Mark Leonard, the DMA’s chief art restorer, takes brush to canvas in order to make himself disappear
Mark Leonard can’t recall a time when he didn’t have a brush or a pencil or crayon in his hand.
“I can’t remember when I wasn’t painting or drawing,” he says. But he still recalls the precise moment when his facility with a brush switched from hobby to calling.
He was an undergraduate student at Oberlin College studying music (“I was a terrible pianist,” he admits), and attended an open house in the art department. One late afternoon, he wandered into a lab.
“There was this guy in a beard working on a Frans Hals painting while Bach was playing in the background,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘That’s a nice way to spend your work day.’”
That’s how he stumbled into the field of art restoration.
“Many people would roll their eyes and think, ‘how incredibly boring.’ They think it must be like watching paint dry, and in a way it is. But it is very satisfying work. And very pleasant,” he says.
It must be. For the past two years, Leonard has served as chief conservator at the Dallas Museum of Art — the first person in the DMA’s century-plus existence with that title. He moved to Dallas with his partner following his retirement from Los Angeles’ Getty Museum, where he spent more than a decade as head of painting conservation, in addition to his work at New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and with the famed Frick Collection. But when he started, the field — while in existence — was not as respected or sophisticated as it has become.
There have been art restorers for centuries, Leonard says, though often they were simply painters hired to touch up another painter’s work, and less inclined to preserve their predecessor’s artistic integrity. Starting around the post-World War II period, however, the field grew into its own.
The process of restoration is a fascinating amalgam of chemistry, art history, ethics and technique, but probably no trait is more important than patience: Leonard will spend three, four, six months (or more!) painstakingly restoring just one Old Master. And chances are he’ll never get the credit for making a painting come (back) to life. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“When you’re this close, you can actually see people touching the works of art. They somehow seem more accessible — they have lives of their own,” he says. (Leonard is also a painter of note in his own right; his recent exhibit of clouds inspired by the work of John Constable received widespread acclaim.)
If Leonard sounds esoteric, he doesn’t mean to. He’s entirely committed to understanding the inner life of a piece of art.
“As with anything made of organic materials, paintings are continually changing,” he says. And his job it to return damaged works to their original glory.
In some ways, it’s not as difficult as it sounds. For centuries, most finished oil paintings have been covered with a coat of water-soluble varnish, which allows subsequent restorers to make changes while not altering the artist’s original. “As long as I spend on a restoration, 100 years from now some other restorer could come along and strip all my work off in a matter of seconds,” Leonard says.
You’d think the ephemerality of his work would deprive him of satisfaction, but that’s not at all the case, he insists. Rather, it’s a kind of puzzle-solving process: Finding more stable pigments that recreate the color and texture of the geniuses who came up with these works as many as 400 years ago.
“In the end, I equate it to the work of an orchestra conductor,” Leonard says. “The artists know what he’s doing. You have to interpret that very carefully.” (That’s true whether the painting is by Rembrandt or a lesser-known artist, Leonard stresses.
A code of ethics guides art restorers, and one principle is to treat every work of art with the same respect and care.)
Art restoration goes beyond merely painting touch-ups, however. He often re-stretches and stabilizes canvasses, and oversaw the work of others in his department who restored a sterling silver vitrine from 1908, which received an unveiling earlier this month after a year of polishing and refurbishing.
But Leonard’s personal focus is working closely with paintings.
“Paint is incredibly difficult to manipulate — it’s been called colored mud in a sticky substance. But I get a visceral joy from handling it.”
And, he says, his work provides a satisfaction most people who have attended a museum can closely relate to.
“It’s a great way to [get revenge] on the docents who tell you not to get too close to the art.”
The Paintings Conservation Studio and Gallery are accessible on the upper level Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 Harwood St. In addition to the studio, the gallery currently has on display a rare sterling silver vitrine.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 28, 2014