Taking care of the Munch heritage, interview with a paper conservator.
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Edvard Munch (12 December 1863 – 23 January 1944) was a Norwegian Symbolist painter, printmaker and an important forerunner of expressionistic art. His best-known composition, The Scream, is part of a series The Frieze of Life, in which Munch explored the themes of life, love, fear, death, melancholia and anxiety. (Wikipedia)
How EVER do you come to think of becoming a paper conservator? I hadn’t even heard of this profession before I talked to Daniel Gillberg, paper conservator at the Munch museum. The first time Daniel was introduced to this profession was when he was working as a trainee at the county museum of Dalecarlia, Dalarnas länsmuseum, and he met a woman who worked as a paper and textile conservator there. She was working with old paintings from the county of Dalarna called Dalmålningar. It intrigued him how this woman could repair the painting which laid there spread in thousand pieces in front of her…
But he soon learned that the road to this career was not going to be easy… The school acceptance is every 4th year, and after long and thorough admission-tests, and after attaining heavy chemistry background, he finally was accepted. He soon learned that paper conservation opened up a world of opportunities. Today he’s very glad that he ended up with this career path. He says it’s a nice crossover between the theoretical and practical work, which suits him well.
<< I’m always curious about or interested in why
different materials around me act as they do
and what it is that gives them their special properties. >>
A paper conservator needs his tools in order.
So what did fascinate him about paper? Daniels answer surprises me, but also adds a new layer to my curiosity about paper.
<< Paper, as an aesthetic element, never really attracted or fascinated me from the beginning. However, I found its physical and chemical complexity most interesting. I’m always curious about or interested in why different materials around me act as they do and what it is that gives them their special properties. From this point of view, paper has many interesting areas to address more closely. Why does paper expand when it gets wet? Why does paper become yellow over time? Does all paper yellow? Why do some types of paper darken under light while others fade? What makes paper transparent? You see … I could go on forever and ever. Paper can be so much, and there are thousands of different varieties and types of it, and nearly as many uses for it represented in a wide spread of different types of objects. When working as a paper conservator you continuously come across new variants you never seen before. Even if it comes to two or three seemingly equal items, they will correspond differently to treatment and show different types of damage. No items are alike. That’s what fascinates. My latest hang-up is digital prints and digital printmaking, which increasingly ends up on the paper conservators table. Especially within the field of contemporary art. >>
<< No objects are alike. That’s
what fascinates. >>
At the earliest times, paper was made out of hemp fibers in Asia. However, cotton, jute and ramie was also used. In Europe it became common to make paper out of cloth and used textiles. This type of paper is usually referred to as rag paper. In the 17th century, to provide the state with so called rags, was actually a part of the tax system. The rag-collector came to your house and collected your old clothes and textiles. They then wet these, let them rot a little, and then worked the fabric together to a mass from which they made the paper.
In the middle of the 19th century there weren’t enough rags to produce paper, and the world had to find new raw materials to make paper out of. After a lot of experiments with most things, poo included… we ended up with wood pulp, just like we use today. But wood has short fibers (ca 3 mm long) and is not a clean material (if not chemically processed and purified as most paper today, exept simple newsprint paper). Therefore, handmade paper from the 17-hundreds is often in much better condition then machine made from the experimental period of the late 18-hundreds. The paper conservators at the Munch museum mostly use Japanese handmade paper made out of mulberry fibers to restore the art of Munch. This is a pure paper with very long fibers (up to 22mm!) that makes it possible to produce very thin but strong papers (washi). These are very good to use when repairing tares or holes for example. They can also be used to line whole objects if necessary. Of course, there are many different types of Japanese handmade papers. So you can pick the paper most suitable for the job to be done. You look for properties such as; the right colour, thickness and flexibility and so on.
Japanese handmade paper is used to restore the art of Munch.
With 21.000 objects to take care of in the paper atelier (and some 1200 in the painting atelier) the paper conservators at the Munch museum has enough to do at work.
When you conserve paper, you have to think thoroughly about what material you choose to use. Your reparation may look good today, but the challenge is that ideally it should look just as good the next 200 years as well. Another important aspect of conservation is that the work you do should be reversible. You should be able to undo the reparation if necessary in the future. You also need to use materials that do not alter, change or affect the properties of the object you treat. Today, the conservators sometimes need to remove old repairs that make more harm than good to the artwork, but sometimes it is not possible. For example, when the PVA was invented this was, and still is, seen as a stable material. It was sometimes used during the 60’s and 70’s for repairing or lining. However, PVA with certain additives, such as plasticizer to make the glue more flexible, results in insolubility over time. This, we know today. Back then it was not an issue. Practically, this means that some art that f.ex. where attached to a supporting cardboard of bad quality, is impossible or extremely difficult to remove today. In some cases it is impossible to save it from further degradation. As you can imagine there’s a lot of chemistry going on in the paper conservators daily work today.
Another very important thing when working with paper is to control the surrounding climate. For example, the relative humidity in the ambient air. Dry paper abbreviates. Therefore the paper conservators work in an environment with 50 % humidity so that the paper can relax while they are working with it. When not on display or under conservation, the art of Munch is kept in storage with low temperature and with a relative humidity of 45 %.
<< When framing art on paper one should have in mind
that this is an organic material that moves a lot
and correspond to its surroundings.
You have to do it in a way that enables the paper to
move over time. >>
When it comes to Munch himself, he experimented a lot with different kinds of materials and a lot of different types of paper. In the collection, everything from thin fine Japanese paper to thick and hard wood pulp cardboard is represented. Munch sometimes attached his prints and drawings directly to the wall using nails and pins. He also had some of them lying in stacks or on his desk or in places where they were exposed to sunlight and damp, water or other fluids. This means that some of the objects had pinholes, light damages or stains already in Munch’s time. There are old photos showing Munch and some of his paintings out on the beach, out in the garden or even in his out door studio during mid winter. This aspect brings yet another challenge to the conservators work – how do they know what to clean, and what Munch deliberately meant to integrate in his art?
What did Munch mean to integrate in his art, what is part of the “original”? and what needs to be conservated?
A paper conservator has many aspects to consider while working.
<< There are several aspects that make the work at the Munch museum interesting. Getting to know the collection material wise is one of them. Right now it’s more interesting with cardboard based objects. Cardboard differ pretty much from thin flexible and pliable paper and you cannot use classical conservation methods to the same extent. Munch did several paintings, pastels and similar works on cardboard, but what actually happens to them? What do they contain? Can you somehow measure their level of decomposition? How to best care for them? This would be very interesting to dive into! Hopefully I can do some research on the subject at a later point in time. >>
<< Munch did many paintings,
pastels and similar works on cardboard,
but what actually happens to them?
What do they contain? >>
When dealing with paper conservation you often need good space, and clean, flat surfaces. Prints, drawings and watercolors cannot be placed on an easel, generally they must lie flat. Opening up the largest standard passepartout requires a full work table and you often work with multiple items simultaneously as several types of interventions (repair of tears, removal of old fillings or old hinges) require drying time or time for humidification. While one object is partly drying, one can start working on the next object. Furthermore, it is obviously also important to have clean hands and tools to keep free from grease, dirt or stains on the objects. You wash your hands many times during a workday.
Another aspect of conservation, independent of what material or type of object you are working with, is the ethical aspect. How far should one go when conserving? When does conservation become restoration? The choice of conservation method is based on several aspects: What values or combination of values is most important to preserve (historical, aesthetic, technological history, etc.)? What type of treatment is chemically and physically possible when considering the objects properties? An object with water-sensitive media, such as ink, watercolor, or charcoal for example may not be possible to treat with methods that need introduction to humidity or water. Then, you have to find other solutions and alternative treatment methods. Of course, the range of alternatives is very much connected with the range of treatment knowledge of the conservator. It is crucial to follow research and to continuously upgrade your knowledge. Furthermore there is the object’s function. In what context should the object be used? Is it to hang at home on someone’s wall and just be visually beautiful (aesthetic values, objects in use) or should it serve as research material and represent a particular artist or a particular type of subject for the future and future generations (cultural, technology, historical aesthetics, etc.)? All this needs to be considered in the decision about how an object should be conserved and preserved.
Daniel looking closer at one of Munch’s lithographical prints.
In the case of the Munch Museum there are common guidelines on how to conserve. When you are several conservators working on the same collection that also includes art by the same artist and from the same collection, it is important that all works are treated in a similar way so that the collection retains unison. The objects in the collection are supposed to serve as research material and be preserved for future generations to come. Therefore one is quite cautious about such things as removal of stains, holes, staples and old water damages. If you know for example that Munch nailed a sketch to the wall outdoors to paint from it, then the traces of this are part of the object’s identity and history. The holes show how the object was used by Munch and how the weather influenced it or how it was stored. In such a case one would therefore preserve the “flaws”. If on the other hand, something has originated later and you certainly know this, one could consider removing the stain or moisture damage. However, if a stain or some other type of damage turns out to impose such a risk that it could possibly worsen the health of the artwork, work will be considered. What does the artwork gain in terms of health in relation to what the conservation treatment does to the object in terms of intervention? In this type of scenario it can sometimes be necessary to even deviate from the original mounting. Something drastically like this is of course never done without proper documentation, just as with any other treatment. Before and after pictures and descriptions of what has been done, when, why and with what is thoroughly logged.
<< The objects in the collection are supposed to
serve as research material and to be preserved
for future generations to come. >>
So what did paper mean for Munch?
Daniel says that the collection includes many different types of paper. Everything from fine Asian (thin, almost transparent handmade paper from Japan and China) and more complex assembled objects printed with the so-called Chine collé technique to the rough surfaces of European machine-made paper and thicker cardboard. My guess is that Munch was very well aware of the relation between the artistic expression and what type of paper he used in some cases or to a certain extent. However, on the other hand, he sometimes seems to have grasped hold of what was at hand at the time. I think that the decision of what paper to use depended on many different factors. Not only a whish to accomplish a certain expression but also money and availability. What could he afford at the time? What did the artist supplier’s selection contain? Where was he when creativity struck?
He was a traveling man from time to time and never seems to have been afraid of experimenting, trying out new techniques and different materials. That is why our collection includes such a wide range of different objects and materials. Everything from small drawings and sketches on letterhead, notebook paper or hotel notepaper with the hotel logo in one of the corners, to large prints on fine paper and wood cuts printed in his own special techniques. To answer the question what paper really meant to Munch and to what extent he was conscious about the choice of paper in terms of what expression he whished to accomplish is hard to say. Maybe one of our art historians or curators could answer that question more closely.
<< There is always the occasional moments when you find small things. >> Daniel says. << When I conserved a print of the motive “Separation“ in connection with an exhibition last year, there was something in the middle of the paper that to the naked eye appeared to be some form of mechanical damage. But something was not quite right. When I later looked at the surface under a microscope, I discovered that what looked like a potential damage of the paper was in fact birds fluff or a small feather. The feather was on top of the surface of the paper, but under the ink, indicating that it either was adhered during the printing process or existed already in the paper before it was used. The paper was handmade and carried clear traces of what appeared to be a plastered stone wall. Sometimes paper is patted up on a sunny wall to dry when made by hand. Perhaps this particular paper was made near a farm where there also was poultry? Who knows. Since the feather was about to fall off and much ink with it, leaving a white space in the print, I reattached the feather in its place again. The print was whole and stable again so that it could withstand the transit and the exhibition at another museum. >>
<< I can maybe see the art of Munch and the materials he used from a slightly different perspective. For example through a microscope, – perhaps it would have been interesting to do an exhibition that dealt with Munch’s materials seen through the microscope! Hopefully in the future we will get some more time to do some deeper research, preferably with our team of art historians, to produce greater and deeper knowledge of Munch and his works. >>
<< Perhaps it would have been interesting to do
an exhibition that dealt with Munch’s
materials seen through a microscope! >>
The funniest thing I learned while visiting Daniel at work was that when the paper conservators talk about the art in the atelier, – they refer to the objects as “the patients”. This really made me smile, and I’m fully convinced that Munch’s work is taken care of the best possible way!