Everything you ever wanted to know about the safeguarding of cultural heritage (and never dared to ask). An hour in the Parisian studio of Antonio Mirabile, a restorer of works on paper and an expert in preventative conservation.
What do the reorganisation of the reserves of a monastery in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, the transfer of 5,000 architectural drawings from the collections of Paris’ Centre Pompidou, and the organisation of a colloquium on manuscripts holding Arabic writing in Sana’a, Yemen have in common? One name (Antonio Mirabile), equipped with a double competency: the restoration of artworks on paper and consultancy services on preventative conservation. We find out about degradation and emergency plans, the freezing of flood-afflicted documents… and the yellowing adhesive tape on a Mario Merz work!
From Florence to Paris, via Tashkent, Uzbekistan, what’s your background?
I’ve always liked science, and I started my career in Italy at an engineering school. But very quickly, my interest in art led me to enrol in a restoration school in Florence, the Istituto per l’Arte e il Restauro, from 1987 to 1989. Right from the start of this course, you can select the material on which you will work later. For me, it was paper, and… the start of a real passion for books, drawings and engravings. A desire to travel led me to Paris where I started working as a restorer, and where I attended the Sorbonne to acquire more theoretical knowledge by doing a Master’s in preventative conservation in the cultural heritage domain. After obtaining the qualification to work on the collections of the Musées de France, I often worked freelance for the Centre Pompidou from 1995 onwards. The Musée National d’Art Moderne has an Architecture and Design section with many architectural drawings. At Beaubourg, I also carried out restorations for the graphic-arts department, namely on works by Théo Van Doesburg. I also took on projects at the Musée Carnavalet and at the Musée Bourdelle, for quite a long while. At the same time, UNESCO commissioned me, in 1999, to carry out a mission in Mauritania, regarding a manuscript collection. Since then I’ve been an expert for the United Nations, regularly travelling to Mongolia, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, North Korea, China, Uzbekistan… where I teach classes on preventative conservation and offer an approach to restoration. From 2006 onwards, I also started crossing the Atlantic to Rio, to teach on the restoration of tracing paper as Brazil has a very large collection of architectural drawings.
What is meant by “preventative conservation”?
We mean initiatives carried out to prevent degradation and to extend the lifetime of an artwork. It therefore consists in doing everything possible to avoid any alteration or at least to slow down an active degradation process. These are so-called “indirect” measures which are not implemented on the work itself but its environment. An environment which must be controlled, from reserves to exhibition spaces.
Your field of practice is vast, from the restoration of old drawings to the training of practitioners…
Yes, I stop at the digitalisation of documents, even if I’ve already trained teams who’ve required knowledge on the manipulation of paper in order to digitalise a work. This is a matter of learning how to unroll a large-format drawing, identifying the most fragile techniques, the ones least resistant to contact, such as pastels or charcoal. But what I come across the most in this profession is the variety of problems encountered! A drawing may be dusty so it’s then necessary to clean it without affecting the technique, without making the lines fade. Paper may become warped due to an excess of humidity in its conservation space, and if this is not part of the artist’s intention, it needs to be flattened. There’s also paper acidity or yellowing due to light exposure or poor quality when paper is intrinsically programmed to yellow. Here, the remedy often consists in an aqueous treatment. There are also tears and prick marks, other recurring problems, and inadequate mounting or frames. Not to mention the large formats that arrived in the modern and contemporary era. New hanging and reserve storage methods had to be found, sometimes requiring the rolling of works.
What are the specific issues raised by a medium destined to alter?
I’m currently doing a study on contemporary inks, especially in ball-point pens and felt-tip pens. Both are extremely light-sensitive because they not only fade but also change colour. Some inks are made up of two or three different colourants, which sometimes separate, and which are also very reactive to humidity. And then, everything also depends on how the support reacts and on the paper’s life. There are some Giacometti drawings, produced by ball-point pen, on letters, which have stayed folded in envelopes, and which today, remain entirely “fresh”, as if they were finished yesterday. Whereas there are some works from the 1950s, the time when the felt-tip pen and ball-point pen started being sold, whose motifs are discoloured. The thing is: we don’t have enough hindsight. Are drawings going to degrade until they permanently vanish… or will they end up stabilising? We as yet have no curative conservation treatment for avoiding this. Even fixatives modify the support: they saturate the colours and yellow in turn.
Apart from the necessary technical skills, restoration requires real understanding about the history of art and a sensitivity to this field…
Yes, all this requires great curiosity. Skills in art history of course, but also in chemistry, biology, materials science, in order to have the means to best intervene on the materials being manipulated. And when we restore contemporary works, a new parameter needs to be factored in: the artist’s intention. Some like creasing the support, others work with combustion. So what should be done with burns or completely detached burnt fragments: should they be reattached to the work? For while some artists accept degradation, collectors are a bit less tolerant of it! So restoration also means contacting the artist to find out how the material was laid down, which technique was used, allowing certain processes to be reproduced and tests made to validate treatments. It’s a neverending adventure. As every piece is unique, everything needs to be restarted every time!
In terms of rescuing works, some techniques are little known by the general public, such as the freezing of books that have been flooded…
This is what we do when a very large quantity of documents is affected by flooding, and we wish to stop the degradation process or we can’t dry the documents because of a shortage of space. Until they can be handled, we freeze them so that we can gradually take them out and subject them to a freeze-drying process. I came across this after Cyclone Xynthia, in 2010, at the archives office in Charente-Maritime, ond also in Florence when I had to unfreeze books that were victims of flooding.
Can you tell us about the reducing of yellowing due to adhesive tape, a big issue which you dealt with recently in relation to a Mario Merz work?
Adhesive tape is often used for quick repairs. The tape inevitably yellows and we take it off. Most of the time, it leaves a mark. On this Mario Merz work, the situation was different: the tape was part of the work, used to fix plants and other objects. To do things right, it would have been necessary to temporarily remove the tape without degrading it, eliminate the residual adhesive on the work, then clean the removed ribbon and put it back on. The problem was that for now, we don’t have a technique that is free of risks for the work. So this was a new challenge! Along with with the chemistry faculty in Florence, namely the team of Professor Piero Baglioni, I carried out research into the removal of adhesive tape. I can also mention the case of an artist, Simon Evans, who covers his works entirely with taped elements, like a varnish. This is a whole generation of adhesives about which we don’t know how it will age!
You’re heavily involved in a programme supported by the European Union for nanoscience applied to the conservation of cultural heritage…
This is the Nanorestart (NANOmaterials for the REStoration of works of ART) project, which started in June 2015, and which will run at least until the end of 2018. It’s a project selected amongst 68 applications, today gathering 29 partners from 12 countries, coordinated by the University of Florence, more specifically its chemistry faculty. We’re working on 20th century heritage, with a budget of €9 million. We hope, for example, to develop new methods for identifying colourants, optimising the protection of artworks in open-air public spaces, stabilising pictorial layers, dealing with graffiti, or cleaning contemporary surfaces with innovative techniques… Yvonne Shashuoa, from the National Museum of Denmark, a project partner, is one of the big specialists in plastic materials. It’s a long chain. Companies produce nanomaterials, researchers then adapt them to conservation, transforming them into microemulsions for example, then museums and private restorers carry out tests on samples before validating them. We are also looking at degradation sensors that could be placed in works, namely made from organic materials. The idea, in the long run, is to introduce these nanostructured products, stemming from research, into industry, and to find companies likely to commercialise them.
What is a restoration project that has particularly impressed you?
Undoubtedly a double-sided painting by Louis Carrogis, known as Carmontelle, conserved in the Musée du Domaine de Sceaux, near Paris. It’s quite an unusual drawing, measuring 42 metres long, intended to be placed in a backlighted box, with two reels and a crank. A type of ancestor of film. I worked on its restoration, part-time maybe, but over a three-year period nonetheless! Otherwise, I have good memories of a fairly complicated folding screen, made up of wallpaper samples, dating from the Revolution period, restored for the Musée Carnavalet. For the Florence and Daniel Guerlain collection, I had the opportunity to work on a Chinese paper treated with watercolours: a work by Huang Yong Ping measuring ten metres long!
Are we right to think you’re a collector of contemporary works?
Yes, and my approach is simple: I only collect the works of artists I know personally. It’s always the fruit of an encounter. It begins with a drawing… and then this can grow to ten by the same artist. This way I’ve reached a collection of around 300 pieces in no time at all! I have drawings by Anne-Flore Cabanis, a small leaf by Marlene Dumas, some Keith Harings, after meeting him in Naples in 1984. Also some works by Cristina Escobar and Sandra Vásquez de la Horra, and then many Brazilians: Maria Laet, Vik Muniz, Paulo Climachauska, Cadu, Claudia Hersz…