December 15, 2010

Profile: Noah Charney Interviews Icon Conservator Riika Köngäs

ARCA Founder Noah Charney recently interviewed ARCA Alum Riikka Köngäs, one of Europe’s youngest conservators of icons. She also works for the largest art gallery (Retretti) in Finald as a courier and a conservation specialist. She is Secretary of the Icon-Network Association, an organization providing information about icons, icon collections, education and conservation. One of the objectives of the Icon-Network is to prevent trade of stolen icons by creating a database of stolen icons (

Riikka Köngäs graduated in 2003 with a BA (HONS) Conservation and Restoration of Art and Antiquities from Lincoln University, Great Britain. Specific work experience as an art conservator was acquired from Paliambela Archaeological Excavations in Greece and from the Benaki Museum in Athens, Greece, as well as other museums in Finald. She completed the MA-program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection in 2009. She published her dissertation, "Copy versus Forgery: The Difficulty in Determining Motive with Regards to Modern Iconography and Icon Collections" in the Spring 2010 Journal of Art Crime.

Noah Charney: What sort of conservation work do you do?
Riikka: I work as a head conservator in the Valamo Art Conservation Institute in Finland. We conserve paintings on wood and on canvas and are specialized on icon conservation. Our specialization is unique in Finland and in Scandinavia. We take commissions not only from the Orthodox church, but also other churches in Finland, from museums, insurance companies and works from private sources form perhaps half of our work load. Besides practical conservation, we do condition reporting to exhibitions and different art collections, give advice of preventing conservation and handling of art, and naturally give lectures about art conservation.
We are a small institute, but play a significant role in different European projects, from which the latest is a project called Icon Network. Within this project we set up an exhibition with theme “icons and war”, published a book supporting the theme and currently work partly with web pages to help people who are interested about icons.
Noah Charney: What is the process, when you receive a commission of an icon to restore?
Riikka: Each icon is unique, and there is no straightforward way to restore an icon. Firstly, when talking about icon, we usually think about painting on flat wooden support. But there are icons painted on canvas, as well as on metal, I have even seen one painted on dried fish skull!

Normally our work starts with documentation. We have full-time research photographer working for us, so he photographs the icon, and if necessary, he can take ultraviolet and infrared photos, even x-rays. Then follows written documentation, which we carry on through whole process, writing down every step we do. So called “normal” process includes cleaning, stabilization of paint layer and restoration (painting) only if necessary. Each case has to be considered separately. For example, if an icon is from the museum, we hardly do any restoration at all. But if an icon goes to a church, or at private home, we usually do restoration. It would be rather difficult to concentrate on praying in front of this icon if half of the face was missing!
Noah: You completed the ARCA postgraduate program in 2009. What did the program offer to you?
Riikka: It was terribly interesting, loaded with huge amount of information in short time, and it gave me a push to find out more about certain matters in illicit trade of art, and of icons. It assured me that the more we know about this dark side of art world and the more we educate ourselves, the more we can do to prevent these things happening. Finland is such a small country, but by no means a safe bird nest. The program gave me several ideas what to do next, and very importantly several good connections to turn to if I need advice.
Noah: Tell me about your work since completing the ARCA program.
Riikka: Full speed rollercoaster! I took over the head conservators role after returning to work immediately after the course, and have been settling into that. Besides managing the institute, marketing, finding new projects, traveling around Finland from church to church, giving lectures etc etc, I do practical conservation as much as I can, since that is the part I enjoy tremendously. In June 2010 an icon was stolen from a cathedral in Helsinki, and one icon was damaged badly. I did conservation on this particular icon, and started discussions about the need to secure churches. This continues and hopefully with good results. We set up an exhibition in our monastery and did the security plan for it (using ArtGuard) and now I am planning next exhibitions. The plan is to have an exhibition with fakes and forgeries, co-operating with some museums and police. The process has been started already, and it looks splendid.
Noah: What do you think are the greatest challenges facing the conservation world?
Riikka: Worldwide, there are so many challenges and demands to protect cultural heritage…

If I think only about my area of conservation, I almost see red when I meet today’s artists and see their work. I give many lectures trying to make artists understand the importance of good technique; it’s the matter of quality, not quantity. Just take a painting (or even icon) 100 years old, and it still looks more or less top quality. Whereas we are getting more and more badly prepared canvases or panels only 10-20 years old and already damaged. Education, education, that is the word!
Noah: There has been a recent debate about how much cleaning should be done on Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. Would you like to comment?
Riikka: I am not very familiar with this case, but general rule I try to follow as much as I can is "less is more”, as I guess every conservator thinks. Making sure that piece of art will be there for next generations is the most important, not restoring it so that it looks like new. And this doesn’t mean treating the object only; it includes taking care of the surroundings as well. Cleaning is always a bit risky, especially when using detergents or solvents or new methods that haven’t been in use for long.


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