2013/368. Julia Margaret Cameron. Beatrice, 1866, Albumen print
Photography as an art form has a rich history that has seen the invention of many photographic processes and prints. This is the second article in a series written to give AGO patrons a greater depth of understanding about the various photographic processes in the collection. You can read the previous article at here.
One of the most interesting jobs at an art museum is one you may not have heard of before. Art conservators are the unsung heroes who ensure beloved works of art will be around for generations to come. It’s challenging but rewarding work, and requires a lot of patience and skill! We asked AGO conservator Joan Weir to tell us how she made her way into this uncommon profession, and what keeps her excited to come to work every day.
Two national treasures collided back in 2014, when comedian Rick Mercer spent the day at the AGO. A highlight of that visit was a trip to our renowned conservation department where he met painting conservator (and all-around good sport) Maria Sullivan. Sullivan had been at work on Tom Thomson’s The West Wind, carefully removing old varnish in order to recover its saturated colours. Painted by Thomson over the winter of 1916-17 in Toronto, the canvas is one the AGO’s best-known and most prized works, and one of Thomson’s last works.
Watch Rick as he learns the art of conservation from a pro:
Sabine Schaefer, Art Handler, delivers works on paper to Maureen Del Degan, Collections Care Specialist and Elizabeth Carroll (handling matted work of art using cotton gloves)
Conservation of fine art can be much more rigorous than often expected. Conservators must be highly skilled in fine art techniques to be able to match the delicate brushstrokes of an 18th-century landscape, and they must also be inquisitive scientists, aware of any chemical reactions that may occur as they mix solvents, and monitor the gallery’s environment. Scientific research and testing is integral to conservation as it helps conservators know what materials to use, what may be happening to an item as its appearance or structure changes, and how to prevent or slow the deterioration of artwork.
This summer, I have the pleasure of working as Collections Care Assistant at the AGO researching topics in preventative conservation. Environmental factors and tools can play a large role in conservation. Light, vibration, temperature, humidity, and visitor’s sticky fingers are just a few of the many agents of deterioration that preventative conservation aims to manage. As a Master of Information student focusing on Archives, I’ve become quite interested in preventative ways to help preserve artifacts and records. If we can control and reduce potential damages to the art, the art can remain on display longer, and conservators will not have to treat the object as often. The object, as a cultural artifact, will also be available longer for the enjoyment of future visitors.
Gloves: The Great Debate
A standard in preventative conservation is using gloves to handle objects. Our hands contain oils that can damage an object, change its colour and degrade its surface. Cotton gloves are the most recognizable tool, yet they are not often used at the AGO. Cotton fibres may catch and tear the art being handled, and the glove itself does not create a complete barrier between the work of art and the oils in one’s hand. Instead, nitrile gloves are often used. Nitrile gloves have become the standard in the conservation community because they create a stronger barrier between the wearer’s skin and the object being handled. They are tear resistant and, ideally, will not leave any residue on the object. Nitrile gloves also offer the user a better sense of touch, which allows for safer handling. Gloves are a very important tool in art conservation, and are used in almost every situation.
Recently, however, conservators have begun to debate whether nitrile gloves are actually safe to use. Some believe that these gloves are causing metals in art to tarnish. This is very concerning as art conservators are tasked with restoring, and preserving art, not contributing to its deterioration. To help improve our knowledge on nitrile gloves, I was asked to research the topic. I found that there are many opinions and possible conclusions based on my survey of the current literature. One theory maintains that traces of sulphur left over from the manufacturing process can still be found on the glove, causing the object to tarnish. Another conclusion based on the literary research is that conservation-safe nitrile gloves are only those labeled accelerant-free, as this type should not contain sulphur. Other avenues in the research suggest that manufacturers have changed their glove formulas, thus gloves that were once safe are no longer advisable to use.
Which of these nitrile gloves is a safer choice for handling art? Colour is not an indicator. Research your options!
This dilemma shows that everything that comes into contact with an artifact must be considered and tested for its potential to harm the object, and that constant re-evaluation of products and materials used in conjunction with artwork is a wise approach. Even the seemingly small attributes of a glove can have a large impact on the object being handled and thus careful research is important in all aspects of conservation.
The next step in research is testing theories to see if the hypothesis made through literary reviews hold up. These nitrile gloves also caught the attention of Lisa Imamura, a Master of Art Conservation student at Queen’s University. Imamura began experimenting with commonly used nitrile gloves to see if the hypothesis she made after literary research would be supported. One test method she used was the Oddy test. This is an accelerated corrosion test that looks for corrosive agents in a given material. Small coupons of copper, silver, and lead (Imamura replaced her lead sample with solid sterling silver) are placed in individual air tight containers with a bit of water and whatever material that needs to be tested. The containers are heated to accelerate chemical reactions, reducing the wait time of the experiment. If a metal coupon tarnishes or corrodes, conservators know that the tested object has reacted to the sample. Experiments like Imamura’s can have a significant impact on material and product choices for preventive conservation care.
Though literature research and test results can help make an informed decision, scientifically testing each product or material and their potential applications improves our understanding of the agents of deterioration and their impact on artwork. A seemingly simple tool like a glove can have a lasting negative impact on an object. Conservators must look at all aspects of their work, including the small tools and materials they use that may come into contact with artwork under their care.
Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program
Tom Thomson first painted in Algonquin Park in May 1912 and returned there every spring, summer and fall until his death in 1917. Thomson had a small paintbox containing his paints and brushes, and created numerous small sketches during his visits to the park. He would then use the sketches to create large oil on canvas paintings in his studio in Toronto in the winter. The piece below, Sketch for “The West Wind”, measures just over 8 x 10 ½ inches and is oil on wood panel. One can see the quick, confident brushstrokes in the piece, and imagine how quickly the work was created.
Curatorial intern Cat Lachowskyj shares her recent findings made during her work in the AGO Photography Collection. A graduate student at Ryerson University in the Film and Photographic Preservation and Collections Management program (FPPCM), Cat is currently writing her thesis on colonial photographs taken during the Younghusband Mission in Tibet (1903–1904).
What project are you currently working on at the AGO?
I’m working on preserving and organizing a collection of Tess Boudreau’s negatives and contact sheets that comprise one of the AGO Library’s Special Collections. We have a number of her photographs in the permanent Photography Collection, so it’s interesting to also have the negatives and contact sheets that reveal her working process.
Who was Tess Boudreau?
Boudreau has an interesting history, having lived in Nova Scotia, Montreal, and Paris, where she worked for Henri Cartier-Bresson as a caption writer for his photographs. As a skilled darkroom technician, she was able to find work easily in many major cities in Canada and Europe. In 1950 she met her husband, Kryn Taconis, who also had affiliations with Cartier-Bresson through Magnum Photo. The couple eventually left Paris for Amsterdam, and then moved to Toronto where Boudreau worked as a photographer in the arts scene during the 1960s, photographing artists, studios, and events. She passed away in 2007 in Guelph, which is when this collection was gifted to the library.
Can you explain the Tess Boudreau project in greater detail?
Because the materials had been stored for some time at the house of one of Boudreau’s friends, unstable temperature and humidity conditions resulted in their curling and warping. I have been working closely with Katy Whitman, our Photography Conservator here at the AGO, to properly house the negatives and flatten the contact prints. I’m also pursuing research on Boudreau’s life and work so that this can be incorporated into a finding aid for the collection. This finding aid will help create links to Boudreau’s prints in the permanent collection.
Tess Boudreau, contact sheet, ca. 1960-1969, gelatin silver print with applied colour, 8.5×11″
Why might objects like these be useful for scholarly research?
Objects that provide us with more information on a maker’s process and greater context are often the most useful research tools. Negatives and contact sheets can reveal events that were not necessarily deemed important or worthy of a final print at the time of their creation. For example, many of the negatives show work that isn’t found in our permanent collection. By looking at these objects in particular, we can identify attendees of certain gallery events in Toronto in the 1960s, revealing networks and a history of Toronto’s art world that might not be common historical knowledge. The collection can also help us better understand Boudreau’s own artistic practice. Yellow markings on some contact sheets show Boudreau’s process of selecting a particular image to be made into a final print, and further markings indicate her notation method for editing prints in the darkroom.
Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program
Sherry Phillips, Conservator, Contemporary Art, shares her insights on preparing Pierre Huyghe’s “Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt)” — a statue that contains live beehive — for display during Luminato Festival 2016.
(Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt), 2012, Concrete cast with beehive structure, wax sculpture: 75 x 145 x 45 cm, Beehive dimensions variable, Collection Art Gallery of Ontario, Purchased with the assistance of the David Yuile and Mary Elizabeth Hodgson Fund, 2013)
When Kitty Scott, Curator of Contemporary and Modern Art at the AGO first mentioned we would be acquiring Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt) by Pierre Huyghe, I was intrigued. Containing a living system, this sculpture required a new way of thinking, and so began a fascinating and inspiring two-year process to prepare Untilled for its public display in Toronto.
Sherry Phillips, Conservator, Contemporary Art, reveals the behind-the-scenes process of getting artwork out of the vaults and into the gallery.
How does it all begin?
It usually starts with a wish list. A curator will develop an idea for an exhibition and choose artwork or documents they think best explore and explain their concept. That list is then sent to conservators, who evaluate the condition and installation details of each object by heading downstairs… to the vaults!
Descending into “the vaults” sounds incredibly mysterious (and a bit frightening). What’s it like down there?
Well, I’ve been asked on many occasions if the AGO vaults resemble the final scene of the film Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. In some ways, yes they do! We have large rooms filled with racks or shelves that are hung with paintings or stacked with boxes. One of my favourite things about working at the Gallery is spending quiet time in the vaults, just looking at and thinking about the artwork. The layers of concepts and expectations about an artist or artwork are almost absent here. Simply by rolling out screens of paintings, I find myself enjoying the works and making unexpected associations with those works nearby — which offer an interesting blend of themes, colours, eras. We also have vaults filled with large wooden crates, stacked almost ceiling high, containing artwork in various stages of assembly. As the contemporary art conservator, many of the objects I look after are stored as separated component parts. And many of the objects haven’t been assessed in several years.
When assessing if an artwork is ready for display, what sorts of questions are you asking?
There are a range of questions, each of which can easily fit into a typical flow chart. Is it ready to install? If yes, then there is a relatively short path to the gallery space; minor treatment, mount or frame, if any, and scheduling an installation date. If it’s not ready to install, the path of processing the artwork to the gallery space becomes much more complicated, and may not happen at all. Does it need treatment to repair or restore? Is the treatment complicated? Do we have the resources and can it be done in a reasonable amount of time, and in time for the exhibition?
Sometimes the original wish list becomes a much more complicated document, with more questions added than answers. One of the interesting features of contemporary art objects is an artists’ exploration of non-standard materials, like plastics or electrical components. These materials may be the primary material or used in combination with other traditional materials, like wood or paint. Electrical components for example may need careful evaluation to ensure they meet parameters laid out by the Ontario Electrical Safety Association. Part of my job is to devise how to meet safety standards while honouring the artist’s original intention.
Sherry Phillips at work
And what about object research — do you have to check out its history?
Absolutely; and the best way to start is with the object’s record. Every object in the collection has an associated permanent record. Some files are surprisingly scant, maybe a page or two, handwritten or typed several decades ago. (Interestingly, the paper files can be fascinating artifacts containing carbon copies and other types of early copying technologies, old letterheads and charismatic signatures.) There may be a brief note about the object’s condition when acquired or nothing at all. The internet has proven to be a powerful tool to begin the search for more information , but our library and archives, the artist or estate and even oral history gathered from people who knew the artist or artwork when originally installed, are essential to piece together the history of an undocumented artwork.
In conversation over coffee one day, Greg Humeniuk, Curatorial Assistant, recounted a recent visit with the daughter and granddaughter of a prominent Canadian artist about some artworks that were offered to the AGO from an estate. By speaking with the family, Greg learned about the artist’s practice and gained insight into his life and personality — things that aren’t generally discussed in existing literature. Oral history is an invaluable source of information that reinforces the complexity and nuanced nature in all of us. Curatorial and conservation practice in turn benefits from greater insight and new avenues of consideration and presentation.
What are some difficulties you’ve come across when readying artwork for display?
Ensuing conversations with the curators and others members of the installation team may lead to difficult choices — like if we have to substitute one artwork for another already in “exhibition ready” condition. But, at the centre of the discussion is a desire to showcase the best of an artist’s career and the AGO collection. Inclusion on the list may be the first opportunity in a long time to schedule conservation treatment. If one or more artwork must be removed from the wish list however, at the very least we have a much better idea of the current condition, and one or more artworks are added to my long term to-do list.
Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program
By Lisa Ellis, Conservator, Sculpture and Decorative Arts
Standing at the corner of McCaul and Dundas streets since 1974, Henry Moore’s monumental sculpture Large Two Forms has become an important part of Toronto’s cultural landscape. Scores of school children, families, local residents and out-of-town visitors enjoy sitting in the large void of the northern element, exploring and enjoying the surfaces and forms and now, perhaps more than ever, posing for photographs and selfies with the bronze giant.
Recently, the sculpture has begun to show its age. Those resting in the forms’ voids have inadvertently polished away the original textured surfaces. Pollution and moisture from the air have reacted with what was once a golden-brown surface, most notably on the top of the forms, turning it into a powdery light green corrosion layer. Worrisome stress cracks had opened up across welded joins and in the larger void where many visitors sat or stood for photos.
With generous funding and support from the Henry Moore Foundation, and after much planning and preparation, a small team of AGO staff members spent a month in the summer of 2015 addressing these issues.The treatment plan consisted of repairing stress cracks and attending to the appearance of the sculpture. Read the rest of this entry »
(photo at right) U.S. Military, Operation Priscilla, taken at the moment of the shockwave, 1957. / Camera Crew at Exact Moment of Shockwave Arrival, Nevada Test Site 1957. Gelatin silver print.
There’s something really amazing inside the AGO’s walls right now: a piece of medical history and the forerunner of technology used today. In our exhibition Camera Atomica, visitors can see a positive image of the first X-ray ever made. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, a physics professor in Worzburg, Bavaria, created the gelatine silver glass plate image, what would become known as the first “röntgenogram.” It captures the hand of Röntgen’s wife, Anna Bertha, and her wedding ring (the large dark circle). When she saw the image she is said to have exclaimed, “I have seen my death!” Read the rest of this entry »