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Issues of conservation and restoration of two photographic works by Zbigniew Dłubak: Onona and Desymbolisations

Monika Supruniuk

Abstracts

This paper is based on MA project, elaborated at Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Poland in April 2011. The article describes conservation and restoration of two art works by Zbigniew Dłubak. Onona is a spatial object composed of large format photography and a man's profile cut out of chipboard. Desymbolisations is a series of 5 photographs. Implementation of an assumption adopted by the author was different for each of the works. The spatial object was conserved and restored, while the series of photographs were digitally reconstructed based on similar prints.

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Introduction

1Contemporary art is characterised - also in the field of photography - by overlapping of artistic disciplines, using non-traditional materials and innovative forms going beyond the fine arts, film and music. It is no longer surprising that photographic exhibitions present digital photographic prints, slide presentations/digital projections or installations. With the aim of making up for shortcomings in interpretation, we started using the term of ‘photography’ not only for 'reproducible two-dimensional images produced with the use of optical mechanisms and chemical processes', but also for spatial objects, photomontages, compositions of negatives and slide presentations, which are usually presented with digital projectors e.g. with musical accompaniment. The traditional definition of photography gradually extended to subsequent areas of art. Therefore, photography has finally been released from its service nature of providing the copies of reality.

  • 1 I. Szmelter, W. Kowalski, Wystawiennictwo  sztuki nowoczesnej a ochrona integralności utworów, 'Mu (...)
  • 2 I. Szmelter, Paradygmat teorii i praktyki konserwatorskiej w odniesieniu do sztuki nowoczesnej, [w (...)

2Due to such a wide application, it was necessary to update previous preservation strategies. With regard to contemporary art, additional questions arose, which mostly concerned the issue of keeping the objects d'art authenticity, and their permanence/impermanence or reproduction1. New procedures require a new role for the conservator-restorer – now focused on an individualised approach to storage and transport of objects. Also, a certain novelty is the need to extend documentation of an object by including the artists in studies on the idea and context of the work origin, and the significance of matter and determination of presentation conditions, which would ensure integrity and authenticity during an exhibition2.  

  • 3 Zbigniew Dłubak (1921–2005) was a Polish painter, photographer, and art theoretician. During World (...)
  • 4 This paper is based on MA project, elaborated at Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Poland. The super (...)
  • 5 Translation of the title: 'Shehe'

3The case of two photographic works by Zbigniew Dłubak3, which are subjects of the thesis4 elaborated by the author of this article, is an attempt of using the above mentioned procedures. Actions concerning the replica of spatial photographic object Onona5 from 1992 were focused on maintaining the original substance of work by respecting the historical technology of making prints. And the works referring to one of photographic boards from Desymbolisations series from 1971, consisted of a full reconstruction of the work.Both conservation projects, based on different assumptions and applied methods, are linked – not only by the artist – by an individualised approach to a work of art, which allowed the introduction various conservation solutions.

  • 6 Interviews were carried out with Armelle Dłubak (wife), prof. Mariusz Łukawski (long term assistan (...)

4An attempt to determine significance of the works was preceded by context analysis of their origin, based on source research and numerous interviews with kith and kin as well as associates of the artist6. Research allowed one to determine the meaning of objects and contributed to understanding Dłubak's art in the context of his life, traces of time and his importance.

Meaning and appearances of the works

5Demythologisation is the key term, which filled the work of the artist.They are also reflected in the two works of Dłubak, which are subject of this article - Onona and Desymbolisations.   

Onona

6The first one is a replica of spatial photographic object entitled Onona.

Fig.1 Onona by Zbigniew Dlubak (1992)

Fig.1 Onona by Zbigniew Dlubak (1992)

Credit Monika Supruniuk

7The original version of work was presented at the exhibition entitled Searching photographers in 1971. Shortly after that, the object was destroyed7. Hence, the subject of conservation and restoration is the author's replica created in 1992 for an exhibition entitled Zbigniew Dłubak, Works from 1961-1991, which took place at the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in 1992.

8The replica consisted of two parts, equal in respect of the construction and the meaning. The first part is a black irregular form presenting a silhouette of a standing man shown in profile and made of chipboard. The second part is a black and white photograph. The photo multiplies a deformed female nude without hands, feet and head. As a result of the difference in the time of the exposure of the negative, the light parts of the picture have horizontal obscurities.

  • 8 The attempt to compare both objects was based on reproduction of photographs documenting the exhib (...)

9During a comparative analysis8 of the work from 1971 and its replica from 1992, differences in the manner of work and artist's approach to form, were noticed. While restoring his concept, the artist did not carry out a mechanical repetition of previous work.Still, the changes in the form of replica are not so significant that one had to examine the works separately; they only prove an open approach to the form of the object.

Desymbolisations

10The second work requiring conservation was an original board from the Desymbolisations series.

Fig. 2 Desymbolisations by Zbigniew Dlubak (1978)

Fig. 2 Desymbolisations by Zbigniew Dlubak (1978)

Credit: Monika Supruniuk

11The work summed up many years of Dłubak’s experience focused on throwing doubt on the belief that the artistic values were contained in one physical art object. Five black and white photographs presenting sequences of hand movements are part of the original series from 1978.Thanks to studies on meaning and the message of the work, it was possible to find a strict relationships between the board and the rest of the series.Taking the photograph out of the context by, disturbing relationships between individual elements, can cause loss of the work clarity.

12The series of Desymbolisations was an act performed on the art.Dłubak presented photographic reproductions of religious objects and paintings of renowned Polish masters – Jacek Malczewski, Jankiel Adler, Jan Matejko, Jozef Mehoffer – and made them starting points for his own works.Desymbolisations consisted of an attempt to change the original meanings behind details full of symbolic representations. Details – which were meaningful by their configuration and relationship with other elements.The artist tried to prove existence of only the 'neutral' things to which we give the meaning, and also the symbolic one, afterwards. Dłubak photographed Jewish tombstones featuring the motif of hands in the spread-fingered gesture of priestly blessing. Dłubak juxtaposed the matzevot photographs with a series of images of hands, shown, like in Desymbolisations, against a black background. In one of the photographs the fingers are spread in the same manner as in the Jewish blessing gesture. But within the sequence the gesture is not made – the hands do not bless.

13Desymbolisations series did not have a constant configuration.It treated photography instrumentally and objectively, only as a carrier of a certain idea or objective reproduction.The artist used this medium for recording the reality.He was far from placing his own aesthetics or stylisation in the photographs. Desymbolisations are significant reflections of Dłubak’s theory concerning the role of an artist.He forced the recipients to lose their habits through which they perceived the paintings and objects of cult for many years.

Discrepancy between condition and meaning of the works

14Indication of dissonance between the current condition and the artist’s intention is the basis for carrying out possible conservator’s modifications.Discrepancies in case of Dłubak’s photographic works, were determined by analysis of all elements - both material and conceptual.The conservation project was of an open nature.Its completion took place during the works, after gaining full knowledge.Due to the fact that it was unfeasible to obtain the artist’s opinion on exchange of work elements, all possibilities regarding protecting the original matter were considered.

Onona

15The replica of spatial photographic work Onona was stored in the warehouse of the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw from the time of its creation. The work was damaged in the 'museum conditions'. The state of the object was affected by external factors and natural material aging processes. For many years the object was exposed to light. Irresponsible storage subjected the replica to mechanical damages: dirt, stains but most of all extensive tears of photographic prints.

Fig. 3 Areas of mechanical damages

Fig. 3 Areas of mechanical damages

Credit: Monika Supruniuk

16Most of the damages were caused by lack of due care while handling which resulted in the object losing its exhibition qualities. Visible damages led to diversion of the viewer’s attention to a new area of expression, competing with the author’s intention.

  • 9 Digitisation of the negative in high resolution makes the object reconstruction still an open issu (...)

17While gathering information on the work, a negative used for making the photographs was found.However, the author did not decide to use it for reconstruction of the prints for two reasons.First one was related to the fact that there was a problem with access to proper enlarger and photographic paper with properties similar to the original.The second problem was related to the fact that the replica is the only author’s version of the Onona, therefore, restoration the object consisting of the original elements was attempted9.

Desymbolisations

18Other object, consisting of five black and white photographs from the series of Desymbolisations was stored in the National Museum in Warsaw, where the prints were exposed to drastic thermal and humidity changes. The board was stored in vertical position. After flooding the storage area, when water was at a constant level, the emulsion of fourth and fifth photograph was almost totally damaged, which resulted in microbiological infection.Photographic emulsion, consisting of gelatine, was highly susceptible to bio-deterioration.Additionally, the object condition was affected by aging process of the adhesive – polyvinyl acetate – used for fixing the photograph to canvas.It is highly possible that the adhesive caused acidification of the photograph base.The acidity of the environment was a significant factor in accelerating the development and growth of the mould. Extensive acidity causes chemical hydrolysis of cellulose and therefore it has an adverse effect on physio-chemical properties of the base and bio-resistance of photographic emulsion.The fifth photograph was damaged to the greatest extent.

Fig. 4 Microbiological infection of the fifth photograph

Fig. 4 Microbiological infection of the fifth photograph

Credit: Monika Supruniuk

19Only a residual outline of a hand could be seen on the front of the photograph.Apart from the characteristic signs of erupting mycelium, there were water stains on the upper edge of the print. As a result of drastic environmental changes the lower print shrunk and its width decreased by 2 mm comparing to other prints.Also the fourth photograph was degraded.

Fig. 5 Microbiological infection of the fourth photograph

Fig. 5 Microbiological infection of the fourth photograph

Credit: Monika Supruniuk

20The edge of damage showed the height to which the object had been immersed in floodwater. The lower part of the print was matt and deformed.The middle part had many many areas without emulsion, exposing the paper base, which was also spongy and stratified as in the case of the lower part of the photograph.Other photographic prints were in good condition.The photographs were slightly distorted, and as a result of that their edges were exposed to abrasions and small losses in the emulsion layer.

Proposed treatment

Onona

21A significant conservation problem was a delicate construction of the art object. The photograph was fixed directly to 'profile-rack' only in the middle part, which was 2.8 cm wide. Another dimensions of the object: man profile height (chipboard) – 168cm, width (the widest section) – 25cm, basis edge (chipboard) – 60cm; photography height – 402cm, width – 51cm. The remaining parts of the print were vulnerable to even the smallest external factors. An attempt was made to stop the proceeding damage by fixing tears with acrylic double-sided sticky tape.

Fig. 6 Old repairs of tears with acrylic double-sided sticky tape

Fig. 6 Old repairs of tears with acrylic double-sided sticky tape

Credit: Monika Supruniuk

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