Piecing it together

Times Staff Writer

BATHED in natural light, a larger-than-life Roman statue of Empress Faustina greets the public in a gallery devoted to images of women and children at the Getty Villa. About 1,850 years old, she's a bit worse for the wear, but she has a new nose and chin.

Long before J. Paul Getty purchased the marble figure, in 1951, a restorer had replaced broken parts of her face with newly carved marble. The process involved cutting away damaged areas to create flat surfaces and drilling holes for metal pins to hold the additions in place. Those restorations were later lost or destroyed and replaced with plaster, but when the Getty's antiquities conservators prepared the collection for its new installation at the villa, they decided that Faustina needed help.

Purists advocate removing old restorations to reveal an unadulterated ancient core, said Jerry Podany, head of antiquities conservation at the villa, but what's left is often so damaged that the remaining artistry is difficult to appreciate. That was the case with Faustina. The early restorer's mechanical cuts and holes were probably far more distracting than the original damage. Even after the holes were filled, the sculpture looked like a victim of bad surgery.

"We wanted to bring some unity back to this important portrait statute," Podany said.

That required reconstructing the nose, chin and surrounding area. He made a plaster cast of the face and used it to model a clay nose and chin section based on ancient portraits of Faustina in stone and on coins. They indicate that she did not have a dainty nose, but visual evidence triumphed over today's notions of beauty.

"Sculpting a nose is fun," Podany said, "but for me the interesting thing was making sure we were in the ballpark of the right nose, even if we didn't quite like it." When satisfied, he cast the modeled clay in an acrylic resin mixture resembling marble and affixed it to the marble head.

Philosophies and practices of art conservation have changed considerably over the years, Podany said, and that fact can be seen at the villa. Labels for some sculptures contain images of the works with restorations from different periods outlined and color-coded. The gallery known as the Temple of Herakles, in particular, is a mini history of restoration as well as a spectacular showcase for three Roman sculptures. The dominant statue of Hercules and the smaller "Leda and the Swan" and "Satyr Pouring Wine" have undergone significant changes since they were created, as labels explain. The restorations are part of their history.

Conservators in spotlight

With a mandate to help conserve the world's artistic heritage, the J. Paul Getty Trust has had a high profile in the field for many years. But the reopening of the villa has focused attention on the antiquities conservators' particular role. While staff members of the Getty Conservation Institution pursue projects around the world and conservators at the Getty Museum in Brentwood minister to collections of European art and an international holding of photographs, Podany's crew concentrates on ancient art at the villa in Pacific Palisades.

The staff of six conservators, including Podany, and three mount makers work in facilities that doubled in size during the renovation. Two refurbished labs, for stone and ceramics, are in the ranch house originally used as a part-time residence by the museum's founder. Two new labs, for metal and organic materials, are housed in a separate two-story building. Another new building, attached to the ranch house by an archway, was designed for a fledgling master's degree program on the conservation of ethnographic and archeological materials run by UCLA and the Getty.

All three structures face a square courtyard in a complex on the north side of the campus. With views of surrounding trees and -- from a few vantage points -- the Pacific Ocean, it would appear to be conservators' heaven.

"We have been living in an incredible pressure cooker," Podany said, reveling in the view while recounting years of labor on the new installation and other projects that had to be done in cramped, temporary quarters. "Now we're back home. It's time to do great work at a pace that is sane."

The agenda includes collaborative ventures involving antiquities from other museums that will go on view at the villa after treatment. And that work is already underway. Seated at a microscope in a new lab with floor-to-ceiling windows and toxic-fume-removing hoses suspended from the ceiling, Marie Svoboda examines an ancient Greek lekythos. Clumsily pieced together a century or so ago, it was recently dismantled at the villa. The slender ceramic vase, on loan from the Antikenmuseum in Berlin, will go on display at the villa in "The Colors of Clay: Special Techniques in Athenian Vases," an exhibition opening June 8.

But first it will get a makeover. The astonishingly detailed figurative painting on the lekythos has been obscured by shellac-like adhesive that turned brittle and yellow. Wielding a thin metal blade in one hand and holding a fragment of the vase in the other, Svoboda scrapes away tiny bits of adhesive from a fractured edge. After excising the old shellac, she will reassemble the vase with an acrylic substance that can be easily removed if the need arises.

On the opposite side of a long table, Janis Mandrus is at work on a Greek krater, a ceramic bowl adorned with a scene attributed to an artist known as the Pourtales painter. On loan from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, the krater is also undergoing treatment in preparation for "Colors of Clay." Getty conservators have replaced the vessel's improperly restored foot with a new plexiglass model shaped like the original. Now Mandrus is removing excess crack filler applied in the 18th or 19th century. Wearing magnifying eyeglasses and disposable purple gloves, she dips a cotton swab in distilled water and lifts off the offending material, grain by grain.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Maish is wrapping up an enormously complicated project involving an object in the Getty's collection. Effectively solving a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle with little to go on, he has reconstructed an unusually large krater that is missing about two-thirds of its surface area. Improbable as it may seem, artwork on the existing fragments and other ceramics of the period offered sufficient clues for Maish to make a drawing of the battle between Greeks and Amazons envisioned by an artist known as the Altamira painter. After plotting the scene and filling gaps, Maish re-created the shape of the krater in epoxy and spackle, putting the fragments in their proper places. Too little of the original krater remains for the reconstruction to be displayed with the permanent collection, Maish said, but it may appear in an educational exhibit.

Collaborative projects

Works undergoing conservation for "Colors of Clay" will be part of a 100-piece loan show on decorative techniques applied to Athenian vases. A major mosaic that has seriously deteriorated will be restored for a show of Tunisian mosaics. Another project, in final stages of negotiation, will reconstruct the Baksy krater, a monumental ceramic vessel that has languished in a fragmentary state at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

"As phenomenal as the Baksy krater is, it has only been reconstructed on paper," Podany said. "The drawing is just to die for. The fragments have been put in groups. It's not all there, but the pieces that exist create enough references that I'm sure we can reconstruct the form." When the work is done, the krater will appear in an exhibition of vases from the area around the Black Sea.

Such projects serve the field of conservation while enriching the villa's exhibition program, Podany said. Like collaborative projects at the Getty Museum in Brentwood, conservators from some of the lending institutions will work with Getty staff at the villa.

"We do have wonderful resources," he said. "what comes with that is a responsibility to do something good with them and, beyond that, to share it."

Still, the collection based at the villa is the primary responsibility of his department.

In the early stages of the villa renovation, the conservators and mount makers worked with architects and engineers to make sure the environment for the artworks would be appropriate, in terms of temperature, humidity, lighting and seismic stability. In the museum's reincarnation, display cases can be set up as discrete microclimates -- relatively dry for metals and wet for organic materials. Windows filter out harmful ultraviolet light, and a dust filtration system catches pollutants. Reinforced walls and floors can hold much more weight than in the past. Some fragile objects likely to fall during an earthquake are mounted on seismic isolators; others are tied down or attached to pedestals or cases by custom-designed mounts.

As their titles indicate, conservators care for artworks; mount makers design and construct unobtrusive devices to display them safely. But divisions of labor dissolve under pressure at the villa, and every member of the department is much more than a technician. Unlike many of their peers, Getty antiquities conservators do not specialize in particular materials.

"Everyone does everything," Podany said. While the Roman-style museum was under renovation, "every piece considered for exhibition was treated, re-treated, re-restored, improved," he said. "Every piece got a new mount." About 1,200 objects from the 44,000-piece collection eventually went on display.

"It was a huge amount of work to get the collection ready," Podany said, "but it was a chance we won't have again."

Nonetheless, the job is far from finished. Many pieces in storage await attention; so do objects on display.

"As we would move pieces or make a new mount," Podany said, "we would observe something we hadn't noticed before. Marie Svoboda got very interested in Fayum portraits," he said of the Getty's Romano-Egyptian mummy portraits. "We have launched a project to characterize our portraits and understand how they are made. We have a long list of things to go back to and questions to answer."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°