No conservation treatment ever begins by getting straight into the physical act of cleaning or repairing the picture. It is always preceded by a phase of looking, learning and recording. These simple-sounding steps are some of the most important things a restorer needs to do to ensure a successful outcome to a treatment. They are also continuous from the beginning to the end of the job.
The amount of time needed before treatment can begin will depend on the amount of information available about the work and complexity of the problems the painting presents.
Paintings are objects created expressly for looking and contemplating. Understanding the painting as an image left to us by the artist is the first part of the conservator’s duty. Equally important is the need to assess the painting as a physical object on its journey through history. Time can cause permanent changes to the look and structure of a painting, so it is therefore essential for the conservator to be aware of these changes. A thorough examination enables the whole process to take place from a foundation of knowledge and sensitivity to the requirements of the painting.
The work needs to be observed from all vantage points: up close, from a distance, and under different lighting conditions; with the naked eye, the magnifier and the microscope. There is also much to be learnt from examining the sides and the reverse of the picture. A lot of hidden information is contained there which can reveal its history.
The learning takes place with the aid of examination, surveying the relevant historical literature, conservation research and records and online sources. Discussions with curators, conservators, scientists and art historians are also important in understanding the breadth of issues surrounding the painting.
The recording is done with documentation, photography, scientific analysis, radiography, infrared reflectography and any number of analytical tools available to the conservator. All of this material is compiled and retained in the department’s records for reference, and is eventually fed into the wider body of conservation research.
When a painting is as old and significant as the Crossing of the Red Sea, there will inevitably be extra information to absorb. Over the past few months we have been able to bring the picture to the NGV conservation studio to familiarise ourselves with it and the literature surrounding it.
Like many regular visitors to the Gallery I looked at the painting for decades in awe of its imposing grandeur and its flow of bodies and colour, but I have also been able to observe it for a long time from the conservator’s critical perspective. It is one of the privileges (and perhaps one of the curses) of conservators that they are able to see in an artwork not just what history has left to us, but also what it has taken away. With Poussin generally, and with Crossing of the Red Sea in particular, it is critical to know that the painting in its present state does not appear as it did in the seventeenth century. There have been considerable changes to the picture, some of which are irreversible.
In the next few posts we will look more closely at some of these things we have learned about the painting.