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News Rescuing art: The creativity and science of conservation

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​WUDPAC alumnus Chris Stavroudis taking a vacuum to a Jackson Pollack painting. CBS News.

​​As rising flood waters threaten Venice, CBS Sunday Morning looks at the work of art conservators and scientists, including WUDPAC alumnus Chris Stavroudis, around the United States. From the CBS Sunday Morning website and an article from November 17, 2019:


Italy's floating city is slowly succumbing to the unrelenting wash of the Adriatic. One of Venice's landmarks, St. Mark's Basilica, is among the hardest-hit by the recent tidal surge – worshipers replaced by water. Experts can't be sure of the extent of the damage until the flooding recedes, but if any city is prepared to save its treasures from rising water, it's Venice. Art conservators continued working even as the flood waters crept across the floor. It is that kind of quiet dedication to preserving paintings both old and new that is sometimes overlooked when we're walking through a museum. Paintings, like all of us, age and change; dirt and grime are the more common enemy far more so than flooding or fire.

That's what makes professional art conservators like Rhona Macbeth, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as valuable as the art they treat. Correspondent Lee Cowan asked, "It's the artists' intent that drives all of this?"

"As best we possibly can, we want to be true to that idea of artist intent," Macbeth said. "What we're trying to do is take away the barriers between the artist's original vision and the viewer." . . . The day Cowan visited, she was treating two Rembrandts – twin portraits painted in 1634. "They're some of the first Rembrandts to enter any public museum in America, so that's pretty important," she said. . . .

​Allison Langley, the head of painting conservation at the Art Institute of Chicago (where they're working on any number of works, including a massive 17th century French masterpiece), said, "You have to kind of separate yourself in the moment or you'd constantly be in a state of fear!"

"A lot of what we do as conservators is a little bit like 'CSI,'" she said. "We use ultraviolet light, X-ray, infra-red, to examine the surface and look below the surface."

Francesca Casadio is using a macroscopic X-ray to analyze individual pigments in a Vincent Van Gogh painting. Cowan asked, "What does it actually tell you, the make-up of the paint?"

"It tells us the make-up of the paint, the chemicals in the paint," Casadio said. Those chemicals are important, because some of the paints that van Gogh used are discoloring over time. The yellow leaves, for example, in the work, "Fishing in Spring," are now more of a mustard color. . . .

Even more recent pieces, like a priceless Jackson Pollack, need some TLC, although perhaps a little less scientific. Art restorer Chris Stavroudis was hired by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles to make Pollack's drips and dribbles look at vibrant as the day he drizzled them. He uses, among other tools, a vacuum cleaner. Cowan asked Stavroudis, "Do you ever wonder what Jackson Pollock would think about what you're doing to his painting?"

"Oh, always. And actually, when you're working on any artist's work, you wonder what they would think. But I think the idea of somebody taking the time to conserve his work, making it last for posterity, I think he'd be thrilled."

"It's a very interactive process," he said. "And intimate, it sounds like," Cowan said.

"Incredibly intimate. It's always funny to think that I will have spent more time looking at this painting than Jackson Pollock ever would have."


To read more about the variety of conservation projects happening across the country, visit the CBS website here. More information about Stavroudis's conservation of Pollock's work can be found here and here.

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As rising flood waters threaten Venice, CBS Sunday Morning looks at the work of art conservators and scientists, including WUDPAC alumni, around the U.S.

​As rising flood waters threaten Venice, CBS Sunday Morning looks at the work of art conservators and scientists, including WUDPAC alumni, around the U.S.

11/19/2019
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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489
  • art-conservation@udel.edu