The Getty puts panel painting into perspective

The initiative aims to train a new generation of specialists to replace leading experts who will soon retire

london. Within five to ten years, the small group of world experts in panel painting conservation will retire, leaving a noticeable gap of expertise in this specialist field. Their skills are in danger of being lost owing to the lack of training programmes devoted to the structural treatment of panel painting. The Getty Foundation, J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) have joined forces to create a multi-year initiative aimed at ensuring both the survival of these skills and the preservation of panel paintings for future generations. The initiative officially launched at the Getty Centre in May with a symposium “Facing the Challenges of Panel Paintings Conservation: Trends, Treatments and Training”.

The crux of the scheme is to increase the number of conservators trained in the intricacies of panel painting. The only specialist training programme, located at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, recently halted its programme and its future remains uncertain as it contemplates restructuring its course to adhere to the Bologna Process, the reform initiative intended to bring about convergence in standards in European higher education. The Getty intends to design a training programme which pairs experts with advanced and mid-career panel specialists. Conservator George Bisacca from the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently travelled to the Prado in Madrid to assist specialist José de la Fuente Martínez in the conservation of a pair of Dürer’s “Adam and Eve” panels.

The format for the training programme will be based on the results of a needs assessment survey conducted by the State Art Museum, Denmark, in 2008. The Getty Foundation recently gave a $250,000 grant to the Danish museum to survey institutions with collections of panel paintings in North America, as well as eastern and western Europe, and assess their current needs. The study’s results are expected this autumn. According to Ton Wilmering from the Getty Foundation: “We are dedicated to this initiative for at least five or six years.”

In addition to the residencies, the Getty plans to compile specialist publications and information on the GCI’s website. These will include a searchable bibliography, the proceedings of the Getty’s latest panel painting symposium and teaching and reference materials. The GCI also plans to translate important foreign texts on panel painting conservation.

The practice of painting on panels can be traced back to antiquity. It was particularly popular in Europe from the late 12th to the 16th centuries. Some of the world’s most famous works of this type include Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, 1503-06, and Hans Holbein’s Portrait of Henry VIII, 1536. In the 16th century canvas replaced wood as the primary medium for painting. According to Sue Ann Chui, assistant conservator of paintings at the Getty Museum, the major conservation issues associated with panel paintings occur because of the wood’s response to the change in the environment—especially humidity—which can cause warpage and flaking of the paint. She said: “In the past, people tried to correct the warping by adding wood supports (braces) or thinning [of the] wood by as much as half of its original thickness. Wood naturally warps over time and these drastic remedies do not prevent this. We have to allow for natural warpage.”

Although the scheme will initially focus on medieval and renaissance panel paintings, the skills learned can be applied to more modern works. The Getty Museum’s head of paintings conservation, Mark Leonard, said: “We’re starting with western panel painting because that’s what we have in our collection. Already the issue of 20th-century panels has been discussed—when we can tackle that, we will.”

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