Conserving Art Is Preserving History | Dr. Jan Cavanaugh

Art is one of the most universally accepted ways of learning about our world’s history. It gives the viewer the unique perspective of what it was like to live through significant periods of time. Dr. Jan Cavanaugh, PhD, MAC, has worn 3 hats: art curator, art history professor, and currently paintings conservator. As a Conservator of Paintings she understands first hand what it truly means to maintain the stories that art has told, and will continue to tell for future generations. In a growing digital age where we all have access to an unlimited amount of information in our pockets, it’s never been more important to preserve the mediums that tell our world’s stories.

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Dr. Jan Cavanaugh, PhD, MAC

Art has always acted as a tool for recording history. The mediums, subjects, and styles of art around the world have long told the stories of the past and the experiences that have endured from previous generations and societies.

To preserve art is to preserve history, which is why the art conservators of the world play such a significant role in maintaining the past eras that led to the modern world we’re living in today. Dr. Cavanaugh always had a passion for art and appreciation for the role it plays in the world.  

Dr. Cavanaugh began making art in grade school, and in high school and college the subjects she excelled in the most were art and creative writing. She received a BA in English literature in 1967 and MA in art in 1972 from the University of California Berkeley. At that point she wanted to continue her art studies in Europe. Two years later her journey would begin when she was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1974 to study art in Poland as an exchange student at the University of Warsaw. She attended a class in lithography at the Art Academy, studied Polish history and culture, and visited the National Museums in Warsaw, Krakow, and other Polish cities.

She became particularly interested in the modernist movement in visual art during what’s known as the Young Poland period of 1890 to 1918, when a tremendous “renaissance” in all the arts and sciences was well underway in Poland. But in the mid-1970s this seminal art movement was virtually unknown outside the country. She wanted to share her discovery with the world and felt that a book was in order. With the intention to specialize in the Polish modernist movement, she entered a graduate school program in art history at the University of Texas Austin, receiving a PhD in art history in 1989.

“Artworks in general cannot be truly understood without knowledge of their cultural context.”

Dr. Cavanaugh is a pioneer in the field of Eastern European art history. Her book, Out Looking In: Early Modern Polish Art, 1890-1918 was the first comprehensive study of the topic to be published in the English language. It was written as an introduction to the subject for an American audience. In Poland, the complex cultural heritage of the entire nineteenth century had a profound impact on the art of Young Poland. Out Looking In is a comparative study focusing on similarities and more importantly differences between Western and Polish modernist art during the same time period related most closely to Post-Impressionism.

The nocturne seen here is by Stanislaw Wyspianski, one of the best known artists and playwrights of Young Poland. It takes place in a park that circles the Old Town at the center of Krakow. At the upper right corner is a misty outline of Wawel Castle, the ancient seat of the Polish Crown. The focus is on a group of rosebushes wrapped in protective straw covers used in Poland to prevent these plants from freezing during the winter months. These cloaked rosebushes have a magical quality. They appear animated, half-human as they huddle together to converse or perhaps to dance.

To check out the book, click here!

Dr. Cavanaugh is an artist herself. She says she “just makes art to make art.” She prefers oil painting, but also enjoys experimenting with other mediums such as silk screen prints, charcoal drawings, and clay sculpture. One reason she decided to be an art conservator was that she saw it as a way to get back to a hands-on relationship with art and use her skills as a painter to make a contribution toward the preservation of historical and recent art. “With a private practice in paintings conservation I have had the opportunity to see and treat a wide variety of paintings in private collections as well as museums.”

Dr. Jan Cavanaugh, PhD, MAC

“When I meet new people and mention I’m a paintings conservator, invariably their ears prick up. The public is curious about art conservation, but there isn’t much public outreach on it.”

Dr. Jan Cavanaugh, PhD, MAC

Dr. Cavanaugh thinks the best place to start is at the beginning, with a brief history of modern conservation. From the Renaissance on, there have been artist-restorers trained in apprenticeships. During the nineteenth century, there were very few full-time restorers and very little technical literature. In general they used retouching techniques to renew the aesthetic appearance of a painting. It was not uncommon for damages to be concealed and sometimes large portions of a composition were changed or new figures might even be added. And particularly toward the end of the century there were new experimental techniques, but this often led to faulty practices that did more harm than good.

“The difference between pre-twentieth-century restoration and professional modern conservation is science.”

The conservation of art and artifacts is a relatively new field that’s barely 100 years old. It began to be developed first in various European countries around the beginning of the twentieth century. The early days in the United States took place in the 1920s. The first research institute was the Straus Center of Conservation connected with the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, founded in 1928. The Straus Center is still one of the top research institutes in the world.

Over the next 50 years in the United States and elsewhere, a new field of conservation science was developed. Conservation science journals started to be published and new materials, techniques, equipment, and high-tech analytical instruments were invented or adapted specifically for conservation use.

Beginning in the 1950s, conservation associations proliferated. The first was the IIC (International Institute for Conservation), which was founded in London in 1950 and acted as the world headquarters for conservation. In the 1970s, some of the national groups broke off to form their own associations. In 1972, the US national membership organization of conservation professionals, the AIC (American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works) was founded to promote the preservation of cultural heritage for future generations.

The AIC continues to be quite active. Among other things, it holds annual conferences in different cities, and publishes AIC News for members. And a lot of useful information for the public can be accessed from the AIC website.

In North America it was not until around 1970 that masters level training programs in conservation began to be incorporated into the curriculum of the university system. There are still 4 full programs (NewYork State University Buffalo, Winterthur/University of Delaware, New York University, and Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada), which cover the main specialty areas: painting, works on paper, and objects.

The classes in these programs are small and intensive and just to apply requires fulfilling prerequisites in undergraduate courses: general and organic chemistry, art history, and art. More recently some graduate level programs have been established at other universities for certain specific specializations. Dr. Cavanaugh received a MAC degree (Master of Art Conservation) from Queen’s University in 2000, and in 2002 she established her own private practice in paintings conservation in Oregon.

“The terms ‘conservation’ and ‘restoration’ can be confusing.”

These terms are often used interchangeably, although in its strictest sense “to conserve” refers to preservation, while “to restore” implies returning an object to its original state to the degree feasible. Most professionally-trained conservators carry out both conservation and restoration treatments as needed. But in contrast to nineteenth century practices, they repair structural damage and address an object’s surface integrity by replacing losses with stable, scientifically-tested materials. Conservators think in long-range terms and take protective measures to retard deterioration, but they know that all art objects age with the vicissitudes of time and for a number of reasons it’s not possible to return them fully to their original condition.

“When you walk into a museum, particularly larger museums, you may notice that the lighting is somewhat dim and it feels a bit chilly. That’s because the temperature, relative humidity, and lighting are all carefully controlled to protect the collection.”

The intensity of certain types of light, especially UV, fluctuating temperatures and relative humidity, all cause stress on materials and cumulative damage that can be irreversible. Generally museums keep temperatures between about 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit and relative humidity at an even 45%.

The standard recommendation for illuminance in the galleries is 50-100 lux. Exhibitions can be designed to eliminate as much UV as possible by selecting light sources that do not emit UV or by adding UV-filters. And objects can also be placed inside cases with UV-filters.

“Even without technology, people may help preserve their own art objects.”

Museums have the technical means to monitor and control temperature, relative humidity, and lighting, but the same principles of preventive conservation may be followed at home as much as possible. Paintings, and also prints, should be kept away from the exterior doors of a house. Preferably, they should be hung on interior walls rather than exterior walls as the fluctuating temperatures and humidity outside can penetrate the exterior walls. It’s better as well to avoid placing art works close to heat sources such as above fireplaces, near radiators, heat vents, or kitchen stoves, and away from bathrooms because abrupt changes are what cause the most damage over time. The best is an AC system that maintains the same temperature all the time.

Paintings, prints, and other artworks should avoid direct sunlight from windows and skylights due to the UV radiation. Any spotlights directed at a painting should be mounted at least 6 feet away and have UV filters. Paintings might also be lightly dusted periodically with a very soft brush.

Dr. Jan Cavanaugh, PhD, MAC

In the 1960s and 1970s, when the field of art and artifacts conservation was just taking off, a number of contemporary artists had moved in a direction that undermined art conservators’ fundamental aim to preserve art by making art that could not be preserved.”

Dr. Jan Cavanaugh, PhD, MAC

At that time, a major pivotal shift in emphasis was underway in art, from craftsmanship and formal concerns, which were so important in earlier modernism, to the expression of ideas through conceptual art and other means. The concept and overall impact of a work was what mattered, and an array of nontraditional materials and modes of expression were adopted for this purpose. The trend for using found objects as art had already begun in the early twentieth century, for instance, with Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal exhibited as art in 1917, which started a debate over the question “What is art?”

The same debate applies to the found object illustrated at the left.

By the mid-1950s, such artists as Robert Rauschenberg were combining a wide range of whatever materials were at hand. And examples of short-lasting or impermanent works include a kinetic installation of machine-parts that self-destructed in half an hour while exhibited at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1960, dried fruit and vegetable skins sewn back together and left to rot, and works of rusting iron. All manner of ephemeral art included works made, for instance, of candy, ice, live animals, dead animals, and trash. At the same time, happenings and performance art were in vogue.

Also during this time period, when traditional paintings had been deemed dead, many artists began making mixed-media wall pieces where canvases were sometimes covered with perishable or toxic materials such as straw, charred wood, and lead. This trend for mixed-media wall art and assemblages has continued and it has presented a challenge for art conservators because of their training in different specializations that require certain methods. More recently some conservators have had advanced training to specialize in mixed-media contemporary art. Or when various kinds of materials are combined, a team with specialties in relevant areas work together.

“The field of art and artifacts conservation has gone through various phases.” 

Including the original 3 basic specialty areas in conservation, there are now 11 specializations: Archaeological Fieldwork, Architecture, Books and Paper, Objects, Paintings, Photographic Materials, Textiles, and Wooden Artifacts as well as Electronic Media, Materials, and Skills/Services, which includes Preventive Conservation.

One current trend is toward more concentration on preventive conservation. A prime example is a recent innovative very high-tech project for the Leonardo Da Vinci Mona Lisa display at the Louvre in Paris. The Mona Lisa is regarded as the most renowned painting in the world. As of 2019, around 10 million people crowd in front of the masterpiece each year. Leonardo was one of the first renaissance artists to paint expressive portraits of women. The Mona Lisa is a portrayal of the noblewoman Lisa del Giocondo, which is famous for the sitter’s enigmatic half-smile. Leonardo was also one of the first to place the sitter in front of an imaginary landscape using aerial perspective.

To both display and protect the Mona Lisa, the Goppion conservation team dealt with unique climate control issues through their development of a new kind of case. The painting is now in a highly protective display case that includes tough impermeable antiglare glass and a case made of thick highly resistant steel with armor-plating. Also a unique climate control system within the case both stabilizes relative humidity and filters the air inside.

Dr. Jan Cavanaugh, PhD, MAC

Certain conservation practices have been adapted to changes in the art world.

Dr. Jan Cavanaugh, PhD, MAC

A general movement in conservation internationally, which began in the 1980s, was to place more emphasis on respect for the ”artist’s intent,” a viewpoint that has continued to today. And there have also been varied opinions over an issue about who should be responsible for the preservation of “cultural property.”

A recent approach is for the responsibility to be shared by the artist, conservator, and institutional purchaser or exhibitor. When a contemporary artwork is acquired or exhibited by a museum, detailed examination and documentation should be done.

In the museums that have adopted this collaborative approach, a work’s present condition is documented and through extensive interviews with the artist the exact materials used are recorded as well as instructions on expectations for display, care, and preservation. The documentation includes information on the “artist’s intent” and what is required, technically, for the object’s meaning to be conveyed. In some cases, the materials may be replaced, altered, or rebuilt, as long as the concept is preserved.

The artist also provides a statement about what degree of deterioration would be acceptable for the work to stay viable and includes a written agreement with questions about what to do when that point is surpassed: should the work be destroyed, would a replica be appropriate, or should it be archived as long as possible as a relic of the age?

“New media art includes many forms of digital art.”

Some forms of digital art have sold at auction for hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars. Digital art is made using software computers or other electronic devices. NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) include one type of digital art that uses blockchain technology to create tokens that are unique and are stored digitally. Crypto art is another type of digital art that uses cryptography to encode a one-of-a-kind artwork that can be authenticated.

And some NFT artists create hybrids between the digital and the physical, where a digital work is displayed through computer hardware on a screen and the physical screen itself is part of the work. A NFT variant is to sell physical prints of artworks, which can be displayed in exhibitions, as well as their digital tokens, sometimes as sets of both together. NFT art has renewed the debate over the issue of what art is.

Dr. Jan Cavanaugh, PhD, MAC

“As an art conservator, my main concern is about whether or not digital art can be preserved for future generations.”

It’s a complex problem because digital art uses so many different kinds of mediums. Digital art may be purchased as a physical print on paper or on a stretched and treated canvas or on a computer screen provided by the artist or else bought online and either kept as a digital product or printed by the purchaser. And just around the corner, AI algorithms may provide a brand new medium for art.

Digital artworks kept in a digital form are problematic because currently there is no permanent form of digital storage. At the same time, the permanence of printed digital art depends partly on the quality of the ink and durability of the support, whether paper or canvas. There’s an international company that specializes in printing digital art. They claim that by using the highest quality of materials and methods, the works they print on canvas should “last a lifetime.”

Dr. Cavanaugh imagines if she wanted to own a piece of digital art for the novelty of it, but with the hope of its lasting for at least a generation or two, the best bet might be to have it printed on canvas by a high-tech company. However, she also points out the downside: “Digital artworks printed on physical supports are subject to the same kinds of mechanical, environmental, and other types of damages that traditional prints face.”

“Many questions about the future of art and its preservation have been raised.”

In a letter dated August 26, 1509, Albrecht Dürer, regarding a painting he had just completed, predicts that the painting was made with the greatest of care and as long as it is kept clean: “I know it will remain bright and fresh for the next 500 years.” Indeed, paintings by Dürer, Da Vinci, Raphael, and others have lasted 500 years. In the sixteenth-century, Dürer was able to envision his painting in the future. But in the twenty-first century we don’t have that luxury. Now, with the advent of NFTs, Crypto art, and other digital media, we find ourselves in uncharted territory. And very recent AI advanced technology already has the ability to generate regurgitated forms of art, poetry, and music.

Dr. Cavanaugh feels that “the current plunge forward with this burgeoning, unregulated technology calls for a counter-balance. Our future is uncertain, but what we do have is history and a rich cultural heritage.”