Shiraz Art conservation & consulting was founded in Charlotte, NC in 1984 by Massoud Shiraz, an experienced art conservator. M. Shiraz’s professional career developed from his fascination with fine art, which he discovered as a student in art school and then later in his studies at University for art conservation and restoration. After the 1979 revolution he relocated from Tehran to work with professional conservators in Rome, Italy. There he began to establish himself as a full time professional in the conservation and restoration of fine art. With over thirty years of experience Shiraz is recognised nationally and internationally for his expertise. He has maintained a private conservation studio in Charlotte North Carolina since 1984, as well as in Frankfurt, Germany (headed by fellow conservator and brother, Yousef Shiraz).
Throughout his career he has worked to establish collections of fine art and frames for a variety of clients in both the public and private sector. In addition, he has spent over 30 years restoring paintings in the United States and Europe for private individuals, museums, auction houses, galleries, and corporations.
M. Shiraz became a professional member of both the American Institute of Conservation (AIC) in 1997 and the Southeast Regional Conservation Association (SERCA) in 1998.
M. Shiraz’s experience and expertise has led him to be featured in many local publications, including The Charlotte Observer and Southern Living Magazine. In 2004, TBS (Turner Broadcasting Systems) aired a documentary, “Southern Living Presents,” featuring his work and restoration studio. Then in 2012, PBS aired its own documentary film , “Charlotte Art,” featuring Shiraz, his work and his strategic involvement in the Charlotte museum world.
Yousef Shiraz studied art and worked with Massoud Shiraz in his Charlotte conservation studio from 1985-1992. In 1992, Yousef relocated to Frankfurt, Germany, where he established a conservation studio. In 2001, Peter Waldeis, the ex-chief conservator for the Städel museum of Frankfurt, joined the conservation studio in Frankfurt until his retirement in 2005. Yousef remains the chief conservator of the Frankfurt Conservation Studio and a professional member of the VDR, Verband der Restauratoren Deutschland.
AAD's Arts Editor Alex Boyle suggested our readers might appreciate a deeper understanding into the scientific world of painting restoration and conservation. This is the first of several pieces which we will publish on this subject, and we think our readers will greatly enjoy this objective view on how to handle art.
AN INTERVIEW WITH MASSOUD SHIRAZ
EL - How do you begin to restore a painting, how do you assess the work which is needed?
MS - We get the painting, we look at it, we assess if varnish needs to be removed, if dirt needs to be removed, and then we determine how dull and foggy looking the painting is, which means the varnish has deteriorated, and sometimes turned yellow.
Additionally, there could be three of four different varnishes, layers atop layers going back in time. Most paintings have had a number of varnishes applied over the years, perhaps every thirty of forty years, and they used different types of varnishes.
There are two types, which we normally see, a ‘matt thick' (mastic) varnish which is very expensive, and a damar varnish, which artists started to use in the 19th century, so it has been used for a long time.
Mastic doesn’t yellow as much as damar, and each varnish has is a good side and bad side. In more recent times people started to use a synthetic varnish. Frankly, we don’t know what its long term reaction to oxygen will be, or how it will age over the next 30 or 40 years. Some say synthetic varnish goes gray or cloudy, but that so called blanching could be a visceral reaction to a different varnish remaining underneath the more recently applied synthetic varnish
So when you get the painting most of the time if there’s a lot of cracking and discolouration, you need to remove the varnish so you can get to the base of the painting and start from the beginning.
EL - Isn’t it good to see that kind of varnish on a painting though? What I mean is, when you see that deterioration of varnish on painting, it would surely suggest that it’s been there a long time, which is what you’d like to see, isn’t it?
MS - That’s correct, in other words if you see old varnish, it means its pretty much an untouched piece. And sometimes people haven’t done any restoration to a piece over the years; they have just put another coat of varnish on there. Original varnish you can tell the colour under the Ultra Violet (UV) Light, it’s kind of a greenish colour.
EL - Do you use a UV light quite often?
MS - Any painting you are given to restore, you really do have to look at it under a microscope, and then a UV light before you do anything. If the painting needs to be restored heavily, you need to take an X-ray and you need to use an infra-red camera.
EL - Is there any particular time frame involved in restoring a painting?
MS - Time, it depends, depends on the size of the painting, depends if the painting is impasto like a lot of new and modern art, there is impasto which takes much longer. If the surface is very flat, it takes a lot less time. If the painting has painted wet to dry, you have to be careful when you remove varnish.
EL - So what period do you specialise in?
MS - I’ve restored a lot of Old Masters.
EL - And your favourite period?
MS - Renaissance painting really. I went to artist’s school and we did a lot of work on pieces from the renaissance, and we worked our way through the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century works.
EL - OK, so what art school did you go to?
MS - I went to art school in Tehran, I happen to be half Iranian and half Russian. And then I went to University, and then got into conservation.
When I started restoring, after a while, people came from the National Gallery in London, to start their training for the museum as to how to restore a painting. After that, I went to Italy and started working on the Mario Modestini, for the Vatican Museum. I was also a painter, but I never made a career of being a painter, because it was tough and very early in 1979.
EL - How do you remove the old varnish and old in painting?
There are a lot of different ways, and it really depends on how much varnish there is on the painting. You can remove with alcohol, you can remove damar, with acetone, a very light amount of turpentine. Depends on what it is. Any solvent really which is even, light acetone 20 %, distilled alcohol, or very light alcohol, finger nail polish remover even.
A lot of conservers are afraid to mention solvents when discussing restoration, but you have to know the limitations of the solvents, in part, because some amateurs use solvents, and then accidentally take the paint off, so you really have to know precisely what you are doing when using these kinds of materials in order to successfully restore a painting.
EL - So it’s a slow procedure to find out the correct chemicals to use to remove varnish.
MS - It’s also down to experience, and the longevity in this industry.
EL - If a painting has lapping cupping or craquelure, how do you approach those scenarios, and what kind of linings do you use?
MS - That depends, reline if you have to reline, but we don’t usually reline at all. I don’t like to do it, relining really and truthfully, you cut the age of the painting by 50%, but most of the 18th and 19th century paintings I see have been relined. Some of them have been done using bees wax, or adding raw flour to glue. Recently, and in the 20th century they used a lot of beva film, coloured beva, relining with beva in a heating vacuum, especially with Impasto paintings such as Picasso, van Gogh, if the painting need to be relined, they used beva film. In the 18th, 19th and early to 20th century they used bees wax. The problem with bees wax, is if it has hit the surface of the painting, you cannot remove it completely. About two weeks ago I had a piece which had been relined with the beva film, which was deteriorating pretty badly, the canvas was not in any way useable. In the 1950s they used poor quality canvas, and the canvas deteriorates.
EL - What if you have a hole in a painting?
MS - Sometimes, if you have a 3 to 4 inch cut, we can sew the canvas, and then fuse the canvas back together, which I prefer to do than reline.
EL - Do you have a vacuum table?
MS - I don’t have one, but I do have access to a vacuum table from a colleague nearby. Again, I really don’t do relining, I try to avoid it, as most of the time it’s really not necessary to do it.
EL - What kind of pigments do you use for in painting, watercolour base or oil based?
MS - I use dry pigments, just dry pigments. For restoration that’s all we use. Some restorers use pigments in a tube, but there has to be very little linseed oil in it, the kind of linseed oil which is in most of the regular tubes for artists. The problem there is, that the colour, when it dries, changes, and if you use that in conservation, after 5 or 6 years you can see the retouching, It’s terrible.
EL - So once a painting has been cleaned, can you tell the difference between pigments from say the 18th century and the 19th century?
MS - You can, but it’s very difficult. But also even the canvas can tell you a lot of the story, which is again, one of the reasons that many conservators actually don’t like to reline paintings, the canvas can tell you what century it has been painted in and access to that historical information has gone, which is such a pity. And then of course, there are tests to date pigments in paintings, and some pigments were invented at a particular time, so all this information helps us to date a painting really rather accurately.
EL - Do you find when restoring paintings, that the colour red is fugitive in some paintings?
MS - Do you mean the colour? Some colours can bleach very quickly, especially those colours that are not cadmium, and have been glazed, and if you glaze it, it can actually change the colour. `
EL - Do you have to be careful around reds? Apparently, they can take an age to set.
MS - Yes, most of the time, I use cadmium; almost 90% of the pigment I use is cadmium.
I buy my pigment from Krammer, it’s something which has been produced for many many years and is still the same product. Some cadmium pigment is potent and some is not, and the quality varies, and depends where you buy. There tends to be two or three different grades of quality, we always go for the best quality materials to use for restoration. It just doesn’t make sense to use lesser materials given some of the pieces we work on.
EL - Well, having worked on some spectacular paintings, really, you only want to be using the best possible products.
MS - That’s correct. It makes no sense at all to use shortcuts for restoration. If you start getting into short cuts, all that produces is a really bad work.
EL - What happens to new pigments when you hit them with acetone, the Knoedler canvases for example, if you hit them with acetone, toluene or xylene, on newer pigments, what reaction would you get using those kind of chemicals on modern paint?
MS - You have to be really really careful, especially if a painting is relatively modern, say 30 or 40 years old. You have to be very careful, you cannot use any harsh solvents, very light solvent, and first you need to know the pigments, if the paint is acrylic and if it’s from the 1950s, they used a lot of acrylics, for example, Jackson Pollock, and it’s documented, he used a lot of house paint for his painting because he never had money, and house painting isn’t designed to last too long, so the paint colour naturally deteriorates, and, the colour changes, and the paint flakes. So with modern art, it depends on what the paint is, and you really do have to study each piece in order to determine that, and then you decide what you need to do with it. The groundwork (primer base) is very important.
EL - With regards Pollock, is it the case that a lot of the paint on his canvases will have deteriorated to some degree?
MS - Jackson Pollock used different paints, at the time he had no money, so he used whatever he could get his hands on, he really didn’t consider how a painting would look in 30 or 40 years time. So when you have those kind of paintings in an important collection, usually, you really need a team of conservators working for you all the time.
EL - In terms of the Knoedler canvases, would it be fairly obvious to a world-class restorer / conserver as to whether the work was an old work from 1950 and 1960, as opposed to a brand new reproduction?
MS - Usually, you can tell straight away, part of an assessment depends on the paint used, which we would test.
EL - Jackson Pollock, you can tell a brand new copy from an original Pollock?
MS - Yes, easy.
EL - As a restorer and world-class conservator, if somebody walked in with a copy or a fake painting, would you consider it your duty to let that potential client know your thoughts?
MS - Yes, I’d tell them right away that this painting is not what you think it is.
EL - Would you perform any tests to prove your notion?
MS - Sometimes you don’t need to test, you can see it straight off, but if it’s a very good fake, then you are better to perform certain tests to satisfy yourself, on the clients’ behalf. You can also tell if the artist has been left handed or right handed, which can sometimes give things away too. We use chemical tests, UV light tests, Infra-red photos, and x-rays.
EL - (cont) Would you perform any tests to prove your notion?
MS - Occasionally, if you even put some saliva on a painting, it can take the paint out. After drinking a carbonated Coke beverage you have some acid in your mouth, which can actually remove paint, and then you definitely have an idea that the paint is modern. The water in your saliva should not move old paint either.
EL - So if someone walked in with say 20 or 30 pristine condition Rothkos or Pollocks over a period of time, it’s not too difficult to test those, and as a conservator, would you consider that to be part of the service?
MS - It’s not too difficult, and if you don’t know how to spot a fake or a reproduction in the restoration business, then perhaps it’s time to find another career. Restoration and conservation is not for you.
EL - Essentially then, it’s easy enough for someone like you, a top conservationist who has worked in this industry for decades, to spot a fake?
MS - Yes, that’s correct.
EL - Can you explain why acetone tends not to be too successful on old pigment, but it washes away young pigment?
MS - It can move old pigment too, if you keep it on the painting too long, it will take everything out. You could take all the paint out. Acetone is a very strong solvent. Sometimes when you see really bad retouching you need to use acetone to remove it, bad work literally needs taken out.
EL - What about reds, why do they take so long to set?
MS - Well it depends, if the pigment has lead in it, sometimes with acetone, you cannot take it out, acetone doesn’t necessarily work on that, you have to use a harsher solvent. There are a lot of products on the market. In the case of hardened lead pigment, we’d use ammonia, sometimes.
EL - What’s your favourite painting that you ever worked on?
MS - There has been many and it depends on which century. I’ve restored a Degas, a Picasso, Giacometti, Holbein, and Max Ernst; with me I enjoy restoring paintings that are wonderful to look at.
EL - The most painful painting you’ve restored, what painting has been difficult to deal with?
MS - Modern art, because the artists used different material. And you have to be a detective and figure out what they used and how they applied paint, modern art you have to be really careful, and, it takes a little longer to work out how best to approach those pieces.
EL - If you’ve trained in the world of Old Masters, is it a big jump to move to modern art restoration?
MS - If you’ve started off restoring Old Masters, it’s a lot easier for you to restore modern art works, because you have a foundation of experience. If you’ve only ever restored modern art, I don’t think one could be capable of restoring Old Masters, it’s very difficult to learn from the top down.
EL - What painting do you have coming in which you are excited about working on?
MS - Actually, I’m working on a piece by Marcello Venusti, a Renaissance Painting, and he was an artist who was working alongside Michelangelo, the artist is very famous and there is a big painting by him in Milan.
Michelangelo painted the last judgment in the Vatican, and there is another one just like that in Milan. Michelangelo basically sent his assistant, Marcello Venusti, to Milan, to finish that one off.
EL - Is there a certain amount of research which you feel you have to do before taking on a restoration project like that?
MS - Yes, for sure, you study as much as you can about the painter before you start to work on it. What century, what pigment, left-handed right-handed, and you can always tell what hand they used by the work, you study as much as you can as soon as you get the painting, you don’t start work on it immediately. It’s very important to work out what is the best way to approach any conservation or restoration work, which is needed.
EL - There seems to be a lot that goes into restoration and conservation that people perhaps just don’t realize Shiraz. Thank you for your time.
Massoud Shiraz Art Consulting and Restoration: