Artwatch UK

Restoration criticism should be banned: official

An art historian has mentioned the restoration of the Sistine Chapel and professional restorers are furious. Art restorers, it seems, cannot cope with criticism and would like certain discussions of restorations to be proscribed.

A reviewer of a book on the condition of works of art, protests that its author became “enmeshed” in the debates over the controversial cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, thereby committing “error” in an otherwise “thoroughly accurate and levelly argued book”.

Why should a discussion of the greatest art restoration controversy of modern times – and a discussion that was made precisely when writing of the importance of condition in works of art – trigger defensive and totalitarian impulses, as if some Index Librorum Prohibitorum on restoration controversies has been breached? The review of Paul Taylor’s book Condition – The Ageing of Art appeared in the March 2016 ICON NEWS, the magazine of the Institute of Conservation. The reviewer, Dr Clare Finn, ACR, is a member of the Institute of Conservation. She runs a firm, Clare Finn & Co Ltd, which is described on its online home page as being “a well-known and highly respected firm of painting restorers and conservators”. Dr Finn is not alone among restorers in seeking such a prohibition on this topic.

As we discussed in the recent conference on connoisseurship and law, another of the art restoration trade’s many Sistine Chapel injury-deniers, Will Shank, reviewed Paul Taylor’s book in the December 2015 Art Newspaper. Shank, who is said to work “privately in collections care in from his base in Barcelona” is the co-chair of the US initiative Rescue Public Murals. He also complained of Taylor’s discussion of the Sistine Chapel restoration controversy. He, too, did so despite finding Taylor’s research thorough and his presentation “for the most part unbiased.” What gave offence was the scholar’s “choice to light a fire under a long dead controversy.” Shank gratefully acknowledges that the Sistine Chapel restoration controversy brought the term art restoration into the consciousness of the “lay public”. Writing thusly from within the cosy confines of the art conservation priest-craft, Shank had the brass to complain that it failed to do so “in a positive way”.

For well over half a century, picture restorers (who used to be dubbed Picture Rats) have sought to present their trade as academically respectable with ethical, rigorously conducted and reported procedures. (Shank obtained a Certificate in Paintings Conservation from Harvard University Art Museums in 1983 after taking a Master of Arts in Art History in 1981 at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, following a Bachelor of Science, 1973 in languages and linguistics at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.). Picture restorers should recognise that in properly rigorous intellectual disciplines, no topics are proscribed; that all are fair game for scrutiny and discussion; and, that there are no heresies. Shank and Finn will be aware that although the Vatican has yet to publish a technical report on its still-controversial restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, it abolished its list of banned books in 1966.

Michael Daley, 5 April 2016

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *