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Posts tagged “David Packwood

The Futurist Louvre and Leonardo’s Fate: nothing ventured, nothing lost

4 February 2014

The more indefensible their restorations, the more museum regimes dig in and shut their ears to criticisms. (With bad restorations the eyes, too, often seem to have been shut.) Given the controversial outcome of the Louvre’s 2011 restoration of Leonardo’s “The Virgin and Child With St. Anne”, it might seem a provocative defiance that the museum should so soon announce that it is not only about to restore another Leonardo (his “La Belle Ferronnière”), as was reported in the Wall Street Journal on 1 February 2014 (Da Vinci Code Red: Restorations Spur Debate), but also the desperately vulnerable “Mona Lisa”.

Vincent Delieuvin, the curator driving (or heading) the restorations, makes a number of claims that lack foundation in the Wall Street Journal article. We had not dared to touch this Leonardo previously, he reportedly says, but now restoration techniques have improved to the point where the museum thinks them safe – even for the Mona Lisa which has become “yellowish and very dark”. The history of modern restoration is peppered with facile claims of technical “advances” that were rushed untested on to great works of art, soon to become the acknowledged follies of yesteryear. (We have often wondered whether the credulous techno-enthusiasts of Futurism, which movement died a swift death, had not migrated into art conservation.) Of what do these latest claimed advances consist? Have they arisen since the 2011 restoration of the “Virgin and St. Anne”, the controversial treatment of which provoked resignations from the restoration’s own advisory committee (as we reported on 28 April 2012 – “Rocking the Louvre: the Bergeon Langle Disclosures on a Leonardo da Vinci restoration”).

On the “La Belle Ferronnière” Mr Delieuvin holds that “The many layers of darkened varnish added over the centuries are getting old and make the painting dark and yellowish”. Such phobic/alarmist language is a constant feature of the would-be restorer’s rationale. After restoration, Mr Delieuvin predicts, the “contrasts and colours will come out again; so will the feeling of movement”. A long-standing (French) charge against intrusive restorers was that in their haste to “liberate” colours and dispel all signs of age in what are old paintings, they remove original material and impart a falsifying, historically inappropriate modernity. Restorers of every generation have insisted that their “advanced science” can prove that no original material was lost. In so saying, they demonstrate cultural naivety and failures to comprehend the nature of that of which art consists and the artistic and art historical, not “techno/scientific”, terrain on which all restoration evaluations should properly be conducted.

Restoration disputes stem from losses of perceived artistic values. Although artists certainly work with and through materials, the materials are not ends in themselves, or even vehicles of intrinisic value. Rather, they are the means by which the “stuff of art” is given fixed material expression. The currency with which artists work is values and the relationships between values. Through these they work by eye to produce artefacts which fix and carry their intentions, so that they might subsequently be optically apprehended by others. In the production of a painting every last feature is a product of thought. But every judgement, evaluation and adjustment is transmitted exclusively through human sight, and not, as techno-conservationists might prefer, through sub-atomic particles of matter, complex chemical formulations or other mystificatory hi-tech red herrings.

Thus, to take Mr Delieuvin’s promised delivery of increases of “contrasts and colours” in the pending Leonardo restoration, we can anticipate the outcome to some considerable degree by applying those very criteria to the last restored Louvre Leonardo, the “Virgin and St. Anne”. On that work it is clear that while an increase in the brightness of colours occurred, it was at the expense of a catastrophic reduction of contrast and strength in the tones by which the heads had been modelled and given corporeal form, as the Poussin scholar, David Packwood, very generously acknowleded on his (excellent) website Art History Today (“Aesthetic Appraisal and the Restoration Process”):

“I’m looking with growing horror at images of pre and post restoration images of the Leonardo Virgin and St Anne in the Louvre. They can be found here, in an article by the head of ArtWatch, Michael Daley. In a balanced and thoughtful post on restoration culture, Michael Daley highlights its real dangers, clearly evident in this latest example…”

When appraising restorations it is essential to do what museum curators and restorers are so clearly reluctant to do in their own catalogues and publications: place directly comparable photographs of before and after cleaning states in the closest possible proximity. This facilitates direct optical appraisal – which is the only methodologically sound and appropriate means of evaluating a work whose appearance has been transformed by a technician’s swabs, solvents, scalpels. It is never possible to compare a restored painting with its own pre-restoration condition because that is irreversibly effaced in the process. Photographs must therefore stand in lieu.

In every photo-comparison shown here of details from the “Virgin and St. Anne”, it is clear to any educated eye that the tonal range that was formerly visible has been massively reduced. This, ipso facto, is a proof of artistic injury: “dirty varnishes” could not have disported themselves in such a manner as to enhance the effects of Leonardo’s own handiwork. Moreover, the values and relationships of values that were perceivable through the varnishes before restoration would, on Mr Delieuvin’s own optical schema, be expected to emerge from a “cleaning” with greatly enhanced, not reduced, power and vivacity – in short, while the lights would certainly be expected to emerge lighter, the half tones and darks should also be strengthened and not diminished – as seen right.

Consider the comparison of the Virgin’s eyes at Figs. 5 and 6. Such has been the loss of modelling-by-shading that the face is reduced to a mask-like reminiscence of its former self. The now obtrusively dark slits of the down-cast eyes are no longer subsumed within the previous anatomically descriptive overall shading of eye sockets. Had Leonardo really painted the face as is presented today as “recovery”, it would be for the restorers, curators and trustees of the Louvre to explain how it was that dirty varnish had formerly imparted superior, Leonardesque traits to the master’s own handiwork. It would also need to be explained why Leonardo might have been content to leave two versions of the pupil of the Virgin’s right eye simultaneously visible on his finished picture.

If we consider the comparison shown at Figs. 7 and 8 of the Virgin’s lower face, another aspect of injury is apparent. That is, as the half-tones have receded under the force of swabs and solvent, the resulting increased zones of brightness leave the face looking looks both fatter and flatter. It is hardly heresy to suggest that Leonardo used shading to turn the surfaces of his heads away from light and into shadow. What kind of benefit, then, has been gained by delivering a lighter, brighter, flatter Leonardo? For what reason and on whose authority was the expression of the Virgin’s mouth altered?

As our colleague at ARIPA, Michel Favre-Felix, disclosed a few years ago, in the Veronese head shown in Figs. 10 to 13, we find evidence of a Louvre house-style of cleaning and repainting that imposes crass puffed-up modernist forms and redrawn and re-modelled features on Renaissance heads. This bizarrely unwarranted policy is accompanied by a cavalier disregard for the norms of museum-world conservation record keeping (as is evident in the Louvre spokeswoman’s reported comments at Fig. 11). The Louvre, as today constituted, is doing indefensible things to the art it holds and feels no obligation even to record or report them. The tragedy is that until quite recently this museum was a model of restoration restraint and a reproach to other institutions. Today, along with with its bonanza of destructive restorations, increasingly we find intrusive and vulgar commercial exploitation by Big Sponsors: “Another Restored Leonardo, Another Sponsored Celebration – Ferragamo at the Louvre”. To think that such a great institution could sink so swiftly into meretricious stewardship and displays of bling.

Michael Daley

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Above, Figs. 1 and 2: Details of the mouth of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” showing the badly fractured “topography” of the paint and varnish layers. In view of the results shown below of the recent cleaning of Leonardo’s “The Virgin and St. Anne”, it is impossible to consider the prospect of a restoration of this painting with anything other than absolute dread. By what means might an attempt be made to separate the infinitely subtle brown modelling of the mouth from the ancient varnishes in which they are presently incorporated?
Above, Figs. 3a and 3b; Figs. 4a and 4b; Figs. 5, 6, 7, and 8: Comparative details of St Anne in Leonardo’s “The Virgin and St Anne” showing the head before and after its recent “cleaning” and “restoration”. In each pairing, the before cleaning state is either to the left or above the post-restoration image.
Above, Figs. 9a and 9b: The head of Leonardo’s Virgin shown before (left) and after (right) treatment.
Above, Figs. 10, 11, 12 and 13. Fig 10: The cover of the Artwatch UK members’ journal which discussed recent botched restorations at the Prado and the Louvre. Fig. 11: Coverage in The Week of Dalya Alberge’s 13 June 2010 Observer article “Louvre masterpiece by Veronese ‘mutilated’ by botched nose jobs”. Figs. 12 and 13: The Louvre’s mutilated Veronese head before (top) and after (above) its covert and unrecorded double restorations.
Below, Figs. 14a and 14b: The mutilated Louvre Veronese head (left), and the homage to the “Mona Lisa” by Botero (right) to which the several-times adulterated Veronese head now bears a strong resembance in its puffed-out forms.
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Attacked Poussins at the National Gallery

20th July 2011

As Donald Rumsfeld might have said, in even the best and most conscientiously administered museums and galleries, “incidents happen”. When the incident is an assault on a work of art, museums have traditionally sought to play down the event for (legitimate) fear of triggering copycat attacks. In an age where every other museum visitor owns a mobile phone with a camera, that is no longer an option. The Observer’s apparently exclusive report on the spray-paint attack on two Poussin paintings at the National Gallery on Saturday generated instant and world-wide coverage (see Fig. 1). Some British art commentators unhelpfully responded by spelling out how vulnerable paintings are at such locations in the National Gallery. One over-heated newspaper art critic blogger effectively commended the location in the gallery to would-be vandals wishing for a quick unobtrusive exit. A blogger from a west end gallery then echoed and highlighted this vulnerability with a diagram showing the gallery layout and the warding point. The art historian and Poussin specialist, David Packwood, responded more judiciously on his blog Art History Today and pointed out that:

Sadly, this isn’t the first time this painting [“The Adoration of the Golden Calf”] has been the target of vandals. In 1978, a lunatic slashed the canvas with a knife, and this serious damage resulted in restoration. I’m just wondering if this nutter knew of the earlier attack and wanted to replicate it, albeit with a different weapon.

In a May 1998 visit to the National Gallery we discovered that many paintings had been removed from a wall that bore large water stains in the then new French rooms (see Fig. 4). A phone call to a newspaper established that no word had arrived of the incident (an overnight downpour that had overwhelmed the gutters). Although one blogger reproduced a statement issued by the gallery on last week’s Poussin attack, last September an (accidental) injury to another important religious painting went, so far as we know, un-reported.

The National Gallery is presently reducing warding coverage because of funding cuts and is doing so in an age of growing visitor numbers and declining standards of public behaviour. We understand that the room in which the Poussin attack occurred was unusually busy because of heavy rain last Saturday and that the warder responsible for it was also responsible for the adjacent gallery. It should be said that although there is opposition within the National Gallery to the policy of doubling up the number of rooms warders must supervise, this problem seems to extend beyond the gallery. We learn that the day before the Poussin attack, an artist visitor to the Tate who complained to a warder about people standing in front of paintings while having their photographs taken, was told that this is now allowed because staff cut-backs make it impossible to enforce the gallery’s own rules.

What makes the recent attack a matter of especially acute sensitivity for the National Gallery is the fact that in November an unprecedentedly large group of borrowed Leonardo paintings are due to arrive for a temporary exhibition. As described before, the loan of one of these paintings, the already air-miles rich “The Lady with an Ermine” (see Fig. 2), has been and is being vehemently opposed by leading scholars and conservators in Poland and we have responded to their appeal to help draw international attention to their opposition (see Fig. 3).

We have also recently reported that in the European Union, a great increase in such loans is being sought by restricting insurance cover to the time that paintings are in transit, on the contention that once pictures arrive at their loan destinations, they are as safe as they would be if left undisturbed at home. But, that ignores the risks run during hectic exhibition installations and the even more hectic “de-installations”. Again, as we have reported, it is only three years since the National Gallery’s own Beccafumi panel “Marcia” was dropped and smashed when being removed from a temporary exhibition at the gallery (see Fig. 6). Insurance cover was not involved but the consequence of the accident was that after repair and retouching, the picture and its undamaged sister panel (“Tanaquil”) were not returned to the main galleries but were instead consigned to the gloom of the gallery’s reserve collection which can be accessed by the public for only a few hours each week.

That accident was disclosed on the gallery’s website and, after we covered it in our journal, a copy of a report on the incident and photographs of the smashed painting were made available to us. There was no cover-up, but the damage done is forever. Any movement of a fragile Renaissance panel constitutes a risk. Unnecessary movements constitute unnecessary risks. Unnecessary movements that are made in defiance of the best and most responsible expert curatorial and conservation advice (as with Leonardo’s “Lady with an Ermine”) constitute reckless and irresponsible risk-taking. To send that painting to London and then to Berlin and then to Madrid would be to triplicate irresponsibility with a jewel of a proud nation’s patrimony.

Notwithstanding the European Union’s madcap money-crazed ambitions to shuttle an ever-increasing stream of artworks around the continent, the continuing risks are fully recognised by the people who insure the works. The already high insurance cost of loans threatens to become higher – and for a chilling actuarial reason. In the context of two Turner paintings that were stolen in 1994 for a princely multi-million pounds ransom by a gang of what the former Paymaster General, Geoffrey Robinson, described as “particularly nasty Serbs” when loaned by the Tate Gallery to a museum in Germany, the art insurance underwriter, Robert Hiscox, recently admitted to the director of the National Portrait Gallery, Sandy Nairne, that:

In insurance underwriting you have to balance your books and there is no way we are getting in enough overall premium income to cover what will one day be an enormous loss when an aeroplane full of valuable art crashes, let alone if it lands on MOMA.” (See Fig. 7.)

ArtWatch has appealed in the past to the authorities not take unnecessary risks with irreplaceable and fragile historic works of art – whatever the profits and temporary benefits. We have yet to be heeded but not many years ago museum conservators’ advice against loaning fragile pictures was acted upon:

Our primary responsibility is to act as the guardians of the paintings we buy or are entrusted with by gift or loan. Masterpieces should not be put at unnecessary risk in the temporary interest of policy (as when the French Government sent the “Mona Lisa” to America and Tokyo, or the Vatican dispatched the Michelangelo “Pietá” to New York), profit, patriotism, scholarship or pleasure… stimulated by increased knowledge of the dangers involved in movement and changes of light and humidity, our attention has been focussed more sharply than ever in the last decades on the vulnerability of works of art.”

That eloquent testimony was published in 1975 in the annual report of…the National Gallery. The example of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” (- see Fig. 8 ) proved prescient: it was disclosed only recently and half a century after the event that the painting had been drenched overnight in an undetected incident when a faulty sprinkler system went off within the otherwise absolutely secure vault of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Incidents really do still happen.

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: a photograph by Steven Dear, published in the Observer of July 17, announcing attacks on two Poussin paintings at the National Gallery, including (above) his “Adoration of the Golden calf”.
Above, Fig. 2: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine”, which has recently been dispatched abroad from Poland many times in exchange for fees.
Above, Fig. 3: the Appeal to ArtWatch UK from the President of the Krakow Division of the Association of Art Historians.
Above, Fig. 4: The Yves Saint Laurent Room at the National Gallery, London. The room, built with a £1m gift from the YSL fashion house, is available for hire and is described as “an elegant gallery housing a selection of French 17th-century paintings. The opulent colouring of fabric on the walls contributes to the atmospheric setting for a stylish dinner party or canapé reception.” The white marks on the left wall are an approximate indication of the extent of water penetration that occurred during an overnight downpour, shortly after the new gallery that doubles as reception/banqueting room had been completed.
Above, Fig. 5: the only press coverage that accompanied the flooding of the Yves Saint Lauren room at the National Gallery in 1998.
Above, Fig. 6: the National Gallery’s panel painting “Marcia”, by Beccafumi, which was dropped and smashed when being dismantled from a temporary exhibition at the gallery on 21 January 2008.
Above, Fig. 7: a Chinese Airlines Boeing 737-800 which was destroyed by fire shortly after landing in Okinawa on 20 August 2007.
Above, Fig. 8: crowds queuing to see the “Mona Lisa” at the Washington National Gallery in 1963 – from the 1969 memoir “Self-Portrait with Donors” by the Gallery’s former director, John Walker.
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