Posts Tagged 'art conservation'

Mask Mysteries

Before I arrived at the DMA, I wasn’t quite sure what my daily tasks as the McDermott Intern for African Art would entail. I certainly never expected to be sitting in on a biomedical engineering lecture at UT Southwestern studying a CT scan—but this was no ordinary CT scan: it was a scan of the DMA’s helmet mask (komo) from the Senufo peoples of Côte d’Ivoire.

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The purpose of this scan was to discover the contents of the horns that decorate the mask, as well as any other ritual materials that may have been placed within the structure. The scan showed the horns contained many small objects, including animal jaws and a variety of organic matter. With this information in hand, I hit the books in an attempt to understand why these objects would be chosen for use in a mask such as this one. As the Komo society is a secret knowledge society, details of masking traditions are not frequently shared; however, I was able to compile some information from Boureima T. Diamitani, scholar and Komo society member, to help contextualize the mask and the mysterious contents of its horns.

Helmet mask (komo), mid–20th century, wood, glass, animal horns, fiber, and mirrors, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of David T. Owsley 1997.24

Helmet mask (komo), Cote d’Ivoire, Senufo peoples, mid-20th century, wood, glass, animal horns, fiber, and mirrors, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of David T. Owsley, 1997.24

The komo is believed to be a spirit above humans who possesses supernatural powers and is sent by God (Kle) to protect members of the secretive Komo society. The komo performs a masquerade that today functions as both a divination ritual and a form of entertainment.

The origin of the Komo society is found in a story in which a hunter and his dog encountered and killed a frightening beast in the forest. The hunter brought the beast’s head back to the village to entertain the townspeople, thus becoming the first komotigui, or owner of the Komo. The mask form is taken from the appearance of the beast killed by the hunter. Today, the mask is most often worn during performances by the son of the komotigui or the son of the blacksmith who carved it.

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Blacksmiths carve komo masks from one piece of bugusulu softwood, a tree used exclusively for this purpose. As females and uninitiated males are not permitted to see the mask, the blacksmith must himself be a member of the Komo society and must carve the mask in the forest, out of sight of the village. The mask, carved over the course of three days, is sculpted with small wooden horns, which are then fitted with animal horns. The choice to carve the mask with horns is an important one: since relatively few animals have horns, the addition of horns emphasizes the strangeness and power associated with this creature. Upon completion, the carver relinquishes all responsibilities for the mask to the new komotigui, who may choose to add porcupine quills, more horns, feathers, or any other element he chooses; these additions distinguish particular masks from one another. A competitive spirit between komotiguis is a catalyst for artistic production and the various styles of many komo masks.

Due to the personal preference involved in decorating the mask, we cannot be sure of the significance of each element that was found in the horns. Many komotiguis chose to place powerful substances such as medicine or poison inside of the horns due to the aggressiveness and fear associated with them. This implies that the substances that filled the horns likely held some type of ritual significance to Komo society members and were believed to increase the potency of the Komo society as well as the mask itself.

Although we do not yet have all of the answers regarding the materials contained in this mask, or the reason that each specific item was chosen, we are on our way to a better understanding of the context of this mask’s creation. Further, this experience has immensely broadened my outlook on the ways in which science, technology, and the arts can work together to draw important cultural conclusions.

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Megan Zembower is the McDermott Intern for African Art at the DMA.

References:
Diamitani, Boureima Tiekoroni.  1999.  Identities, Komo Societies, and Art Among the Tagwa Senufo of Burkina Faso (Doctoral Dissertation).
Diamitani, Boureima T.  “The Insider and the Ethnography of Secrecy:  Challenges of Collecting Data on the Fearful Komo of the Tagwa-Senufo.”  The African Archaeological Review 28, no. 1 (2011):  55-70.
Diamitani, Boureima Tiékoroni.  “Observing Komo among Tagwa People in Burkina Faso:  A Burkinabe Art Historian’s Views.”  African Arts 41, no. 3 (2008):  14-25.

The Sum of All Parts

The DMA’s conservation team works on a variety of projects throughout the year. DMA Associate Conservator Laura Hartman shared insights on one fascinating project in the Fall issue of the DMA Member magazine, Artifacts.

Flowers in a Vase with Two Doves (detail), François Lepage, 1816–20, oli on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, Munger Fund, 2016.23.M

François Lepage, Flowers in a Vase with Two Doves (detail), 1816–20, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, Munger Fund, 2016.23.M

In 1925, Dallas philanthropist Gertrude (Trudie) Terrell Munger endowed a fund for acquisitions to the Museum’s permanent collection. For over ninety years, the Munger Fund has been instrumental in the purchase of some of the DMA’s greatest treasures across its encyclopedic collection. These include Claude Monet’s The Seine at Lavacourt, Camille Pissarro’s Apple Picking at Eragny-sure-Epte, and the important old-master painting Basket of Flowers by Osias Beert the Elder. This spring, the Munger Fund acquired another world-class work: Flowers in a Vase with Two Doves, a beautifully preserved 19th-century painting by the Lyonnais artist François Lepage. The DMA’s conservation team examined it under the microscope to study the artist’s technique a bit closer.

Exquisite in its highly polished finish and attention to detail, Flowers in a Vase with Two Doves is meticulously painted and beautifully preserved, making its examination both enjoyable and an important opportunity to see a work of art as intended by the artist. Lepage has been described as a methodical and slow painter, and it has been suggested that it took him four years to complete this work. At first glance, the surface appears smooth and highly refined, but when observed under magnification each meticulous brushstroke becomes evident, revealing a surprisingly free and painterly technique.

Droplets of water, for example, are expertly applied to petals and leaves to create a convincing optical effect. These droplets, when observed under magnification, reveal a somewhat abbreviated painting approach.

Lepage also used his brush to quite literally add texture, heightening the illusion of tactile effects. Tiny details reveal the use of linear and directive brushstrokes in dialogue with such small highlights as the textured dots found along the butterfly’s wing and at the center of the chamomile flowers.

Microscopic examination of works of art often reveals important and interesting perspectives not immediately visible to the naked eye. This type of study allows conservators to better care for each work of art, giving a fundamental look into an artist’s working techniques.

—Laura Hartman is the Associate Conservator at the DMA.

 

Uncrating 2015

At the DMA, 2015 was a great year full of art, fun, and visitors enjoying an array of exhibitions, programs, and events. Highlights include the fifth anniversary of two of our access programs (Autism Awareness Family Celebrations and Meaningful Moments), the presentation of four DMA-organized exhibitions (Between Action and the Unknown: The Art of Kazuo Shiraga and Sadamasa Motonaga, Michaël Borremans: As sweet as it gets, Spirit and Matter: Masterpieces from the Keir Collection of Islamic Art, and Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots), eleven Late Nights, an active year of paintings and object conservation, dozens of classes and art camps for kids, the hosting of our third naturalization ceremony, the topping out of the Museum’s new Eagle Family Plaza and north entrance, and more than 700,000 visitors in 2015. We can’t wait to see what 2016 brings!

 

Conservation Time Travel

Uncrated recently caught up with the DMA’s  associate conservator, Fran Baas, who joined the Museum in November. This summer, you can find her working on the 1908 Viennese Wittgenstein silver cabinet, pictured below.

FranBaas

Describe your job in fifty words or less.
My title is Associate Conservator, and I oversee the activities involved in the long-term preservation of the DMA’s permanent collection of objects and textiles. This comprehensive approach includes treatment, research, and analysis, and the preventive care of the collection.

What might an average day entail?
Each day is very different and has me running around all over the Museum. I might be assessing objects as potential loan candidates, responding to e-mails, writing reports, and doing actual benchwork. 

For example, recently, over the course of two days, I treated three plaster “pears,” dehydrated a SCOBY (a colony of bacteria/yeast that is part of a contemporary piece), conditioned silica gel, cleaned a few inches of an intricate early 20th-century Viennese silver piece, discussed with curators and collections staff the “inherent vice” of an extremely fragile piece, helped identify materials in an African headdress, and assisted in the treatment of some large oversized paintings. My job keeps me hopping across decades, centuries, and millennia . . . not to mention across the world geographically!

How would you describe the best part of your job and its biggest challenges?
 I absolutely love my job. It’s a huge responsibility, but a privilege that I do not take lightly. The biggest challenge is never having enough time!

Growing up, what type of career did you envision yourself in? Did you think you’d work in an art museum?
For a long time, I struggled with where I fit. I am very “left-brained, right-brained,” as they say. Not only do I love working with my hands and looking at art, but I love science and the process of discovery. It took me awhile to find a profession that combines art and science. Conservation is a field where I get to do my favorite things in an effort to preserve art and artifacts for future generations to appreciate. I have the best job in the world.

Do you have a favorite work in the DMA’s collection yet?
As cliché as this sounds, I fall in love with whatever piece I am currently working on. Getting to work with a piece up close, in conjunction with the material analysis and background historical research, allows me to really “get to know” a piece . . . and as a result fall in love.

What are you looking forward to in your future here at the DMA?
I look forward to getting to know each and every object and textile in the DMA’s encyclopedic collection!

Caravaggio, Crime, and Conservation

Here at the Dallas Museum of Art, the month of July has turned into a celebration of art conservation.  On July 1, Mark Leonard began his tenure at the DMA as Chief Conservator. Mark began his career as a restorer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before heading west to the J. Paul Getty Museum, where he worked for twenty-six years. This Saturday, in conjunction with an Arts & Letters Live event, Mark will meet visitors in the galleries and discuss upcoming restoration work for Jean Baptiste Marie Pierre’s The Abduction of Europa. At 7:30 p.m., author Daniel Silva will be in conversation with Maxwell L. Anderson, The Eugene McDermott Director of the DMA, discussing his new book, The Fallen Angel. Silva is a celebrated “spy fiction ace,” and is known for his hero, Gabriel Allon. Gabriel has a longtime, on-again off-again relationship with Israel’s secret intelligence service, but he also happens to be one of the world’s finest restorers of old master paintings.

Mark Leonard, Chief Conservator at the Dallas Museum of Art

The Dallas Morning News has said that “in Gabriel Allon, Silva has created a credible secret agent with skills that would make James Bond weep.” Our very own Chief Conservator, Mark Leonard, also has a unique perspective that sets him apart from others in his field: He is an artist as well as a conservator.

Mark, as an artist, do you think you approach your work differently than your contemporaries? How has your work as a conservator affected your work as an artist?
Every artist approaches his work differently. By working with great works of art, from the old masters to contemporary artists, I’ve been able to learn from their work. Not every artist gets this opportunity!

Gabriel Allon is an art restorer by day and a spy and assassin by night. Mark, tell us about your night job as a painter.
For a while in my career, working with a brush in my hand every day, conserving someone else’s work was enough for me. About four or five years ago, I became aware that while I loved restoring paintings, it was really a blank panel that I wanted on my easel. In a series of geometric abstractions, I wanted to explore the theme of love and loss. If you have ever loved, you have experienced loss–the two are interwoven. That’s how I began working on this particular motif. In December of this year, an exhibition of my work inspired by John Constable’s “Cloud Studies” will be on display–side-by-side with the Constables–at the Yale Center for British Art.

Mark Leonard, “Triptych III,” March 2011, gouache and synthetic resin on panel, Private Collection, Austin, Texas

In Silva’s new novel, Gabriel Allon is sent to the Vatican to restore a Caravaggio masterpiece. Mark, in all of your experiences, can you tell us about a particularly challenging project you’ve worked on?
[He chuckles.] That would have to be a Caravaggio I worked on at the Met. “The Musicians” was heavily damaged. It took about six to eight months to bring it back to life. Restoring a painting could take as little as an afternoon to as long as several years.

Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi), “The Musicians,” c. 1595, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1952, 52.81, Image courtesy metmuseum.org

What are some of your upcoming plans for the DMA’s collection?  Is there any spy work in your near future?
The Museum is very excited about its plans to build a new paintings conservation studio. We are carefully planning for it to include a public space; we want to be able to share the work that we are doing with our visitors. In the meantime, I am planning on spending the next year really getting to know our collection. [He laughs.] I don’t think there is any spy work in my future here. He’ll leave that to Gabriel Allon.

For more information on Saturday’s event with Daniel Silva, please visit our website. For tickets and to register for the tour, call 214-922-1818.

Hayley Dyer is the Audience Relations Coordinator at the Dallas Museum of Art.


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