On Art Objects and Intimacy

Portrait of Edwin Morgan (detail), conservation in progress

Portrait of Edwin Morgan (detail), conservation in progress

I cleaned the Governor’s nose today. I teased a small piece of cotton off a large sheet, rolled it around a stick, and dipped it into a solvent that is slowly, very slowly, removing the layer of shellac from the Governor’s face, turning it from a John Boehner-esque orange to a relatively naturalistic shade. As part of my art history degree, I am working on a conservation project at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. The object I have chosen to rehabilitate is an 1863 portrait of Edwin Morgan, then the governor of New York State. Over the past few months of work, he has come a long way from the condition in which I received him, though he remains far from exhibitable. We have spent a lot of time, together, the Governor and I, and I have come to think of him as a friend.

I have already gone over nearly every inch of the canvas—which measures about 3.5 x 4.5 feet—with cotton swabs and various solvents, cleaning off layers of grime and the aforementioned, tenacious shellac. I have spent hours alone with the governor, guiding my swabs in tiny, gentle, circular motions across the surface to liberate the brushwork of the assumed artist, Asa Twitchell.[1] Until last week, however, I have left his face alone, not wanting to disturb his distinguished looking sideburns, his authoritative stare.

I recently traveled to Windsor Castle to see some Michelangelo drawings that I am writing about in my Master’s Qualifying Paper, and it’s hard to overstate the difference it makes to see such an object in person. In the past, my only real-life experience with Michelangelo drawings has been hugely impersonal. For example, there’s a beautiful Pièta at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, but surrounded by other museum-goers, with the drawing sandwiched between some plastic, you can’t begin to develop a real relationship with it. The drawings at Windsor were different.

Michelangelo's "The Punishment of Tityus"

Michelangelo’s “The Punishment of Tityus”

My interaction with one drawing in particular left me breathless; when I left to castle to meet my boyfriend for lunch, I felt flushed, as if I had been unfaithful. I have written about Tityus several times in the past, and I have described it from the reproductions online and in books, but somehow I had never noticed things that became obvious in the new light with which I regarded it now. Even reproducing it here, I cannot possibly do it justice. I noticed the subtle gradations of shading, the way Michelangelo used the sandy texture of the paper in creating the chiaroscuro of Tityus’s perfect torso—so lovingly drawn and painstakingly finished.[2] He used rougher hatchmarks in the less finished areas of the drawing, still articulating the forms perfectly clearly, but lending more emphasis to the central figure. Studying the physical properties of the drawing so closely gave me a greater understanding of its historical role and significance.

Cleaning the Governor’s nose, I can’t help but make eye contact with him. As I gently rub at the surface, gathering a yellow residue, I notice a ruddy network of capillaries the left side of his nose. The painted skin takes on a visceral quality: thin and translucent. It is incredibly intimate, what we are doing together; as I strip years of history and mistreatment off his skin, the strength of our bond increases. He is the man who rallied the New York troops to fight for Lincoln, and I am the woman who cleaned the dirt off his nose and scraped the fly specks from his hand.

A former colleague of mine in this graduate program allegedly asserted last year that she “doesn’t do museums.” I can’t understand the mindset of people who study art history but don’t like art objects. To spend time with an art object is worth more than to study all the secondary texts ever written about it.[3] We must observe and appreciate the physical properties—the shading and the capillaries—before we can delve into the criticism and theory.

Georges Didi-Huberman reminds us that “whenever we are before the image, we are before time.” These objects are far older than us and they will outlive us. Tityus will lie prostrate on that rock, locked in a box in the Queen’s prints and drawings room, long after I am rotted into dirt, and others will come to look at him and perhaps feel some of the same transcendence I did, as his meaning iterates itself over again for each viewer.

[1] I am constantly afraid that I will ruin the painting. One mixture of chemicals I used has left white marks – called “blanching” – on large swaths of the painting’s darker areas, and tiny fibers of cotton stick to the canvas in other places. My advisor assures me it will be fine in the end, and this is part of the process, but at these times I have my doubts.

[2] In the myth the drawing is based on, Tityus is consumed by a vulture, but here his torso remains intact and ideal – an issue for another day.

[3] That’s not to say that secondary sources are not also important.

23. January 2013 by Ginia Sweeney
Categories: Art, Conservation, Grad School, Michelangelo | Leave a comment

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