On the second floor of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai, art conservators have been working on the restoration of an 1875, 65-square-feet oil painting, Sword of Damocles, for a year now.
One of the important paintings of 19th century French artist Antoine Dubost, it is estimated to be worth Rs 80 crore. Around 2004, the museum had taken up a project to restore several paintings in the European art section and Sword of Damocles was one of them. Eventually in 2013, Anupam Sah, head of art conservation, research and training at CSMVS Museum Art Conservation Centre, and Aviva Burnstock of Courtauld Insitute of Art, London, and their teams collaborated to completely conserve and restore the painting and the conservation process will soon be published. The conserved painting will be displayed to the public by this year-end.
According to Sah, after infrared and ultraviolet analyses, and x-rays to reveal the inner structure of the painting, the work of art was painstakingly removed from the support on which it had been pasted. The brittle paint layers were consolidated, and the painting was lined on the low vacuum suction table with a heat-melt synthetic adhesive. The lost areas were then filled in with specially formulated fillers and then reintegrated, using a reversible method of retouching.
This is not the only intricate restoration work in the museum. The types of damages and conservation techniques employed in this and several other art works are part of a massive “art conservation resurgence project” being undertaken by the museum. Spread across nine states currently, the museum has documented and mapped 4,000 types of damages that have occurred, from a manuscript at a Ladakh monastery to a cloth oil painting in Mumbai.
Accordingly, the museum is creating an exhaustive directory of various types of damages, preventive measures that can be taken and the treatment procedures, which will be made online.
“While there are over 700 museums across the country, five national museums, over 3,650 nationally protected monuments and 50 manuscript conservation centres among others, the standards of art conservation are far from satisfactory in India. Not many are aware about preventive measures that can be taken, besides techniques to restore and conserve art. Besides an exhaustive directory, we are in the process of creating a national policy on art conservation and restoration through this project. We also intend to establish a range of standards for art conservation,” said Sah.
According to project coordinator Nidhi Shah, the various subjects being tackled in the first phase of the Rs 3-crore project include oil paintings, textiles, miniatures, manuscripts, stone and terracotta, metal, photographs, paintings on cloth polychrome wood and collection maintenance. The project components include conservation-restoration of various types of art collections, research, training, education and dissemination of information.
Some of the important works restored include ‘Thangka’, a 16th-century painting on cloth; portrait of David Sassoon, an oil canvas that is over 85 years old and restoration of ‘Anvar-i Suhayli’, an illustrated book commissioned by Emperor Akbar, Sword of Damocles and several contemporary art, including V S Gaitonde
“There exists little knowledge about the kind of damage that can occur or ways to identify deterioration. Damage mapping is critical to our project. We are in the process of creating a directory of damages of varied nature on different types of objects from all over India. India is an expansive land with diverse climatic zones and each of these climatic conditions interact with the art objects and affect their condition differently. For example, a bronze in a coastal zone may deteriorate differently than a bronze in a climatic zone that is dry and dusty,” Sah said.
It includes 400 types of damages in oil paintings, 500 in polychrome on wood, 300 in textiles and 250 in miniature paintings, among others.
“Training of conservationists across the country is again integral to the project. We have held series of art conservation training sessions at Madhavan Nayar Foundation, Kerala, Shrujan Trust, Kutch, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), Delhi, and Mehrangarh Fort, Rajasthan, among others,” said Shah.