The Art of Art Restoration: A Unique Exhibit Shows How It’s Done



Photography provided by Cincinnati Art Museum

The restoration of classical works of art is, indeed, an art itself. But rarely do art lovers get to see the creative process, along with the blood, sweat and tears that takes place in the workshops and back rooms of the museum conservator, the person in charge of preserving, cleaning and stabilizing valuable works of art. 

The art of restoration is front and center on the main floor of the Cincinnati Art Museum in one of the most unique exhibits in the country. “Conservation on View: Zaragoza’s Retablo of St. Peter” (January 26-April 24) lets visitors see the meticulous process of art restoration that requires a special kind of patience.

Serena Urry, the museum’s chief conservator, will be on view as she cleans and restores a spectacular Spanish altarpiece from around 1400. It is attributed to Lorenzo Zaragoza, a painter of what is known as International Gothic, an elegant and decorative realism style popular in the Middle Ages.  

Visitors can see Urry clean and restore some of the 18 painted panels that make up the retablo, as she undertakes a process that will take many months, even years, to complete. It is one of the biggest restoration projects the Cincinnati Art Museum has undertaken. 

“I think people are always interested in conservation. We are all interested in what turns up in the restoration process. But people rarely get to see the conservator at work,” Urry says. “My plan is to be there every day during the exhibition. But the exhibit is designed so visitors will be able to enjoy themselves and learn, whether I am there or not.”  

A video will show Urry at work and other material will explain the process. There will be “before” photographs of the paintings and visitors can see for themselves the progress by checking in on multiple visits. 

Urry says the Retablo of St. Peter is typical of many altarpieces of the time when elaborate paintings were used to tell Bible stories to a mostly illiterate population. In this case the panels show scenes from the life of St. Peter in a rich, gilded background.

The museum acquired the work in 1960 after a “shopping trip” to Spain, and the retablo has been on public display since. It was removed in 2010 so as not to be damaged during construction at the museum. When it came time to put it back up, Urry had arrived and decided, “In my judgment, as chief conservator, it didn’t look aesthetically like we should put it up in this condition.”

Urry points out the 600-year-old work is loaded with overpaint, grime and wax accumulating for centuries. “It was restored many times over the centuries by itinerant artists, “ Urry says. “Now I am taking off their old, discolored restorations.” 

Urry came to Cincinnati three years ago with an impressive resume as a conservator. Raised in Boston, and a Tufts University graduate, she has a M.A. in art history and a diploma in conservation from the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University, one of a few programs in the country that offer a degree in the restoration process. Urry previously served as senior conservator of paintings at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and was conservator of paintings at the Detroit Institute of Art. She has worked and lectured on dozens of restoration projects, ranging from a Van Gogh painting to numerous early Renaissance works.  

 

Visitors will see Urry working with three basic restoration techniques. First, the paintings are cleaned using various solvents and solutions depending on the type of material to be removed. Second, Urry will use scalpels, dental picks and other tools to chip away at some of the stubborn grime. And she will wield your basic hair dryer. “It is unusual, but a hot air gun works very well since there is so much wax (on the paintings) and I am able to soften it to remove it.” 

Urry says she loves working with early Renaissance paintings, pointing to the wonderfully expressive looks of joy and wonderment on one of the St. Peter panels. “How could you not love those faces?” she says. 

As her restoration moves along, Urry expects those faces to come back to life, especially since so much of the original painting was done with gold. “Something very important in the paintings is the backgrounds are decorated with punching, a technique where a punch is placed against the flat gold and tapped with a hammer causing a depression. It is quite decorative and elaborate, but because it is full of dirt and varnish you don’t really see it.”

Since gold is one of the few materials that doesn’t change over time, Urry feels her efforts will result in a “bright and sparkly” finished project, or in this case, letting the original product shine again. 

“In the original church 600 years ago, with candle light and the light of day, this work of art would have caught that light,” she says. “The paintings would have really jumped to life.” 

“Conservation on View: Zaragoza’s Retablo of St. Peter” runs January 26-April 24 at the Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45202. You can reach them at 513.721.2787 or visit their website at www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org.