MICROWAVING ANNA PAVLOVA
Should a Conservationist Irradiate a Wax Sculpture to Repair It?
by Matt Fleischman
Since 1927, a tinted wax sculpture of Anna Pavlova wearing a decorative Russian headdress
has been in the Carnegie Museum of Art collection, but early damage resulted in cracks
so severe that the piece has not been exhibited in decades. A copy of the original
1924 portrait at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Carnegie's sculpture is in the
museum's conservation lab, where I am formulating a method to repair it. An extremely
delicate medium, wax was used by artist Malvina Hoffman to "catch some of Pavlova's
fantastic lightness and grace."
To construct the portrait of her dancer
friend, the artist made a plaster mould directly from the subject's face. From this
Hoffman modeled a positive form in clay, which she then refined. She then made a mould
from the clay portrait and built up layers of wax within the mould. After layers of
wax had been applied, the fragile wax shell was filled with plaster. A round brass
rod was mounted into the plaster as it dried, allowing the sculpture to rest securely
atop its base. Finally, the surface was embellished with pigments.
is cracked on the front, back and sides, all of which resulted from a blow to the
nose. The resulting sections shifted like tectonic plates, creating gaps of 1/16 to
1/8 of an inch, and are lifting slightly away from the plaster substrate. There are
a few surface losses, most notably from the tip of the nose.
To treat the sculpture
safely and appropriately, I addressed the following questions: What are the physical
properties of the materials? What materials and methods are viable for treatment of
the object? To what extent will the object be restored?
After carefully extracting
tiny samples of wax from an area with surface loss I determined its melting range
to be 147-151°F, which corresponds to that of beeswax, a material commonly employed
by the artist.
Knowing the melting point of the wax, I could formulate a plan
for stabilizing the portrait. There were several options: one was to stabilize the
sections in their current configuration and fill the gaps with wax of a lower melting
point. However, I preferred not to adhere the wax sections in their current configuration,
but to somehow coax the sections back together into their original configuration,
without marring the delicate wax surface. At a typical room temperature of 68° to 70°F
(and at lower temperatures) the wax is too brittle to force into alignment and would
break into smaller pieces. Warming the entire object slightly would increase the pliability
of the wax but would also make the outer surface more vulnerable to damage. If, however,
the object could be heated in such a way that just the interface of the wax and plaster
would be directly heated-allowing the delicate wax surface to become only slightly
warmed-then it might be possible to reposition the sections close to their original
configuration without marring the pigmented wax surface.
But adhering the
pieces is another challenge. Various solvents and adhesives have been suggested by
colleagues, but based on experimentation, the only adhesive that seems viable is wax
Since it would be too risky to experiment on the original object, I
created mock-ups to try out various potential treatments. The mock-ups were intentionally
damaged to simulate the kind of damage sustained by the original. Attempts to apply
molten wax to the surface of the wax mock-ups have been unsuccessful and have proven
this method to be unsatisfactory and extremely risky for treatment of the sculpture.
I have been experimenting successfully with a more novel approach: using a microwave
oven to melt wax at the interface of the wax and plaster. The microwaves do not heat
the plaster or wax, but they heat water that has been fed into the interface. The
beauty of this method is that it is very controllable. I can vary the amount of water,
the location of the moisture and the duration of exposure to microwaves.
controlling these variables I may be able to soften the wax from the interior without
making the fragile surface more vulnerable to potential damage, allowing the fragmented
sections to be pressed together. This procedure might also allow controlled melting
of wax to adhere the sections to the plaster substrate.If this method were eventually
employed for treatment of the sculpture, the metal rod would of course have to be
extracted prior to irradiation.
Continued experimentation is necessary to assure
the safety and maximal benefit of using microwaves to treat such an object. Shall
we "nuke" Anna Pavlova's head? The answer right now is...maybe.
Fleischman is Carnegie Museum of Art's objects conservator.