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The conservation of a fragile woodcut print

When performing conservation treatments on works of art on paper, the conservator often encounters difficult challenges. Some artworks are in such poor condition that handling, displaying and storing them may be damaging to the artwork. Stabilization is therefore crucial in order to enhance the longevity and accessibility of the object.

The woodcut print

A good example of an artwork in such poor condition is a woodcut print, dating from 1909, made by the Danish painter and graphic artist Aksel Jørgensen. The artwork is printed on extremely thin China paper, of which weight and quality can be compared to a one-layered napkin. When the artwork was acquired by the museum, it was framed, glazed and mounted on all four corners onto a piece of cardboard with pressure sensitive tape. The adhesive from the tape has partially degraded over time, which has caused the print to attach to the glass. When it was previously demounted, the corners of the print and some areas along the top edge of the print were impossible to detach from the glass, resulting in loss. The small pieces of paper remained attached to the cardboard after the demounting process. These areas were separated from the cardboard, kept and stored together with the print in a sealed and acid-free folder.

Artwork, before treatment: På Café, 1909, Aksel Jørgensen

The left, top corner was still loosely attached to the cardboard, but became loose and detached during the examination process

Small pieces detached from the artwork (top right corner), still attached to the cardboard, were stored with the artwork

Tape attached to the artwork

Concerns regarding the artwork

The primary concern with this print was the losses of material that caused the print to be almost impossible to handle. The tape was also taking its toll on the thin and fragile paper. It was decided that the tape should be removed and the paper material should be removed from the cardboard and re-mounted to the print. Lastly, an extra support, called a lining, was going to be attached to the back of the artwork.

One of the challenges that arose during the examination of the print was the sensitivity of the media. The ink was very sensitive to water, alcohol and all polar solutions. Raman spectroscopy showed that the pigment used in this print was based on carbon; one of the most frequently used pigments through the centuries. The pigment is very chemically stable and does not pose any direct threat to the paper. The water sensitivity of the ink is in this case linked to the type of binder or additives added to the ink. The binder was, however, more difficult to identify through analyses, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR). Therefore, only partial conclusions could be drawn from the analyses. FTIR-analyses showed that the binder was likely to be a natural resin. The FTIR spectrometer also picked up other elements, but it was difficult to determine if these originated from the ink or the paper itself. Further analyses are therefore necessary to clearly identify the organic material/s present in the ink.

Treatment proposal

Initially, the most suitable treatment for the artwork appeared to be an overall lining which would have been attached to the entire back of the paper, as it would provide the best support and handling properties for the artwork. This treatment, however, usually involves water based adhesives, which would be potentially harmful to the water-sensitive ink, and was therefore excluded. An alternative treatment was proposed, which involved using synthetic adhesives or lining papers that are attached through heat activation. These treatments were researched and highly considered, but were eventually excluded, as reversing it would be too great a threat to the artwork. The reversibility treatments include the introduction of water or heat, and the risk of causing damage once again outweighed the benefit of stabilizing the artwork.

Conservation process

This was just one of the many problems that arose during the examination of the artwork. The final proposal, which served as a compromise to a full lining was to partially line the print. It involved attaching a lining paper and evenly applying adhesive to the outer “ink free” edges of the artwork. This treatment would give extra support to the paper, without the risk of media migration. In addition, the treatment would be executed on a low pressure table, which is frequently used in paper conservation when treating fragile or media sensitive objects. There is a risk of forming creases in the paper and/or lining paper after treatment, but the use of a pressure sensitive table might prevent this from happening.

Before treatment on the low pressure table, the old pieces of tape were removed and the loose pieces of paper were reintegrated to the print. The most fragile areas of the paper were stabilized on the back with thin Japanese paper and methyl cellulose. Dyed Japanese paper was attached to the losses as inlay material. Once the artwork had recovered its unity, the treatment continued on the low pressure table. The artwork and lining paper were humidified for a short time, before the artwork was placed face up on the lining paper, and together they were placed on top of a damp blotting paper on the low pressure table.

The application of adhesive along the periphery on the back of the artwork was much easier than anticipated, as the pressure allowed the object to rest and overall made the treatment more controllable.

Treatment on the low pressure table

Applying adhesive on to the “ink free” edges on the back of the artwork on the low pressure table

The treatment was successful and the surface of both artwork and lining paper was flat and even. This project was a perfect example of the decision making process that needs to take place in order to choose the most appropriate treatment. Sometimes, the most desirable treatments cannot be selected, and alternative treatments often built on compromises, are therefore carried out in order to improve and stabilize the condition of the artwork.

Written by
Siv Jakobsen Gran, Conservator, Art on Paper

Artwork before treatment
Værket før behandling

Artwork after the attachment of the lining paper

Updated: 26.apr.2018
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