Restoring a masterpiece ... online

Despite recent news about an art restorer's discovery of a painting's Goya origins (Goyan?...Goyish?...), restoration is usually a branch of the arts with a very low profile. (Indeed, if accomplished with complete success, the restorer's work is undetectable.) And while museums and galleries rarely hide the fact that many of their artifacts have undergone the occasional controlled rejuvenation, such procedures usually take place out of the public eye, leaving visitors in the dark about the methods involved in such work.

Unless you're a patron of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. On two occasions now, the Institute has performed its magic in a public gallery, so that visitors could witness the techniques in progress and in person - and for those who may have been prevented by time or geography from following the exhibit first-hand, Restoration Online: Restoring a Masterwork II presents the entire process on the web.

Featuring the "sequel" to 1999's public refurbishing of Castiglione's "The Immaculate Conception" (hence, the "II"), Restoration Online's index page currently greets visitors with an image of Guercino's "Erminia and the Shepherds," which is nearing the end of its restoration. (Work may be done by the time you read this, though the site's only live aspect is a web cam with a wide shot of the restoration gallery and its patient.) The simple yet appropriately aesthetic design of the index page also nicely reflects the project's work by displaying part of the painting itself in an artificially faded condition, and keeping links in the same desaturated state until the surfer's mouse wanders over them.

The first of the main sections, Conservation and the Museum, is essentially a single-page mission statement and introduction to the Upper Midwest Conservation Association (responsible for the restoration) - but even for those not interested in such details, the page also offers a handful of 'before and after' examples of past projects. The Painting educates visitors on the theme of the artwork itself, the story behind what unintentionally became a "twin" commission, the artist's life (nicknamed Guercino -meaning "squinter"), and the use of an 18th century engraving of the 17th century painting to guide certain aspects of the 21st century restoration.

The last main component of the site, The Restoration, opens with the Institute's live-cam and an illustrated daily log of the work that has been undertaken since the relocation of the painting from the main gallery to its restoration-in-progress site. (Short text entries and detailed photographs follow the process from inspection and cleaning, through the removal of previous patch work, to eventual repair and renewal.) Some text-only pages explore the technical condition of the painting and the steps taken to correct any problems, while brief introductions to the advantages of infrared and ultraviolet photography, and an illustrated guide to the "Anatomy of a Painting," help the uninitiated to understand a bit more about the restoration process. A FAQ page ("Do you ever get scared?") and glossary serve to fill in a few more blanks.

If you find the Mark II restoration sufficiently intriguing, the archived record of 1999's project is also available - with the added advantage (since new entries aren't being added on a daily basis) of being presented in chronological order. While achieving the same goal, there are natural variations in some of the procedures undertaken for each work, so a few additional techniques are described here - including an X-ray inspection, and the rather ticklish procedure of separating the back of the canvas from its protective lining.

While showing more than most galleries and museums, I was still left wanting more (perhaps such extras as full motion video clips of some of the finer detail work). And while I'm not aware of a site that covers the subject in exhaustive detail, those so inclined can find additional material from such sources as the MoMA's Conservation Page, Harvard University Art Museums' Investigating the Renaissance, the Roland Collection of Films' 30-minute streaming video on Art Restoration, and the Canadian Conservation Institute's Preserving My Heritage. (The last option -the most varied and extensive of this collection- includes information on caring for personal treasures, instructions on building time capsules, "Amazing Facts" about the conservation field, and a 25-item "Before and After" gallery - with artifacts ranging from paintings and etchings to kayaks and a 17th century ship's cannon.)

Delicate, painstaking and occasionally nerve wracking work, it's a fascinating enterprise, and while I would have liked to have seen more, Restoration offers a fairly thorough introduction to the practice of preservation.

Restoration Online - Restoring a Masterwork II can be found at http://www.artsmia.org/restoration-online/.

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