Ritam "Providing good conservation conditions in Auroville for a unique collection of oil paintings"

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Ritam
August 2006

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Providing good conservation conditions in Auroville for a unique collection of oil paintings

By Shraddhavan


In June 2001, a very special art collection was entrusted to Savitri Bhavan. These were the 472 paintings made by Huta from 1961 to 1965, illustrating the whole of Sri Aurobindo’s revelatory epic Savitri, at the Mother’s wish and following her instructions, guidance and inspiration. These paintings were exhibited in the Ashram in February 1967. After that they were stored in cupboards designed by the Mother in a room reserved for them in Golconde.

In 1995 the management of Golconde requested Huta to remove the paintings. She took them to her apartment, and from there they were moved to Auroville in 2001. The intention was that as soon as possible a gallery would be provided at Savitri Bhavan where the paintings could all be on permanent display in sequence. We are in the process of creating this gallery.

Thinking of having all the paintings on permanent display and open to the public, we had to think about how they could be properly protected – from dust, insects and geckos, from humidity, from possible human interference, and from harmful light and temperature variations.

The first thought was to design protective cabinets for displaying the paintings. Research for this was undertaken by our architect, Helmut, in the spring of 2005, using the internet, and visiting outstanding galleries and museums in Europe. On the basis of his research, a prototype cabinet was designed under his guidance. This prototype was built in the autumn of 2005, using a grant provided for the purpose by the Foundation for World Education, U.S.A.

Ever since 2001, when the paintings came to Auroville, Huta had been urging us to get new films of the paintings made, to replace the ones prepared earlier by Michel Klosterman of Filmaur, Germany. It became possible to make a start on this project in the summer of 2005 with the help of Manohar (Luigi F.) a newcomer to Auroville who had the necessary skills. We showed Manohar the materials available for preparing the films: digital scans of slides of the paintings, and the soundtrack provided by Huta of the Mother’s reading of the relevant passages from the poem. After seeing the materials he strongly recommended that new digital photographs should be taken of the paintings, and that the films should be prepared from these.

It had been wished to make new digital photographs of the paintings for some time, but now suddenly with Manohar’s help we found the right person to take up the work: another Italian Newcomer to Auroville, Giorgio Molinari, a highly experienced professional photographer who was willing to help us. Together Manohar and Giorgio set up a photographic studio in the room where the paintings were being stored, and the work was completed in a very short time. These photographs are now being used by Manohar for making the films as requested by Huta. The first three have already been prepared and shown at Savitri Bhavan, in August 2005, February 2006 and April 2006. Moreover Giorgio is gradually making archival quality prints in the actual size of all the paintings, as a curatorial record, and for possible display.

While this work was going on, it was noticed that some of the paintings had developed dark or rusty-looking spots on the surface. When these were shown to Huta she expressed her readiness to take up the immense task of cleaning and retouching the paintings before they were put on display.

At this point Manohar enlisted the help of another Italian, this time an expert conservator from Genoa who was known to him through mutual friends. Dr. Laura Tacelli is the Senior Conservator of Paintings at the Regional Laboratory of Restoration of Liguria which is located in Genoa, Italy. When she was approached to give advice about the cleaning of the paintings she responded very readily. Without seeing the paintings, her first impression was that the spots could probably be originating from the glue bonding the canvas to the hardboard backing, as this is a common source of problems in paintings. She asked whether a sample panel could be sent to her for professional examination.

Huta supplied a panel – not one of the Savitri series, but an early study she had done using similar materials.

When Dr. Tacelli examined the panel, she felt that the spots could be caused by organic mould. She enlisted the help of another professional, Dr. Roberta Gasperini of Verona, who is a conservation biologist. She made a detailed examination of the paintings using stereomicroscopy which provides a stereo three-dimensional image of surfaces. From this, an expert can gain various kinds of information.

Here are extracts from Dr. Gasperini’s report:

Conclusions

From the observations with the stereomicroscope it emerges that the stains are of a biological nature and that the damage is localised at the level of the paint.

It can be supposed that the panel has come in contact with high humidity and that the thick layer of varnish has prevented evaporation of the moisture contained in the various constituent parts (board, canvas, gypsum, etc.). Therefore at the level of the zone between the varnish and the colour strata the free moisture has gathered (this is called ‘micro-condensation’) and the heterotrophic micro-flora has been able to develop (note that spores, bacteria etc. are normally present both in dust and in the various materials and when conditions are suitable they can develop and become liable to damage the substrate).

The biological growth is now stopped since the panel has been transferred to a drier environment (Relative humidity between 45 and 60%, temperature around 25-28°C.) and the moisture has little by little evaporated from the materials which always tend towards equilibrium with the surroundings. As soon as the relative humidity increases, it is highly probable that the growth will resume and that the damage could affect the entire pictorial surface, or even other layers of the piece.

This means that it is essential to intervene to prevent further damage, also considering the fact that this panel, and others in a similar condition, are kept in a geographical and climatic area that favours the development of micro-organisms and organisms, particularly on both biodegradable materials and those of an organic nature.

Suggestions for intervention

For all the panels showing brown stains, it is recommended to remove the varnish, by preparing a mixture of suitable solvents (following the advice of the restorer) to which can be added a biocidal substance. It is suggested to use the chemical compound O-phenylphenol, OPP, (Fluka-Sigma) at concentrations between 0.5 and 1%, since according to reports in the scientific literature this is an optimal product against the growth of heterotrophic micro-flora on canvas, paper, textiles etc. and is, moreover, soluble in organic solvents (Caneva et al. 1996).

Removal of the varnish in this way will also allow partial removal of the micro-organisms and at the same time de-activate them. However, this must be done carefully and delicately to avoid or limit loss of colour as much as possible.

At the end of this operation, probably the surface will still show some stains, although they will be less. At this point it is suggested to re-varnish the panel lightly, to allow transpiration also from the front, dissolving OPP in the varnish and solvent mixture. In this way we aim to take advantage of the lasting effects of the biocide, which on one hand slowly deactivates the remaining colonies, and on the other can prevent new biological attacks.

However, it is essential that after the treatment, both the infected panels and the healthy ones should be kept in an environment where the relative humidity is as constant as possible and not above 60-65%, and in which there is correct ventilation so that moisture can never condense on them.

(Translation by Shraddhavan and Lella, April 2006)

Dr. Tacelli visited Auroville for two weeks at our invitation in April 2006. She brought with her the treated sample panel, Dr. Gasperini’s report, and her own report. She met Huta and saw the Savitri paintings, and discussed with her the methods and materials she was using for cleaning and retouching. She also had discussions with Helmut, as the Savitri Bhavan architect, and Shraddhavan who is the project coordinator and the curator of the collection. It was useful that the prototype display cabinet was already available, as Dr. Tacelli was able to see it and make some suggestions for modification.

We also arranged for her to meet representatives of the Italian Pavilion Group, and with one of them, Anna Maria, Dr. Tacelli visited the Art School in the Pyramid at Aspiration, and discussed with the staff and students there the possibility of setting up a training project in restoration and conservation of paintings. The Italian Pavilion Group invited her to submit a project proposal for such a training project, and this is now in preparation.

During the course of Dr. Tacelli’s visit she and Shraddhavan prepared a report and recommendations for the future conservation of the paintings. Part of the text is given below:

Huta's Paintings: Summary of Findings and Recommendations

By Dr. Laura Tacelli, as communicated to Shraddhavan, April 2006


Findings

According to the biologist’s findings, these panels, oil on canvas, are infected by autotrophic and heterotrophic moulds. (Autotrophic moulds form first, and the heterotrophic moulds form on top of them. While the heterotrophic moulds create more visible damage, in this case they are less dangerous in the sense that they will not form if the autotrophic moulds are absent or dormant.)

We can consider these main different layers:

  • hardboard
  • glue
  • canvas (industrial)
  • gypsum + glue (industrial)
  • oil painting
  • varnish

The first 4 layers seem to be a single corpus, industrially produced. Layer 2 is where the degradation has started, since something in the glue, probably organic, is a fertile ground for moulds. Since it is impossible to separate the layers and eliminate the cause, we must concentrate on cleaning, and on limiting further development of the moulds.

Cleaning

For this we must first remove the old thick oxydated varnish layer with a suitable solvent, and then try to remove as precisely as possible with a surgical blade all the mould that is remaining and spreading between the paint-layer and the varnish-layer.

Some spores are superficial – this means that they have grown on top of the ones that have come up from layer 2 (glue), through the paint and on to the painted surface, where they are spreading, encouraged by high levels of humidity and the waterproof qualities of the varnish. These superficial growths can be removed completely, but the deeper ones that have started from the glue will partly remain. These have to be inhibited, to prevent them spreading further and doing more damage to the painted surface.

Limiting further development

To keep these remaining spores dormant, two main aids can be utilised:

  • anti-fungal products
  • avoidance of further sources of infection by
    • maintenance of constant correct humidity (around 60% )
    • maintenance of constant favourable temparature (25o – 30°C)
(N.B. These limits are in accordance with the tropical environment, and are anyway to be tested with these fungal species, they are not a statement. In Europe, we use lower standards, but in this case we have the problem of maintaining microclimatic parameters that are so divergent from the macroclimatic environment.)

Anti-fungal products

After biological analysis we found the best to be ‘orthophenylphenol’ (OPP), to be used at not more than 1% concentration in varnish, solvent, and repainting media (possibly also for the surroundings) to give maximum protection with minimum risk – both because this substance is poisonous to humans, and because in higher concentrations it might affect the colours. This intervention has to be carried out by properly trained and qualified people!

Controlling Environmental Conditions

(to avoid further development of remaining moulds, and preventing new infection)

In general, for best conservation and to avoid further development of mould, the paintings must be stored and eventually displayed in conditions of constant temperature and humidity, with some movement of air to allow the panels to breathe.

The biologist has advised that the moulds are unlikely to develop further at lower than 65% humidity. The recommendation is to maintain around 55-60% humidity – lower humidity can damage the paintings in other ways (cracking, peeling ...). A constant temperature of between 25 and 28°C is recommended. There should be reliable instruments for measuring the temperature and humidity wherever the paintings are stored and displayed, and a responsible person to check these regularly and take corrective action if necessary.

Storage

The cupboards in which the paintings are currently stored are quite satisfactory from the point of view of ventilation, but should be provided with correct ambient temperature and humidity as soon as possible.

Also there is a possibility that the interior of the cupboards, and especially the hardboard dividers, are infected with mould spores. The plan of replacing the dividers with new ones is a good idea. If possible they could be made of a less moisture-absorbent wood or, better, a completely inert material. Before the dividers are put into the cupboard they can be treated with the anti-fungal solution mentioned above, as also the whole inside of the cupboards.

Paintings which have been treated should be stored apart from untouched ones, for observation of the effectiveness of the treatment, and to avoid re-contamination.

Display

It is suggested that the paintings could be displayed in rotation, say 30 to 50 paintings at a time, for 2 or 3 months only (and not at all during the monsoon). The display cabinets should also maintain the same temperature and humidity conditions as the storage area, and there must be an internal circulation of air to allow the panels to breathe. The interior of the cases, and frames if used, might also be treated with the antifungal solution – this possibility is now being investigated. Low light levels, avoidance of direct sunlight, etc. must of course be ensured. (The paintings which remain in storage can be represented by prints.)

From this exercise it became clear that while the actual cleaning and restoration of the paintings would be a long-term task for properly trained and qualified personnel, the immediate need would be to bring the paintings into a physical environment which would arrest further deterioration. According to the recommendations of the specialists this should be a well-ventilated space where Relative Humidity could be maintained at less than 60%, with temperatures below 28°C. Designs for a suitable space were already included into the plans for the Core Building of Savitri Bhavan, and it is hoped to materialize these facilities over the period 2006-08.

After Dr. Tacelli returned to Italy, Shraddhavan approached the Auroville Archives, and found that such conditions are already being provided there. According to the information given by Tambidorai, in their underground premises the Archives are able to maintain constant conditions of less than 25°C and relative humidity between 45-55%. When Dr. Tacelli was informed about this by e-mail she responded, “That temperature and RH is quite good for Huta’s paintings too, but you can’t simply put them there. They should first reach those standards slowly. Some months with T° and RH values in the middle. Is that possible?”

It would not be good to transfer the paintings from the room-temperature and humidity they have been used to for the last forty years suddenly to much lower levels. The change has to be made more gradually, to avoid damaging side-effects. So that is now our priority: as soon as possible to provide conditions in Savitri Bhavan that, while not fulfilling the ideal long-term storage conditions, would be more favourable than our ordinary fluctuating climatic states, i.e. a steady temperature around 28°C, and relative humidity approaching 60-65%. We shall also be looking to acquire reliable monitoring equipment so that we are properly informed about the conditions and kept aware of any fluctuations so that these can be regulated.