The Conservation

One of the most exciting aspects of Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings is the tremendous number of artworks coming to the United States for the first time—the majority from the Amit Ambalal and TAPI collections, both located in Gujarat, in Western India. While the opportunity for our members and visitors to see these faraway treasures in our galleries is unprecedented, the distance between Chicago and Gujarat presented a logistical challenge for conservation treatment, matting, and framing. The solution was to send two Art Institute conservators and a framer to India to prepare the works for the exhibition—an experience that proved unforgettable for all involved.

Last fall, assistant paper conservator Rachel Freeman was the first to travel to Gujarat, working mostly with the Amit Ambalal collection in Ahmedabad in a traditional wooden haveli, a gorgeous building designed to house this remarkable pichvai, or painted textile, collection. After assessing treatment possibilities for these paintings on cotton in the fall, Freeman returned to pursue more complex conservation in January, accompanied by Daniela Leonard, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Paintings Conservation. “Mr. Ambalal wanted us to understand what we were working on, so he took us to a temple in the historic center of Ahmedabad,” said Freeman. “We were able to watch one of the eight daily darshans, a ritual of reverence for Shrinathji. It was like seeing a painting come to life.”

Freeman also treated works from the TAPI collection in Surat, a collection predominantly of textiles and contemporary art. While staff members skilled at hand-sewing prepared the textiles being loaned for Gates of the Lord, Freeman’s expertise was required to treat two of the three works on paper. One of these was a painting with tiny colored stones, beetle wings, and miniature pearls, some of which had to be reattached with a special glue prepared on site. Freeman also taught the TAPI staff mending techniques for a sketchbook of animal studies by Ghasiram, one of Nathdwara’s most innovative artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “The sketchbook pages are on poor-quality wood-pulp paper, so they tear very easily” notes Freeman. “Fortunately paper conservators see this type of paper often, so it was easy to find a suitable mending tissue. The TAPI staff has good hand skills, and they were fast learners.”

The exchange of institutional expertise continues as the Art Institute of Chicago welcomes TAPI technicians during the installation period. “Arvind Shelar and Vijay Patel are mounting and installing the large TAPI pichvais,” says Freeman. “We are very lucky that they could be spared to do this necessary but delicate work. I hope their experience at the Art Institute is as eye-opening for them as the months I spent in India were for me.”

Assistant paper conservator Rachel Freeman at work in the Kamal Chowk, or haveli, at the Amit Ambalal collection, checking for separation of paper layers in the early 19th-century A Maharaja Venerating Shrinathji.