Emily Keppel, Grimwade Centre for the Cultural Materials Conservation, The University of Melbourne
In August 2015, I was fortunate to spend 4 weeks as a conservation intern at the National Museum in Manila, under the supervision of Robert Balarbar. Having completed my training in the dry, temperate climate of Melbourne, Australia, the experience provided a firsthand experience of the challenges of preserving artworks on paper in a tropical climate.
One treatment I undertook was of Nude (1969), an ink brush drawing by Alfredo ‘Ding’ Reyes Roces (b. 1932). Roces was one of the founding members of the Saturday Group (also known as the Taza de Oro Group) that from 1968, would meet every Saturday at the Taza de Oro café in Ermita, Manila. This varied group consisted of artists, writers, collectors, patrons and gallery owners, who would participate in artistic sessions involving still life, figure sketching, portraiture and landscape painting. Nude (1969) is a large ink brush drawing on medium-weight orange ‘rice paper’ that depicts the torso of a reclining female figure. Captured in an impressionistic style, the fluid brushstrokes evoke rapid movement, with the lines varied to imply form. Such qualities suggest that the figure was drawn from life, outside of a wholly ‘academic’ environment. Along with the date of the drawing, these aesthetic features suggest that the drawing may have been created by Roces during one of the Saturday Group sessions at the Taza de Oro café in Manila.
Conservation treatment decisions were made following a close examination of the artwork, completion of a thorough condition report, discussions with other conservators in the lab and an awareness of the time and resources available to successfully finish the treatment.
The first stage of the treatment was the removal of the artwork from its mount, which was constructed from poor quality machine-made, ground-wood pulp board, high in lignin content and prone to oxidisation in high temperatures and humidity. This had contributed to yellow staining of the artwork from acid migration and mount-burn. Similarly, in a tropical climate, pressure-sensitive tape deteriorates more rapidly; the adhesives oxidises, yellows and becomes hard and brittle. The degraded pressure-sensitive masking tape used to adhere the artwork to the mount had also caused numerous tears and losses around the edges, as well as mechanical distortions, as the paper had expanded and contracted with fluctuations in humidity.
The National Museum of the Philippines is located at the centre of the busy city of Manila, and dust and pollutants pose a constant preservation challenge. A substantial amount of surface dirt was removed from Nude (1969) using soft goat-hair hake brushes, smoke-sponge and Mars Staedtler eraser crumbs.
The badly oxidised masking tape was then carefully removed from the soft, fibrous ‘rice paper’ using micro-spatulas and the localised application of acetone.
The artwork was also extensively stained with irregular-shaped orange-brown spots, known as ‘foxing’. These brown spots can be the result of metal impurities within the paper substrate, or mould growth. When examined under 10x magnification, the foxing spots on Nude (1969) appear to sit on the surface of the paper, suggesting biological activity. After extensive solubility testing of the paper and media, the artwork was sprayed with a mixture of ethanol and water (80:20) to treat the mould, and washed to reduce the appearance of the foxing. The artwork was laid face-up on a flannel cloth saturated with distilled water, and through capillary action, water-soluble discolouration products were drawn from the paper. Although slow, this method allowed for greater control over the treatment.
After drying flat under light weights, the final stage of the conservation treatment was the infilling of losses using a toned Japanese tissue paper of similar weight and methyl cellulose paste.
As a recent graduate, the opportunity to work alongside with the highly skilled conservators at the National Museum of the Philippines was an extremely rewarding experience. By undertaking this treatment, I gained a clearer understanding of the impact that high temperatures and humidity have on the degradation mechanisms of paper. Learning from conservators who are accustomed to working in a tropical climate, also showed me the importance of knowing the challenges of the climate in which you are working and the impact that humidity and temperature will have on your treatment decisions.
Originally published online on February 10, 2016.