Grabar’s Workshops

Alexei Vladimirov

Article: 
JUBILEE
Magazine issue: 
#4 2008 (21)

The Igor Grabar All-Russian Research and Restoration Centre (“Grabar’s workshops” or “the Centre”) has marked its 90th anniversary. For art restoration in Russia, 90 years represent a whole era, an epoch. Reviewing the history of the development of the workshop one can trace the entire history of Russian art restoration and renovation. The celebration of this milestone anniversary provides a good reason for taking stock and summarizing what has been done, and how over these years the field of art renovation in Russia has developed. Better known as “Grabar’s workshops”, this institution since its inception until today has been the site of major state-sponsored restoration projects. The Centre is named after the famous artist, art historian and public figure Igor Emmanuilovich Grabar, the trail-blazer and founder of scholarship-based methods of art restoration in Russia. He introduced such methods as pre-restoration examination of the artefact, photo recording and documenting of all restoration procedures, and group decision-making in the process of cleaning works from later additions. Grabar was the driving force behind the creation, in the 1920s, of the Russian art restoration school, that comprises a set of techniques and practices that are unique and have no match in Europe, and continuously develop using research findings from different areas of culture.

The Centre came into being in 1918, when Igor Grabar, on instructions from the people’s commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky, presented a plan for the state protection of the cultural artefacts in the turbulent times of the Civil War. A small group of renowned artists, scholars and cultural officials tried to persuade the authorities that it was necessary to develop a new state-sponsored approach to the protection of cultural heritage and organize a commission for the protection and renovation of old Russian art. This commission, organized under the aegis of the People’s Commissariat of Education, was the only group to counteract revolutionary vandalism and devastation.

Besides the painters who came from icon painters’ dynasties settled in the old centres of icon painting such as Mstera, Palekh and others, Igor Grabar recruited to the commission some scholars who made names for themselves before the Bolshevik revolution, such as Alexander Anisimov, Pyotr Neradovsky, Nikolai Likhachev, Ilya Ostroukhov, Yuri Olsufiev, and Nikolai Sychev. All of them are presently known as “discoverers” of unique old Russian icons. This is no coincidence, given that it was the commission that initiated the restoration of Russian icons on a large scale.

In 1924, with better resources available and in recognition of the uniqueness of its activities, the Commission was re-organized into the Central State Art Renovation Workshop (in Russian — “TsGRM”).

Probably TsGRM was the most efficiently working institution that has ever existed in the history of Russian and Soviet art restoration. From 1918 through 1934 the Workshop restored more than 1,000 artefacts of old Russian art (icons, frescos) — a fact that even now seems fantastic.

But we know that all masterpieces of old Russian art, icons such as the 12th-century “Our Lady of Vladimir” (in the Tretyakov Gallery), “The Saviour — the Golden Hair” of the early 13th century (in the Russian Museum), the 12th-century “Bogolubskaya Mother of God”, the 13th-century “Maximovskaya Mother of God” (both images are held in the Vladimir-Suzdal Open-Air Museum Reserve), were cleaned from later additions at the TsGRM. The workshop also offered to clean later additions from Andrei Rublev’s “Holy Trinity”.

The list of such icons restored to their original condition could continue, but there are several masterpieces whose renovation can be fully credited to the work-shop, among them Rublev’s “Zvenigorod deesis tier”.

It should be noted that the Russian Orthodox Church adopted and completely realized the importance of TsGRM’s work, and as early as in 1918 Patriarch Tikhon issued a “writ of protection” and blessed this venture so useful for the Holy Church. Tikhon understood that art restorers were the only people who could protect Russian shrines from complete annihilation.

Their efforts were successful even at their very starting point, and the restorers rediscovered many previously unknown icons, and rewrote the entire history of old Russian art. They introduced into the history of art scientific information about long forgotten old masters, and discovered previously unknown schools of icon painting, such as the Tver, Yaroslav, and Pskov schools, which were added to those already known icon painting centres such as those of Vladimir-Suzdal and Novgorod.

Unfortunately, during that period, in the 1930s, when the workshop’s activities reached their peak, the political situation changed sharply — not only in the area of historical landmark protection — in no way beneficial to the work of the workshop. The authorities, who persecuted the clergy, decided they did not need restorers; they were irked by the latters’ open letters and petitions to protect national cultural landmarks. The state took “appropriate” measures. Many reputed professionals from the workshop were jailed: some of them, like Pyotr Baranovsky, Nikolai Sychev, Nikolai Pomerantsev, Georgy Kirikov, Dmitry Bogoslovsky, and Pavel Yukin, after spending many years in the GULAG, survived and returned to work; as for others, like Yury Olsufiev and Alexander Anisimov, they are to be remembered not only as great figures in the area of protection of cultural heritage, but also as victims of Stalin’s purges.

In 1934 it was decided to close the workshop. Its activities were completely suspended for 10 years, but the professionals who were not jailed or executed continued working, taking jobs in major Russian museums (like the Tretyakov Gallery, Russian Museum, and the Historical Museum, and others).

The Great Patriotic War steered the course of events in a different direction. It became clear that without the Centre it would be impossible to repair the landmarks and artefacts damaged during the war. It was necessary to urgently salvage the collections of dozens of evacuated museums, and especially those collections that had been stuck in the areas seized by the Nazis.

This task called for the services of experienced professionals above all. Igor Grabar was again enlisted to direct the efforts to resuscitate the workshop. On September 1 1944, when Vyacheslav Molotov signed the relevant order, the workshop’s second life began.

The famous art restorer and first postwar director of the workshop Vera Nikolaevna Krylova succeeded in returning to their jobs most of the professionals who had worked with Grabar previously. Many restorers were recalled from the battlefields of the war.

For many years the workshop had its home in buildings which had belonged to the Marfo-Mariinskaya Convent, and later housed a factory club. The first thing the workshop restorers did was to restore to its original condition the frescos and murals of Mikhail Nesterov and Pavel Korin, and to repair Nesterov’s iconostasis at the Pokrovsky Cathedral. Great deeds start with great things!

The workshop’s activities in the 1940s-1950s were determined by the situation during and after the war: the museums whose collections were brought back from evacuation needed help. The staff of the centre were sent off to different cities to unpack and conserve the works, and mount the first post-war exhibitions in the museums of Kursk, Smolensk, Novgorod, Pskov, Kalinin, Kharkov and other cities.

Important achievements of that period included the repair of Frants Roubaud’s “Sebastopol Diorama” and “Borodino Diorama”, a project which called for the development of new restoration methods.

The scope of work carried out by the centre’s professionals is astounding even by modern standards. The reports for the period list thousands of works from Soviet museums and hundreds of works brought to Russia from Germany (including the Dresden Gallery, and Berlin museums).

In order to supply museums with a new generation of restoration professionals, two-year training courses were launched in the 1950s. At that time these courses were the only available option to receive a formal training in art restoration and the graduates went on to found art restoration workshops in Vilnius, Kiev, Baku, Minsk, and Tallinn.

The really invaluable experience of the professionals, as well as knowledge accumulated by the older generation and the development of scientific methods in restoration in the postwar period, enabled the workshop to summarize and publish these materials.

The 1960s saw the publication of the first issues of “On Problems of Restoration”, which, given a total lack of textbooks, were for many museum restorers the only manuals they could use.

At the same period, in the 1960s, the post-war restoration activity was completed, and the workshop launched a new project. No longer concentrated on restoration of separate artefacts, the restorers gradually started to focus on series of artworks representing different local schools of painting and historical periods. This approach proved well suited for the restoration of icons.

Since old Russian icons were created using a single technique, it was only natural that a single method had to be used for their restoration. So the workshop divided its activities into several directions: Rostov and Suzdal icons, Pskov icons, Old Karelian icons, and Vologda region icons. Usually when the restoration of a new series of icons was completed, a relevant exhibition was held in Moscow and Leningrad.

This tradition became pivotal for the workshop: even a mere mention of these exhibitions, each of which was preceded by many years of the restorers’ work, would take up several pages, but we should note at least the most interesting shows: “Findings from Soligalich. Grigory Ostrovsky, a 18th-century painter” in 1975, “Yefim Chesnyakov” in 1977, “Russian Watercolour Portraiture in
the first half of the 19th century” in 1978, “Yaroslavl Portraits of the 18th-19th centuries” in 1982, “Russian Pastel Portraiture” in 1985, “Icons from the Stroganov Estates” and others.

In 1974 the workshop acquired a new name: The Igor Grabar All-Russian Research and Restoration Centre. Acquiring a new status, the institution widened the scope of its activities: now in addition to its restoration and educational missions the Centre focused on the development of scientific methodologies, at the same time actively participating in the museums’ restoration councils and arranging internship courses for museum restorers.

Today the workshop is an institution with many departments, including those dealing with restoration of oil paintings, distemper paintings, furniture, fabrics, ceramics, drawings, bone carving work, ironwork, manuscripts, and stone sculptures, as well as a department of physical and chemical tests, and an archive and photographic records library. The workshop has three affiliates in Arkhangelsk, Vologda, and Kostroma.

The experience in the field of restoration and the use of modern technologies and materials give the opportunity to publish proceedings, manuals and monographs on restoration of a single monument or artwork. These publications are in great demand; they can be of interest not only to specialist-restorers but to art scholars as well.

After having been housed for many years in the buildings of Moscow churches, which the workshop maintained and repaired at its own expense, the entire institution moved in 2006 to a renovated building on Radio Street. In these new and bigger premises there was enough room for up- to-date equipment.

The 90th anniversary of the Centre was marked by a conference of restorers dedicated to Grabar’s memory (the so-titled “Grabar Readings”), and a gala meeting of restorers from many Russian museums. It was there that the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev’s letter of appreciation was presented, which thanked the Centre’s team “for their contribution to the cause of preservation of Russia’s cultural and historical landmarks.”

Concurrently with the conference and meeting, an exhibition was mounted to showcase the items “straight from the restorer’s desk” and to demonstrate all methodological efforts and unique renovation achievements of the workshop. All those participating at the conference came to the conclusion that in spite of financial problems art restoration in Russia is only developing.

Illustrations

“Nikolai Pomerantsev examining an ancient icon of St. Nicholas, which was found in the garret of the Resurrection Church (1694) of the village of Verkhniye Matigory in the Kholmogory district of Arkhangelskaya region. July 1966.”
“Nikolai Pomerantsev examining an ancient icon of St. Nicholas, which was found in the garret of the Resurrection Church (1694) of the village of Verkhniye Matigory in the Kholmogory district of Arkhangelskaya region. July 1966.”
(Attributed by an unknown member of the research expedition).
St. Nicholas of Mozhaisk. 16th century. Detail
St. Nicholas of Mozhaisk. 16th century. Detail
Museum Association “Art Culture of the Russian North”, Arkhangelsk
As the results of the restoration the sculpture was attributed as St. Nicholas of Mozhaisk. 16th century.
“Sculpture St. Nicholas of Zaraisk in the Icon Case. 17th century
“Sculpture St. Nicholas of Zaraisk in the Icon Case. 17th century
In 1958 it was brought from the village of Petukhovskays (Volosovo) in the Kargopol region.” (Attributed by an unknown member of the research expedition).
St. Nicetas Stylites of Pereslavl from the Deesis Tier. Russian North. Mid 17th century
St. Nicetas Stylites of Pereslavl from the Deesis Tier. Russian North. Mid 17th century
Tempera, levkas on wood. 199 × 61 cm. Museum Association “Art Culture of the Russian North”, Arkhangelsk
Simeon Stylites from the Deesis Tier. Russian North. Mid 17th century
Simeon Stylites from the Deesis Tier. Russian North. Mid 17th century
Tempera, levkas on wood. 200 × 61 cm. Museum Association “Art Culture of the Russian North”, Arkhangelsk
Master A. Melnikov. Bottom of the Distaff. 1860
Master A. Melnikov. Bottom of the Distaff. 1860
Wood, fretwork, inlay, painting. 70 × 28 × 17 cm. Sergiev-Posad Historical Art Museum Reserve. In the process of restoration
The Royal Doors. 1760s
The Royal Doors. 1760s
Museum Association “Art Culture of the Russian North”, Arkhangelsk. After the restoration
“Iconostasis of the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, 1769 of the village of Makarin (Onezhsky district of Arkhangelskaya region). The 4th Onezhsky research expedition of the Grabar Center in 1971”
“Iconostasis of the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, 1769 of the village of Makarin (Onezhsky district of Arkhangelskaya region). The 4th Onezhsky research expedition of the Grabar Center in 1971” (Attributed by an unknown member of the research expedition).
Workshop of Ye.F. Odoevskaya. A Pall with the Image of St. Kirill of Belozersk. 1671.  Before the restoration
Workshop of Ye.F. Odoevskaya. A Pall with the Image of St. Kirill of Belozersk. 1671
Satin, patterned taffeta, canvas, cotton cloth, silk, silver and gold threads, embroidery. 225 × 130 cm. Kirill-Belozersk Historic, Architecture and Art Museum Reserve. Before the restoration
Workshop of Ye.F. Odoevskaya. A Pall with the Image of St. Kirill of Belozersk. 1671.  After the restoration
Workshop of Ye.F. Odoevskaya. A Pall with the Image of St. Kirill of Belozersk. 1671
Satin, patterned taffeta, canvas, cotton cloth, silk, silver and gold threads, embroidery. 225 × 130 cm. Kirill-Belozersk Historic, Architecture and Art Museum Reserve. After the restoration
Unknown artist. Girl
Unknown artist. Girl
Oil on canvas. 40.5 × 31.4 cm. Museum-estate Muranovo
Before the restoration. After the technical restoration undergoing testing on the regeneration of the varnish. After the regeneration of the varnish. Process of the thinning of the varnish layer
Unknown Flemish artist of the second part of the 17th century (Hamers Franciscus?). At the Ruins of the Monastery
Unknown Flemish artist of the second part of the 17th century (Hamers Franciscus?). At the Ruins of the Monastery
Oil on canvas. 96 × 148 cm. Morshansky Historical Art Museum.
A fragment of the painting tested on the regeneration of the varnish
Process of cleaning off the layers in the segment depicting the sky
Fyodor BRONNIKOV. Martyr in the Arena. 1873. Before the restoration. After the restoration
Fyodor BRONNIKOV. Martyr in the Arena. 1873
Oil on canvas. 48.5 × 65 cm. Cherepovets Museum Association
Before the restoration.
After the restoration.

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