It has been over a year that I had an idea – even a desire to meet a person who dedicates their life to preserving art. This occupation is not frequently talked about remaining very discrete and secret compared to other professions in the art world. After a long search, I had a pleasure to interview Iván and get many of my questions answered.
Iván Arencibia Rivero is an art conservator-restorer based in Gran Canary Island, Spain. He is one of those mysterious charming people who pass their days around historical and contemporary art while making sure it stays preserved in the most authentical and sustainable way for future generations. Iván gained his knowledge and craftsmanship studying fine arts with a master´s degree in conservation and restoration of cultural heritage at The Polytechnic University of Valencia. Later he developed as a professional while working in Italy for three years followed by Malta and Spain. However, he insists that continuous studying is needed in order to keep up with the new possibilities of art preservation… I invite you to find out why, while learning many new things from Iván´s answers below:
Agneta: What was the path that brought you to become an art conservator-restorer?Iván Arencibia Rivero: I was drawn to the preservation of objects from a very young age, the increased value due to the passing time fascinated me and seemed crucial for history, especially for understanding it. Archeology and Egyptology in particular intensified this kind of thought and consciousness in me quite early. Personally, and as conservator of cultural heritage, I developed a kind of sacralization of the materials and their enriching historical side.
A: What skills are needed to be a great art restorer and conservator? What would you recommend for a person who dreams of making it one’s profession? Where could the start be?
I.A.R.: Material knowledge and analysis of the methodology of an artwork creation are crucial, together with empathy shared with each piece and its necessities during the study and the intervention. The capacity to understand how the constituent matter of an artwork reacts since the moment artist created it, how he used it, to know his technique from the inside, the aging of materials, together with the historical contribution that enriches it and makes each piece unique. It is a career that requires continuous learning as the materials used in contemporary art are totally different from the ones used in antique art. There is always new research going on and new materials being discovered that can adapt to the criterion of modern conservation, the same as to the specific treatment of each piece.
A: Are you usually working solo or with a team? Who else is involved in the restoration process?
I.A.R.: At present, I am working solo but depending on the artwork that needs to be treated – my profession becomes multidisciplinary. I can also collaborate with other restorers, work hand in hand with chemistry professionals, radiologists, and art historians between others.
A: What is usually the procedure in case of completely lost parts of the artwork?
I.A.R.: Depending on each case, there are multiple ways of reinstatement. We mustn’t create a historical forgery. While developing specific criteria, the missing pieces should remain different from the original ones. As an example, I would mention rigatino or pointillism techniques used as discernible color reintegration when we see that the linear decoration losses can be restored in order to unify the piece. The details have to be reintegrated with the least intervention possible and the restorer can never add artistically on existing work. The same can happen with the volumetric losses of the sculptures – protruding parts of a sculpture can always be rebuilt following the guidelines dictated by the piece itself (and many other factors like a work being from a private collection, museum or a ceremonial object) respecting the piece and the work of its author to the maximum. In this case, a viewer can obtain an overall aesthetic view of the work and when analyzing it up close one can observe the restored parts due to a slightly lower tone of color reintegration, achieved in pointillism or rigatino. This is a method of discernible reintegration: to recompose whenever possible using the remaining parts of the piece and its historical witness. But it is different with contemporary art as it already depends on the indications given by its author and the concept of work, which sometimes prevails over the matter.
A: If there is no obvious damage, how often should a painting be reviewed by the art conservator?
I.A.R.: A preventive conservation revision is always necessary depending on each collection. In order to know the temperature and humidity oscillations, and if any biological developments have appeared due to the accumulation of dust. For example, a weekly inspection is carried out on the works from the museum´s display and also the ones at the depositary. Depending on the maintenance and problems of each piece I like to go and check at least once a year how the works that I have previously intervened are keeping.
A: What are the perfect conservation requirements for a classical and contemporary painting?
I.A.R.: It is important to maintain balanced parameters of preventive conservation in the collections, like temperature and humidity. Drastic oscillations need to be avoided, together with ultraviolet radiation and the human factor. The quality of the component materials of works dictates the aging of materials and their susceptibility. We also have to keep in mind that in contemporary art, the conservation becomes much more complicated, not only because the concept prevails over matter, but because the materials are often incompatible or have industrial qualities with the risk of early obsolescence.
A: What are the main environmental enemies of artworks?
I.A.R.: Usually, these are large temperature swings, humidity, and light since photo-degradation is cumulative and irreversible. For example, in textile preservation, the ancient fabrics are usually tinted with natural dyes which are very sensitive to light. All the objects are able to keep quite well in extreme temperatures as long as there are no oscillations or these oscillations are gradual.
A: What are the most common deteriorations of the painting, sculpture, and fresco?
I.A.R.: The conservation of an artwork depends on multiple factors and it varies on each one of them. It is different to treat a religious work of art that is still being used during processions than handling a 17th-century painting (that has never been intervened) coming from a private collection. And these two examples have nothing to do with a contemporary artwork due to the materials used. I would say that a human factor is what affects the artworks most commonly.
A: Are there any materials or techniques that were very popular centuries ago and are hardly ever used, therefore difficult to find, at present?
I.A.R.: Yes, there are, but due to identifiable reintegration methods, it is not so difficult to solve that with antique art. This type of problem is found more often at the conservation of contemporary art. For example the use of certain types of televisions or Vhs which can change the whole aesthetics of the work. That is a big problem that contemporary art conservators deal with.
A: What other kinds of art, apart from painting and sculpture, do you usually, work on?
I.A.R.: Throughout my professional experience, I have specialized in various fields. It is because they are frequently intertwined with each other like in paper, fabric, and jewelry restoration. When a 17th-century painting arrives at my workshop, on the rack it has labels of the collections to which it has belonged. In this case, I have to start studies of the conservation of paper and documents – and this subsequently serves me for the conservation of graphic and pictorial work on paper. Working with the paintings developed my interest in the historical fabric. The pictorial link between painting and sculpture led me to altarpieces and polychrome sculpture.
A: Do you usually work on one piece at the time or you prefer to work on a few parallel ones?
I.A.R.: That depends on the workload and the requirements of the specific artwork. Generally, I combine several jobs at once because cleaning a sculpture may take several months while removing rusty overcoats and varnishes. The best is to combine it with another item and liven up the work. Often the urgency of intervention due to approaching inauguration or religious procession with exact dates forces to focus and work on a single artwork exclusively.
A: Is it necessary to have specific conditions in your studio while working or short periods of time cannot affect the artworks?
I.A.R.: Most problems are caused by large oscillations in small periods of time – the workshop must have minimal changes with stabilized temperature and humidity parameters. When works of art travel to large exhibitions in their packaging and specific boxes, on their arrival they always need at least a day to acclimatize. Once the estimated time passes, the packaging can be opened and, after analysis to verify that everything went well during the trip, the artwork is mounted.
A: Is there a favorite historical period that you like working on?
I.A.R.: Each artwork is the artistic product of a particular time and each of them gives you new knowledge of materials. I really like the variation – to move from intervention of religious art to a contemporary artwork but it is also true that the materials used until the 18th and early 19th centuries have time and history tested qualities which contribute to a higher quality of the constituent materials which results in better intervention and conservation/restoration. I love Baroque but in a fair amount.
A: Which was the most meaningful or your favorite project to date?
I.A.R.: It is difficult to choose one, it would be like choosing a favorite child,;) The restoration of “San Jerónimo” by Jusepe de Ribera, one of my favorite painters already when I was studying at university. I had the chance to develop my work field for a few years in Italy and I will always remember the day it arrived at the workshop, the artist is also known as the Spagnoleto… with a unique brushstroke that precedes the avant-garde. However, as the most curious one, I would mention the restoration of the figureheads in the bow and stern, together with the skylight of a historic ship – the Statsraad Lehmkuhl, a training ship of the Royal Norwegian Navy, spoils of war in the First World War with a very interesting and extensive history. It was like going to work cycling every day and crossing the border to Norwegian terrain.
A: Is it correct to say that some restoration professionals are better developed in particular areas? Do workshops choose their fields of specialty? Do you have your favorite?
I.A.R.: As I have mentioned previously, there are multiple specialties in the world of conservation and restoration: paper, textile, easel painting (on canvas and on panel), polychrome sculpture, altarpiece, archeology, stone. Therefore it is normal and very good that there are workshops that specialize in diverse areas of restoration. As a multidisciplinary kind of work this develops collaborations and research that can serve other restaurateurs.
A: How long can a work of art survive before the first restoration? An oil painting or an outside fresco for example.
I.A.R.: It is difficult to respond to this question due to a multiple set of variables. I had the opportunity to work with paintings from the 1790s that have never been restored before and they have nothing to do with heavily intervened works realized by the same author fifty years later. Climate control and the manipulations performed on artworks influence their conservation the most.
A: What kind of technique or color stays the longest without restoring?
I.A.R.: At the university, we have always studied encaustic as one of the most stable and durable techniques, but oil on wood or canvas is also very enduring. However it will always depend on the quality of the materials used, it is not the same to mix the oil paint manually and paint on an oak panel, or buy an industrial oil paint and use it on pinewood panel. That’s where we can appreciate the work of the Old Masters.
A: What are the most important tools of a restaurateur?
I.A.R.: Generally, they are the tweezers, scalpels, blades, and a magnifying glass. While traveling I like going to local markets in search of antique medical equipment. I have a variety of scalpels bought in Paris, Milan, Turín, Madrid and other cities but there is one small scalpel that is my favorite and which I use the most.
A: Apart from working on restoration and conservation, do you collaborate in valuing art? In case of auctions or for private collectors?
I.A.R.: On many occasions, private collectors ask for guidance while purchasing auction pieces or when acquiring from other collectors. Contemporary artists enquire about the aging and compatibility of materials they use for work while still in the creative process. That is something I find very interesting and I love doing that since it gives me exceptional information about the moment of artistic creation and the artwork itself.
A: In your opinion, what is a better decision: buying a grubby piece of art and paying a professional to restore it or buy an already restored artwork?
I.A.R.: It always depends on the piece in question, and in case it was previously restored – on the quality of that intervention. The art market is a very very wide field and you have to be very cautious. You can buy an old shabby work expecting the best, and find out that it is a forgery and there is nothing old underneath or the complete opposite might happen too.
A: Is it true that a great art restaurateur can also be an amazing art forger?
I.A.R.: It might or not be a legend but what is obvious is that we do know how to use antique materials therefore we know how they age. And so we are able to manipulate and recreate an artwork with a certain facility. But nothing that wouldn’t come out as counterfeit with a radiographic study or stratigraphic analysis of pigments components.
A: Does it happen, like in case of valuable jewelry, that owners of art decide to have a copy on display while keeping the original artwork separately in safe conditions?
I.A.R.: This usually happens in the document or textile, there are facsimiles on the shelves to see the miniatures or signatures while the originals are kept in special cameras in the dark with monitored temperature and humidity. In the historical fabric, the collections on display are usually changed and exchanged with others from the deposit due to their sensitivity – in order to keep them in stable environments, same as some pieces of contemporary art. But generally, depending on the piece, when this happens in a private collection it is kept secret in order to safeguard the collection and property. I will be working on a curious case in near future though – one church has decided to order a resin reproduction of an important sculpture used during catholic processions. This way the 17th century original will be preserved best.
A: Which are the differences between working for art institutions and private collectors?
I.A.R.: The criteria when intervening the work: museum criteria rarely coincide with those applied in treating religious art, which at the same time can differ depending on if the artwork is devotional, or not. The same happens with private collectors. But above all, the difference of working for an institution is that you focus more on the specific collection, and you almost never have the pressure of the owner or the delivery time.
A: Are you involved in some other art-related activities or hobbies away from your professional work?
I.A.R.: In general, I try to enjoy free time while feeding my curiosity for new artists, their creations, exhibitions, and also for personal research. These are things that I complete myself with as conservative restorer, and also I occasionally create something myself.
A: Could you shortly compare the display conditions at the Louvre Museum and El Prado? It is very interesting what you, as a professional notice there.
I.A.R.: The style of the two museums is different, as the Louvre is what we can call an encyclopedic museum that follows a history of art line, however, in the Prado we find many collections and artworks of incomparable qualities – not from all schools but by the most powerful artists of the schools and times represented. Perhaps this is why it is more particular, with collections unparalleled with any museum in the world. Something I don’t like each time I go to the Louvre is what I personally call global decadence, a bunch of nonsense that prevent the delight and observation of the excellent works that it treasures. There are oxidation and shine of varnishes, to that we can often add the application of protective glass, and when you look at it standing in front the amount of light that is reflected prevents you from seeing the entire work… When no informative labels appear indicating the exits and all the reflections of the ceilings. It seems to me as nonsense that great works are not intervened at all – almost reaching the state of aesthetic neglect.
A: Your favorite art space in the world?
I.A.R.: It is a very complicated question. I would answer that it is the world itself. It is a museum that treasures extremely diverse limitless collections. Art that was not created on purpose but due to human sociocultural evolution can be classified as such today. Rock art such as the Altamira caves, sites like Pompeii or natural monuments like Timanfaya Park. Worldwide collections of ethnographic, architectural heritage, and the multicultural products throughout the history of civilization.
A: A contemporary artist whose work you admire?
I.A.R.: Santiago Ydañez. I had an opportunity to get to know his work – it is fine aesthetically and technique-wise with spectacular dexterity, load, and fluidity that provide a lightness of gesture worthy of great authors such as Velazquez or Goya.
A: What is your opinion about performance-like, open restorations in front of visitors at the established art institutions?
I.A.R.: In 2015 I had the opportunity to carry out the live restoration of a sculpture in a museum. I have to say that it was an enriching experience, although sometimes complicated due to the constant flow of public as us – restaurateurs are used to developing our work behind the scenes. But on this occasion, I remember people’s curiosity and the didactic of the intervention providing a possibility to know about the role of the conservator-restorer of cultural heritage, an unknown and intriguing profession. I also remember one school visit in which, with the help of X-ray, the glass eye installation into the sculpture was explained. It was indispensable to see the curiosity of viewers towards the preservation of artworks for future generations.
A: In your opinion, what challenges will the future bring for contemporary art restaurateurs?
I.A.R.: Due to the use of diverse materials, qualities, and instruments as a component part of the art piece, the complexity and durability of the medium make it difficult for certain works or art installations to remain mounted and visible in the museum all the time. With the appearance of the great centers of contemporary art, conservation laboratories have developed studies and many lines of research: digitization, and especially the possibility to ask the artist about the component parts of his work and the possible ways of substitution, learning if aesthetic or conceptual importance is crucial (as sometimes the concept explained by the author prevails over the materials used to complete an artwork). But there are future challenges in the field of conservation of contemporary art. And that is why it is very good if contemporary artists consult art conservators to improve the knowledge and problems of current materials.
All photographs in this interview are courtesy of Iván Arencibia Rivero