With the National Museum set to unveil their latest exhibition, we talk to Magdalena Borkowska and Dorota Nowak about the work of the Conservatory Department…
What process do you follow when preparing for a new exhibition?
MB: There is no set process as each object is treated individually and comes with its own unique challenges. But let’s take our current pastel exhibition: we assess the state of preservation, conduct microbiological tests, clean dirty surfaces, replenish any defects to the substrates (e.g. the paper, the parchment), as well as conduct minor retouches aimed at merging colors. Finding appropriate ‘sealed housing’ for a pastel is vital once it has been treated, and this we did for 195 objects in the exhibition – the remaining 55 didn’t require our intervention in this respect.
What’s it like working so closely to the art?
DN: We’re in constant contact with significant works of art and that fires enthusiasm while at the same time allowing us to develop ourselves as real connoisseurs. Unlike visitors to a gallery, we’re not distanced from the art and that allows us to experience a full range of emotions: seeing something like fingerprint or a small smudge left by the artist lends a real physicality to the work. You can almost feel the artist’s temperament coming through, it’s something that’s impossible to ignore. On top of that, we get to discover things – a drawing on the reverse side of a canvas, or a previously unnoticed signature or date…
What other discoveries do you make…
MB: It’s not unknown to uncover things related to the artist’s working methods, techniques, materials, etc. For instance, when we removed the frame from Leon Wyczółkowski’s ‘Wdowa po Giewoncie’ we noticed some maroon pastel strokes which had been previously covered. So other parts of the picture actually should have been maroon but had turned white over time after being exposed to light. Basically, what the artist had intended us to see was completely different to what we had been viewing all of these years.
Mistakes must happen?
DN: Our job requires tremendous concentration, good decision-making, plus a lot of self-restraint and caution. Our motto is ‘first do no harm’. We work as a team, so if there are any doubts we discuss the situation first before going further. Of course, we’ve had some items have surprised us by their sensitivity to technology and suchlike. Our job is to deal with such surprises.
MB: We only perform work that is absolutely necessary. In our field we use materials that are reversible and harmless, so any mistakes are easily removed. Our most challenging cases actually involve the correction and removal of mistakes made before the work reached us.
Does the conservation of art ever change its meaning?
MB: A responsible conservator would never allow for the reinterpretation of a work. Maintaining a piece well won’t change the value of the artistic content of the artwork.