Art Conservation Department of the State Russian Museum, St.Petersburg

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Conservation of Ceramic Art and Glass

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The Ceramic Art and Glass Conservation Studio came about in 1970 as a team formed within the Art Conservation Department. The studio, re-designated as a sub-department in 2019, currently has four restorers on staff.

The term ceramic refers to items made of baked clay. Ceramics is an ancient art form, which today includes porcelain, faience, majolica, and terracotta. The Russian Museum lists over 30,000 glass and ceramic items, stored in two of its collections: applied art and folk art.

Department Divisions:

 Oil Painting Conservation

 Mixed Media Painting Conservation

 Old Russian Painting (Icons) Conservation

 Paper Graphics Conservation

 Ceramic and Glass Art Conservation

 Metal Art Conservation

 Textile Conservation

 Carved Icon and Wooden Sculpture Conservation

 Gilded Wooden Carving Conservation

 Picture Frame Conservation

 Lacquered Furniture Conservation

 Plaster and Stone Sculpture Conservation

 Contemporary Art Conservation

 Scientific Research

 Conservation Cordination Center

 

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Studio head Maria Bessmertnaya completing the color finishing of new replacement fragments on an 18th-century ceramic sculpture, Grouse. 2015

Many of the glass and ceramic sculptures and tableware items in the Russian Museums custody come from the Imperial (Lomonosov) Porcelain Factory and pre-1917 Russias many private glass and porcelain manufacturers -- Gardner, Batenin, Yusupov, Miklashevsky, Safronov, Kornilov, and a few others, as well as the St. Petersburg Glass Works, Bakhmetyevs Cut-Glass Factory at Nikolsk, and Maltsevs Glass Factory. The Russian Museums collection of ceramics also includes a great variety of Russian folk art styles, from Gzhel and Skopin painted ceramics to Dymkovo and Filimonovo folk toys, as well as the local ceramic art genres of other Russian provinces and modern ceramic artworks created in various parts of Russia.

Applied artworks that the museum receives via its purchasing section all too frequently show evidence of unprofessional conservation. Cracks, corrosion, all kinds of soiling, broken pieces, missing fragments This is a much-shortened list of the more typical problems requiring the attention of our conservation staff. 

If you search the archives from long ago, you will not find a glass and ceramics restoration studio in the Russian Museums Conservation Department. Conservation tasks involving glass or ceramic items used to be assigned to either the jewelry, silver, and timepiece studio or the wood, furniture, and sculpture studio. Some of the well-known restoration artists in those years were Vladimir Klein (metal and jewelry), sculptor Igor Krestovsky (sculpture, wax, and ceramics), Timofey Detz, Konstantin Kavtaradze, Nikolay Malashkin (ceramics, ivory, and stone), Natalya Safronitskaya, and Nikolay Chernyshov (ceramics, ivory, stone, and metal). They all held art degrees, but never trained specifically in art conservation. They were tireless searchers, inspired and guided by their creative experience, their enthusiasm, and their love of art.

Studio head Maria Bessmertnaya completing the color finishing of new replacement fragments on an 18th-century ceramic sculpture, Grouse. 2015

The bulk of the Russian Museums applied art collection was evacuated to Solikamsk after the Nazi invasion. The remaining pieces, packed in boxes, stayed in the museum. There being no other specialists on hand during the evacuation period, the applied arts department head Boris Emme had to personally undertake the complex restoration of a mid-18th-century imperial porcelain vase, gluing its 53 fragments together himself. Emme also wrote a methodological manual on the storage and conservation of ceramic items during the war years. Many of the points he makes in his book are entirely in tune with contemporary, research-informed principles of ceramic conservation.

During restoration

After restoration

Restoration of an 18th-century porcelain mug (No. ST-319). The item had been shattered into 30 pieces and poorly glued back together. The item was broken down again and traces of the old glue were removed. It was then reassembled and glued back together. The missing parts were filled with conservation primer and tinted. The restoration was done by Raisa Starikova and Lyudmila Serebryakova. 2010

 

The ceramics conservation work of Irina Dubovik and Sofya Kirsanova made a real difference in the 1950s and 1960s. Sculptors by education, there was hardly an applied, folk, or Old Russian art style or material they could not tackle successfully, including wood, metal, glass, and ceramics. As there was more work than they could handle on their own, colleagues from Moscow would often lend a helping hand. These included glass and ceramics restorers A. Onkel, I. Yegorova, A. Morozova and S. Annonskaya of the Grabar National Art Conservation Studio (VKhNRTs) and I. Khazanova of the All-Union Research Institute for Art Conservation (VNIIR).

A new section for the conservation of applied art and sculpture was set up in 1970, and Svyatoslav Ivanov was appointed its first director. Staff restoration artists Raisa Starikova and Lidiya Andreyeva worked under Ivanovs stewardship. There existed, by that time, strong collaborative ties between the Moscow-based art conservation and research centers and the Russian Museum. The museums staff restorers would travel to Moscow to take on internships, share expertise, and attend workshops or conferences.

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Restoration artist Nadezhda Govorkova completes the reconstruction of the floral ornament on a ceramic wine bucket. 2017

The search was on for new conservation materials, and the applied art and sculpture team was quick to put them to work. One example was the new gold-plating technique for finishing added parts, which included gold leaf (glossy) and shell gold (matte).The team, in collaboration with the museums chemical lab, developed a methodology to clean ingrained grime from ceramic items. A decade of the teams work resulted in the Conservation Methodology for Ceramic Items in the State Russian Museum (written by Raisa Starikova), which was ratified by the Academic Board in 1981.

The glass and ceramic conservation studio currently employs four restorers with excellent professional credentials. Their job descriptions cover a vast scope of duties, including preventive surveys of artworks, exhibit preparation (condition profiling, packing -- often involving the creation of customized packaging for irregularly shaped items, mounting and dismantling exhibits), and keeping records and photographic documentation. But their main job restoration and conservation incorporates a great diversity of processes, from basic washing to gold-plating and toning to mask replaced fragments. One of the nuances of this work is that the materials the restorers use are completely different from those used in the original artwork ceramic mixtures and glass. When replacing missing parts on an item, the restorer aims to make the replacement material match the original material as closely as possible, blending it seamlessly into the artwork. Whether the replaced fragments are a perfect likeness of the original is a secondary concern.

Before restoration

During restoration

After restoration

Restoration of the late 19th-century Rooster jug (No. FS-1553) sculpted by Aleksandr Golovin. The item came into restorers hands with evidence of unprofessional gluing. It was broken down into 95 fragments, glued back together, and cleaned of grime. Missing bits were replaced and toned up. The restoration was performed by Maria Bessmertnaya and Nadezhda Kasatkina. 2012

 

Artwork reconstructed by the studios restorers has been exhibited at dozens of fine porcelain and folk ceramics shows in recent decades. The 1994 exhibition Imperial Porcelain Vases and Dining Accessories from the First Quarter of the 19th Century featured a particularly large display of exhibits restored from a very bad state of disrepair. Their restoration included disassembly, washing, cleaning off old adhesive, de-rusting the braces, occasionally replacing the mounting fixtures, bonding, replacing missing fragments with parts molded or cast from specially formulated compounds, and toning the replacements with gold leaf, shell gold, or tempera. Inspired by the growing exhibition activity and the many new exhibition ideas in the past few years, both theme-focused and comprehensive in scope, the museum has taken a fresh look at its backroom stocks, and has been able to bring to light some excellent applied art that had been away from the public eye for decades.

For the exhibition Romanticism in Russia, the studio restored two early 19th-century uranium glass floor lamps decorated with gold-plated bronze. The items were taken apart entirely, down to the tiniest screw, cleaned, and glued back together. Missing parts were replaced with glass of the same hue and the lamps were reassembled. (The restoration was performed by Lyudmila Serebryakova and Raisa Starikova).

In an equally challenging and rewarding conservation project, the studios artists restored a mid-19th-century table from the Imperial Porcelain Factory, the porcelain top of which consisted of 11 sections featuring interior views and picturesque landscapes. The item was in very bad shape: its metal carcass was deformed, the fasteners were gone, and porcelain parts of the legs were broken. The item was fully disassembled, cleaned, and glued. The metal parts were de-rusted, and missing metal parts and porcelain fragments were replaced. (The restoration was performed by Nadezhda Kasatkina and Aleksandr Melnikov.)

Lead restorer Nadezhda Kasatkina replaces missing gold plating on a unique late 19th-century teapot. 2012

The glass and ceramics team also restored the Sadko platter, a work of Mikhail Vrubel, for the 1995 The Russian Museum in Bonn exhibition. This involved gluing on 13 large fragments, reinforcing them on the backside, toning them, and providing the item with a custom-made stationary fastening construction. (The restoration was performed by Lyudmila Serebryakova, Nadezhda Kasatkina, Raisa Starikova, and Aleksandr Melnikov.)

Two ceramic panels by Viktor Borisov-Musatov, created for the Moscow Tram Authority in 1904, were reconstructed for the exhibition Symbolism in Russia. These panels, initially conserved in the 1950s, had not been exhibited in more than 30 years. The large-size, irregular fragments were glued together, then reinforced on the back. Missing parts were reconstructed and the paintwork was redone based on the artists sketches. A fastening structure was designed to make it possible for the panels to go on display. (The restoration was performed by Nadezhda Kasatkina and Raisa Starikova.)

The relief Medusa by early 20th-century sculptor Artemy Ober had been broken up into 28 fragments, and some parts were missing. The item had undergone prior conservation. Undoing the old bonding and clearing the seams proved a challenge, as the adhesive mastic was found to be permanent and exceptionally difficult to remove. Having tried in vain all the known chemical cleaning methods, restorer Lyudmila Serebryakova was left no other choice but to resort to mechanical cleaning. She therefore had to be extra careful so as not to damage the surface of the item. With new bonding, missing parts replaced, and the replacements properly toned, the relief was now ready to go on public display.

The complex and versatile restoration processes used on glass and ceramic artworks were showcased at exhibitions dedicated exclusively to art conservation: the 1977 exhibition of the work of the State Russian Museums Conservation Department, and the 1984 exhibition Art Conservation in the USSR in Moscow and Leningrad.

 

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