Q&A with Annika Finne, PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, and assistant conservator at Modern Art Conservation.
What does your role as a paintings conservator entail?
I’m on a slightly unorthodox trajectory for a conservator. After I graduated from the Institute of Fine Arts conservation program in New York, I went to the Yale University Art Gallery, where I trained with Italian specialist Irma Passeri and continued working on medieval and late medieval Italian paintings. Through that experience, I became interested in how artists centuries before me maintained and reworked paintings similar to those I was conserving, before there was a professional division between artist and conservator. I then realized I wanted to contribute to the discourse on the prehistory of modern conservation practice. Right now, I’m working on a dissertation about early interventions. So I have this kind of dual, mutually informative practice, wherein I work at a private practice on modern and contemporary paintings, while simultaneously writing about various medieval interventions.
What is most rewarding about your job?
Often it has to do with the people you’re working with and how you work together toward the goal of conserving the artwork. But “rewarding” is a difficult word because conservators are called in response to loss. You can simulate portions of the original in very beautiful ways, but ultimately time goes in only one direction. Given that, there’s a bittersweet feeling with every treatment. Any kind of drastic change means that something dramatic happened to the piece. However, simple tasks like removing a layer of nicotine from a painting that’s in really good condition can be very satisfying.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your job?
The greatest difficulty that I have on the art historical side is communicating things that are learned through doing. It’s very
hard to articulate the kind of tacit knowledge that is at the heart of any craft-based discipline involving a physical interaction with an object.
When it comes to conservation, every painting is a challenge. There are so many variables involved—the substrate, the materials, the colors. These specificities make each painting seem like a unique organism. It can be misleading, for example, to organize paintings by their medium, because metal pigments behave differently than plant-based pigments even if both are mixed in oil. As these substances interact with one another and are exposed to different environments, there can be huge variations in their behavior over time. Conservation is really about listening to the artwork. You have to test the tendencies of the materials. You don’t want to force the paint layers. You want to be working with the painting. Your patience and discipline improve with experience, while new challenges presented in each treatment contribute to the stimulation of the practice.
Tell me about your presentation at the online Institute of Fine Arts/Frick Symposium on the History of Art in April.
I’m speaking about an altarpiece signed by Giotto in the Baroncelli family’s chapel in the church of Santa Croce in Florence. It was made around the 1330s in conjunction with the frescoes on the chapel walls, which depict events from the life of the Madonna. Originally, the altarpiece had a polygonal shape, with each of its compartments capped by a pinnacle. The central pinnacle, which survived and is currently in San Diego, depicts God the Father. In the 1480s, the pinnacles were sawed off to make the painting into a rectangle. This reshaping left empty spaces on the altarpiece, which were filled in with painted cherub figures. The painting was given a new frame that was very much in step with architectural trends at the time. From the time that Giotto’s work was made to the time that it was altered, integrating new paintings with older ones was a continuous practice—one that Giotto even participated in himself!