NEW YEAR REPORT
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.”
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.
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