Conservation is a great opportunity to consider what we think is “original” when it comes to art.
I love this video from the Met about their conservation efforts on Degas’s The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer. The sculpture really stands out to anyone who has seen it because it is mixed media in a way that makes it seem even more lifelike than just the realistic rendering affords it. The fabric elements of the sculpture – the dancer’s skirt and hair ribbon – make the sculpture seem real in a way that bronze can’t, both because they are materials that a dancer would actually wear and because bronze’s weight is difficult to ignore visually. But fabric is obviously less durable than bronze, and so at some point the skirt had to be fully replaced. What’s amazing about this video is the unexpected issues it raises in this kind of conservation and what that means for how we see art.
Surprisingly, the bronze sculpture is not a work of Degas, per se, and this is where the issue of the artist’s intent gets really interesting. It turns out that the original sculpture was made of wax, with a full cloth outfit, and a human hair wig. 40 years after Degas died, the wax was cast in bronze and the cloth elements were only kept because they couldn’t be cast – I imagine that the weight of the metal deformed the shape of the cloth. So that amazing mixed media aspect of the sculpture is actually almost an accident – a necessity of the materials of preservation, in an era when preservation meant making a new object that mimicked the old one in a different medium. We would never do this in the current conservation climate, when we as a society generally are so concerned with the “real” or “original” thing in a very literal sense. But if the original thing can’t be permanent, this choice to cast the statue in bronze and make a new work of art makes a lot of sense.
Where this decision muddies things, though, is it introduces a second artist, the conservator. The conservator who cast the statue made a lot of aesthetic choices, including the specific medium, the tone of the metal, and how to render the elements that wouldn’t cast well. They could have just taken a picture and that would have gone on display – the picture would also be a distinct work of art, but one with a much clearer division between Degas and what I’d call his removed collaborator. The fact that the element being replaced was not part of Degas’s original work, but rather the bronze reproduction, raises the question for the current conservator of whether the restored skirt should follow Degas’s wax sculpture or the removed collaborator’s work.
But there’s another kink, which is that the skirt had already been replaced three times and changed slightly each time. The skirt had gotten shorter, changed fabric, changed color. Depending on when you first encountered the sculpture, you would have a completely different assessment of what the “original” looked like. I think the current conservator’s solution is really interesting and defensible, even though he could pretty much have done whatever he wanted and that would have been justified. He used the context of Degas’s other work on dancers and of the historical period to pick the fabric, color, and length of the skirt. He knew from descriptions of Degas’s wax sculpture that the skirt on that version was white, as are the skirts in most of Degas’s paintings, but decided that would be out of place on the very dark bronze sculpture. Even though it would have been historically and even art historically accurate, it’s clearly not the intent of this version of the sculpture, because it would contrast so heavily with the other colors that it would be distracting. The conservator points out that the bronze is meant to look aged, and so he chose a color of fabric that would look like a white that had aged. This also becomes a subtle nod to the fact that the sculpture is not, strictly speaking, original – it makes the whole thing feel somewhat removed from the time of its creator, which it is for reasons that are not visibly obvious. But apart from the decision about the color, the conservator followed the historical example completely – he used the same fabric that ballerinas would have worn (in a lighter weave so it would scale down to the size of the statue effectively) and cut it to the same length that the dancers in Degas’s other paintings wore it. These decisions all together are a really great interpretation of the artist’s intent, because they aren’t slavishly tied to a sense of originality, but they still take contextual clues into account – the conservator recognizes his role as a creator, not just a reproducer, in this process, and makes himself as invisible as possible while still doing really excellent work.
One detail that stood out to me in the conservator’s description of the statue was his explanation for the coloring as “aged-looking”. This made me see the statue in an entirely new light because I have always seen the statue’s color very literally as the color of the girl’s skin. My entire life, I have assumed that Degas intended for the dancer to be black. And I liked that idea. It made me think a little better of Degas, even though contextually this makes no sense, since there are no black women in any of Degas’s other work. But then again, I had only ever seen one statue like this, so I thought it was exceptional in multiple senses. I thought the dirty, aged look of the dancer’s clothing was a commentary on how her beauty and natural grace came through despite her poor attire. In retrospect, my mistaken impression of this statue normalized an issue that is still huge in the dance world, since I saw this statue for the first time fully decades before Misty Copeland became the first black female principal dancer in the American Ballet Theater and just a few years before the movie Center Stage dramatized the conflict around black ballerinas. Realizing this now really brings to life for me the impact that our impressions of race in art can have. Even as I’ve watched the bigotry unfold around the entirely justifiable call to depict classical statues in their original painted colors, I just didn’t really get how the white marble conveyed race in any meaningful way. I saw the issue more as a problem around how we remember the Classical era according to an Imperialist viewpoint, when the colors were often stripped off statues because it was believed they were garish additions from the Middle Ages (no, it just turns out that pre-modern peoples generally didn’t appreciate minimalism and really liked bright colors). But obviously I was wrong, and sometimes color is more evocative than shape, if I could spend my whole life thinking that an extremely Eurocentric painter had depicted a black girl in sculpture just because a conservator chose to reproduce her in a dark bronze.
And that brings me back around to my original thought in all of this: conservation is extremely powerful. My archaeology professor in college was fond of saying “archaeology is destruction”. Like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, once you uncover the past to observe it, you necessarily change it. Even the act of restoring a piece of art is a form of destruction, because it requires the conservator to make choices about which version of the piece we should see from now on – in a way, it sets the interpretation that other people will have of the piece. It’s important to keep this in mind if you are in the position to create impressions of the past (whether as a conservator or archaeologist or historian), but also if you interact with history or artifacts or art. The things we see didn’t come to us directly from the past, plunked down by a time machine. They have lived through all the time in between then and now, and they have a lot more history than just their earliest appearance.