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Science Benefits Art Preservation

Science Benefits Art Preservationi
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September 30, 2013 7:55 PM
Art is considered part of the legacy of humankind that must be treasured and preserved. That can be a challenge in cities where temperature and humidity fluctuate over the course of the year. One such city, home to a large number of artistic masterpieces, is Houston, where VOA's Greg Flakus prepared this report on the science and craft of art conservation.
Greg Flakus
— Art is considered part of the legacy of humankind that must be treasured and preserved. That can be a challenge in cities where temperature and humidity fluctuate over the course of the year. One such city, home to a large number of artistic masterpieces, is Houston, Texas.  

A great artist can dazzle us with images that are, when deconstructed, nothing more than brush strokes applied over a taut piece of canvas.

But when paintings age and start to crack, conservators like Melissa Gardner do some touching up.

"I don't think of it so much as I am adding myself to the painting as I am just restoring, putting back, what the artist intended to be there," she said.

The director of conservation at The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, David Bomford, says restoration can sometimes involve removing discolored paint applied in past restorations.

"A present-day restorer will very carefully, within the confines of the damage, touch in those losses with modern paints that do not discolor," he said.

Modern technology can help identify a work of art when its authenticity is in question.

Earlier this month, this painting, found in someone's attic in Europe, was presented in Amsterdam as a newly discovered work by Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh called "Sunset at Montmajour."

It was authenticated by comparing it with this painting by Van Gogh, "The Rocks," which is owned by The Museum of Fine Arts Houston.

Bomford agreed to help the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands compare the two.

"We took paint samples, we looked at the materials of the painting, and they did the same to their picture," he said.

More assistance came from Rice University Professor Don Johnson, who used special imaging tests to compare the threads in each canvas.

The tests showed , not only was this painting similar to the one in Europe but, that they came from the same bolt of canvas.

Science continues to provide conservationists with tools so they can see inside a work of art and devise better approaches to repair.

It's a never-ending job.  In addition to the museum's collection of some 1,700 paintings, there are sculptures, furniture and elaborately carved and gilded picture frames, like this one, that frequently need maintenance.

Works not on display are kept in climate-controlled storage rooms, insulated to guard against even a power outage during a hurricane, says Bomford.

"If these things are going to be preserved for future generations, it needs the expertise of people working in the conservation labs of great museums to keep these things alive," he said.

It's all for the benefit of art lovers everywhere.

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