In art institutions across the globe, time machines and investigation rooms exist behind closed doors. Dusty artworks go in and come out looking centuries younger; artists’ secrets are brought to light; and hidden, unfinished images emerge from behind famous compositions. Every week, we'll peek beneath the microscope and zoom in on the art of preservation, where art meets science and just a little bit of magic: this is Conservation Lab.
It’s easy to imagine how ten years in a college dining hall might spell disaster for a work of art. Yet in the case of Mark Rothko’s Harvard Mural Triptych, which was on view in the penthouse dining room of Harvard University’s Holyoke Center in the 60s and 70s, the damage had little to do with proximity to food trays or excitable teenagers. High levels of sunlight streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows, along with the artist’s use of an unstable organic pigment, made for an unfortunate combination that caused excessive color fading in an incredibly short amount of time (you can see the changes here).
In the late 80s, Harvard conservators ruled out the possibility of directly retouching the faded paint. “Because of the large areas of colour loss, and because of the delicate, thinly painted, and unvarnished surfaces, such a treatment would be irreversible and would potentially obliterate the artist’s hand—violating key principles of conservation,” explain the Harvard Art Museums in an announcement.
Over 20 years later, the museum teamed up with research groups at MIT and the University of Basel to digitally restore colour transparencies of the works from 1964, and use projection mapping on the canvases to bring the original hues back to life. The team developed custom software and a camera-projector system that reads the painting’s current colours, compares the information to the original photographs, and calculates a “compensation image” that is sent to the projector. The fruits of this innovative collaboration between art historians, conservators, and scientists were presented in an exhibition that ran last year, returning the murals to public view after their long hiatus.
A vaguely similar experiment is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on far more ancient surfaces. The Temple of Dendur, on view in the Egyptian wing, are devoid of colour today, but scholars know that its detailed reliefs were likely to have been painted when it was built 2,000 years ago. Staff from the museum’s MediaLab helped to light up a scene on one of the temple’s walls, depicting the Roman emperor Augustus as a pharaoh making an offering to Egyptian deities. According to Diana Craig Patch, the Met’s Curator in Charge of the Department of Egyptian Art, this kind of reconstruction, although thoroughly researched, remains hypothetical. It is primarily an educational tool. “Using digital media, we can much more easily share how the object changed over time if it had a long history of use,” she says.
Even in far less hypothetical recreations like the Rothko murals, however, accuracy is still debatable. Writer Robert Moeller, reviewing the Harvard exhibition in Hyperallergic, couldn’t shake the feeling that the work was a “holographic representation of [Rothko’s] intent.” Artist Terry Winters, in a video interview, says it wasn’t until the lights went off, and visitors could see the works in their current state, that he “really felt as if Rothko entered the room.” The technology is, no doubt, awe-inspiring, but the pixels may be getting in the way of something more important. Art, when viewed in person, has ineffable power, and perhaps the only way to fully experience that connection is to focus on what is still here, even when the losses are great.