The Restorart Inc. studio is spacious and airy and filled with art objects—paintings, mostly, some of them small and some of them very large, lying on tables and standing on easels and stored in vertical shelves. In the middle of the room, beneath a skylight, a man works assiduously on an extremely large painting using a Q-tip. Another man, well-turned-out in a loose shirt and vest, has a bohemian, Old World air about him and is quietly perusing an unsigned painting on a stand. The room is in a converted warehouse in Toronto’s west end, and the piece is a neglected one I brought from Ukraine to be healed amid the community of paintings and statuary that finds its way here, to what is a sort of hospital for injured art.
The Old World air belongs to Laszlo Cser, and the paintings share confidences with him. He passes his hands over cracks and bruises the paintings have suffered—during lifetimes that sometimes span centuries—and comes to know them intimately. Cser is a restorer of art, a master conservator who, necessarily, is also a philosopher. He begins his work with a mute enquiry, a conversation with the painting from which even the owner, concerned but unknowing, is shut out. It is a dialogue built upon the years, an assessment of the hurt these paintings have endured and what can be done to fix it. He has the conversation with the works’ creators, absent only in body, and with the generations of restorers who, leading parallel lives, developed the techniques of the venerable craft he is now honing. He is an artist in his own right, one whose services are sought in Europe, the United States and here.
Cser considers the image “the heart of the visual experience,” and absorbs it innocently—without judgement or the prejudice of his own considerable experience. “Thirty-six years in the business have given me the confidence not to be distracted,” he says. In the next moment, he diagnoses the material integrity of the painting—what he calls its authenticity—and gauges the technical measures he must take in order to give it back the life the artist originally intended.
“It’s a good painting,” he says. “These are bold strokes.” But the paint is cracked and flaking and falling off the canvas. Cser applies resin to the work’s backside to hold the paint on, and dabs at the painting with a Q-tip to show how grime has accumulated and obscured the liveliness of the paint below. He cites a price—three times what the painting cost—but I do not, for a moment, hesitate. It is a rare and elevating experience to be in thrall to such a craftsman.