Conservation of Art - an Artform itself

The Zentrum Paul Klee in Berne is known worldwide for its comprehensive collection of Klee's works, but also for its expertise in the restoration and conservation of artworks

In our latest interview we speak with Myriam Weber, responsible for restoration and conservation at the Zentrum Paul Klee. She gives us a rare insight into the often small steps that are necessary to preserve a work in its entirety.

An introduction by Myriam Weber:
The collection at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Berne comprises around 4’000 artworks by Paul Klee, which corresponds to approximately half of the oeuvre still in existence. Around 2000 works have been destroyed or their whereabouts are unknown. Paul Klee chose paper as the medium for about 90% of his oeuvre, consisting mainly of drawings and paintings on paper. Only a few well-known artists worked primarily on that medium. A typical work on paper by Klee is composed of the actual work and the secondary image carrier. Klee glued all his works, which he listed in the oeuvre catalogue, onto a thin-board, which he marked with an oeuvre number and title. In addition to the actual art collection, we also house a huge archive with records about and by Paul Klee. It includes letters, photo albums, his library as well as his painting utensils. I am a conservator for works on paper and have been working at the Zentrum Paul Klee for 16 years now.

The restoration and conservation of art are essential for artwork preservation. The works of Paul Klee require great care and regular inspection. The Zentrum Paul Klee is world-renowned for its work in restoration and conservation. What is your reputation based on?

There are not many monographic collections of world-renowned artists on this scale and scope. The advantage of specialization is the comprehensive, in-depth and well-founded insight into the work of an artist. Through the daily handling of the art in our own collection and numerous insights into other Klee collections, it has been possible over the years to accumulate extensive specialist knowledge about the materiality, painting techniques, and ageing behavior as well as restoration and conservation options of the different artworks. Klee's technical experimentation does not make him an easy artist to grasp. Basically, everything is possible with him, thus writing expertises - an important activity of our institution - is also very demanding. We are very happy to make recommendations for conservation measures on Klee's works in order to preserve his entire oeuvre as faithfully as possible.

What are the significant differences between restoration and conservation? When does it require which craftsmanship?

Conservation measures are all those that attempt to preserve the current condition of the work. I use the term attempt deliberately because it is in the nature of things that the ageing of materials progresses continuously, and one can only intervene to a limited extent. Conservation measures usually slow down this process or prevent artwork from being damaged by improper treatment. Examples are manyfold: light protection, climate control, correct packaging and storage, proper framing, restrictions on use are the foundation. Numerous manual interventions can also be counted among conservation measures. Strengthening the painting layer in brittle or powdery areas by locally applying a binding agent prevents clods from breaking out and being lost.

On the other hand, restoration measures serve to make already existing damage more invisible so that the artistic expression of a work is not impaired. In contrast to earlier times these interventions are kept to a minimum today. A work is permitted now to show its age, it should age gracefully and does not have to look like new. Retouching, for example, should not pretend to be real painting substance. The defect is visually closed in a suitable color so that it does not interfere or disturb, but remains recognizable because the color tone is chosen, e.g. one tone lighter.

There are numerous manual measures that have both a restorative and a conservational character. A closed crack is made more invisible and also prevents further tearing. The removal of a browned adhesive tape makes the work much more attractive and at the same time prevents the paper from being further damaged by the acidic adhesive.

Is there a danger that works of art will be lost if they are not treated in time by experts?

Keeping an eye on the condition and changes in the artworks makes great sense. When detected, early problematic developments can be slowed down and ideally further progression can be prevented. Framing made with unsuitable materials can also have a very destructive effect on the artwork over the years. For example, an acidic cardboard will cause the artwork to brown badly from underneath. The cellulose not only turns into an unattractively yellow color but is also attacked chemically so that the paper becomes brittle. Such damage can be avoided with relatively little effort. Art owners often do not even know what materials the framing is made of. If an art piece hangs in broad daylight in a living room, it is essential to use a very good UV-protective glass. It cannot prevent fading but can slow it down considerably. If works are transported, it is also very important to check the painting layer, otherwise it can lead to painting layer losses.

Restoration and conservation of artworks play an important role when it comes to preserving their value. Do you have an example for us?

The more original and unaltered the condition of an artwork, the better it retains its value and the easier it is to find a buyer. A heavily faded watercolor by Paul Klee loses a great deal of its expressiveness and thus also its value. Another important example would be the loss of the secondary image carrier, where Klee always noted the title and oeuvre number. These were often removed and replaced for example by a canvas to pretend that it was a painting. Today it has been recognized that the original character constitutes the actual quality.

Which artwork has caused you to sweat the most during your professional career so far?

I can't think of a single specific art piece. However, the adrenaline level can rise a little now and then. At the beginning of my professional career, I worked in archives and libraries. When I took my first job in a museum, I was already very nervous when I saw the insurance values of the works. Just carrying a Picasso around made me nervous. I got used to that after 17 years in the museum business. However, detaching originals from an unsuitable picture carrier added later on, still makes my heart rate go up. Slipping with the scalpel would have unpleasant consequences.

Is it possible for a private collector to commission works from you for restoration or conservation? How does the process work?

We mainly restore and conserve works by Paul Klee. As we are in close contact with many collectors, there are also works from private collections. An external request is possible but the execution depends on the available capacity.

(Images: copyright by Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern)

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