SALUTE TO PAUL COREMANS
CAROLINE K. KECK
HE WAS born in 1908, the year Bleriot made history by flying the English Channel. He lived in a world of extremes: a world of wars, of financial nadirs, of mushrooming science, and in a century when mankind's love affair with the machine began to stifle the earth with pollution. Paul Coremans was fashioned by his time. In turn, he labored to preserve parts of the world around him.
His fluency in languages may be traced to a childhood during World War I when constant shifting of the schools away from danger zones meant that lessons were taught in French, English, or Flemish. His lifelong adherence to deontology—the ethics of duty—derived from the stern precepts of a civil-administrator father who held that patriotism, hard work, and respect for principles ruled behavior. Courage was native to him: had he needed any honing for the adversities and calumnies he was doomed to face, then his World War II underground assignments to interrupt enemy troop movements supplied adequate training. Like all Belgians he was born a diplomat. In his case there was an extra skill which enabled him to find the touchstone for agreement in the stormiest session of clashing minds. Inevitably, his presence at a meeting guaranteed the end result would be an improvement on the beginning.
I once heard Harold Plenderleith tell him that without the unfailing encouragement, not to mention the sheaf of notes handed over to him by Paul, Harold's first book, The Preservation of Antiquities, would never have been written. “Nonsense,” was Paul's reply, “it was in you, those books: I just knew it before you did.” I think Harold put his finger on the way Coremans supported his colleagues. He offered warm empathy and continued interest accompanied by any activity on his part which might contribute to implementation of an aim. Never the Leader-in-the-Limelight, Paul Coremans was the positive force in the background of one enterprise after another. Disinterested in monetary gain or personal glory, indifferent (unfortunately) to his own physical welfare, he was an incredible human catalyst.
The blur of time and reminiscence may have the younger members of this audience in a quandary as to precisely what Paul Coremans did in his 57 years of life. Perhaps some of you sense he assisted in establishing the Institute royal du Patrimoine artistique, the great Centre here in Brussels: he did. Or recall him as involved with our published wealth of data on Flemish Primitives: that is correct. Or think of him as organizer of the cooperative study and treatment of the Ghent Altarpiece when experts of diverse discipline and nationality gathered for a momentous goal: he was that innovator. Many more of you will remember him as a witness for the prosecution in the notorious Van Meegeren trial. Acceptance of his technical testimony gave a tremendous boost to our status, it blazoned forth our value as producers of legal evidence with judicial merit. For Paul Coremans, his evidence cost him agonizing indignities in the bickering aftermath of the conviction. It is even possible that some of you who come to this assembly from distant tropics associate his name with early UNESCO efforts to preserve our world's treasures. Indeed it was Paul who struggled through jungles in helping you to save your masterpieces. Ten reasonably active colleagues in the sum of their lives might possibly accomplish as much as he did in his short span.
Listing Paul's accomplishments does not emphasize the quality of caring he brought to everything he undertook or the all-embracing concept he had of our professional mandate. In himself, he exemplified the composite character of our occupation. During undergraduate studies, he was fascinated by history and the humanities. His degree was in science, his doctoral in analytical chemistry. Irrevocably concerned with the materials of history and art, he never stopped urging discovery of better ways to ward off deterioration, to rescue, to maintain. When he was laboring in 1935 to answer the insatiable demands of his mentor, Jean Capart, for authentication and condition reports on Egyptian antiquities, Paul still found time to research and issue a paper on “Le conditionment de l'air dans les Musées.” When he was consulting on restoration of the paintings charred in the fire at New York's Museum of Modern Art, he voiced conviction that eventually we would learn how to reverse the state of burned paint film. Research in his view went both forward and backward. He continually reminded colleagues of the information to be culled by alert rereading of rich compendia such as Mrs. Merrifield's Ancient Practice of Painting. He eschewed arguments over the “original state” of an artifact as usually beyond our comprehension or ability to recover. He preferred to unveil what he termed the “actual state” and render those extant remains mechanically strong and chemically stable. As a teacher he firmly believed in the dictum to each according to need and from each according to ability. Paul was never one to urge a curator from Uganda to a practice of preservation based on instrumentation his country could not yet afford. As he saw it, our task was to guard and help interpret what we have inherited. His devotion to his credo is beyond imitation.
The first quarters of this century despite their deadly turmoil served as a period of many beginnings. I see Paul Coremans as in the second wave of our field's pioneers. Ian Rawlins, John Gettens, George Stout were slightly older and in the first wave. Time and time again, however, it was Paul's persistent commitment that carried their postulates to fruition. What he did was assume responsibility for opportunities which have been enjoyed by all of us. He truly believed there are no simple solutions only intelligent choices. Paul Coremans lived at a moment when he could provide the precise ingredients needed for our growth—growth in our educational training, growth in the direction or our research, growth in the range of our publications, growth in our ability to cooperate with other fields, even growth in planning our housing.
There is no way in which we can recapture his zeal or the stimuli inherent in the youth of a profession. We can, however, reconfirm our efforts toward care of the world's heritage, confirm our desire to cooperate with other professions equally disturbed by environmental disasters. In appreciation for all we have received from this generous colleague, we can strive to move ahead from were we are now to where we have not yet been, a promise of commitment which would gladden the heart of Paul Coremans.
This tribute was delivered during the opening ceremonies of the 13th International Congress of the International Institute for Conservation in Brussels, September 3, 1990.