The KMSKA’s famous horses have been thoroughly restored in recent months thanks to the expert care of Derek Biront at Metafose. We asked him about the conservation process, Vinçotte’s technique and a number of refined details.
Why did the statues need to be conserved?
Biront: ‘What a lot of people don’t realize is that the horses weren’t cast in bronze: they’re made from copper plates, reinforced internally with an iron frame. They were taken down from the roof during a previous restoration in 1977 and completely disassembled, at which point it was found that the armatures had begun to rust. That was bad news, obviously, in terms of their structural rigidity, although it’s a common issue with sculptures of this kind. The same thing happened to the Statue of Liberty in New York, for instance. Anyway, back in 1977, the museum replaced the horses’ iron armatures with stainless steel. The restoration was performed pretty well, except that the wings of the ladies on the chariots weren’t reinforced enough. They obviously catch a lot of wind, which puts constant pressure on the connection between the wings and the back and shoulders of the figures. The internal structure was no longer able to absorb those stresses, causing the copper to crack. We needed to fix that as a matter of urgency.’
Were both statues in equally poor condition?
Biront: ‘No. The north sculpture – that’s the one on the left viewed from the front of the museum – had already been repaired in 2009 after suffering storm damage and was still sufficiently strong, although it did require a bit of patching up.’
You beheaded the statues, too: why was that necessary?
Biront: ‘The figures are made from several pieces of plate metal, which were hammered into shape and then assembled in a particular sequence. The head was one of the last pieces to be added, which meant we had to remove it before we could get to the other sections. There’s a major problem with the heads, in that they’re really popular with the birds, which do their business on them. Their poop has stained the green colour of the metal.’
How exactly did you go about conserving the sculptures?
Biront: ‘The first thing we did was to study them in detail. We’d already done a preliminary inspection from the bucket of a crane, but that was only for the south group – the north figures were too far away. So we had to begin with a detailed survey of the damage, which we then used to work out an action plan. The next step was to dismantle the pieces so we could repair them in our workshop: the four wings, which I already mentioned, as well as the two hands holding the laurel wreaths, which had shed some of their leaves. Some of the elements around the wings had weakened so much that we couldn’t actually put them back together again. We had to take a cast of them in situ and make a mould so we could create new copper components in the workshop. Then we repaired the connections to the wings. We also discovered there was still some iron in the horses themselves. It was in relatively good condition and the basic rule of conservation is to keep the original material as much as you can. So we didn’t replace the iron, but we did treat it: we removed the corrosion, coated it with rust-resistant paint and so on. That was the biggest job. A few smaller holes and cracks were also fixed. The final step was to reassemble it all and finish it off.’
What did that finishing entail?
Biront: ‘General surface cleaning of the sculptures. The light-green colour is a form of corrosion, but there’s nothing you could treat it with that would remain stable for so long as the layer that’s already there. So there wouldn’t be much point in stripping it all off or replacing it with something else. Not to mention the fact that everyone is used to the light-green colour now: it would be odd if they suddenly came back copper-coloured. We simply removed any unsightly stains, although even those were left alone in the deep, shadow areas, because they heighten the sculptural effect.’
Rough heads, fine coats
Do you personally think the Triumph of the Fine Arts is a beautiful work of art?
Biront: ‘As a conservator, I tend to look at an artwork from a technical angle. The better it’s been made, the more it appeals to me. It sometimes happens that a sculpture you previously admired turns out to be disappointing when you get up close with it during conservation. But the opposite can happen too: you discover that something you hadn’t been so impressed by aesthetically was beautifully made.’
What about these particular sculptures by Vinçotte?
Biront: ‘They fall somewhere in the middle. You have to remember that these sculptures were intended to be viewed from ground level. You can sense that distance, which also affects the degree of finishing. Even so, the horses’ coats, for instance, have been executed with thousands of little hairs that you can only see close up. The heads of the two ladies, by contrast, are relatively crude. That’s not a reflection of Vinçotte’s style: he wanted to make them in bronze. Hammered copper is cheaper, but less detailed too.’
What’s next now you’ve completed this restoration?
Biront: ‘We’re also working on the copper obelisks from Antwerp Town Hall and we have quite a few ongoing projects for the Middelheim Museum. So there’s plenty to keep us occupied!’