Prints are amazing things. The elements of design, drama and considered mark-making in printing are things that other forms of the visual arts struggle to match. They can also be extremely fragile.
When a print is printed onto a thick cotton rag paper of good quality, they are a dream for a conservator to work with. However, the nature of printing means that the paper type and quality varies enormously. For example, Paul Peter Piech produced linocut prints, many designs in short runs, that were designed and printed as posters. This is cheaper paper, reflecting an aesthetic and ethos of slogan/posters and his desire to make his art something affordable for people to own or collect.
Typically, a fine detail woodcut print will be printed on fine paper, tissue paper almost, to help pick up the raised inked areas of the block, and all of the details in the work. Sometimes, these fragile tissue paper images have been stuck to a mount board using sticky adhesive tape. Sellotape, masking tape … just tape generally is, to a paper conservator, a product of the devil's work. I can’t tell you (or rather I could, but the rant may last longer than the last breath in my body) how evil tape is. It damages artworks and it is not necessary. I often groan as I take works of art out of frames to find that they have been taped by professional framers of the past, into position. We know better now! There are other ways and in another blog post I will expand (rant) on this subject.
As well as tape, thin, fragile tissue paper prints can be damaged by light or acid. This is no different from any other work on paper, other than when the paper is so thin to start with, a little damage goes a long way. Another danger can await printed paper, taped to a board, and not protected properly. It looks like tapas to a passing paper-eating insect. Worth a little nibble!
The most likely culprit for this is the silverfish. The silverfish eats materials high in protein, carbohydrates, sugar and starch. This includes the sizing that is used to finish the paper surface, or with books, the glued binding, or traditional starch based adhesives. Paper is, for the silverfish, a delicious starchy snack.
I recently acquired a woodblock print by Palle Neilsen (1920 – 2000). It was in a very fragile condition. It was on extremely thin paper, had been taped at the corners onto a board, was discoloured, and had been a tasty dinner for a passing silverfish. Fortunately, the insect damage was mostly in the border of the image, but as with any damage, it always becomes the focus for the eye, rather than the image itself.
With a sharp scalpel, I skimmed the top of the adhesive tape from the paper surface. Then, gently cleaned and washed the image. I then backed it on Japanese mulberry paper, so that the whole surface area of the original woodcut was supported by this new surface. When it has been mounted on conservation quality antique white board, the lunch holes will be barely visible. The artwork will be protected for the future, and now that our gaze is not distracted by the damage, we can give our full attention to the remarkable image.
Palle Nielsen (1920 - 2000) was a Danish artist working largely in woodcut and linocut forms. He studied at the Royal Danish academy of fine arts, and became established as a leading graphic artist in the 1950’s, winning an award at the Venice Bienalle in 1958. His work is in the collections of MoMA, the V&A and the British Museum, as well as many Danish museums.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited the National Library of Wales, which is housed in Aberystwyth. I went primarily to see the Literary World of Paul Peter Piech exhibition that they had on show. Whilst I was there, I checked whether they had any books by Palle Nielsen. I had checked the online records at the British Library, so knew that there is some literature written both by and about him and his work. I was lucky that there was one book available at the National Library of Wales, so I signed up as a reader whilst I was there, and ordered it to view.
It was a small book by Palle Nielsen of a selection of his Linocuts and Woodcuts, published in 1961. It has a short introduction in Danish and English, where he writes, ‘My problem is a formal one: How to translate some of the many pictures in my mind into an intelligible pictorial – that is, visual – form…’
Palle Nielsen explored themes of the horror and theatre of war in his prints, through a series of works. They are challenging images, for challenging times but in the same instant delicate and poignant. Looking at my image, dated 1954, it looks likely that the image was conceived as part of the The Soldier and the Child series. We can see, in No.23: The Divided House, the falling remains of a building similar to the one in ours. The flat landscape is similar, and the striped sky makes it feel like part of the same landscape.
A later image in the book from his series Orpheus and Eurydice shows the tanks and ruined buildings.
I have not been able to identify my print exactly, through this piece of research. It is Initialled PN and dated ’54 in pencil, and believed to be an artist proof image. It depicts and a Dystopian City Scene.
Part of the joy that I get from mending prints and paintings is the research that goes with it; the opportunity to really get to know a picture. It means that I am always able to expand my own knowledge and understanding about artists, forms and conservation as I work.
I was also lucky in my timings, as they day after my visit, the National Library of Wales closed down for the foreseeable future, along with many other research institutions. I am grateful for the many online resources that are available, such as the V&A and British Museum catalogues. These endeavours make sure that research and learning is available to everyone, not just the few. Now is the time to explore some of these available treasure troves.