“From the Desk of…” is a series in which guest bloggers from different fields, geographies, disciplines, and cultures offer perspectives on the notion and work of conservation. The following post, Conservation History: Notes Toward a Toolbox, is the first in this series, and its author, Dr. Noémie Etienne, contributes a fascinating history of the role of conservation in art historical research.

Dr. Etienne holds a Ph.D in Art History from the University of Geneva and University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, and currently, is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow (2013-2015) at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU. Thank you for offering historiographic insights into the intersection of conservation and art history, Dr. Etienne! As always, comments and questions encouraged from any and all readers.

Conservation History: Notes Toward a Toolbox

The relationship between conservation and art history has a long history. Indeed, the very first art historians were interested in the conservation of artworks. Giorgio Vasari and Johann Joachim Winckelman, among the most famous, both thought about the preservation of the materiality of art and artworks. This is still an interest these days, and many potential approaches coexist within this perspective. I would here like to draw a brief and non-exclusive panorama that broadly addresses the 20th and early 21st century European historiography of the subject.

Three important paths were paved during the 20th century. First, art historians such as Aloïs Riegl in Austria, Cesare Brandi in Italy, and Paul Philippot in Belgium chose a prescriptive approach. They wrote about what should be done, according to their definition of an artwork, or, following Riegl, according to the “values” attributed to a monument. A well-known result of this approach is the stimulating and complex Teoria del Restauro (1963), in which Brandi gathers practical tools and philosophical analysis explaining how to preserve artworks.

Second, art historians have long been interested in the technical data offered by conservators during scientific investigation. In this tradition, deeply connected to connoisseurship in the 18th and 19th century, art historians were interested in what radiographies, technical analysis, or other scientific imagery can bring to traditional questions such as attributing a work of art, dating a painting, etc. Today, this perspective is called “new connoisseurship,” and is still connected to museums and the art market. It uses conservation as an occasion of gaining additional information about a precise object.

And finally, a third perspective was developed in the second part of the 20th century: conservation history. In this context, the first, and as of yet, only, general overview of restoration history in Europe was written by Alessandro Conti (Storia del Restauro, 1973). In France, Gilberte Emile-Mâle, inaugurated similar field studies with a series of articles studying restoration history in the Louvre in the 1950’s. Gilbert Emile-Mâle was the daughter of the famous art historian Emile Mâle. She was at that time curator at the Louvre Museum, writing then the history of the institution she was working in, without taking into account other institutions or countries. However, in the second half of the 20th century, curators and conservators began to write the history of their profession. An important person for this tradition in the English speaking world is the conservator Ann Massing.

It is no surprise that the history of conservation was written during the second half of the 20th century, while conservation was progressively gaining legitimacy and autonomy as a field. In parallel, conservation history had to find legitimacy within art history. Around 1950 in France, Gilberte Emile-Mâle was indeed “accused” of writing the history of “cleaning ladies.” Later however, French art historians, such as André Chastel and Krzysztof Pomian, emphasized the importance of looking at what they called in the late 1980’s, the “intermediaries,” i.e., the people working between an artwork and its public, including dealers, curators and conservators (André Chastel et Krzysztof Pomian, Les intermédiaires, 1987).

Since 2000, discourse about conservation has taken new direction. Beside the history of the progressive professionalization of the activity, additional question have been raised concerning cultural heritage and the history of collection, but also the authenticity, originality, and agency of objects. Again, it is no surprise that conservation is gaining so much interest nowadays. This change is related to what has been called the material turn in art history. It is also deeply connected to Sciences Studies and Bruno Latour’s “network’s theory,” which underlines the complex interference between “actors,” materials, and contexts.

In this perspective, conservation appears today to have enormous potential to be a very stimulating topic for art historians and many other scholars from various disciplines. Indeed, scholars in the Humanities and in the Social Sciences are similarly attracted by the way the changing materiality of things challenges their disciplines. This is the case in anthropology as the research of Arjun Appadurai and Igor Kopytoff about the lives of things has demonstrated. In France, sociology is also interested by the issues raised by conservation (see Nathalie Heinich, Antoine Hennion, Léonie Hénaut, and, more generally, Richard Sennett on craftsmanship). This kind of research, however, needs to be done carefully. Art historians, like any other scholars, have a lot to learn before being able to interpret correctly conservation interventions or archives. Discussion with conservators is also an essential gateway to increased knowledge. Then, conservation is a large field full of tools that allow art historians who are interested in the material turn to begin work on new questions with new methodologies.

If I could summarize how conservation is contributing to art history, I would suggest that it shows that artworks are constantly changing, and are updated and actualized by practical and technical interventions. Conservation allows for a change in the scale—not only by looking at the most famous sources and texts, but also at practices, gestures, and changes. 18th century painting’s restoration was for me a very good study-case. Studying these interventions allowed me to observe how old Masters were perceived and recreated during the French Ancien Régime and during the Revolution. Indeed, artworks were manipulated in many ways at that time to fit the goals of the Monarchy. These updates are not only superficial transformations of the object’s appearance, but may be at the same time a deeper transformation of its ontological definition.

All these considerations lead to a questioning of the life of things in specific times and places. I argue that conservation and restoration update the object visually but also change its modes d’existence (ways of existing), according to the expression of the French Philosopher Etienne Souriau. In his study Les Différents modes d’existence (1943), Souriau suggested that there are different ways for a person to exist as well as for an artwork. According to him, it depends on what is done to the thing, on how it is treated and manipulated, and how it resists – mostly materially – to that. Souriau uses the word “instauration” to describe the inauguration of a new “mode of existence” or regime in the life of objects and human beings. I suggest that restoration or conservation is also part of this instauration process. Conservation shows us that certain objects have potential modes of existence: they can be many things, successively or at the same time. Their definition is the result of a process, temporary and reversible, which does not exhaust all their meanings and potential functions. The ontological definition of an artwork, then, is not only a theoretical issue: it is also addressed while working on the objects or when an intervention is decided or carried out. The study of restoration and conservation history shows that these ways of being are not abstractly decided, but empirically negotiated, in various manipulations, debates, cases, and actions. In this perspective, the dichotomy that sometimes structures the humanities and distinguishes, for example, the history of ideas from technical art history, seems less relevant. Thought is housed within things and produced by gestures: the study of restoration may be a way to fray the dividing line often maintained between a speculative art history and a more technical approach.