JAIC 1988, Volume 27, Number 1, Article 5 (pp. 41 to 43)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1988, Volume 27, Number 1, Article 5 (pp. 41 to 43)


Richard Newman, Irene Konetal, Margaret Leveque, Elizabeth Lunning, Roy Perkinson, & Brigitte Smith

HermannKühn, Conservation and Restoration of Works of Art and AntiquitiesVol.1., translated by Alexandria Trone, Buttersworth, London, 1986, 262 pp.

This book, the first of two projected volumes, is a translation of a 1914 German book with revisions and updating of some material (primarily an appendix on solvents and the sections on paper). Volume 1 is devoted to organic materials: easel paintings; wood sculpture; furniture; prints and drawings; watercolors; books; papyrus; inscribed bark; textiles; ivory and bone; leather; amber; wax; and tortoiseshell and horn. A new partially annotated bibliography was prepared for this edition by a number of conservators. Given the encyclopaedic nature of the book, the following review incorporates comments from a number of conservators who reviewed sections in their areas of specialization.

In Part I, chapters which range from two pages (amber, papyrus, and inscribed bark) to 27 pages (easel painting) review the history of the materials and techniques associated with a particular category of work of art, and touch upon deterioration, preventive measures, and treatments. There is a considerable overall bias toward European art. Art of the Orient, the New World, and classical antiquity is rarely mentioned; 20th-century and contemporary art is also not discussed to any extent. The historical material is generally accurate, although occasionally the information seems outdated or does not reflect current thinking (such as the statement that ivory carving began in Egypt).

A general comment that can be made on all of these historical reviews is that the coverage sometimes seems unfocused, with sweeping generalizations alternating with unnecessarily complex discussions of certain small details. As one example, in the subsection “The Support” in the chapter on “Prints and Drawings,” one short paragraph is devoted to “Paper.” After a few words on early paper, the author writes (p. 47), “After the beginning of the 15th century, thinner, stronger, more highly sized paper with shorter fibres came into use.” This broad statement is so general as to be not particularly useful, nor is it very accurate. On the same page, twice the amount of space has been devoted to “special grounds for silver point drawings.”

Severe truncation of material is inevitable in brief surveys such as those in Part I, but the author's decision not to include any notes or references in the text makes it virtually impossible for the reader to follow up problematic statements or readily access more detailed information on particular aspects of the subject. Additional historical information on paper is included in the chapter on paper in Part III, although the material presented there would seem to have been much more appropriate to chapters in Part I.

The author's statement in the preface that “methods of scientific examination useful in the study of the history of art and archaeology and in providing evidence of restoration or faking [are described]” is not much reflected in the text. Such methods are only mentioned in a few places, and then often only as a list that gives no sense of what can realistically be derived from scientific examination. The discussion in the chapter on easel paintings is relatively lengthy (nearly three pages). But more typical, for example, is the subsection “Identification of inks and washes” (p. 48) in the chapter on prints and drawings, which reads as follows: “The composition of inks and washes can be definitely established only by microchemical, chromatographic and spectrographic methods of examination.” This is another example of information that is not useful because of its terse presentation.

Part II of the book (15 pages) discusses climatic conditions, light, and pollution, defining terms and giving information on aspects of climate control and conditions for display of certain classes of artifacts. This section is a good, if very abbreviated introduction to a complex subject which has been dealt with in two separate volumes in the “Butterworths Series on Conservation and Museology” to which Kühn's book belongs (G. Thomson's The Museum Environment and N. Stolow's Conservation and Exhibitions).

Part III, “Material Science,” contains chapters which describe the chemical and physical features of a particular material. In general, the discussions of materials provide good overviews. (Much the same information is discussed in a recent considerably more comprehensive Butterworths book by J. Mills and R. White, The Organic Chemistry of Museum Objects.) In some chapters in Part III, for example the one on paper, causes of deterioration, storage conditions, and conservation procedures are described. The decision to discuss aspects of paper conservation in the chapter on paper in the “Material Science” part of the book rather than to incorporate this discussion into the two chapters on prints, drawings, and watercolors in Part I seems inappropriate. The division tends to imply that conservation procedures can be decided on the basis of material — paper — and that the particular way the paper has been used (print, drawing, etc.) is of secondary importance.

One of the organizational peculiarities of the book is the extensive use of cross-references: there are over a dozen references to other parts of the book on some pages. While the author states that this procedure was used to avoid repetition, it can be a source of confusion and frustration to the reader.

The most serious problem with Kühn's book, in the view of all of the reviewers, is in the discussion of conservation treatments and materials. In the preface the author notes, “Precise instructions for conservation and restoration techniques are not given as the amateur will be unable to carry out many of the treatments and the professional conservator can keep himself informed only by consulting specialized publications and other laboratories working with similar materials…” This is a reasonable point of view with which no one would take issue, but it is not fully borne out in the text itself. Many of the conservation methods noted in the text are succinctly presented, almost in the form of recipes. Complex treatments are reduced to a few sentences. It is the feeling of the reviewers that this format might tend to encourage amateurs to attempt potentially harmful treatments. Most conservators approach treatments on a case-by-case basis and recognize that the application of recipes without such consideration can be very dangerous, but the manner of presentation in Kühn's book gives little sense of this.

The following examples highlight some problematic aspects of the treatment sections of the text. In the chapter on prints, the paragraph on “Cleaning Japanese Woodcuts” (p. 67) gives a treatment that can be ineffective and even permanently damaging, but there is no statement of this in the paragraph. In the easel painting chapter, “Lining or Relining” is one subcategory of treatment. In this section of the text, as in corresponding sections in other chapters, Kühn lists treatments: included are lead white linings, wax/resin linings, synthetic adhesive linings, and paste linings, all of which are given about the same amount of text and same level of importance in terms of subheadings. This method of presentation gives the reader no sense of current practice as distinguished from earlier (now sometimes unacceptable) practice. There is little obvious sense of perspective in such a mode of presentation, which resembles entries in a dictionary. Many of the reviewers felt that this tendency to list treatments is far less useful and valuable than would have been a general, more conceptual discussion of the issues in conserving a particular type of work of art.

Much of the criticism applies to the environmental information: the specific recommendations are too simplistic and recipe-like. A more general, perhaps “philosophical,” discussion of conservation techniques and environmental concerns would have been a more appropriate way to introduce these subjects.

As a single reference book that describes some of the history of organic materials used in works of art, the book is valuable. Similar information is not available in any other single volume, and otherwise would have to be sought in many other books and articles. The discussions of materials, from a chemical and physical point of view, are succinct and valuable as an introductory overview for an audience generally unfamilar with the subject. This is where the strength of the book lies, and this is the audience to which the book would seem to be addressed. To readers who are already somewhat knowledgable, or who wish to pursue a specific subject further, the lack of references in the text makes the book of limited value. The information for the most part is not of sufficently detailed nature to be of value to a conservator or conservation scientist.

There is a considerable need for books which discuss and introduce the complex subjects of materials and techniques of works of art and presevation-related issues to non-specialized audiences, and Butterworths is to be commended for including such texts among its generally much more specialized books on conservation and museology. Undoubtly, there are many opinions on how such books should be written and organized, and those expressed (or implied) in this review are obviously not the only or necessarily the best ones. Kühn's volume, while an admirable effort (in a difficult arena) from some points of view, cannot be recommended without serious reservations to its intended general audience.

RichardNewmanIreneKonetalMargaretLevequeElizabethLunningRoyPerkinsonBrigitteSmithMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass. 02115

Copyright © 1988 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works