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The conservator's eye: Marble statue of a wounded warrior

Video transcript
(piano music) - [Woman] We're here in the ancient Greek and Roman galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at an ancient Roman sculpture of a wounded warrior. - [Man] This is a dramatic decision made by the museum here to show only a fragment of this work. He actually is missing some very important parts, part of his head, his nose, both of his hands, presumably a weapon, a shield. - [Woman] Some parts have been restored. - [Man] A huge portion of the figure's upper right torso is lost. And it's actually been resupplied here. What would it look like without a big chunk of his abdomen? Maybe that's actually more distracting in a way than lacking a nose. - [Woman] More distracting and harder to understand what the ancient Roman sculpture was after. For the ancient Romans and ancient Greeks, the human body was so important and that deliniation of the muscles in the torso. That would be hard to see if that big part of the torso was missing. Whereas the hands and the nose, maybe we can live without those. - [Man] Maybe, but definitely if we were looking at this same exact sculpture 100 years ago an artist would have been hired to resupply that nose, those hands, add a weapon. They may have been completely different from the original but that artist would have been trying to embellish this work, make it look more beautiful. - [Woman] We know artists like Bernini and Michelangelo were involved in helping to reconstruct ancient Greek and Roman works. But I can always tell a Bernini foot and hand from the ancient sculpture. - [Man] Bernini wanted you to know what he did because he wanted his additions to be better than the original. As a conservator, we never try to improve on the original. What we try to do is to respect the original artist's intentions as much as possible and the way I like to think about it is we help the work age gracefully. We study the work, we try to understand the original artist's intentions, but we don't falsify the historical record. We acknowledge the fact that the work is quite old. - [Woman] On the other hand, we're not acknowledging the fact that this has been restored. When I look at it, I can't see the seams. - [Man] Unless you're looking at this map supplied by the Metropolitan, or unless you're a conservator with highly trained eyes, you don't know that that abdomen has been restored. This is called invisible restoration. If we look at another work of art in marble, the Parthenon, we realize that's it's crystal clear which parts of the building are original and which parts are resupplied. - [Woman] These are decisions that curators and museums and conservators are making with individual objects everyday. - [Man] Often when we think about restorers or conservators we think about them putting together fragments of sculptures or making sure that paintings don't have peeling or flaking paint. That's half of what we do. But certainly the aesthetics of art conservation are really important. Looking at this work, I see that the patina is darkened. I see the age of this work more than certain other works in the gallery here. The patina of a work of art is the surface of it. It's extremely thin. What's important about it is first of all it's the part that you see. Equally importantly that's the part that meets the oxygen in the air, that's the part that meets the ultraviolet light that can discolor many materials. It's the part that meets the grime, the soiling from being underground for such a long time. It's also the part that meets your greasy fingertips if, please don't do this, but if you start touching works of art in museums. - [Woman] So you're using this technical term the patina, but in some cases I feel like I'm seeing just dirt on the surface, is that what you mean by patina? - [Man] Well here's why this term can be really debatable, marble like many materials is porous. Grime can go into the surface of marble and certainly it can discolor as it oxidizes over time. Is that a desirable patina or not? - [Woman] In this case the conservators in the museum made a decision to retain this patina. - [Man] Depending on when a work is restored, say in the 19th century when a more aggressive cleaning was favored, perhaps it's now looking rather bleached today, rather white. - [Woman] In fact in many cases, these ancient sculptures where really brightly painted. - [Man] With, by today's tastes anyway, very garish colors. - [Woman] With ancient works, we're used to seeing pieces missing, we're used to seeing age on the surface. But if this was a modern work and it was missing a piece, we might not be as comfortable with it. The restorer might take a more proactive approach and actually fill something in. - [Man] The distance in time now between us and the making of these objects has a lot to do with how much aging is acceptable. If something is this old, perhaps it's okay to have some grime and some chipping and some cracking. But imagine if this is a 21st century sculpture, those same cracks, those same chips, might be really distracting and might prevent us from appreciating the original artist's intentions. Here my eyes understand that this work is very old. Part of the reason I'm here to look at this sculpture is that is very old. I wanna know that. What I'm most interested in this work is having both if I can. I wanna have this balance between understanding the artist's intentions, but I also want to understand the historical record. So on the one hand, conservators today are striving for objectivity. We're trying to do the right thing. But on the other hand, let's acknowledge that our tastes are deeply conditioned by history. - [Woman] Even though we're trying to be scientific and objective, we still carry our historical moment with us. - [Man] We wanna make sure that however we favor interpreting these works today is not the end of the story. Because clearly future generations will have different ideas and different restoration techniques as well. (piano music)