ART, TECHNIQUES, AND CONSERVATION by CHERYLE HARRISON
Conservation is a multidirectional, knowledge-based process that begins with observation and evaluation. The conservator must look beyond the surface of an artwork and investigate its context. Studying and understanding the artist’s techniques, selection of materials, and connections with contemporaneous and historical influences contribute to the development of a successful preservation and conservation plan for each individual piece. After many years of working with The Cahén Archives collection, I have found that every project in turn has contributed further to my insight and expertise.
Cahén’s art is communicative and powerful. There is a deliberate and confident element to his creations that contributes to an enduring freshness and elegance that continue to connect with our contemporary eyes and sensibilities. Cahén was an explorative creator and invigorating colourist. His paintings range from abstract, figurative, and narrative works to illustrations. He produced thoughtfully constructed pieces, energetic images, delicately delineated linework, and numerous themed series. Several repeated motifs and shapes link his artworks, such as arcs and crescent shapes, spur- and thorn-like patterns, bird-feet designs, distinctive hands, and lozenges. He used specific compositional placements to anchor elements as well as tonal spaces to impart solidity or added balance to his paintings.
For supports, Cahén turned to a variety of materials: commercially primed canvas, Masonite board, canvas board, and panels with painted grounds. He applied his oil paint in exuberant brushstrokes with fluidity and rhythm, often in layers. At times he scratched the wet paint with the ends of wooden brushes, rubbed the surface, or pushed the paint around with his fingers. In Fogwood Farm (378), for instance, he scratched or drew much of its imagery into its wet paint. He interpreted this rural landscape abstractly, using angles, radiating lines, pyramid shapes, and even tilting the perspective of telephone poles, buildings, and trees to intensify the scene. Horizontal divisions and textured surfaces further enhance the sense of distance, height, and varying hill forms in the landscape where the farm is perched.
Another untitled farm image (275) reinforces how Cahén manipulated his paint to achieve his effective and dramatic compositions. The marriage of technique and imagery in these Fogwood Farm images resulted in visually energetic paintings that link Cahén’s earlier illustrations with his larger paintings.
As these examples show, the techniques an artist employs in creating an artwork can directly affect any later conservation work. When Conserv-Arte cleaned Fogwood Farm, it required considerable patience, along with the use of customized solutions and miniature cleaning swabs under magnification, to remove ingrained grime and a darkened varnish from the myriad small crevices in this artwork’s textured and varied surface.
As conservators connect closely with an artwork, they have the opportunity to observe its nuances both pictorially and in the context of history and science. They require an extensive toolbox of knowledge to treat structural issues and clean the artwork. That means ongoing research and skill development to address the ever-evolving options they employ, ranging from simplistic to multiphase treatments. Planning for the conservation of an artwork requires a three-stage approach: first, to disassemble each artwork intellectually into components; second, to evaluate the properties to discover their inherent fragilities, manifested sensitivities, and issues that endanger the work’s condition; and third, to assess various treatment and preservation options. Understanding how mixed-media materials change, interact, and respond is a crucial skill. Other issues that can contribute to an artwork’s condition include stressful and irregular environments, poor storage conditions, moisture or water damage, variable temperatures, and intrusive accidents or haphazard handling.
In addition to all these factors, other conditions identified in Cahén’s paintings include distortion or stretcher-bar imprints, and structural complications relating to cohesion concerns between paint layers, leading to flaking and paint loss. Often, a painting’s raised pentimenti, covered with several layers of paint, can result in cracking, separation, and lifting of paint along raised lines and ridges, and these require stabilizing conservation treatments. Other issues include areas where the original paint has weakened due to aging or effects associated with storage environments, or where the paint’s medium has leached out due to exposure to water, resulting in the development of fragile and sensitive paint surfaces that have chalky and lean paint characteristics. Other problems include surfaces with bloom, irregularities, and other structural concerns.
Like most artworks of a certain age, Cahén’s paintings have been affected by accumulated grime and discoloured varnishes. Many artworks had not been cleaned for years and were visually obscured by dirt, accretions, foreign matter, splatters, flyblow, grease marks, and stains. Some also required attention for grazed or abraded surfaces, gouges, and separating edges and corners on the board supports.
Once an artwork has been cleaned, it regains its visual balance as the details and vibrancy of colours are recovered, resulting in a more effective composition overall. Fortunately, the modern materials and cleaning techniques conservators use today extend the options for cleaning artwork safely and with control.Cleaning processes range from the use of soft brushes to the application of custom-prepared surfactants, gels, and solutions. As with any project, testing is essential to determine the sensitivity levels of the different materials, colours, and surfaces. Each stage or phase of cleaning has a defined approach and goal, with the protection of the artwork as the prime objective.
Oscar Cahén often employed the colour black in compositions to strengthen their dynamic value, outline forms, or define motifs and shapes. His commanding use of brushwork links to his background as an illustrator, where an expressive line can add meaning to an image or intensify a form or visual story. In my experience, many of Cahén’s works have sensitive areas often detected in the blacks and other colours, or delicate areas where he used mixed media including felt markers. Surfaces and colours are cleaned using non-invasive techniques. Different parts of an artwork may require varying approaches, and specific areas may need to be isolated from nearby treatments. Still other areas may be left entirely untouched.
In treating artworks structurally, different areas may require stabilization, or a specified approach, or a combination of methods or stages of treatments. Areas of separation or lifting paint may be stabilized locally, using injections or infusions of adhesive. When a conservator uses magnification to reattach fragile segments of paint, the process requires not just skill but intuitive scrutiny as well. In some cases, given the limits of an artwork’s condition or the parameters of conservation treatments, an entire work or parts of a work may be left untouched and monitored from that point on.
Oscar Cahén developed his artwork in different ways and used a variety of supports. His paintings on Masonite board were often reinforced with a wood strainer glued along the perimeter of the verso side. The smooth front side of the board would usually have a layer or two of ground preparation applied in advance of painting. One of my early Cahén conservation projects, Growing Amethyst (036), required an assessment report, minor repairs, and cleaning. This painting is representative of the sculptural construction of Cahén’s other works on Masonite in its expressive range of imagery and narrative, as seen also in Girl with Birds (560 ), The Adoration (558), The Jester and His King (195), and Toy for Adults (174).
The works on canvas were generally done on a thinly primed commercial canvas support; Cahén selected them for abstract painted constructions such as Painting with Red Square (035). He experimented on canvas with a variety of media, ranging from oil paint, ink, dyes, and gouache to felt markers and washes. He also employed his own unique methods, as demonstrated in a number of untitled abstracts (040[cs1] , 315, 383, 213).
Cahén’s small panel paintings frequently have a very smooth surface and a painted preparation base. The artist has pared down his materials from the exuberant brushstrokes and bold constructive layerings he used in his paintings to sublime and expressive lines on pure bone- or cream-coloured panels. In their overall presentation, these pieces appear very “clean.” Cahén often employs the tone of the primed panel as the background plane or as a strong component of the composition, in turn, making the colours and the subject appear more visually intense. These works include his Rooster Series, as illustrated in Untitled (Rooster Growing Form: 124), Untitled (Rooster Growing Form: 328), Rooster (563), Untitled (Rooster Series: 311), and Untitled (Rooster, Red Legs: 230). Visibly, they are a link to his illustrative background and paper-based works.
A recent conservation project illustrates how Cahén’s unique imagery translates to various media, as seen in a hand-carved chess set he created from scraps of wood and in the graphite playing-board design he drew on a remnant of fabric. The chess set had been stored for decades in a repurposed paper-based candy box, and it dates back to the time Cahén was held in an internment camp near Sherbrooke, Quebec, in 1940. These carved figures incorporate subtle abstract designs with minimal painting of isolated motifs in bright colours. The chess pieces were darkened with dirt and oil from handling during games, and from aging and storage. The fabric chess “board” was very fragile—creased, torn, and stained.
The conservation treatment for the fabric chess board required localized stabilization techniques to realign and reintegrate the fabric threads along torn areas. A reversible fabric backing was added to the verso side of the original fabric board for additional support and protection during future display, handling, and storage. After my examination and testing, I decided that the fabric and graphite chess board design was too fragile to safely clean and remove its stains. As the aged and stained patina of this fabric chess board serves as a remembrance of the lives of the detainees and the history of the internment camps, its patina will be respectfully conserved. Similarly, the chess carvings were minimally cleaned and purposely left unwaxed to preserve their original character.
Oscar Cahén was an expressive artist, and his versatility with different media reflects his innovative creativity. His works continue to present opportunities for reflection, resourcefulness, and inspiration for both conservator and viewer.