Artwatch UK


6 January 2014

Assaults on History: Dishing Donors; a Vatican Wobble; and, Reigniting an Old Battle of Hearts, Minds, Interests and Evidence

We had a good and eventful campaigning year in 2013. At home, ArtWatch was invited to speak in the Scottish Parliament for the interests of art and against a municipal arts bureaucracy seeking to overturn a prodigiously generous benefactor’s wishes and instructions in order, effectively, to reward its own negligence with an extension of powers and a major capital project (without clear costing). Our views on this proposal were carried in the October Museums Journal, the December Apollo (see Burrell pdf) and in the Sunday Times (Scotland). We found ourselves in the midst of a high-level museum world schism.

MacGregor versus Penny

Speaking for the overturning of Sir William Burrell’s terms of bequest was the Glaswegian director of the British Museum and former director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor. Mr MacGregor had agreed (presumably with the blessing of his trustees) to be co-opted as an adviser and declared partisan onto a Glasgow Life body – “Burrell Renaissance”. In support of Glasgow Life’s ambitions, MacGregor expressed with characteristic (lawerish) eloquence impatience with the length of time in which The Living might find themselves governed by the Wishes of the Dead. The present director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny (a scholar, rather than a populariser of others’ scholarship) spoke no less eloquently in opposition: “What is very often forgotten in discussions of this kind is the moral advantage and tangible benefit of a declared preference for honouring the wishes of the donor. Real concern for the future is always more persuasive in those who have a genuine feeling for the past.”

Parliamentary Concerns

The matter will come before the Scottish Parliament this month. Intriguingly, one of the members of the parliamentary committee that scrutinised the Burrell Lending request from Glasgow Life, Gordon MacDonald, SNP MSP, told yesterday’s Sunday Times (Scotland) that: “I too was concerned at the cost of £45m bearing in mind that Kelvingrove refurbishment cost £29m and they raised £2.5m from sponsorship and donations. The major work at the Burrell is a complete new roof and removal of lecture theatre to create new gallery space. Both of which will be costly, but £45m?”

Fresh Crimes Against Art and History

Internationally, two recent horrifically destructive mural restorations (the first in Spain and another in China, see Figs. 1 to 4) had reminded many of the great Sistine Chapel cleaning controversies of the 1980s and early 1990s (see “Restoration tragedies”). In January 2013 we were drawn back into that monumental Sistine Chapel restoration controversy (which had triggered ArtWatch’s founding in 1992) by an official acknowledgement that Michelangelo’s stripped-down ceiling frescoes were prey to failures of environmental regulation that were being exacerbated by swelling visitor numbers. We had warned against such failures twenty years earlier: “Artificially induced changes in moisture, heat and patterns of air convection can themselves do gross damage…The most obvious risk is that external air-borne pollutants will be pulled in.” (“The Physical Condition of the Sistine Ceiling”, Chapter IV, p.122, Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal, London, 1993.)

An Old Crime Implodes

At the beginning of last year, Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums, insisted that whatever the problems, visitor numbers could not be restricted: “We have entered the era of large-scale tourism, and millions want to enjoy our historical culture. Limiting numbers is unthinkable.” Today, the unthinkable may be on the cards. Paolucci acknowledges in this month’s Art Newspaper that the huge increases in visitor numbers (5,459,000 last year from 4m the year before) constitute his biggest practical problem:

“…The sheer numbers can be damaging, especially in the Sistine Chapel, which everyone wants to see. At the height of the season it gets 20,000 to 25,000 people a day, all breathing out carbon dioxide and vapour and bringing in dust. We are employing Carrier, a top US firm [who donated and installed the presently failing system] to work out a method of dealing with humidity; otherwise we will have to limit numbers… (Emphasis added.)

On January 2nd Paolucci expressed further concerns in a Vatican museums press release: “I’m asking myself what will happen during the coming Easter holidays and the great canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. This will bring to Rome an immense mass of Catholics from every part of the world. Such extraordinary numbers oblige one to make some fundamental and priority considerations. The objective must be from now on to observe constant maintenance and preventive conservation of the Heritage. To do so we must provide ever more important resources.” At the same time, Paolucci promised that, after 3 years of work, all will be ready in May for the “improved air conditioning, reduction of pollutants and humidity control of the temperature.”

Antonio Paolucci, a distinguished Renaissance art scholar (and student of Roberto Longhi), might be thought to be in an impossible position as director of the Vatican’s museums. Presently, Michelangelo’s frescoes are being devoured by pollution and condensation that are the inescapable by-products of permitting the Sistine Chapel to serve as a tourism cash cow. At the time of the last restoration of the ceiling, the Vatican’s finances were a source of scandal (one of its bankers had been found hanged on a bridge in London). On December 7/8 last year the Financial Times reported “The Vatican bank was established to serve the work of the Catholic Church around the world. It has now become synonymous with financial scandal. An 11-month FT investigation reveals the extent of mismanagement at the Euros 5bn-asset bank and the murkiness of its operations that finally led regulators, international agencies, big banks and even Pope Francis himself to take action.” (Rachel Sanderson, “The Scandal at God’s Bank”.) In this climate, is cutting back visitors really an option? For that matter, is the new air-conditioning system promised for May capable of coping with yet further increases of visitors of the kind indicated by Paolucci?

In the absence of dramatic reductions of visitor numbers (which must presently be netting in excess of £75m p.a.) it is hard to see how any amount of conservation tinkering might resolve the present crisis. It would never be logistically possible to seal every visitor inside a “moon-suit” that would prevent the destructive cycles of evaporation and condensation that were already known in 1993 to be creating continuous migrations of salts and vapour within the frescoes. (At that date it was established that some 425 kilos of water were being pumped into the chapel’s microclimate by the daily total of 17,000 visitors. On today’s visits that volume of water must reach 600 kilos per day.)

No increase of expenditure could reverse the initial un-wisdom of stripping Michelangelo’s frescoes down to the bare plaster, thereby both bowdlerising his art and exposing its remains to environmental degradation. No expenditure could put back the glue painting with which Michelangelo had modified and intensified the sculptural presence of his figures and the unprecedented dramatically illuminated theatre which they occupied. Those characteristics had startled and awed his contemporaries. They were repeatedly recorded in copies made in Michelangelo’s own lifetime and for centuries afterwards (see, in particular the late 18th century copy opposite at Fig. 8).

The Vatican is presently attempting to rebuild the relationship between the Church and contemporary art that was sundered 200 years ago. It is a noble aim but it will remain a vain one until the corruption of art history that followed the restoration of Michelangelo’s ceiling is acknowledged and addessed. What Michelangelo achieved on the ceiling was unprecedented and precious: a profoundly spiritual fusion of the human and the divine that was rendered corporeal and situated in a palpable space contiguous with our own. Scholar supporters of the restoration claimed in defence of the emasculation of that original stupendous and unique achievement that we could now make “more sense” of Michelangelo; that we could now see a clearer link between his art and that of the inferiors who preceded and followed him. As long as the Church continues to endorse so unfounded, untenable an account, it will be in no moral position to forge any constructive relationship between itself and today’s artists.

If the cash flow is to be maintained and if Michelangelo is to be preserved, there would seem to be only one conceivable solution: as with other environmentally vulnerable archaeological/artistic sites, a full-size, absolutely faithful facsimile of the chapel will have to be built as a destination for the ever-swelling press of tourists. Creating an alternative “virtual” chapel might seem a shocking prospect and a colossal admission of failure but would it be more unpalatable than proceeding with the proposed plan described in our previous post to turn the remains of Michelangelo’s own frescoes into a “virtual” colourised caricature of themselves with 7,000 individually attuned colour-enhancing LED lights that would flood the ceiling with an artifical and chromatically falsifying light ten times more powerful than today’s? Building a facsimile to draw the tourists would mean that what survives of Michelangelo’s original work might then be left in peace, as it is, and once again in a congenial, stable climate.

Further and Fresh Doubts

On November 30th Peter Aspden, the Financial Times’s culture correspondent, declared that the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes (“the most important such project in recent history”) had been a “crushing disappointment”. Recalling that before restoration the frescoes had been “more real, more subtle, more moving”, Aspden noted that arguments in defence of the restoration “have been rebutted, with no little ferocity.” If Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes remain the worst case of injuries suffered in the great post-war restoration bonanza, they are not alone. Fortunately there are increasing signs of doubts about modern restoration procedures elsewhere. Consider this further critique of picture restorers that emerged from a most surprising quarter on December 17th:

“…The problem is, each generation of conservators has always thought that they, uniquely, had the definitive solution to fixing works of art. In the world of pictures, today’s conservators spend much of their time undoing the earlier, bad restoration of their predecessors. For example, the dreadful wax re-lining technique all the rage only a generation or so ago is now routinely removed, as over time the wax creates a dull, thick layer which affects the paint surface. Before that, there was a fashion for planing down pictures on panel, and laying them onto canvas, with all the attendant holes and large losses that entailed (see for example the poor Bridgewater Raphaels in the National Gallery of Scotland). More recently, conservators thought they had invented a synthetic varnish that didn’t go yellow with age. But now we are discovering that it just goes grey instead. So the pictures have to be cleaned all over again. It’s a fact that over the course of art history more damage has been done to pictures by those claiming to be ‘conserving’ them than anything else. We can only wonder which of today’s foolproof conservation techniques will have to be rectified by tomorrow’s restorers. Sometimes I think it’s all a giant, inter-generational job creation scheme by some shadowy, global conservator’s union.”

We had noted on 12 July last year that “There has never been a make-work project like art restoration”, and earlier, on 17 March 2011, that “Art conservation is now a substantial vested interest, a business with a shifting ideology that serves as self-promotion… Regardless of conservators’ good intentions, the fact remains that their treatments alter the material fabric and aesthetic appearance of works of art. Alterations are made on promises to prolong life, prevent deteriorations and recover original conditions, when history repeatedly shows contrary outcomes”. Although we greatly welcome the recent tacit endorsement, its source is perplexing. The author, Bendor Grosvenor, made these remarks on his (lively and informative) blog, Art History News.

Art Market restorations

Mr Grosvenor, a modern historian by training, has for a number of years worked as a researcher and, latterly, as a second pair of eyes for the Mayfair art dealer, Philip Mould, who happens to be a highly active “stripper-downer” of paintings in search of something better and more valuable underneath. In countless BBC television programmes, in his 1995 book Sleepers and in his 2009 book Sleuth, Mr Mould has been a most effective propagandist for today’s professional restorers, of whom Grosvenor evidently now entertains doubts. Mould himself has conceded with increasing frequency that great risks attend the stripping down of paintings. When asked recently on the best method of cleaning pictures, he replied somewhat flippantly “With spit and polish” and made no mention of the solvents – principally acetone – and scalpels used by his own restorers. (We have been haunted for some years by advice given on how to remove nail varnish when no acetone nail varnish remover is to hand: brush on fresh nail varnish, leave for a few moments and then wipe off. The acetone in the new liquid varnish swiftly dissolves the old hard varnish enabling both to be removed with the same cloth.)

Concealment and Disclosure

With the public museum sector we feel compelled to examine the bizarre and perverse phenomenon of promoting demonstrably wrecked paintings in special loan exhibitions. One such is the Clark Institute’s Turner “Rockets and Blue Lights”, which work is once again being promoted in Britain as the Belle of Turner’s Ball, this time at the Greenwich Maritime Museum’s “Turner and the Sea” exhibition. As our colleague in New York, Ruth Osborne, has established, another such restoration-wrecked picture hangs in the Frick Collection as an autograph Vermeer (“Vermeer Interrupted: A Study of Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl Interrupted at Her Music’ at The Frick Collection”). The Frick has refused to release to ArtWatch an archive photograph that shows the frequently undone and redone picture at its most pictorially deranged and incoherent “in-restoration” state. A copy of that photograph is held by the Getty Institute but it cannot be released because of the Frick’s enforcement of copyright ownership. All but the most informed visitors to the Frick will likely have no inkling of what lies beneath the present surface. Where Philip Mould seeks to identify and uncover works of quality that have been distorted by later accretions (- the art trade’s “sleepers”), the Frick presently conspires to pass off tricked-up underlying pictorial carnage as Vermeer’s own handiwork.

The Frick is not alone. The Phillips Collection in Washington has repeatedly spurned our requests to examine the conservation and filmed records of the Kecks’ ruination of Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party”. Museums have grown bolder in promoting their own conservation efforts, sometimes placing restorers behind glass walls to permit public scrutiny. This seeming increase of public accessibility can have an ulterior motive: one leading international conservator disclosed that the practice serves to prevent embarrassing public outbreaks of shock and indignation when familiar works are unveiled after long incarceration in conservation studios. A Turner painting currently undergoing such public exposure is running at the Bowes Museum where the restorer is presently taking a break after encountering difficulties not identified by preliminary “scientific investigations” – the very type of investigation in which Philip Mould has expressed great confidence.

As we have seen in a number of televised Mould restorations, carrying out preliminary scientific tests does not eliminate surprises in the course of restoration once restorers start swiftly cutting through varnishes with their swabs and solvents to get to the paint underneath. We remain sceptical of the value of preliminary scientific or chemical analyses, not least because, as in the case of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, the analysis said to “prove” the artist had not completed his frescoes with glue-based painting conflicts with other more relevant – and, in fact, irrefutable – proofs of the kind often demonstrated on this site, as here today at Figs.13, 14 and 15.

ArtWatch has another full and ideologically challenging year ahead but a first priority will be to demonstrate the extent to which naïve and misplaced faith in today’s restorers can make professional monkeys of scholars, curators and trustees.

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: The now notoriously “restored” wall painting of Christ (Ecce Homo), seen here before (left and centre) and after (right) treatment. (See The “World’s worst restoration” and the Death of Authenticity, and The Battle of Borja: Cecilia Giménez, Restoration Monkeys, Paediatricians, Titian and Great Women Conservators.) The fame of the incident led to a great increase of visitors to the parish church in Borja, Spain. The church imposed an entrance charge. At the end of December the parish priest was arrested for what the Daily Telegraph reports as “suspicion of misappropriating funds [£174,000], of money laundering and sexual abuse”.
Above, Fig. 2: The Daily Telegraph’s report of 23 October 2013 on the Chinese Government-approved, £100,000 restoration during which a Qing dynasty temple fresco was entirely obliterated by luridly colourised repainting. This crime against art and heritage came to light when a student posted comparative photographs online. In the resulting furore, a government official from the city responsible for the temple described the restoration as “an unauthorised project”.
Above, Figs. 3 and 4: The Telegraph reported that Wang Jinyu, an expert on fresco restoration from the Dunhuang Academy, had said the intervention could not be called “restoration, or [even] destructive restoration” because “[It is] the destruction of cultural relics since the original relics no longer exist”. It was noted that the case had echoes of a headline-grabbing incident last year when an elderly parishioner performed “a disastrous restoration” on a 19th century fresco of Christ in the Spanish town of Borja. One Chinese website user wrote. “They have turned a classic painting into graffiti. It looks like something out of Disneyland, doesn’t it?”
Above, Fig. 5: Above: Michelangelo’s prophet Daniel from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, before (left) and after (right) cleaning. The great brightening of colours, simplifications and flattening of design, and destruction of shading and modelling that occurred during restoration led many to complain of the “Disneyfication” of Michelangelo’s work. Note particularly here the loss of folds on the drapery over the shoulder to the left, and the loss of the previous dark shadow to the right of that drapery. Supporters of the restoration defended such alterations on the grounds that Michelangelo had originally painted over-brightly and without chiaroscuro in order that his images would “read” through the gloom of a smokey, candle-lit chapel. Today, despite the creation of a hugely increased chromaticism during the restoration, the Vatican authorites are contending that there needs to be a ten-fold increase in the (artificial) lighting of the ceiling because the present lighting creates a “low-contrast twilight that fails to bring out the colours in Michelangelo’s masterpiece”. Have the colours faded to a tenth of their previous intensity over the last twenty years?
Above, Fig. 6: A greyscale version of Fig. 5. The contention that Michelangelo’s work needs ever-more artificial illumination is ironic – and, in truth, confessional. When his painting was originally unveiled in 1512, observers were stunned not by any brilliance of colouring (no one mentioned his colouring) but by the fact that the artist had given such great emphasis to light and shade, and to “sculptural” modelling in between his great tonal contrasts, that his figures appeared real, not painted, and that they seemed to be occupying real space and not merely decorating surfaces. Experts marvelled that such were Michelangelo’s powers of design that surfaces on the ceiling that were actually advancing towards the viewer, appeared to recede because his his brilliantly conjured illusion of perspective. This novel and revolutionary development was recognised for nearly five centuries…until the last restoration. There are no historical or artistic grounds for accepting claims that the unexpected restoration changes constitute miraculous “revelations” of original values.
Above, Fig. 7: Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses from the tomb of Pope Julius II. In this reproduction we see how light and shadows are trapped/made by the architectural projections. In painting his monumental figures on the Sistine ceiling Michelangelo mimicked the kind of lights and shades that are seen on sculpture placed in architectural contexts, according to the (given) light source. We know that Michelangelo had done so on the ceiling because his effects were described and copied by his contemporaries and then by copyists in following centuries. Defenders of the restoration have claimed that scientific (i. e. chemical) tests, or “diagnostic analysis”, proved that, contrary to previous understanding, Michelangelo had not “modelled” his forms on the ceiling with tonal gradations but that he had modelled principally with colour. This is easily disproved: had Michelangelo constructed his forms with shifting colour values, then all black and white photographs and all black and white engraved copies of the ceiling would look less sculptural. Demonstrably, that is not the case. Similarly, if Michelangelo had constructed his forms by colour, removing the material described by restorers as dirt or varnish, would have produced images more sculptural than before the “cleaning”. That this was not the case is seen in the before and after photographs in colour first at Fig. 5, and then in greyscale at Fig. 6.
Above, Fig. 8: This engraving (of c. 1790) of Michelangelo’s Prophet Daniel shows intense, almost “cinematic” contrasts of light and shade and of very strong shadows that appear to have been cast by the depicted forms and draperies. As such, this image accords perfectly with the responses of Michelangelo’s contemporaries when the ceiling was first painted. It accords with accounts of Michelangelo producing model sculptures of figures that he was painting, in order to study the shadows that would be cast onto the ground or onto adjacent walls. Those who had studied the frescoes’ surfaces at close quarters (before the the last restoration) concluded that Michelangelo had reinforced the shadows on the ceiling with glue-paints carrying black pigment.
Above, left, Fig. 9: This section of the Prophet Daniel seen before cleaning (left) and after cleaning (right) shows stronger shadows and modelling before the restoration. Moreover, it shows that Michelangelo used the black glue-paints to revise the drawing and the modelling in the section of drapery on our left that hangs from Daniel’s right shoulder. When restorers remove material that changes the design of paintings, they usually claim that what was removed was not original but had been applied by previous restorers. That argument can easily be shown to be spurious in this case: where complete records of copies exist, it can be shown that shadows which were lost in the last cleaning had been recorded in all previous copies, including, sometimes, ones made during Michelangelo’s own lifetime. (See, for example, How to Take a Michelangelo Sibyl Apart, from Top to Toes, Frankenweenie – A Black and White Michelangelo for Our Times, and, Cutting Michelangelo Down to Size and Figs. 12-14 here.)
Above, Figs. 10 and 11: Here, we see a detail of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl before cleaning (top) and after cleaning (above). Once again, we see (in microcosm) the losses of shading and modelling that occurred throughout the ceiling. If we make careful comparative appraisals we can see the loss or break-up of actual brush-strokes. We can see that before restoration, the forms of the ear were more decisively drawn (note the black line that picked out the bottom of the ear lobe) and more sculpturally modelled. A straightforward cleaning of a dirty painting would enhance, not diminish, the values that had previously been visible even under dirt.
Above, top, Fig. 12; Above, centre, Fig. 13; Above, Fig. 14.
The above sequence of images of Michelangelo’s Jonah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling shows the continuity of features – note especially the shadow cast by Jonah’s left foot – that were recorded in an unbroken sequence from within Michelangelo’s lifetime until the last restoration. Thus, in Fig. 12 we see a wash drawing by Giulio Clovio which records in its bottom corners parts of two lunettes that Michelangelo had painted before 1512 but then had destroyed by 1534 to prepare the altar wall for his Last Judgement. It is therefore a record of how the figure appeared before the frescoes had become dirty and before any restorer had approached the ceiling. This single image refutes the testimony of the Vatican laboratory’s chemical analysis which was said to have established that Michelangelo had not painted the shadows. The shadows not only survived for centuries they were recorded in all copies and photographs of the figure up to the time of the last restoration. In Fig. 13 we see two engravings made in the early 19th century. In fig. 14 we see a photograph (on the left) showing the extent to which the shadows had survived until the last restoration, and one (on the right) taken after the restoration during which the shadows were removed.
Above, Fig. 15: Turner’s 1810 painting “Lowther Castle – Evening” which was given to the nation and presented to the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle. As the Northern Echo has reported, on acquisition, the Bowes Museum decided to restore the painting. The museum’s conservation manager, John Old, carried out some “background work” and “a chemical analysis” and began the restoration which is visible to the public every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Like Philip Mould’s restorers (see Figs. 17 and 18), Mr Old began by cutting a rectangular “window” directly through the old varnish until paint was reached. This method of cleaning is widely encountered but is controversial within the field. It was strongly opposed, for example, by the influential and famously moderate or “minimalist” restorer Johannes Hell, for reasons that will be given in a future post.
In today’s picture restoration there is constant methodological churn. There are no agreed methods of cleaning – some restorers favour solvents; some favour soaps; some favour abrasives; others, lasers. Some advocate total and swift cleanings; some commend slow and partial ones. Some favour selective cleaning. There are no universally accepted codes of ethics, no strict rules of professional behaviour, there is no striking-off from professional registers. Despite frequently assumed quasi-medical airs and talk of diagnostics, patients and such, there is, as the painter Thomas Torak has regretted, no Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm”.
Above, Fig. 16: John Old at work, as shown in the The Journal of 26 December by which time many overlapping windows had been cut through the varnish. The Journal reports that “Although a chemical analysis was carried out” before work began, “it still turned out to be a bigger challenge than he expected as he discovered areas of paint loss probably caused by damp”. It is disturbing that neither chemical analysis nor close visual scrutiny – or background researches – identified the problem before work began: “Although we did a lot of scientific analysis you can never really tell what you’ll find until you start work”, Mr Old said. It is not reassuring that Old “retouched” the damaged area even before the cleaning was finished. Today, with varnish still to be removed when part of the picture has already been repainted, Old is taking a break from work “while further chemical analysis is undertaken to trace the different techniques used by Turner across the painting”. Given that the preliminary analysis failed to detect the surprise passages of damaged (and presumably repainted) work, how confident can we be at this point that further analysis will succeed in identifying all of Turner’s notoriously quixotic techniques on this painting?
With an artist like Turner, can it ever be sensible to begin by cutting windows quickly through sections of varnish, rather than by proceeding in a gradual and overall campaign to thin the varnish and, thereby, approach what is suspected to be the underlying paint surface with circumspection and retaining the option of holding back where necessary or desirable?
Above, Figs. 17 and 18: The dust wrappers of Philip Mould’s books of 1995 (left) and 2009 (right), both of which show rectangular windows cut sharply through discoloured varnish.
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