to which they’re exposed.
Nancy Yocco, associate curator of Paper Conservation, is responsible for the care of the drawings collection, which was begun in the early 1980s and consists of approximately 800 European drawings, ranging from preparatory sketches to highly-finished independent works of art. Yocco’s responsibilities include advising on the condition of potential acquisitions, examining loan objects, and preparing drawings for display. As such, she develops an intimate relationship with each of the objects and learns their “secrets” firsthand. Her wealth of knowledge acquired over the course of more than 70 treatments is the impetus and foundation for the Secret Life of Drawings exhibition.
Spanning the 15th to the 19th centuries, the 30 sheets in The Secret Life of Drawings will be showcased alongside pre-conservation photographs to convey the often-subtle differences that can be achieved with treatment. Present-day paper conservation differs from restoration of the 18th and 19th centuries; in general, today’s conservators work in subtler, less-invasive ways, using methods that are reversible. Rather than providing explicit information about conservation treatments, the exhibition demonstrates how a conservator’s respect for the original intent of the artist allows viewers to focus on the beauty of the design-not the damage.
The Secret Life of Drawings will go on view November 23, 2010 through February 13, 2011 in the West Pavilion of the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, and is curated by Stephanie Schrader, associate curator of drawings, with Nancy Yocco, associate conservator of paper conservation.
Conservation at the Getty
Conservation is a fundamental responsibility of the J. Paul Getty Museum and an essential element of the Museum’s mission, which includes acquiring, conserving, exhibiting, and interpreting works of art. The 25 conservation professionals in the Museum’s four conservation departments support the Museum’s effort to exhibit and interpret the collections and to preserve them for the enjoyment and education of future generations.
Not only do Museum conservators preserve the collection, they help make works of art readable to visitors so that they see the art rather than any damage to it. As a result, most restorations are designed to be invisible to the naked eye. In some complicated instances, however, this may involve a balancing act, employing suggestive measures to make the work appear complete while not obscuring the visual difference between original work and restoration.
While no treatment is 100 percent reversible, Museum conservation staff come as close as possible to that standard. Since methods for cleaning, reassembly, and restoration are subject to periodic reevaluation because of technical innovations and changing values, it is important that work be reversible so as not to impede the efforts of future conservators.
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Report by Pauline Adamek