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Every Work of Art Tells a Different Story

Detective work in the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin: before the exhibition Kasimir Malevich Suprematism can open, the restorers from the collection of the Deutsche Bank examine the condition of each work on loan, committing every detail of its history to paper.
Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on a profession in which routine doesn't exist.

Only a few days before the opening of the exhibition Kasimir Malevich Suprematism, preparations are in full swing. While large parts of the exhibition are already installed and hanging, other areas of the exhibition space at Unter den Linden resemble a make-shift workshop. Under the white glare of a floodlight, Elisabeth Bushart and Nikoline Kästner are busy appraising a masterpiece the condition of Kasimir Malevich's painting Four Squares from 1915, which arrived from Russia only yesterday. As freelance restorers responsible for the care of the paintings and the works on paper in the collection of the Deutsche Bank, they're also responsible for inspecting all works exhibited in the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. Portfolios containing protocols of each painting's condition, cotton gloves, and special glasses are lying on the table next to an easel. In the compartments of an opened tool bag made of felt are rows of instruments reminiscent of a surgical intervention: swabs, tweezers, and scalpels. Even at midday, a bustling mood rules the room. After lunch, a staff member from the Tate Gallery will be overseeing the hanging of the works on the very spot where the working table now stands.

A courier who recently arrived with a work from a Japanese private collection is busy taking pictures with his digital camera. Beyond the extraordinary logistics involved in such a special occasion, the state of alert tension which this exhibition has been keeping everyone in is palpable.

In this exhibition, along with works never before seen in the West, seven key suprematist works from the collection of Nikolai Chardschijew, a Moscow historian who knew Malevich personally, can be viewed for the first time. The attention the two restorers from the collection of the Deutsche Bank dedicate to their work appears to be unshakeable. "You have to feel your way into the work," Elisabeth Bushart says about her profession, "particularly through seeing, recognizing, and observing, you naturally acquire a lot of experience in terms of the materiality of the paintings and objects you work on. But the talent you need for the job is the calm composure to work on something, and you have to be able to manually perform the task." For years, the painting restorer worked for various European museums as well as for Berlin's Gemäldegalerie before going freelance.


Surrounded by climatic crates in which the paintings and drawings made the journey from museums and collections in London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Moscow, the two restorers together systematically inspect the painting's surface for any possible damage for microscopically small bits of paint that might have broken loose, for scuffs or fine cracks. Whether or not these were already present on the respective work can be established by consulting the colored sketches of each piece, on which the painting's condition has been drawn in cartographically. In addition to these are the written protocols; in the case of the Malevich exhibition, however, this presents yet another challenge to the restorers. A translator is required from the Russian, who then translates the protocol texts into English; the professional terms, however, are extremely difficult to clarify precisely.

The work has something detective-like about it, because the assessment of a work of art also implies the reconstruction of its history, the tracing of material damage and incorrect handling. "There's no general recipe. You keep starting over. That's the exciting part. It can get on your nerves, but it's never really routine," Nikoline Kästner remarks. Since the mid-eighties, she's been responsible for the maintenance and assessment of thousands of works of art from the collection of the Deutsche Bank. Together with Elisabeth Bushart, she developed a system of annually rotating inspections through the collection to meet the special challenges of an art that's shown in the workplace on a daily basis; this includes special formulas on which the damage and condition of each individual work is written down in detail. Her year-long experience as a paper restorer also helps her while examining drawings, for instance Malevich's Design for a Cosmic Device from 1917.

Whoever lives in the assumption that paper from the early 20th century is more robust that paper from the Middle Ages is wrong. While the works of old masters are often only slightly paler today, others only decades old are often plagued by a so-called "paper deterioration" in which the paper turns brown and crumbles apart due to acids that have built up over time. This type of damage can be countered with various time-consuming and costly procedures to extract the paper's acidic content. For this reason, along with the examination of the condition of the Malevich works, the restorers' job also includes determining the instructions for lighting and for the room's climate. With many museums and donors, these guidelines are laid down precisely in the lending contracts because by the time a painting or drawing has become damaged, it's already too late.

Elisabeth Busshart (left) and Nikoline Kästner

"The damage remains, even if it's less visible than before," Elisabeth Bushart explains. Indeed, restoring a painting doesn't involve embellishing it or painting it over, but conserving its current state. Reconstructing a torn canvas calls for a surgical hand: using a magnifying glass and tweezers, the fabric's threads are fit back into their original position on the back of the canvas and then glued in place. On the front of the painting, microscopic particles of paint are similarly assembled together like a puzzle to cover the chalk putty ground previously applied to fill the tear. The actual retouching is kept to a minimum. On the restoration of paper, Nikoline Kästner remarks: "Each type of paper has a different history, a different aging process. We can only arrest the present state; we can't improve anything or undo damage already done."

As a modernist icon, Malevich's Black Square continues to be relevant today, although time has left traces on this painting dating back to 1915. While some Hollywood actresses have themselves lifted to conceal their age, no one would dream today of painting over the hairline cracks on the world-famous square in order to restore the deep black of before. "When you look at old works of art, you have to realize that we only have a very rudimentary idea of the original in this respect," Elisabeth Bushart says, "whereas in the case of contemporary art we have the chance to observe a work of art in the original, from the moment it's made to treat it differently, to intervene less, and to see how it changes if we treat it very carefully."

Translation: Andrea Scrima