THE SHIFTING FUNCTION OF ARTISTS' FIXATIVES
MARGARET HOLBEN ELLIS
Many conservators and curators who routinely examine 20th-century works of art on paper have noticed that, judging from the frequency and manner in which a fixative has been used, its original function has changed. It appears to have evolved from a simple consolidant of powdery pigment applied by the artist to an all-purpose prophylactic coating applied in the name of preservation either by the artist or by a concerned caretaker (Arnold 1986). A careful consideration of the history of fixatives suggests that this shift from narrower to broader applications corresponded to several technological and aesthetic developments in the 19th and 20th centuries. Marketing strategies used to sell fixatives over the past century indicate that the function for which fixatives were touted has been changing from basic adhesion to universal protection. The extent to which this marketing reflects the actual intent of purchasers is uncertain, but there are indications that fixatives are now being used in certain situations in lieu of traditional framing. As a result of this apparently greater versatility, today artists, collectors, curators, and conservators are often confused not only about what a fixative is, but also about why, when, how, and by whom fixatives are to be used.
It is important that conservators and art historians better understand the methods, materials, and rationale behind the use of fixatives, particularly in this century. The fixative may have been applied by the artist during or immediately after a work's creation, in which case it adds to our understanding of the artist's intent, with regard to not only the aesthetic aspects of the work, but also to his/her expectations for the work's permanence. On the other hand, the fixative may have been added later by an owner, curator, or restorer, and this might indicate the relative esteem in which the work was held: high enough to warrant using what was being promoted as state-of-the-art protection, but perhaps not enough to justify traditional glazed framing.
Conservators must of course consider both the aesthetic and the chemical consequences of fixatives on works of art and their potential impact on treatments. One must anticipate possible fixative use in what would otherwise be unexpected areas, such as on a support beyond the image area, and explore the consequences of these materials on both the image and the support materials. By understanding the evolution of this commonplace material, conservators will be better equipped to weigh the significance of the presence of fixatives when examining works of art and proposing conservation treatments.