Master Restorer: Leonhard Stramitz

Features Issue 54 Jul, 2010
Text by Prerna Rai

Leonhard Stramitz, an Austrian and a master restorer, first came to Nepal in the 1970s. If most of the foreign nationals who came to Nepal during the time were part of the hippie movement, he was too much of an  individual and did not believe in belonging to any group or commune. For Leonhard, it was more a quest for peace than anything else, “Europe was going through a lot of turmoil during those years. This was the perfect  getaway; there were few cars and fewer bikes. It was surreal.”  He repeatedly came to Nepal overland, finding solace in the serenity and compassion of people here. He lives in Vienna, Austria, where he was born in 1945, and visits Nepal every year for a number of months.

Leonhard earned a Diploma from the Fine Arts Academy in Vienna as a master restorer.  As most of us are aware, the  Patan Museum underwent a comprehensive restoration undertaken by HMG's Department of Archaeology (DOA),  in copoperation with Austria’s Institute of International Cooperation (IIZ) from the beginning of 1982 to its completion in 1997.

Leonhard was appointed as consultant by the architect of the project, Goetz Hagmueller, to restore the many bronze figurines which had seen decay over time. He was also responsible for restoring the  gilt repousse sheathing of the Golden Door (Patan Museum)and the gilt bronze image of Hanuman on the ridge of the Museum which was a gift from King Bhupatindra Malla of Bhaktapur. After a scrupulous make over, the Museum was open to the public in 1997. Talking about the experience, he recalls, “I felt good that I was restoring statues which people can normally only see as a show piece, and  being an artist, your gut instinct tells you a job well done. The image behind the statue should stand out, for a restorer, a statue is not merely a statue. I’ve been a restorer for 30 years now and overall, it was not very difficult. I remember Nepal was going through a similar political crisis in the 90’s when I used to work at the Museum. It was a strange situation, like I was completely alienated from the mayhem and agitation that was taking place in the country.”

At present, Leonhard is working on stained glass at ‘The Garden of Dreams’, a creation of Field Marshall Kaiser Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana in the 1920s. Today, the restoration of ‘The Garden of Dreams’ as a public and tourist resource, is financed by the Austrian Development Aid, supported by Ministry of Education, HMG and executed by Eco Himal/Nepal.

Besides the paintings, he is occupied with ‘The Garden of Dreams’ applying a process called surface gilding with gold leaf. Gold leaf is derived with an ancient technique used by goldsmiths where gold sheets are attained by hammering an ingot or part of an ingot on an anvil till flat.

Gold leaf is the thinnest sheet of gold. The more malleable and ductile a metal, the better its ability to be beaten into leaf. Thus, gold is an ideal metal for making leaf, which in its natural form does not tarnish.

The impetus behind his pursuing the fine art of restoration is not really defined as such, although it could be attributed to his weekly visits with his father to the museums of Vienna, and the huge collection of literature found in art books at his home. He was never very interested in the academics and mostly doodled through classroom lessons. On the practical side, to begin with, he gained experience working with goldsmiths which gave him an eye for detail. He wanted to pursue the subject further and opted for restoration.

Delving into his past works— he got the gratifying opportunity to restore the sarcophagus of Viennese Kings and Queens.  Since 1633, the significant members of the Habsburg family have been buried in the so-called Kapuziner or Kaisergruft (Imperial crypt). Twelve emperors, 15 empresses and around 100 archdukes lie here, carefully guarded by Capuchin monks (order of friars in the Roman Catholic Church, the chief and only permanent offshoot of the Franciscans). Leonhard took me on a virtual tour, describing, “The crypt is open to the public and as you wander around the dark vaults, one can learn a lot about the genealogy of one of Europe’s most important noble families and the changing culture of the dead through the centuries. The most impressive and largest  sarcophagus is that of Maria Theresa, who ordered it before she died. She kept making changes and inspecting till it was perfected as she desired. Sarcophagi are made of tin and elaborately sculptured, then painted with shellac which were at the time imported from India. The tombs where they are kept are deep, where humidity is high and corrosion takes place. Beneath the tin surface, the plaster soaks up the humidity and expands, breaking through the tin. Restoration starts by cleaning the holes and filling them up with a mixture of epoxy hardener and tin dust, which is kept for 15 days. After that, it is filed for a smooth finish and painted with shellac. Most of the sarcophagi weigh more than 5 tons and represent life size statues and figurines.”

Leonhard’s interests are totally immersed in the Arts. He is working on a photo documentary called “Red”, a collection of images and vistas suggestive to the color.  His line of work is rather unusual, a break away from the ubiquitous common theme of  mountains and temples of Nepal.

His various pursuits include designing and crafting contemporary jewelry. He believes that articles of fashion need not necessarily be expressed in diamonds and precious stones. His favored metal is silver. His designs are revolutionary and lends a fresh concept to the industry. Exhibitions have taken place in Europe, Japan, America. “My designs are very innovative so people who buy my jewelery are mostly collectors since they are so dissimilar from the usual strain.”

Leonhard’s artistic drive finds expression in his abstract paintings of acrylic on rice paper. He has even painted stage sets at Hotel Vajra, which is a venue synonymous with theatre in Nepal.  Also, “In the evenings I devote my time to pencil sketches of chaityas which are very detailed. When I first started working with the goldsmiths, my eyesight was perfect, but nowadays I need to squint to get a better picture. Anyway, that’s a small price to pay for what I enjoy doing most.” 

Does he ever relax? He smiles, “I love to go to Greece.  I do nothing when I’m there, just chill! But then Nepal is so rejuvenating and each time I come here, I have to convince my folks back home that I need to go – it refreshes me and heartens me to channelise positive energy to work.”