As an art conservator, I am always having to choose between conservation and restoration. Both are essential aspects of my work. How strongly I emphasize one or the other depends on the object in question. The material also plays a role. That’s why we conservators choose a specialty at the beginning of our studies, for instance paintings, paper or textiles. I mainly deal with stone objects, mosaics and wall paintings. Unlike paintings, these usually can’t be worked on in my studio, which is why I travel a lot.
My work has taken me to Egypt, for instance. Especially there, renovation would be a huge mistake. We’re restoring a burial chamber in what is known as the Valley of the Nobles, near Luxor. We’d never grab a paintbrush to add to the wall paintings. Instead, the goal here is to preserve the actual condition for as long as possible. At most, we might cover up some deep flaws and holes. Otherwise we would disturb the object’s soul and, as conservators, we want to let the work’s soul shine through as much as possible.
For other works of art, we might also occasionally renovate some sections, but only after consulting with the preservation authorities and owners. Wall paintings in churches, which often have some liturgical meaning, are a good example of this. The point is that they should be understood. If I don’t retouch the painting here and there, meaning in the areas where color is missing, I risk abandoning the painting to irrelevance. Even in these cases, I only work with the finest of brushstrokes, which can only be seen up close, to render the intervention understandable. The conservator never puts themselves before the artist.
The balancing act between preservation and renovation isn’t always easy, especially since clients often have certain expectations that I can’t necessarily fulfill. We can’t work miracles. A colleague of mine liked to say, “You can’t turn an old lady into a spring chicken.” But that’s not a bad thing. A certain patina is simply part and parcel of an object of art.