Out of the Public Eye

In the early 1990s, a few emigres paid their way West not by smuggling cans of black caviar but by selling another highly prized fish product: sturgeon bladders.

Dried flakes from the inner membrane of the fish's air bladder -- soaked, kneaded and boiled down to a milky-white solution, then mixed with honey -- have long been used by Russian conservators as a glue to set loose paint.

As sturgeon glue became accessible abroad, Western restorers found that it was more flexible and binding than synthetic alternatives. Now that there is an embargo on caviar, "French restorers I know at the Louvre beg us to send a few grams of sturgeon glue," said Yekaterina Seleznyova, chief restorer at the Tretyakov Gallery for the past 27 years.

Last year the gallery's restorers grew apprehensive about their supplies, so when a vendor offered a large quantity of the bladder flakes, which sell for up to $40 per 100 grams, they bought 10 kilograms, or enough for 10 years.

Despite all the money and study going into developing new techniques and materials for art conservation, the traditional ones still excel, Seleznyova, pictured above, said in a recent interview at the gallery's restoration studios.

"Restorers, like doctors, know the first rule is that [the material] should not be injurious to the oeuvre, and that it should be reversible."

Conservators painstakingly mixed paint as she spoke. Retouches are dotted on in dissolvable watercolor, which is slightly lighter in color, to mask rather than replace areas of missing paint, Seleznyova said.

"Leaving big white spots of gesso [used to fill losses in the paint layer] would, of course, affect the public's perceptions," she said. "We work to make the viewing of the artwork seamless."

Sarah Walden, a British independent conservator who has worked at the Louvre in Paris, recalled a recent visit to the gallery's back wing.

Courtesy of Alexandra Orlovskaya / Tretyakov Gallery
The canvas of this 19th-century family portrait by Mikhail Myagkov had shrunk, causing the paint to wrinkle.

Courtesy of Alexandra Orlovskaya / Tretyakov Gallery
The painting became much lighter after restorer Alexandra Orlovskaya removed the dark and flaky varnish.
"The conservators at the Tretyakov are discreet, intelligent craftsmen," she said by telephone. "They do not want to come between the public and the painting."

Walden, whose 1985 book on restoration, "The Ravished Image, or How to Ruin Masterpieces by Restoration," has recently been published in Russian, praised the natural, untampered-with look of the Tretyakov Gallery's paintings.

In the West, she said, there can be enormous pressure on Old Master paintings to compete for public attention and wall space with contemporary works. Restoration becomes competitive for blockbuster exhibitions, and 300-year-old paintings are over-cleaned and over-restored to make them look ageless.

Today, thanks to state funding and private sponsorship, art in Moscow is receiving its due varnish. In the public eye for its 150-year anniversary, the Tretyakov last year received generous funds for restoration.

But the tested and chemically neutral materials needed by restorers are rare and dear. At the Tretyakov, dependent on a state budget, every expense must be justified.

Above all, the Tretyakov is a state treasure, said Seleznyova, and the gallery's roots run deeper than any flashy new ideas and techniques driving today's populist art market.

Alexandra Orlovskaya, 32, now in her eighth year at the gallery, said she takes pride in the Tretyakov's "brand name" and the quality of the paintings she restores.

By working for a private gallery, she could earn more than her $380 monthly salary, Orlovskaya said, but in that case the paintings she worked on would be collected by their owners, and it would be impossible to follow up on restoration work.

"Here, if I want to see how a painting is doing, I just go visit it," she said waving toward the gallery's main wing. "We restore paintings to carry them through to the next generation."

Seleznyova noted, "With the change of regime at the end of the 20th century, culture was perhaps the first thing to suffer, and the budget became so meager that we no longer knew what to do."

However, "The planning of our colleagues who came before us is really providential," she said.

Restoration at the Tretyakov Gallery has been organized in the same way since 1936, when the gallery founded an in-house conservation department. Moscow's other museums outsource their restoration to a state studio called the Grabar Art Conservation Center.

Before every restoration, the gallery's leadership and all the restorers hold a meeting to decide on the task ahead: whether a painting needs to be varnished, stripped, relined or touched up.

Such grand councils were convened every two weeks during the lengthy restoration of Mikhail Vrubel's 1902 painting "The Demon Downcast," which recently returned to the permanent exhibition. A way to restore the painting had to be invented step-by-step, because the artist ran out of canvas mid-oeuvre and sewed on an extra length of canvas, running cross-section to the original. The paint bubbled and resisted at the seam, but now you have to stare closely to detect the painting's scar.

That Russian art is back in vogue was apparent as Seleznyova met conservators in their studios on a recent afternoon, their working tables proudly displaying Andrei Rublyov's "Trinity" and Dionisy's "Transfiguration."

"For the restoration of our Rublyovs, I am positive we will find a [private] sponsor; positive," Seleznyova said, her back to the icons, facing the assembled white-coated restorers. "It is a name, of course, that is above the small-fry."

Primped for the director's inspection, the 15th-century icons fanned out along all the studio's surfaces. Their paint had been freshly wetted with mineral spirits to show how they would look when varnished, and tufts of white cotton balls modestly covered gaps that were still waiting to be touched up.

A restorer drew Seleznyova's attention to problem areas, pointing with a stick tipped in cotton. Restorers dampen cotton swabs in their mouths and gently roll them across the paint layer. Saliva, a natural enzyme, is the first step in cleaning surface grime; then acetone or stronger solvents are used to remove yellowing varnish and old paint from previous restoration work.

The gallery's small team of restorers has evolved its own secrets to revive aging Old Masters, not least of which is their particular professional ethic. Dedication and humility are fundamental to these guardians, whose best work hopes to be undetectable.

"We keep pictures of the paintings before [restoration], but most people can hardly imagine it when they see them in the gallery," Orlovskaya said.

Conservation remains a closed world -- many of the gallery staff followed their parents into the profession. When a restoration is difficult and "you've spent your own blood coming up with a solution, it is not so easy to give it away," Orlovskaya said of the mystery surrounding her craft.

Water-damaged paintings, for example, are notoriously difficult to repair, and many private studios refuse to take on such commissions. Water shrinks the canvas, forcing up volcanic ridges of paint all over the surface. However, the Tretyakov can't give up on a painting, and Orlovskaya learned the secret to smoothing water wrinkles on an 18th-century painting from the gallery's older restorers.

In a patience-testing process, the portrait was viced into a medieval-like rack and stretched out a fraction every day for a month, while weights and homemade glues helped to massage the mountains of paint back into the canvas.

The state's art restorers come from the capital's long-established schools of art, each of which has its own restoration faculty. Young graduates used to assiduously document their work and produce a portfolio detailing each painting they repaired in order to receive a diploma validating their degree.

These portfolios had to be submitted to an anonymous committee of 20 restorers and curators sitting in the Culture Ministry. But Orlovskaya, who graduated from the prestigious Stroganovsky Art Institute, said that she was one of the last conservators to be granted a diploma after her portfolio review in 2000. "It is a rather hushed-up situation, but the committee has disappeared," she said.

Over the past six years, the gallery's youngest restorers have matured out of the tutelage of its older generation, but there is no way for them to turn their experience into an official qualification.

The Tretyakov paintings' older keepers may also lack official degrees. Tatyana Yushkevich, 75, who in November will mark her 50th year at the gallery, graduated to restoration from the cataloging department. She began as an apprentice, poring over the ravaged faces of the Old Masters that returned to Moscow after being evacuated to Siberia during World War II. She pointed herself out proudly in the faded photographs lining the studio's walls.

The younger restorers whisper fondly that Yushkevich is "blind" and a little behind on her chemistry. There is a good balance in the studio, though, said Orlovskaya: "The older restorers know the history and pass on experience, and we learned the new technology, such as the use of special lights, in school."

"Here, it is not only oral knowledge, but visual and manual sensing, and you must learn from watching others," Yushkevich said from behind large, square glasses.

"We work differently than abroad because we work more visually and intuitively, whereas [foreign restorers] rely more on microscopes and technology, and different lamps and magnifiers to see every ripple of the painting," she said. "You could say we work using feeling."