Art Conservation

On Friday, July 31st, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) ran an article entitled “As Art Ages, So Do the Skills to Preserve It”. I was shocked to read this article, to think that we are in danger of losing some very important parts of our cultural heritage. My thoughts ran along the lines of “With this economy, art (and art restoration) is going to take a big back seat.”, and “What about the very few old Tarot cards that we have in museums – are they being restored in a good manner, or are they being left behind?”

The focus of the article was on conservator Sue Ann Chui at the Getty Museum. The specific artwork mentioned in this article is the 15th century master-work depicting Madonna and Child. Through such tools as x-ray probes, ultraviolet scans, infrared reflectograms and molecular spectroscopy the panel painting is telling its own story. What is showing up is that the panel painting was severely damaged by previous (well intentioned) attempts to restore it.

In doing so Ms. Chui is helping to turn the dying craft of panel conservation into a material science. According to George Bisacca, a leading painting conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, art conservation is a mix of science, artisan skills, and artistry, requiring very sophisticated knowledge and judgment. There are very few experts. According to this WSJ article, there are only a half dozen or so restoration experts world-wide that have the expertise to do such work, with most of them nearing retirement. The only specialized training program for panel painting conservation (located in Florence, Italy) recently closed down.

The Getty has been very active in helping to protect some of the world’s most fragile cultural monuments (including the tomb of Queen Nefertari in Egypt). In taking on such projects the Getty experts hope to “protect the cultural memory of embodied in paintings on wood, such as the Mona Lisa. (It is interesting to note that Ms.Chui’s background includes being a master carpenter, art scholar, chemist and applied physicist.)

How do we translate this to the Tarot world? We have very few of the older Tarot card decks still in existence, and most of them are incomplete decks. It is very important that we preserve this history so that we can learn from it. Our world is changing, and we need to realign our priorities so that what is important to us is nurtured and preserved.

Something for us all to think about – how can we move forward, while preserving the past.

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