Another Restored Leonardo, Another Sponsored Celebration – Ferragamo at the Louvre…
The penny dropped last week in Paris: museum picture restoration is becoming a money-making machine in which the artistic sums may not necessarily add up. The Louvre’s restored Leonardo “Virgin and Child with St. Anne” re-appeared in a series of openings for a swish exhibition-of-celebration, “La Sainte Anne l’ultime chef-d’oeuvre de Léonardo de Vinci”, sponsored by the Italian fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo (whose 2012 fashion show is to be held within the Louvre). The official defences of the restoration are found in the exhibition literature and in a DVD film (“Leonardo de Vinci The Restoration of the Century”) celebrating “The spectacular operation, the likes of which occurs only once a century”. Although there may be a touch of “The Official” in the film, acknowledgement is certainly made of opposition to the course of the restoration that came from within the advisory committee itself. Jean-Pierre Cuzin, the former director of paintings at the Louvre, is seen to speak with great eloquence on the option of, essentially, leaving well enough alone. Reference is also made to wider opposition that was reported in what is described as “a virulent press campaign”. The organisation of the exhibition itself is seen to testify to the rapid growth of mutual support systems within the international museum community. At the same time, we can now better gauge the restoration’s artistic consequences and better appreciate why two eminent art authorities, Ségolène Bergeon Langle, the former director of conservation for the Louvre and France’s national museums, and Jean-Pierre Cuzin, resigned from the restoration’s international advisory committee.
As with the Credit Suisse sponsored exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci – Painter at the Court of Milan” which gathered £1.5bn worth of Leonardos in celebration of the National Gallery’s restored “Virgin of the Rocks” (see Figs. 17 & 18), this Ferragamo/Louvre exhibition has drawn masterpieces by Raphael, Michelangelo, Pontormo, Andrea del Sarto and others. The National Gallery (two of whose staff members served on the St. Anne restoration’s international advisory committee) loaned its hitherto unloanable Leonardo “Burlington House Cartoon” in a straight swap for the Louvre’s earlier loan of Leonardo’s original “Virgin of the Rocks” to the London Leonardo-fest. It would seem that in this international bonanza, one restored Leonardo begets another and each begets a plumply lucrative exhibition and catalogue. The current escalation in travel and restoration risks for works of art is terrifying.
The Louvre’s current exhibition is said by the curator, Vincent Delieuvin, to comprise “a science workshop”. But this “workshop” could not inform the treatment of the painting because it followed, not preceded, the restoration. Moreover, the exhibition itself imposed a guillotine on the restoration. Members of the international advisory committee who wished for more tests, for more consideration of vexing issues, felt thwarted by the Louvre’s need to finish the restoration in time for the arrival of the stupendous borrowed treasures. The cumulative assembled testimony of the exhibition’s many borrowed copies and derivatives of the “St. Anne” might well have been instructive, but, not having been seen, it finds no reflection in the restored Leonardo which artistically has pulled away from its own off-spring (see Figs. 13-16). Delieuvin’s reported twin claims that the restoration “is a true resurrection of the ‘St. Anne’” and that “The painting has recovered a depth and a relief almost like sculpture, with an intense palette of lapis lazuli blue, lacquer red, grays and vibrant browns”, seem both rather tastelessly hyperbolic and at variance with visual evidence (- see right).
Certain structural stresses in the over-heating art economy have become visible. At the exhibition’s epicentre the “Burlington House Cartoon” and the “St. Anne” (for which picture the drawing was a study), have been brought together side by side in a spectacular but counter-productive coup de théâtre (see Figs. 13 & 14). The drawn study, now discoloured but sombrely potent in a magnificently worthy black frame, conjures a breath-taking orchestration of monumentally poetic forms, forms that rightly have been seen to rival the pedimental female groupings of the Parthenon sculptures. Since the Second World War there has been no drawing in existence to rival this fragile and brittle manifestation of the grandeur of Leonardo’s thoughts. (If lost – and in recent years lorries have been burnt-out in the Channel Tunnel and a ferry and its lorry cargo was lost in the Channel – no insurance money or state indemnity could acquire another of its kind.) In contrast, the restoration-weakened “St. Anne”, with its now arbitrarily floating, obtrusively abstract and glitzy lapis lazuli blue drapery, has departed from its formerly-realised self, as the adjacent cartoon and the exhibition’s many derivative pictures mutely testify. To see strong colours subsumed within tight sculpturally integrated groups, we must now look to derivatives of Leonardo rather than to their progenitor (see Figs. 15 & 16).
As if to inoculate the exhibition viewer against this back-firing juxtaposition, the wall immediately opposite the cartoon and the “St. Anne” carries a portentous notice headed “A fundamental restoration”:
“A fundamental restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s St Anne was initially envisaged in the 1990s when a few quite conclusive cleaning tests were carried out.
“The picture’s dull appearance, its hues discoloured and distorted by numerous repaintings of the sky and the Virgin Mary’s blue mantle, demanded the intervention that finally began in 2009. Minute bulges, very probably caused by the stress exerted on the picture layer by the hardening of old restoration varnishes rendered the restoration inevitable.
“Preceded by an exceptional series of preliminary examinations and scientific imagery analyses carried out by the laboratories at the Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France (C2RMF) and generously financed by Mr Barry Lam, the restoration itself began late in 2010. The restorer, Cinzia Pasquali, was chosen following an invitation to tender and worked for more than a year at the C2RMF in the painting workshop in the Pavillon de Flore.
“The restoration comprised two principle problems: the removal of the discordant repaintings, some resulting from very ancient and thick accumulations of retouches, the thinning of restoration varnishes oxidised and deteriorated by too many partial cleanings, the moving of excess varnish from one area to another using solvents, retouches and refixings down the centuries throughout its long history, the picture had obviously been devarnished and revarnished many times but fortunately the picture layer had been sufficient robust to resist this. The extremely irregular and oxidised state of the surviving varnishes distorted all the tints and, by a well-known physical effect, ‘decolourised’ and yellowed the original hues.
“The gradual thinning of these varnishes to a uniform level was therefore the restoration’s major challenge. During this process, resin analyses and measurements of varnish thickness, conducted by new techniques developed at the C2RMF enabled an extremely precise approach to the thinning, which had to be undertaken delicately, both to preserve a degree of patina on the picture and protect the painting itself from any contact with the solvents used. This extremely gentle cleaning process revealed a painting in vivid colours and resuscitated the splendid lapis lazuli blues and refined violet reds and crimson kermes gum lacquer.”
In this classic museum PR conflation of aesthetic and conservation “needs”, we are variously told that aesthetic changes had been necessary on urgent conservation grounds; that the restoration was “envisaged” some time ago and that this aspiration had been reinforced by the picture itself whose dull appearance “demanded” a restoration. Meeting this demand from the inanimate is said to have been made “inevitable” by a mysterious conservation ailment in the form of “minute bulges” which “very probably” were being caused by the varnish itself.
“Very probably” is a distinctly weasel-phrase and seemed the more so because Ségolène Bergeon Langle had very recently pointed out that the minute manifestations were confined to a single board (which had been badly cut when first made) within the panel, and therefore could not have derived from overall varnishes which some were itching to remove. This analysis of the actual cause was accepted on the DVD film where it was claimed that the restoration had had to proceed because of “lifting due to contraction of the wooden panel”. That raised the larger restoration question: if the varnish was not causing the lifting, was there any conservation reason for removing it at all? A frankly negative admission on that point would, of course, have greatly strengthened the position of the “moderates” on the advisory committee who were, under any circumstances, urging restraint and caution. We now hear that not only is it admitted that the liftings of paint were indeed caused by this plank, but also that they had easily been repaired locally. In hope of preventing future liftings, the panel painting is to be encased in framing that will incorporate a suitable micro-climate designed to stabilise the offending wood. On the face of it, this is good news but, in today’s museum practice, a risk removed often seems to make space for another to be incurred. And, sure enough, we also hear it is now thought that, with the provision of its own micro-climate, this great picture can be regarded as safely peripatetic – and that as such it is to be despatched in the first instance to an annexe of the Louvre at Lens, in northern France. But then where next – Tokyo? Dubai? California? And on what tariff? Perhaps in addition to adding this “restoration of the century” to our list of cleanings sold on misleading conservation-necessity prospectuses, the picture should also be put on our Now At Grave Risk of Travel Injuries category? We trust that the Louvre authorities will amend their misleading wall notice on the restoration.
The material on the picture’s surface is said to have been the accumulated product of many and various previous restorations (some with caustic substances), throughout all of which Leonardo’s original paint had suffered no injury. What chance, therefore, could the last restoration’s highly advanced, “extremely precise” techniques have produced anything other than an “extremely gentle” cleaning? Well, first of all, the proof of the pudding is in the appraising of the result – see right. Second, it is never wise to take restorers’ own prognoses at face value. Errors can occur at any point of the restoration process. The suggestion that a uniform layer of varnish had been left in place might surprise members of the international advisory committee who had been under the impression that varying thicknesses of varnish would be left in place according to specific needs for caution (as with the especially vulnerable face of “St. Anne” – see right).
Further, questions arise in terms of conservation methodological practice. In restorations, paintings are stripped down and then reassembled by repainting. Where, then, are the detailed photographic sequences showing the painting before cleaning; after cleaning but before retouching; and, after cleaning and retouching? Without such hard visual documents the path of the restoration cannot be retraced. It was only when the National Gallery kindly provided such photographs that we were able to identify an unacknowledged change that had been made to the angel’s mouth in the London “Virgin of the Rocks” (see comments at Figs. 17 & 18).
In the two versions of the Louvre exhibition catalogue (one of 52 pages at 8 Euros and one of 448 pages at 45 Euros) there are not even any facing images showing the picture before and after restoration. Such a pairing is found in the (excellent) Beaux Arts special “Léonard de Vinci – Les secrets d’un génie” at 6.90 Euros (a similar comparison is shown here in Figs. 14 & 16). There is also a helpful before and after restoration record of the National Gallery’s “Virgin of the Rocks” (see Figs. 17 & 18).
The Louvre and the National Gallery leonardo restorations share a common methodological feature: in both cases it is said that old varnishes were thinned but not completely removed. This claim creates a conundrum because in both cases changes have taken place which seem inexplicable in terms of a mere thinning of varnish. When explanations are sought or when appraisals are attempted, restoration authorities sometimes take fright, retreating behind claims that theirs is a highly specialised technical field whose mysteries are simply unfathomable to outsiders. Restorers themselves often don the proverbial doctors’ white coat and claim to have acted on not aesthetic grounds at all but on (quasi-) medical ones. For the “St. Anne” restorer, Cinzia Pasquali, this restoration was not made for aesthetic reasons. Instead: “This was about caring for a sick patient. From the conservation point of view we had to intervene, primarily to address a cracking of the varnish that could leave the paint exposed to damage.” Well, we now know that in this particular case the patient was not as sick as had been thought. But more importantly, we should remember at all times that works of art are made by people to be looked at by people. They are not created as laboratory specimens. Artists work with materials so as to produce values and relationships between values. No scientific test can analyse a value, let alone an inter-related group of values. To its maker, the professional test of a work of art is how it looks – the painter stops working precisely when the picture looks right.
In the realm of art and away from corporately funded museum politics, the ultimate test of a restoration is also how it looks – but that is to say, not how it strikes the passing viewer (who may or may not be thrilled by solvent-brightened colours) but how it looks now as compared with how it looked previously; how it looked not just immediately prior to restoration but in its successively recorded history; and, most especially, how it looked the last time it was cleaned. If picture cleanings did no harm, if they were as simple and non-destructive as cleaning a window, each restored work would return to its appearance when last cleaned, and there would be no surprises, “discoveries”, “revelations”, “restorations of the century” – or controversies. While no one ever berates a window cleaner for ruining the views, restorations irreversibly change a picture’s “view” on to the world. Restoration is a one-way street that runs away from history, away from the original work.
All cleaning controversies turn on the extent to which pictures suffer during restoration. Even among those who authorise restorations, some concede that there are losses as well as gains and frankly admit to seeking the best trade-off between improved legibility and pictorial injury. Defensive restorers insist that pictures cannot be harmed by their own “advanced”, “gentle” and “scientifically underpinned” methods. Making a fetish of the “safety” and the “science” of restoration methods attempts to shelve restorers responsibility to identify and account for all material and aesthetic changes. Given that all restorers’ methods cannot be superior, none should be held beyond question. With the physical alteration of art, aesthetic appraisal is essential to scholarship and art’s protection. In appraising restorations, the comparison of like with like is of the essence.
In visual arts, appraisals are necessarily made by visual comparisons. Pictures are made by eye, hand and mind, to be viewed by eye and mind. Because each cleaning destroys the earlier state, comparisons can only be made between pre and post-restoration photographs. While straightforward cleaning might always be expected to achieve a greater vivacity of pictorial effect, it should never be made at the expense of the pictorial relationships, patterns, or gradations made in the service of modelling, that can be seen to reside in the uncleaned work. If the relationships can be seen it is because they are there – whatever chemical analyses might suggest to the contrary. The aesthetic production of pictorial values by artists is the proper science of art. Unfortunately, in such terms, the values that were formerly evident in this great picture seem not to have fared well in this last cleaning.
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