The post-war work of cataloguing and returning the stolen art
- This lesson explores object conservation. It illustrates the damage done by the removal of works from public and private collections—and the ill effects of storing works of art in caves and mines during World War II. Students will explore the concept of conservation by discussing the materials used in making art and what can happen to those materials over time. They will watch art conservators working on objects damaged during the war, ponder ethical questions, and also consider what goes into the preservation and restoration of works of art and cultural/historical landmarks.
Visual Arts, Social Studies, English/Language Arts
- Develop an understanding of materials used to make art and how those materials need care and preservation over time.
- Examine conservators—and discuss the tools they use and the issues they face when caring for works of art.
- Consider the ethical implications of conservation and restoration of works of art and cultural landmarks.
Begin with a class discussion of the materials used to make art. What are paintings made of? Sculptures? What other materials might be used when making a work of art? Develop a list as different materials are discussed.
For paintings, the materials used most often are canvas and paint (colored pigments bound together with a medium of egg tempera or oil) on a wooden stretcher. In the past, paintings were done on wood panels, and some continue to be created this way. Artists have done works on metal plates, such as copper and tin and, in a few cases, stone. Paintings are sometimes rendered as part of a building; in the case of fresco paintings, pigments (colors) are applied and added to dry or wet plaster so that they become part of the wall.
Sculptures can be crafted from wood, many types of stone, and from precious metals such as silver, gold, or bronze.
Once the list is generated, discuss with students what might happen to these materials over time. For example:
Ask students to suggest other problems that can emerge in the preservation of these materials.
- Canvas can become brittle or lose its weave and sag.
- Wood is vulnerable to temperature and humidity changes.
- Stone sculpture is usually sturdy, but it can be subject to the elements over time, particularly if it is placed outdoors.
- Sculptures made of bronze or other metals often don’t survive very long due to the value of the materials used in their creation.
- Sculptures of the past were often painted brilliant colors that have worn off over time.
Introduce the term "conservation." Ask students to discuss what it means to them. Depending on the "field" of study, the word can have a variety of meanings.
Conservation of art and cultural objects is the act of repairing, restoring, and preserving cultural property for future generations. All objects are subject to deterioration over time. A variety of factors can speed deterioration: temperature and humidity changes, pollutants, natural disasters, and man-made disasters—such as war. Art conservation relies on educated and trained professionals who know as much as possible about the materials they encounter and the best ways to work with them.
Questions for discussion:
- Wawel Castle-A Restoration
- video goes here
Based on the clip, what are some of the tools used to clean and conserve works of art?
While movement can damage a work of art, in the case of this painting Christ Blessing the Children, ca. 1537 by Lucas Cranach, the damage was caused by the place where it was stored during the war.
In what ways could a storage facility cause harm to a work of art?
Why do you think the conservator noted that she had spent two years working on the structure and condition of the wood? Why would this work take so long?
Explain that conservation work proceeds at a very slow pace. In the case of works on wooden panels, such as the Cranach painting, the support must be stabilized before any treatment on the surface of the painting can begin. Works made of wood are often placed in special freezers for art objects to make certain that any remaining insect infestations are eradicated. Then the areas where there were losses in the wood are rebuilt, as are the preparatory layers on top of the wood panel so that “in-painting” (filling in) can begin on lost or damaged areas.
How did the issues discussed in the clip relate to the problems listed by the class?
What new questions that had not been considered arose from watching the clip?
Discuss the reasons why this work is only now, 60 years after the war, receiving conservation treatment. (The dominance of the Soviet Union over Poland and a lack of funds were major reasons that many works have taken so long to receive real care.)
Why was conservation a necessary component of the "Collecting Points" operations?
- The Munich Collecting Point-Conservation
- video goes here
All of the countries involved in a major way in World War II in Europe had to find ways to evacuate, secure, and hide their most prized art and cultural objects. Buildings were vulnerable to bombing, so many of the various countries’ valuables, including the materials that the Nazis were looting, were stored in caves or mines. From this clip, what are the hazards of storing a work of art in an uncontrolled environment in a mine? (Mineral deposits, salts, and mold are all contributing factors to the damage of works of art.)
Among the objects used to by the Wawel Castle conservator (Clip 1) were cotton swabs, fine brushes, and small picks. What impact do you think a household cleaner like Lysol might have on a work of art? Although it successfully removed the mold on the painting by van Gogh, would Lysol be the type of solvent conservators would ideally prefer to use? Why or why not? What might be the consequences of applying harsh solvents to a work of art?
Just as in the case of the Cranach painting from Wawel Castle in Poland, speculate on the reasons for the delay to restore the salt-damaged painting Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Brueghel.
Some people believe that works of art should not be cleaned and restored to their approximate original appearance. Propose reasons for this perspective. (Changes or damages that occur in a work of art are sometimes viewed as part of the life of the work. The preference is for the work to be untouched and as true as it possibly was when created by the original artist’s hand. Others question the ability of a modern conservator to be able to adequately clean and restore a work of art created, in some cases, many centuries ago.)
How do conservators know how a work of art, which may be hundreds of years old, originally looked? (In the case of the Cranach painting from Wawel Castle, the Nazis photographed the work when they seized it. Therefore, fortunately, we have a record of how the work looked before it was damaged. There is no independent record, however, of the painting as it looked at the time it was created in the 16th century.)
What questions arise when restoring a work of art and filling in the areas of loss? What guidelines do restorers follow when repairing losses in a work of art?
Is the conservator actually repainting when repairing a work of art? (In-painting is more like masking blemishes caused by damage to the surface of a work. A conservator’s job is not to paint but really to blend in-painting so that the work can be viewed in the best light possible.)
There are both national and international guidelines and ethics regarding art and cultural object conservation. Conservators are professionals who are skilled in the scientific treatment and preservation of cultural artifacts. They have specialized knowledge and skills in the arts, sciences, and other fields that enable them to undertake scientific studies of objects. They stabilize the structure and reintegrate the appearance of deteriorated cultural artifacts, thereby attempting to establish an environment in which artifacts are best preserved.
To learn more about art conservation and the techniques that conservators use, go to the Lunder Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Also visit The Minneapolis Institute of Art website for an online exhibition that follows the conservation treatment of two "old master" paintings.
For a list of frequently asked questions about art conservation, visit the The Minneapolis Institute of Art web site.
Part Two: Pisa and the Campo Santo Today
Begin by asking students what they know about Pisa, Italy. Some students will know of the leaning bell tower, or campanile, that is part of the cathedral complex at Pisa. Have fun clarifying that it’s the Leaning Tower of Pisa, not Pizza, despite the fact that it’s located in Italy!)
Pisa and Its Role in World War II
Why did the people of Pisa think their city would be spared the bombing? (The Allies tried to spare cities with major cultural monuments. It was widely assumed that the cathedral group of the city would be spared, but German troops used such religious and cultural sites because they were deemed safe zones. The Nazis consequently put priceless buildings such as the leaning bell tower at risk.)
- Rebirth of a Cemetery: Campo Santo (Part One)
- video goes here
One of the Monuments Men, Deane Keller, arrived in Pisa two months after the Campo Santo had been destroyed. What did he find, and what actions did he take to preserve the great frescos of the Campo Santo?
How has World War II changed the way we view the importance of the monuments in the cathedral complex at Pisa? Research what other great works of art still reside at Pisa besides the leaning bell tower (the baptistry, with its pulpit by Nicola Pisano, and the duomo or cathedral; the whole group is one of the most intact cathedral complexes built in the Romanesque style).
What happened to the frescos as a result of the fire?
What did Keller do to save what was left of the Campo Santo frescos?
How are the tools used to restore 40,000 square feet of frescos different from the ones used by the conservator in the Wawel Castle clip?
- Rebirth of a Cemetery: Campo Santo (Part Two)
- video goes here
Research what you would have to know to be an art conservator. Assign each student to research the curriculum for conservation training. (Look at the University of Delaware’s Art Conservation Program to find out more about the curriculum requirements at one of the leading art conservation programs in the United States.)
What role does science play in art conservation? What skill sets are necessary to become an art conservator?
Clara Barrachini has been working on the restoration of the fragments of the Campo Santo for the past 25 years. Why do people choose to spend their lives in the service of preserving and restoring objects from our past? What rewards result for this kind of work?
Part Three: The Amber Room: Rebuilding from Almost Nothing
The Amber Room before WWII and after reconstruction (more info)
What do you have when nothing is left? What is the difference between restoration and conservation?
Following the war and the German campaign to destroy what they considered an "inferior" Slavic culture, the people of Russia and Poland were faced with the task of rebuilding and restoring a number of cultural treasures that had been lost or nearly destroyed.
Divide the class into three research groups.
Direct one group of students to research the Amber Room from its origins as a gift from Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I to his then ally, Tsar Peter the Great, through its installation in the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg in what is now northern Russia.
The second group will research what happened to the Amber Room during World War II.
The third group will research the restoration of the room to its approximate original appearance since the late 1970s. Following research, have the students report their findings to the class.
The Amber Room is one of the great unresolved art mysteries of World War II. Some believe the panels were destroyed; others believe the panels were hidden. Thus far, only one fragment has been recovered from the room. In 1997, an Italian stone mosaic, part of a set of four, turned up in western Germany in the possession of the family of a soldier who had helped to pack the room’s precious panels during the war.
In one of history‘s great deductive triumphs of art conservation and restoration, the room was re-created based on photographs and drawings of the original room decorations. The team that worked on the restoration relied on one man to make the subjective decisions about the tints used in recreating the room.
Discuss the reasons why the Soviet government decided to re-create the Amber Room.
What is the relationship of the Russian people to such cultural treasures as the Amber Room? Why is the restoration of this type of art object important for the Russian people?
In what ways is the restoration different from the original? Can a restoration replace the original work that was initially crafted in 1716?
Discuss the differences between conservation and restoration. How do we define the two terms, and what is implied by the idea of restoration that makes it different from conserving an object?
Student assessment draws from an evaluation of student ability to work collaboratively to conduct group research, from the written assignment, and from student demonstration of knowledge of the material in class discussions.
National Council of the Social Studies more info
II. Time, Continuity, and Change
Language Arts more info
Viewing Standard 9. Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.
Level IV [Grades 9–12]
1. Uses a range of strategies to interpret visual media (e.g., draws conclusions, makes generalizations, synthesizes materials viewed, refers to images or information in visual media to support point of view, deconstructs media to determine the main idea).
National Standards for Arts Education more info
Content Standard 4: Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures
Achievement Standard [Grades 9–12]:
- Students describe the function and explore the meaning of specific art objects within varied cultures, times, and places.
- Advanced: Students analyze and interpret artworks for relationships among form, context, purposes, and critical models, showing understanding of the work of critics, historians, aestheticians, and artists.
The Greatest Theft in History: Lesson Links
- Heroes and Villains of the Greatest Theft in History This lesson highlights the men and women of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program (MFAA), known as the Monuments Men plus other individuals who, as a way of fighting a dangerous foe, acted in the interest of safeguarding art and cultural heritage. Students also discover the identities and intentions of several particularly lethal enemies. The consequences of their actions on art and heritage are emphasized.
- Reparations as Resolution This lesson presents both sides in the long running debate over who owns cultural property taken from Germany by the Soviet Army at the end of World War II.