Turning Back Time: Conserving CMA’s Krishna Sculpture
By Amaris Sturm, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Conservation
“With the subtle sounds of scalpels and heat guns in our ears, we are carefully disassembling this massive figure, preparing it for a new, more accurate reconstruction that will be the centerpiece of an upcoming exhibition.” — Amaris Sturm, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Conservation
Art meets science in the museum’s conservation labs. Here you will find conservators with specializations ranging from paintings to sculpture, and antiquities to contemporary art. These individuals have academic backgrounds that include art history, studio art, and chemistry as well as advanced education and training in the conservation of art and historic collections. Their mission is to study, preserve, and conserve the works of art in Cleveland’s collection and the works of art traveling here from other museums and collectors around the world. In this week’s blog post by Amaris Sturm, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Conservation, dive deeper into the conservation of one sculpture, the CMA’s monumental 7th-century Cambodian sandstone figure of Krishna Lifting Mt. Govardhan. Check back and follow CMA Thinker for updates on the project.
Big things are happening in the CMA Objects Conservation Lab. A major conservation project is underway involving the CMA’s monumental 7th-century Cambodian sandstone figure of Krishna Lifting Mt. Govardhan (fig. 1).
With the subtle sounds of scalpels and heat guns in our ears, we are carefully disassembling this massive figure, preparing it for a new, more accurate reconstruction that will be the centerpiece of an upcoming exhibition.
But first, a little backstory.
Krishna and Mount Govardhan
The sculpture depicts Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, shown performing the miracle of raising Govardhan Hill to shelter a village from torrential rain sent by Indra, king of the gods, who was angry at Krishna for suggesting that the villagers no longer give Indra offerings. Krishna was only seven years old when he performed this superhuman feat, so this sculpture depicts him with youthful features and a short lower garment. Nonetheless, the extreme power of this child god is elegantly sculpted in the CMA’s Krishna, who appears to effortlessly raise the mountain.
This work is important not only for the story it presents, but also for its place in the history of Cambodian art. The figure visualizes the early transition of Hinduism from India to Southeast Asia; the sculptures from the object’s original site are the first known to show Hindu themes depicted in monumental Cambodian style art forms.
Cambodia to Brussels to Cleveland
Dated to the 7th century, the sculpture originates from a cave at Phnom Da, a small, two-peaked mountain with a series of cave temples in southern Cambodia (fig. 2). Carved out of a solid piece of sandstone and standing almost 10 feet tall with its original plinth, Krishna would have reached the height of the cave, appearing to literally hold up the mountain.
In 1912 the sculpture’s torso was found in one of the cave temples and came into the collection of Adolphe Stoclet, a collector in Brussels, where it was displayed in his mansion (fig. 3).
Additional fragments from multiple sculptures were found in 1935 in an adjacent cave and sent to Stoclet to complete the torso. Stoclet ultimately preferred the torso on its own, and the additional fragments were dispatched to his neighbor’s yard. There they remained until 1977, four years after the CMA acquired the torso from Stoclet’s estate in 1973, when an excavation of the Brussels property was conducted (fig. 4).
With the various fragments all in Cleveland, the sculpture was reassembled in 1978, a process that was, fortunately for us, well documented with photography and reports.
The sculpture was reassembled with steel, epoxy, and polyester resin (fig. 5), a robust treatment carried out to the standards of its time. Today, having observed the difficulties of undoing treatments like this, conservation professionals aim to be more (dare I say) conservative, and choose other materials equally strong but less permanent. After reassembly, with too many leg and arm fragments for just one sculpture, extraneous pieces were sent back to Cambodia, including Krishna’s left hand.
Fast forward to 2014.
In 2014, Bertrand Porte, stone conservator with the École française d’Extrême Orient (EFEO) at the National Museum of Cambodia, communicated a question to Sonya Rhie Mace, the George P. Bickford Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art at CMA. How can a large section of stone with the hand of Krishna fit onto a sculpture in Phnom Penh, where there was no clear point of contact? She authorized conservation photographs taken of the back side of the CMA Krishna in 1978 to be sent to him. As soon as he saw the images of the back with its section of broken strut, he realized immediately that the stone section with the hand belongs to the CMA sculpture.
When the Phnom Penh Krishna was on view in New York later that year, in the Lost Kingdoms exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, CMA conservators collaborated with the Met to compile 3D laser scans of the hand section and with ThinkBox at Case Western Reserve University to scan the Krishna in CMA’s galleries.
Digitally pairing the two scans, Mr. Porte’s conclusion was confirmed: the break edge on the CMA Krishna’s back matched that on the hand section perfectly. Thanks to the generosity and collaboration of the government of the Kingdom of Cambodia, the hand was returned to the CMA.
In order to properly align the hand with the torso, the sculpture is being disassembled, treated for surface instability, and reassembled using up-to-date conservation practices, allowing the object to be exhibited with all of its proper pieces and in stable condition. And that is where our leg of this journey starts.
This project, funded by a Bank of America Art Conservation Project grant, brings together a “dream team” of professionals, including CMA conservators and curators, mount makers, structural engineers, materials scientists, and technology specialists, all working to better understand, treat, and display the sculpture. This includes contract mount designer Carlo Maggiora, the engineering firm Silman & Co, pre-program conservation intern Margalit Schindler, as well as colleagues at the National Museum of Cambodia, UCLA’s Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, the EFEO, the Met, and the Getty.
As with any treatment, documentation is essential. This includes photography, written reports, and diagrams presenting the most pressing condition issues. Photogrammetry has been a critical tool in 3D modeling, providing the opportunity to work alongside Case Western Reserve’s Think[box] to manipulate the 3D models and for continued discussions with Cambodian colleagues on the reconstruction of the piece.
Treatment has focused thus far on safe disassembly of the fragments and stabilizing the deteriorated stone surface. A plethora of tools have been brought to bear on the previous epoxy fill material, including chisels (fig. 7), Dremel tools, hand drills, a pneumatic PaleoTool (usually used to prepare fossils), a heat gun and scalpel combo, and small saws.
After trying heat, drilling, and twisting, removing the steel pins holding it all together will require drilling them into dust from the inside out. Removing these tenacious restoration materials reveals the importance of ethical considerations in treatment. Conservators are trained to consider the long-term effects of every treatment and that means working with the goal of all materials and techniques being reversible.
With disassembly steadily underway, surface treatment is the next hurdle. The sculpture is composed of Angkor-type sandstone, a layered sedimentary rock that is strong but porous. The foot and leg sections that were buried in Brussels display a common condition issue called contour scaling, in which the finished stone surface starts to lift and chip off, revealing rough stone underlayers. Approximately 50% of the surface has this scaling, while the legs and stela have already experienced 25–30% loss to the surface. In addition to scaling, we are removing unsightly overpaint, fills, and adhesive staining, including stains left behind by strips of bright red duct tape that had been used to line up the fragments for assembly (fig. 8).
After researching and testing adhesive options, surface stabilization has begun using conservation-grade acrylic adhesives. To apply the adhesive deep below the surface and fill some of the sizeable gaps between stone layers, the adhesive is being bulked and injected with syringes. Due to the risk of darkening the stone with adhesive, a technique called “masking” is being used to protect the surface during treatment. This means applying an immiscible solvent to the surface before injecting the adhesive. This effectively fills the pores of the stone, keeping the adhesive from absorbing. The solvent then evaporates on its own, leaving the stone surface clean. There are many more hours of treatment to come and new exciting steps in the future. Check back and follow CMA Thinker for updates on the project.
Click here for further reading, and the most recent research on this project.