Ingenious preservation of ancient art

National Art Museum of Belarus now offering visitors the chance to tour its restoration workshops
By Yuliana Leonovich

The country’s foremost depository of treasures, the National Art Museum, recently launched its exclusive tours, touting them under the slogan ‘The Art of Restoration’. Aimed at those with ‘discerning tastes’ the tour takes visitors into the heart of the archive, to the restoration rooms, where magic worked to revive ancient works.

On the day of my visit, accompanied by our photographer, nobody came forward to join us at midday. Accordingly, we waited until evening, when two female students and two older ladies chose to take the tour, headed by guide Arkady Shpunt, who oversees the workshops and is a world class restoration expert. He initiated the tour, telling us that he was keen to allow visitors to ‘see with their own eyes the whole process of restoration’. He admits, “Of course, the tour has a price, which also helps the museum financially.”

The restoration workshops have the feel of dentists’ rooms, full of mysterious instruments; 18th century works are restored with surgical accuracy, including using scalpels, while the masters wear rubber gloves and white coats. Like professional doctors, their main aim is to do no harm, returning works as close to their original appearance as possible, without altering the image — either to improve or correct. Keeping the original intention is vital and their work is truly a success when others are unable to tell that restoration has taken place.

I catch sight of the familiar face of Olga Mikhailova, a graduate of the Department of Traditional Belarusian Culture and Modern Art, at the Belarusian University of Culture and Arts. This spring, she took a job placement at the National Art Museum and has been working as a grade II restorer for the past month, specialising in ancient Belarusian art. Overseen closely, her first major project is an 18th century icon: ‘Mother of God with Baby’.

She tells us, “We’ve already strengthened the paint layers. Before your arrival, we’d just selected solvents to soften the paint. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet created the desired effect so we need to try a ‘dry’ method, using a scalpel.”

In the next workshop, restorers Ilona Karlionova and Diana Mokhtar pore over an ancient textile piece. It’s laborious work, taking over a year, but they are diligent, working stitch by stitch. Ms. Karlionova stresses the need to imitate original techniques. Meanwhile, Sergey Shatilo is just disclosing a painting from dark layers accumulated over the centuries. Mr. Shpunt explains, “Icons were covered with varnish which darkened within 80 years, losing its transparency. In the past, people painted over the top to ‘renovate’ so the images often lost their initial appearance, becoming something else altogether.”

Moving from one workshop to another, only Olga Lutsevich, a student from the Academy of Arts asks questions, while the others follow quietly, seemingly without any personal connection to the art world. Student Karina is a little disappointed, having expected some ‘interactivity’. “I thought, they’d allow us to scrape something,” she admits, adding that she’s rather confused by the process of placing notches on probe samples for chemical analysis.

There’s no doubt that the tour will be of interest to all those connected to the art world: students and professionals. For those without any background in restoration, it’s probably a good idea to undertake some reading before taking the tour, so that you have some familiarity with what you’re likely to see.
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