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2006 | 3 | 55-71

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Conservation of the Australian Aboriginal bark paintings is a relatively new field. Bark paintings can be found in many museums and galleries in the world, but their unique properties and related preservation issues are researched in depth by Australian conservators. Conservation Department at the National Gallery of Australia has been actively involved in issues relating to the conservation of Aboriginal bark paintings for 20 years. Looking after the bark paintings collection is complicated by their unique structure and their cultural significance so different to any other paintings found in museums. The concept of material permanence found in European art tradition was, until relatively recently, not a part of Aboriginal experience. The prevailing environmental conditions and the inherent properties of materials used for bark paintings made them quite transient objects in their original environment and cultural context. Although a lot of time and skill was devoted to creating these objects, they were quite ephemeral and were not designed to last. It is only relatively recently that Aboriginal art has entered the Western art market and thus the concept of permanence and longevity has become an important issue for Aboriginal artists. The materials used for bark paintings include a sheet of bark (most commonly from Stringy bark Eucaliptus Tetradonta), naturally occurring, mostly mineral pigments (red, white, black, and yellow), and binders. It is only the binders which changed in the last 30 years, when Western art practices made their influence on Aboriginal bark paintings tradition. This involved a substitution of natural binders such as orchid juice or turtle eggs by the readily available, synthetic materials such as PVA (commonly in the form of a wood-glue Aquadehere). This substitution brought about an aesthetic change in the appearance of the painted surface - from a relative matte, porous paint made with natural, weak binders, to a shiny, cohesive, dense layer apparent in many later paintings. Preservation of bark paintings, as practiced by museum and gallery conservators is heavily based on the respect for the paintings and their cultural background and a thorough understanding of their structure and composition. The “rules” governing the extent of conservation treatments of bark paintings are different than those of European paintings. All conservation treatments are constrained by professional ethics and the respect for the original. They are limited to the least necessary interference, which aims to maintain the present condition of the painting. It is accepted by conservators, that the original painting should not be compromised by any cosmetic treatments (such as restoration). Most conservation problems related to bark paintings come as a result of the inherent properties of materials and techniques of their manufacture. For example, a very typical problem of bark support bowing and warping stems from the tendency of bark – as a part of a tree trunk – to return to its natural, cylindrical shape. The problem of cracking and splitting of the bark – apparent in many paintings – results from the bark’s natural movements in response to the changes in relative humidity of the environment. Frequent and rapid fluctuations in moisture levels bring about high stresses in the wood structure, which are released by cracking and splitting. There is little that can be done to rectify this problem once it occurs. Preventive steps can be taken which involve maintaining stable environmental conditions during storage and display, and not allowing the damage to occur or becoming worse. Another common problem visible in many paintings regardless of their age is the instability of the paint layer apparent by flaking paint and the resulting losses. There are many factors, which influence the longterm stability of the paint layer. They include inherent properties of the particular pigment used, artist’s technique of paint preparation, and the resulting paint behaviour, and environmental conditions to which the painting was subjected during its life. The treatment stabilising the paint involves choosing an appropriate agent, which when carefully introduced under each flake, adheres the lifting area back to the bark support. This very time consuming treatment is only carried out locally. There is no effective and ethically acceptable preventive treatment, which can be applied to a paint layer to prevent possible damages in the future. Powdering paint can be treated using an ultrasonic mister. This method allows loose pigment particles to be re-adhered without being physically disturbed. Some owners and collectors spray bark paintings with various “fixatives” in attempt to ensure the stability of the paint. The materials used for such treatment are frequently unstable, and in time show themselves signs of ageing, such as yellowing, cracking or lifting. Once applied to the paint, these “fixatives” cannot ever be removed and therefore significantly contribute to the deteriorating condition of the painting. It is most important to realize that good preventive or housekeeping measures are essential in caring for bark paintings. They are best stored flat and protected from dust to prevent any loss of paint layer and dust accumulation on the surface. The methods of displaying bark paintings are quite different to the usual practices in art galleries, as they aim to present the paintings without imposing Western European traditions upon these unique objects. Unlike European paintings, paintings on bark in the collection of the National Gallery are not framed, but simply rested on brackets or shelves and leaned against the wall. Seriously deteriorated paintings can be displayed horizontally or at an angle so to minimize the risk of any further damage. Preservation of bark paintings is a developing and interesting field. It requires finding new approaches and solutions to all aspects of their care, often stretching and altering the common museum practices. It also requires an understanding from conservators, who are confronted with some unusual concepts in treatments, exhibition presentation or transportation systems. This gradual process of evolution in appreciation will bring about a new, better level of understanding Aboriginal bark paintings as a unique art form. Transl. by author






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  • studiowała na wydziałach Historii Sztuki i Chemii Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego. W Australii ukończyła studia na Wydziale Konserwacji Dzieł Sztuki na University of Canberra (specjalizacja w dziedzinie konserwacji obiektów etnograficznych), a następnie na Wydziale Archeologii i Antropologii Australijskiego Uniwersytetu Narodowego w Canberze. Od 20 lat pracuje w Galerii Narodowej w Canberze jako konserwator sztuki australijskich Aborygenów, szkła, ceramiki, sztuki współczesnej i nietypowych materiałów organicznych. Obecnie kieruje tu działem konserwacji. Przez 7 lat wykładała konserwację szkła, ceramiki i materiałów organicznych na University of Canberra. Współpracuje m.in. z British Museum, Lousiana Museum of Modern Art, Ermitażem. Publikuje artykuły w branżowych periodykach australijskich i międzynarodowych. Propaguje konserwację poprzez wykłady otwarte, artykuły w gazetach codziennych i polonijnych. W kręgu jej zainteresowań znajdują się nietypowe materiały organiczne (pióra, tykwy, nasiona itp.).
  • B. Tworek-Matuszkiewicz, Galeria Narodowa w Canberze (for postal address contact the journal editor).


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