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Posts tagged “Michel Favre-Felix

Bring on the Clowns (- or, “Italy Loses It”)

Italy has decided to play international museum world catch-up at precisely the wrong moment and with a panicked, plagarising zeal that bodes ill for art lovers and that country’s own cultural well-being.

MR JAMES BRADBURNE LANDS A NEW JOB AND SEMAPHORE’S “CHANGES AHEAD”

Above, James Bradburne in front of “St Mark Preaching in Alexandria” at the Brera, Milan.

We had hoped against hope that the reports were not true. We could not believe that a deranged Italy had engaged in a mass cull of museum directors in hope of a making another of its periodic surges away from itself and into the future.

It was true, of course, and we should not have averted our eyes and stuffed our ears. In a chilling report carried in the travel section of this weekend’s Finanacial Times, Claire Wrathall (“Shaking up Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera”) anatomises a cultural spasm-in-the-making:

“In January 2015 an advertisement placed by the Italian Ministry of Culture appeared in the Economist seeking directors-general for 20 of Italy’s leading museums…(Existing incumbents had to apply for their own jobs; only one, Anna Coliva of the Galleria Borghese in Rome, was rehired.) As the culture minister, Dario Francheschini, put it, ‘Italian museums should be dynamic. A country with 4,000 museums should see that as a formidable economic resource.'”

Mr Bradburne, a British-Canadian architect and museum expert has landed the directorship of the Brera in Milan (the Pinacotecca di Brera), with, as Ms Wrathall reports, the fatuous governmental brief “to turn one of the world’s greatest collections of Renaissance masterpieces (not to mention works by 20th-century Italian artists such as Modigliani, Morandi and Severini)” into “an outstanding museum.” Since when was the Brera not an outstanding museum? Since when have museums in Italy not been a formidable economic force? Italy can hardly be chasing even more tourists? If Brits are the cat’s pyjamas as curators, how come our own museums are filling up with Germans? (Could this be an EU conspiracy to simulate dynamism in a moribund entity by artificially increasing the velocity of trans-national exchanges?)

POSSIBLE USES FOR MR JAMES BRADBURNE

It seems that Mr Bradburne’s reputation at the Palazzo Strozzi awakened the culture minister to “the need to shake up the nation’s moribund museums”. So, how do you shake a museum blessed with great art and enjoying an ideal natural lighting in which to view paintings? Official Answer: as Mr Bradburne puts it, “When I got here I was shocked by the dull flat approach to lighting which strove to recreate the sort of northern light the artist would have worked in.”

In other words, to shake things up, you obliterate the best and most sympathetic lighting imaginable – the very light in which the work was made. And then you replace it with what? In Mr Bradburne’s own words, you swap old orthodoxy with today’s fashion, “That is an old orthodoxy; the prevailing fashion nowadays is to put things in the spotlight. We speak with light and colour now.” Note the brazen and presumptuous sleight of hand: it is we, the adminstrators, not the art, who now speak. And, “we” may now play pseudo-theatrical games with all the inappropriate and intrusive vulgarity and gusto of interior designers on the loose in a boutique: “By making the walls darker you can make more contrast”.

THE PONG OF ART

As well as changing the light, Bradburne plans to add smells. Oh yes! That’s right, he will add “the smells of the plants that give colours to paints”. Bradburne does not explain how the smells of mineral or insect-derived pigments will be introduced into the galleries or how if the smell of all the pigments in a painting could be captured it would be possible for the vistor to tell them apart. Bradburne does freely admit to one problem: even if he were to succeed in reproducing all the smells, “the difficulty is the scents diffuse very quickly”.
More gimmicks are in train. Labels are to be written not by museum curators but by (non-Italian?) novelists like Julian Barnes, Sarah Dunnant, Ali Smith and Orhan Pamuk.

A MUSEOLOGICAL CURATE’S EGG

Above (top), one of the Bradburne-Refurbished galleries; above, “The Dead Christ and Three Mourners” (1474) by Andrea Mantegna.

A LITTLE CHEER

It has to be said that there are two cheering prospects. Although the glass wall will remain through which visitors can watch restorers nibbling away at the once-gloriously little-touched works (- I well recall being shown round the gallery by Pietro Marani, when Leonardo’s “Last Supper” was part-way through its debilitating restoration and repainting, and he proudly pointed out how well his Cima altarpiece then looked against its counterpart in the National Gallery, London), Bradborne will, at least, be eschewing the Blockbuster Game. That, he well and aptly describes as “cannibalising our collections”. Presently, he notes, “People come and never see the permanent collection”.

Further, one of the most gratuitously offensive pieces of contrived theatrical staging that predates his reign in the museum is to go. That is to say, “the most complained-about display in the museum” – Mantegna’s “Dead Christ”.

Followers of this site will recall Michel Favre-Felix’s shocking post of 13 March 2014 (“Mantegna’s Dead Christ : They Know Not What They Do”): “…the Dead Christ is now housed in a special crypt-like dark room, stripped of His historic frame and visually isolated by spot-lighting, as if now embedded into a monolithic black wall – and at a height of only 67 cm from the ground. This presentation is intended to be permanent and the film-maker, humility notwithstanding, declares ‘This will last: I will fight for it’.” Good riddance to that.

Michael Daley, 2 April 2016


Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship

Connoisseurship may be defined as expertise in art in the very narrowest of senses; surprisingly, however, it is also a definition in which many different disciplines intersect.

In the public realms of law and the art world, a ‘connoisseur’ must be recognized as being an expert, as being capable of giving credible testimony regarding the subject, and as remaining actively engaged with the world in which attributions and authentications are made. This public recognition takes years of work and is hard-won.

Yet, does this public recognition of expertise signify accuracy or truth in the claims that a connoisseur makes about art? This one-day conference investigates the always-interrelated and often mutually-troubled processes by which connoisseurship is constructed in the fields of art and law, and the ways in which these different fields come together in determining the scope and clarity of the connoisseur’s ‘eye’.

“Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship”

A conference organized by ArtWatch UK, the Center for Art Law (USA) and the LSE Cultural Heritage Law (UK), to be held at: The Society of Antiquaries of London, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BE – all inquiries to: artwatch.uk@gmail.com.

1 December 2015 from 08:30 to 19:30 (GMT)

London, United Kingdom

For full conference programme, see below.

Admission is by ticket only.

For ticket prices and to purchase tickets (exclusively through Eventbrite ), please click on: Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship

PROGRAMME

8.30 – 9.00: Registration

PART I: The Making of Art and the Power of Its Testimonies

9.00-25: Welcome and Keynote Paper: Michael Daley, “Like/Unlike; Interests/Disinterest”

Michael Daley (UK), Director, ArtWatch UK, an artist who trained for twelve years (with post-graduate studies at the Royal Academy Schools) and taught in art schools for fifteen years before practicing as an illustrator (principally with the Financial Times, the Times Supplements, the Independent and, presently, Standpoint magazine), will suggest that the principles of sound connoisseurship in making attributions and appraising restorations are implicit in fine art training and practice, and will discuss the trial in Italy of Professor James Beck on a charge of aggravated criminal slander brought in Italy by a restorer against the scholar but not against the newspapers which had carried his reported comments.

9.25-9.40: Euphrosyne Doxiadis, “Perception, Hype and the Rubens Police.”

Euphrosyne Doxiadis (Greece), a painter/scholar whose 1996 book The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt won the won the Prix Bordin, the Prix d’ ouvrage by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Institut de France, and, the 1997 “Prize of the Athens Academy”, will challenge the Rubens attribution given to the National Gallery’s oil on panel Samson and Delilah in the 28th year of her researches. Astonished at her first sighting of this painting in the National Gallery, the author will discuss both its manifest artistic disqualifications and the edifice of support that surrounds an attribution first made in 1930 by a leading Rubens scholar who today is notorious for his many excessively-generous certificates of authenticity.

9.40-9.55: Jacques Franck, “Why the Mona Lisa would not survive modern day conservation treatment.”

Jacques Franck (FR), an art historian and a painter trained in Old Master techniques, is the Permanent Consulting Expert to The Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies at The University of California, Los Angeles, with its European headquarters at the Centro Studi Leonardo da Vinci e il Rinascimento, Università degli Studi di Urbino, and an editorial consultant to Achademia Leonardi Vinci. He was a curator/exhibitor in the Uffizi’s exhibition La mente di Leonardo (2006) and will draw on experiences as an adviser to the Louvre’s restorations of Leonardo’s St Anne and Belle Ferronnière, and his current PhD investigations on Leonardo’s sfumato technique at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, to demonstrate the threats presently facing the Mona Lisa in a museum conservation system that he considers inadequate to preserve the masterpiece in the event of it being cleaned at the Louvre.

9.55-10.10: Ann Pizzorusso, “Leonardo’s Geology: The Authenticity of the Virgin of the Rocks”

Ann Pizzorusso (US) is a professional geologist and a Renaissance scholar whose work focuses on Leonardo da Vinci as a geologist. She has written numerous scholarly articles on Leonardo and his students, and the artists who preceded and followed him, analyzing the use of geology in their works. Her landmark article, “Leonardo’s Geology: The Authenticity of The Virgin of the Rocks” compared the two versions of the paintings. Demonstrating geology as a diagnostic tool – which was in fact Leonardo’s trademark – she will attribute only one of the two versions to Leonardo. Her new, four gold medals-winning book, Tweeting Da Vinci, discusses how the geology of Italy has influenced its art, literature, religion, medicine.

10.10-10.30: Discussion/Questions: – Irina Tarsis, Center for Art Law, Moderator

10.30-11.00: COFFEE

11.00-11:15: Segolene Bergeon-Langle, “Can science deliver its promises to art?”

Segolene Bergeon-Langle (FR), France’s Honorary General Curator of Heritage, is both a scientist and an art historian. A former Head of Painting Conservation in the Louvre and the French National Museums, and a former Chair of the ICCROM Council (Rome), she is presently a member of the Louvre’s preservation and conservation committee. She will discuss various restoration cases showing how scientific analysis can fail properly to understand painters’ techniques and the deterioration of paint layers when questions are inadequately framed or when the interpretation of scientific reports is inadequate. Such difficulties can be overcome when connoisseurs themselves ask for scientific analysis to clarify some problem they have encountered, or when they can examine technical reports together with their scientific partners so as to avoid otherwise possible misinterpretations.

11.15-11.30: Michel Favre-Felix, “Overlooked Witnesses: The Testimony of Copies”

Michel Favre-Felix (FR) is a painter, the president of ARIPA (association for the respect of the integrity of artistic heritage), the director of the review Nuances, and the 2009 recipient of the ArtWatch International Frank Mason Prize, will present two restoration cases, studied from the French Museums’ scientific files, illustrating how restorations fail by not heeding the testimony of historical copies. He will stress the importance of disciplined arguments and of expert guidance from art historians, in a critical approach, rather than as the endorsement of “discoveries” claimed during restorations by restorers. His cases will demonstrate how successive restorations can impose fresh and compounding misrepresentations on art when supposedly correcting previous errors.

11.30-11.45: Kasia Pisarek, “How reliable are today’s attributions in art? The case of “La Bella Principessa” examined.”

Kasia Pisarek (Poland/UK), an independent art historian and research specialist on attributions, took an MA at the Sorbonne and a PhD at the University of Warsaw. Her doctoral dissertation “Rubens and Connoisseurship ~ On the problems of attribution and rediscovery”, identified many recently fallen Rubens attributions. She will set out a number of interlocking aesthetic, art historical and technical arguments against the recently claimed attribution to Leonardo of the drawing “La Bella Principessa”, which work appeared anonymously and without provenance in New York in 1998. Her findings were published in the June 2015 Artibus et Historiae.

11.45-12.15: Discussion/Questions: Irina Tarsis, Center for Art Law, Moderator

12.15-1.15: LUNCH

Part II: Righting the Record – Diverse Experts as Authority

1.15-1.20: Introduction: Tatiana Flessas, Cultural Heritage Law, LSE Law, Moderator

1.20-1.35: Brian Allen — “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater – the Demise of Connoisseurship since the 1980s.”

Brian Allen (UK) is a former Director of Studies at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and is now Chairman of the London Old Master dealers Hazlitt Ltd. He will speak about the gradual demise of connoisseurship in academic art history (especially in the UK) over the past three decades and will consider the effect of this on the study of art history and the art market. Up to the early 1980s few questioned the importance for young art historians of acquiring the skills to determine authorship but as the discipline of art history evolved from its amateur roots in Britain so too did a determination to adopt the theoretical principles of other areas of study. Only now are we witnessing the consequences of this change of emphasis.

1.35-1.50: Peter Cannon-Brookes, “Reconciling Connoisseurship with Different Means of Production of Works of Art”

Peter Cannon-Brookes (UK) turned from natural sciences to art history and has been active as a museum curator with strong interests in conservation and security. Connoisseurship has been undermined by the decay of museum-based pre-Modern Movement scholarship leading to the growing corruption of reference collections and of connoisseurship enhanced by the detailed study of them. Can the systems of stylistic analysis evolved from the 1940s and social anthropology be reconciled with the actual processes of production of works of art throughout the ages? The business models adopted by Raphael, El Greco and Rubens are by no means exceptional, and the evident disdain of Rodin for those prepared to pay high prices for indifferent drawing-room marble versions of his compositions, encourage re-evaluation of connoisseurship as an essential tool.

1.50-2.05: Charles Hope, “Demotion and promotion: the asymmetrical aspect of connoisseurship”

Charles Hope (UK) is a former Director of the Warburg Institute and will discuss the tension that exists between connoisseurship as a type of expertise acquired by long experience and as an activity based on the use of historical evidence and reasoned argument. Will claim that, in practice, these two aspects are often in contradiction to one another, and that many connoisseurs have been unable or unwilling to provide clear arguments about how they have reached their opinions. Too often, judgements about authorship are decided by appeals to authority, and almost by vote, rather than by evidence.

2.05-2.20: Martin Eidelberg, “Fact vs. Interpretation: the Art Historian at Work”

Martin Eidelberg (US), professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University, will discuss the reliability and fallibility of provenance and scientific analysis of pictures in determining the authenticity of paintings. Using case histories that he has gathered from his research in preparing a catalogue raisonné of the paintings of Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), he will consider whether such supposedly factual data is reliable, or whether it is subjective and open to the interpretation of scholars.

2.20-2.40: Discussion/Questions: Tatiana Flessas, Cultural Heritage Law, LSE Law, Moderator

2.40-2.55: Robin Simon, “Owzat! The great cricket fakes operation”

Robin Simon (UK) is Editor of The British Art Journal and Honorary Professor of English, UCL. Recent books include Hogarth, France and British Art and (with Martin Postle) Richard Wilson and the Transformation of European Landscape Painting. He will report his discovery (in 1983) that many of the paintings depicting cricket in the MCC collection at Lord’s were fakes, most of them made by one person between 1918 and 1948 but purporting to date from the 16th century to the 20th. They had been presented to MCC by Sir Jeremiah Colman (of the mustard family) who acquired them from a variety of agents and dealers. It is quite a tale and turns, among other things, upon an ingenious manipulation of provenance.

2.55-3.10: Anne Laure Bandle, “Sleepers at auction: Boon or bane?”

Anne Laure Bandle (CH) is guest lecturer at the LSE, director of the Art Law Foundation, and a trainee lawyer at the law firm Froriep in Geneva. She wrote a PhD in law on the misattribution of art at auction and more specifically on the sale of sleepers. She will discuss the creation of sleepers at auction by means of different cases, and focus on the attribution process of auction houses and their liability when selling a sleeper.

3.10-3.25: Elizabeth Simpson, “Connoisseurship: Its Use, Disuse, and Misuse in the Study of Ancient Art”

Elizabeth Simpson (USA) is a professor at the Bard Graduate Center in New York, NY; a consulting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, PA; and director of the project to study and conserve the collection of wooden objects excavated from the royal tumulus burials at Gordion, Turkey.She will address the use and misuse of connoisseurship in the study of ancient art, the scholarly and methodological divides between archaeology and art history, and the current trend away from connoisseurship in the study of ancient art and artifacts. She will also show how connoisseurship is used to fabricate narratives for looted objects in order to validate unprovenienced works in private and museum collections.

3.25-3.45: Round table discussion: Tatiana Flessas, Cultural Heritage Law, LSE Law, Moderator

3.45-4.15: TEA

Part III: Wishful Thinking, Scientific Evidence and Legal Precedent

4.15-4.20: Intro by Session Moderator, Charles Hope.

4:20-4.35: Irina Tarsis, “Reputation is no Substitute to Due Diligence: Lessons from the closure of the Knoedler Gallery (1857-2011) ”

Irina Tarsis (USA), is an art historian and an attorney based in Brooklyn, NY. Founder and Director of Center for Art Law, Ms. Tarsis is an author of multiple articles on the subject of restitution, provenance research, book history and copyright issues. With degrees in International Business, Art History and Law, in her practice Ms. Tarsis focuses on ownership disputes surrounding tangible and intangible property. She will discuss the history of the Knoedler Gallery that closed after more than 160 years in business having sold a cache of misattributed forgeries. Short of a dozen lawsuits were brought against the principles and staff of the Gallery for selling works attributed to the blue chip artists. Ms. Tarsis will discuss the responsibilities of dealers, collectors and art advisors to their clients and the scholarship when handling art in business transactions.

4:35-4.50: Nicholas Eastaugh, “The Challenge of Science: Does ‘Fine Art Forensics’ Really Exist?”

Dr Nicholas Eastaugh (UK), Founder/Director, Art Analysis and Research Ltd., London, originally trained as a physicist before going on to study conservation and art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, where he completed a PhD in scientific analysis and documentary research of historical pigments in 1988. Since 1989 he has been a consultant in the scientific and art technological study of paint and paintings. A frequent lecturer, he is also a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. In 1999 he co-founded the Pigmentum Project, an interdisciplinary research group developing comprehensive high-quality documentary and analytical data on historical pigments and other artists’ materials. This led to the publication of The Pigment Compendium in 2004, which quickly became a standard reference text in the field. In 2008 he identified the first of the forgeries to be recognised as by Wolfgang Beltracchi, the now infamous ‘Red Painting with Horses’.

4.50-5.05: Megan Noh, “Trends in Authentication Disputes”

Megan E. Noh (USA) is the Associate General Counsel of Bonhams, one of the world’s largest international auction houses. Based in the New York office, Ms. Noh practices in a global hub for art transactions, and is uniquely poised to observe the numerous transactions conducted by Bonhams which require its specialists’ assistance with the authentication process, as well as the growing body of caselaw and legislative efforts emerging from this key jurisdiction. Ms. Noh’s presentation will cover trends in authentication disputes, including the cessation of artists’ foundations and authentication boards to issue opinions confirming attribution, as well as increased litigation and reliance of parties on scientific evidence and testimony. She will also elucidate the position of auction houses as a liaisons or “middlemen” in this process, facilitating the flow of information as between collectors (sellers and buyers) and third party authenticators.

5.25-50: Final Discussion/Questions: Charles Hope, Moderator.

5.50-5.55: Closing Remarks: Irina Tarsis, Center for Art Law.

6.00-7.30: RECEPTION


THE ELEPHANT IN KLIMT’S ROOM

In a recent post (“Now Let’s Murder Klimt”, 5 June), we let photographs speak for themselves on the widespread debilitation of Klimt’s paintings at the hands of picture restorers. Here, we discuss the precision – and the consistency – with which the surviving photographic record of his oeuvre testifies to a progressive and irreversible deconstruction of the artist’s original statements.

“I can paint and I can draw…Whoever wants to know something about me – as an artist, which is the only thing remarkable – should look at my paintings and try to find out through them what I am and what I want.”

~ Gustav Klimt, as quoted by Serge Sabarsky in his introduction to the “Gustav Klimt” exhibition he had selected at the Isetan Museum of Art, Tokyo, 1981. (See Fig. 1 below.)

“After his death, his plea not to be made the subject of biographical inquiries was ignored: ‘I am convinced that I am not particularly interesting as a person…if anyone wants to find out about me – as an artist, the only capacity in which I am of any note – they should look carefully at my paintings and try to learn from them what I am and what I have tried to achieve.’ Increasing interest in his work over the years has made his many-sided personality a subject of unremitting interest. Artist or upright citizen, bohemian or middle-class bore, sex-obsessed tyrant or sympathetic son and brother? Fantasy was given free reign….”

~ Susanna Partsch Gustav Klimt Painter of Women, Munich, Berlin, London New York, 2008

Above, Figs. 1, 2 and 3: Susanna Partsch’s book and (Fig 3) the detail of Klimt’s 1907-08 Danae as published in Emil Pirchan’s 1956 Gustav Klimt, Bergland Verlag Wien.
The above and all succeeding multiple photo-compilations were assembled by Gareth Hawker, who drew our attention to Sickert’s letter below.
Above, Figs. 4 and 5: a detail of a large detailed illustration in the 2007 book Gustav Klimt, edited by Alfred Weidinger.

The illustration shown above in colour and in greyscale (Figs. 4 and 5) appears on p. 190 of the 2007 book Gustav Klimt and faces a sub-part by Susanna Partsch of a section headed “On Flowers in Bloom and Radiant Women”. Given that this photograph was likely taken in preparation for the book (see below), the question arises: What accounts for the differences between this image and that used on the cover of Susanna Partsch’s own book the following year? Were they both derived from the same photograph but with the image on the book cover having been digitally manipulated by a designer to heighten the saturation of colours so as to increase graphic force and “attractiveness”? Or, is the image in the slightly earlier book made from a somewhat later photograph? If, when comparing individual photographic reproductions, such problems arise from insufficient knowledge of their origins and handling, what can be seen as clear as day when surveying the Klimt literature is that the earliest photographs and the most recent depict works in profoundly different states. If presently we cannot for logistical reasons hunt down the pedigree, the history and the reproductive variations of every Klimt image-in-public-circulation, we can with confidence flag-up some of the glaring discrepancies of testimony that are encountered in the photo-records of the artist’s individual works. These discrepancies urgently need to be addressed.

WHY PHOTOGRAPHS ALONE MUST NOW SPEAK FOR KLIMT, NOT HIS PAINTINGS – NOR HIS SCHOLARS

Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to let Klimt’s paintings speak for themselves. In barely more than a century, his works, like those of many other modern artists, have been traduced by restorers (see Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners). The Klimt literature is rich in photographs showing his paintings when new and unspoiled but scholars seem persuaded that today’s photographs offer the best record of his work even though early photographs make it easy to identify subsequent restoration injuries – and even though nothing could be simpler or more to the point for art critical purposes than comparing old and recent photographs [Endnote 1]. This apparent aversion to the historic visual record is perplexing in two respects.

First, in all contexts other than art restoration there is grateful acceptance of photographic testimony by scholars. Attributions are made on the evidence of photographs. Art dealer/sleuths hunting attribution upgrades buy works on the strength of online photographs [2]. Paradoxically, as today’s scholars effectively turn a collective blind eye to restoration injuries, restorers are seeking permission to declare their errors on a “without-liability” basis [3].

Second, by not noticing – or sometimes seemingly flaunting – patently injured works, Klimt scholars betray the artist and sell the public short. The detail carried as a book cover illustration at Figs. 1 and 2 is of a horrendously mutilated painting that no longer functions as Klimt had intended. In a world where art mattered for what it is, not for what might be said about it and its backstory, scrubbing paintings to the point where under-drawing emerges would properly count as a crime against art, if not in law, and the restorers, owners, curators, sponsors and trustees responsible for dimishing and adulterating its content would be censured, not celebrated.

WHAT COUNTS AS INJURY?

Consider Danae’s right eye. In 1956 (as at Fig. 3) if one had drawn a line of cross-section through the brow and the eye down to the cheek it would have passed through distinct tonal values which varied to a chiefly anatomical, partly expressive purpose. The eyebrow was depicted by a mid-tone (not by the present mess of preparatory lines). Immediately below the eyebrow, the brow was given a light tone. Then came the tones of the upper eyelid, passing from dark to light before reaching the line of eyelashes. Below the eyelashes, the form of the lower lid, where the bulge of the eye re-entered its socket was dark. This dark was separated from the tones of the cheek by a strip of light toned flesh. By its relationship to a light source, this tonal sequence explained the forms of the brow, eye, cheek. Today the upper and lower lids are undifferentiated, with both reduced to the same flattening tone, whereas the eyelashes – which no longer attach to discernable edges of eyelids – have been hardened into a series of sharp parallel strokes to the point where the eyelids now seem stitched together. Where formerly the sleeping woman had drawn a white sheet partially across her face with a claw-like, scrunching hand, that piece of stretched sheet is no longer designed drapery but an incoherent jumble of lines and colours (Figs. 1 and 2). The accenting highlights on the fingernails have been dulled and the light on nail of the little finger has disappeared – as has the much broader tonal distinction between Danae’s right breast and her chest. The narrow dark tones articulating the interiors of the lips have disappeared…

…A PAINTER’S VIEW OF RESTORERS:

“Sir,-‘Il faut laisser mourir un tableau de sa belle mort.’ The English equivalent is only ‘Let a picture die a natural death.’ There remains always the recommendation, ‘Thou shalt do no murder.’
A curator should wipe, but he must not flay. Galleries should be dry, but not too dry. They should be warm, but not hot. On Friday, Dec. 18, the rain was being captured in pails as it dripped from the skylights of the National Gallery. Perhaps money had better be reserved for the integrity of ‘the fabric’.
The attackers of the painters’ position as meddlers with the job of the restorers are in the right. There should not be such meddlers, because there should be no restorers. Voila le mot lâche.”

~ Walter Richard Sickert, Letter, Daily Telegraph, 31 December 1936

SOME FURTHER CASES OF KLIMT ABUSE…

To help identify Klimt’s original purposes in today’s hyper-active conservation world it is essential to study the photographic record of his works, as with, for example, the unfinished 1917-18 Portrait Head of a Lady below.

The detail at Fig. 6 (top) is from the work as published in Werner Hofmann’s 1972 Gustav Klimt.
The detail at Fig. 7 (middle), is from the work as published in the catalogue to the above-mentioned “Gustav Klimt” exhibition at the Isetan Museum of Art, Tokyo.
The detail at Fig. 8 (above) shows the work as published in the 2012 book Gustav Klimt ~ The Complete Paintings.

READING PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGES

Do the startling differences seen above not speak of injury to the painting? If such (apparent) changes in paintings were illusory products of the vagaries of photo-reproductions, reproductions would come and go in their narratives, leaning a bit this way one minute; a bit the other way the next. Some changes certainly are of that order (and particularly so in terms of colour fluctuations) but others are simply too great to be reproductive variations. Moreover, the wider photo-record contains recurrent patterns of change and these are seen to run across the histories of individual works and entire oeuvres alike. Patterns are always significant and eloquent. In the particular recurring pictorial pattern of concern here, paintings become lighter, brighter, thinner and flatter with successive restorations. (See Figs. 9 and 10, and Figs. 17 and 18 for non-Klimt, single-restoration examples.) A rigorous examination of patterns provides a helpfully focussing diagnostic method. If paint losses are not occurring, why should the net effect of picture cleanings be to compress relationships and minimise values rather than to widen and enrich them?

With this particular unfinished Klimt painting, the most dramatic change occurred prior to 1981 and yet, after over a third of a century and very many more photographic reproductions, no subsequent image has resembled its pre-1981 predecessor – those recorded differences have proved permanent and irreversible. Notwithstanding the promise of one restorer in the US to “make your paintings look as good as new – or better”, no restoration can recover what has been lost. In aggregate, art restoration is a one-way street that runs away from authenticity, original conditions, and artists’ express intentions.

Shortly before the abruptly changed state of the painting seen at Figs. 7 and 8 was published, the picture had been sent from Linz to Tokyo. Loaned works are often “restored”, “put in order” and made to “look their best”. “Putting in order” often includes “lining” or gluing an additional new and reinforcing canvas to the back of the painting. The bond between the two canvases is usually achieved with glues or waxes and hot irons in a notoriously hazardous procedure that was condemned by restorers themselves in the 1970s. Supposedly ameliorative or “preventive” procedures often produce disastrous material and aesthetic changes with first-time restorations. Scholars rarely nowadays discuss such consequences and seem not to notice, even, when paint is removed from the most vulnerable and exposed parts of the picture surface leaving rows of white dots along lines of canvas weave. Such can clearly be seen to run across mid-tone and dark passages alike at Fig. 8. Restorers euphemise such losses as “abrasions” when what most “abrades” paint is solvent-loaded swabs.

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS AS WELL AS IN THE PATTERNS

The inner corner of the eye on the left of Klimt’s painting (Fig. 6) was formerly marked by two short vertical dark accents. As seen in Figs. 7 and 8, by 1981 those marks had been reduced to a single patch of lighter tone. No photograph or reproductive variation could produce such an alteration. The lips too became lighter and less clearly drawn and modelled. Presumably, good photographic records survive of all treatments to this late unfinished but important work in which Klimt’s working transition from drawing to paint on canvas can be studied? With the losses of a comparable magnitude seen on the Renoir below (Figs. 9 and 10), there can be no question about the veracity of the photographic record.

PROPER RECORD KEEPING, FULL DISCLOSURE

Above, Figs. 9 and 10: A detail of Renoir’s Umbrellas before cleaning (top) and after cleaning at the National Gallery.

The two photographs above were made at and by the National Gallery immediately before and immediately after cleaning. The evidence of injury is manifest and our claims on it have never been contested. But again, so far as we know, no Renoir scholar has ever addressed these losses. With this painting we know when, by whom and with what materials the damages were made: the National Gallery has given us full access to its picture treatment records and those disclose that prior to this restoration the only cracks present in the painting occurred along the line of a horizontal central stretcher bar against which the canvas vibrated during its regular travels to and from Dublin. The extensive cracking that emerged on the face was entirely attributable to the conservation “treatment”.

FRIGHTENING SCHOLARS OFF

If scholars are reluctant to discuss restoration damage for fear of upsetting owners (public or private), it is less understandable that they should defer to the professional claims of restorers. When picture restorers insist that the testimony of photographs is not to be trusted they betray professional hypocrisy. Restorers make great use of photography for their own promotional purposes – as when (routinely) claiming some restoration “discovery” or “recovery”. They also use old photographs of works to guide their own repainting of losses incurred during a cleaning. On these occasions no health warning against an inherent unreliability of photography is ever issued.

Restorers have now enjoyed criticism-free positions for so long in museums that they lay unchallenged claims to special technical expertises and powers of divination on the authority of which they feel entitled to determine how works of art should “be presented”. They freely admit that they restore works differently from one another and, yet, contend that all of their various improvisations on art are co-equally legitimate, providing only that they are “safely” executed. They do not explain how various impositions of “interpretive alteration”, might all somehow be artistically and historically tenable. It is time curators called their bluff.

COMPARING OLD PHOTOGRAPHS WITH RECENT, MORE RECENT, AND MORE RECENT STILL…

Occasionally scholars do discuss old photographs and do accept the veracity of their testimony. In the above-mentioned 2007 book Gustav Klimt, the catalogue of works includes an entry on Klimt’s Portrait of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein. It carries a 1905 photograph of the painting next to a recent photograph (see Figs. 11 and 12). The author notes that this early photograph shows that “Klimt later reworked the background”. Acknowledgment is given that “Klimt made no alterations to the figure itself”. This being the case, why then is there no discussion of the subsequent restoration changes to the figure? Above all, why is there is no word on the subsequent incremental washing away of the figure’s (recorded) original values that is shown below throughout the sequences of photographs at Figs. 13 to 16 and Figs. 23 to 25?

As with Renoir, there is more interest in the feminism and the sociology of the time than in today’s state of the work of art itself: “This lively, intelligent lady who was described by her sister as being amazingly active, with an exceptional mind and rejecting any form of convention, could not recognize herself in Klimt’s portrait. Here, she is shown removed from reality, captured in ornamentation, frozen.” Again, as in Renoir studies, the scholar is attentive to frocks, noting that Klimt “depicted the young lady with great virtuosity in a velvet moiré dress and silk scarf. The pleats of her dress are shown in sophisticated nuances of grey which give an impression of the structure of the fabric.” Then follows a plaint that “The billowing lengths of material clothing the figure make it impossible to recognize any corporeality beneath them”, seemingly not noticing that a century earlier there had been a markedly greater sense of interior corporeality.

LOOK AT THE RECORD

Above, Figs. 11 and 12: The joint illustrations to the entry in the 2007 book Gustav Klimt, Prestel Verlag (Munich, Berlin, London, New York), on Klimt’s 1905 oil on canvas Portrait of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, as shown in colour and, here, converted into greyscale.

With the colour reproduction at Fig. 11 converted to the greyscale version at Fig. 12, the extent of the losses in the painting of the dress as seen in 1905 and in c. 2007 is manifest: the darks in 1905 were darker and the lights were lighter. Within this greater tonal range Klimt had disposed his forces to masterly and vivacious effect. The picture’s strongest contrasts at the head were better balanced by the escalation of contrasts towards the bottom of the dress, the treatment of which, truly, was a painterly tour de force.

GOING, GOING, GOING, GOING…

Below: the sequence of same-size, all greyscale, photographs charts the progressive debilitation of values and diminution of pictorial vivacity that has occurred in this painting within a century. One can only shudder at the prospect of another hundred years of conservation treatments in which the corporeal is converted to the ethereal. We can see for example how much the progressive lightening of the background and floor has robbed the figure of its former “relieving” support. Has no one asked why the strategically dynamic pool of darkness in the bottom left hand corner has been removed when it was present in the photographs of 1905, 1911 and 1956?

Above, Figs. 13, 14, 15 and 16: Klimt’s Portrait of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, as seen respectively in:
1905, when exhibited (unfinished) at the Kunstlerbund Exhibition, as shown in the 2007 Gustav Klimt, Alfred Weidinger (Ed.);
1956, as published in Emil Pirchan’s Gustav Klimt, Bergland Verlag Wien;
2000-01, as in the catalogue Klimt’s Women, Tobias G. Natter and Gerbert Frodl (Eds.), for an exhibition at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna;
2012, Klimt ~ The Complete Paintings, Tobias G. Natter (Ed.), Taschen, Cologne.

BEARING, GRACE, DIGNITY – AND THEIR UNDOING

The glimpse below of Klimt’s portrait on the walls of the International Art Exhibition in Rome, 1911 (Fig. 20), evokes the stately dignified presence and bearing of a Van Dyck – in which great artist it can also be seen that a single cleaning can have remorseless brightening, flattening, space-suppressing consequences. (For the cleaning consequences for Lady Lucy’s face and hair, see Ghosts in the Lecture Room: Connoisseurship and the Making, Appraising, Replicating and Undoing of Art’s Images.)

Above, Figs, 17 and 18: Van Dyck’s portrait Lucy Percy, Countess of Carlisle. Fig. 17 (top) is as reproduced in the Tate Gallery’s 1992 catalogue to the 1992-1993 exhibition organised by Andrew Wilton, “The Swagger Portrait”. Fig. 18 (above), is from the catalogue to the Tate Gallery’s 2009 exhibition, “Van Dyck in Britain”.
Above (top) Fig. 19: Two recently published states of Van Dyck’s portrait Lucy Percy, Countess of Carlisle. Above, Fig. 20, a detail of a view of the Klimt Room at the International Art Exhibition in Rome, 1911; showing on the walls Klimt’s Jurisprudence and his then finished Portrait of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein. From the catalogue of the exhibition, 1911.

ANYTHING BUT ART AND ITS CONDITION

We mention scholars’ neglect of condition in favour current obsessions with the sociological and with feminist correctitude, but it sometimes seems there is imperviousness, even, to the self-validating clout of sheer artistry. One after another offers “grounds” for the dissatisfaction felt by Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein and her family with the portrait. Thus, Susanna Partsch, in her Klimt ~ Life and Work of 1989, notes: “Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein is known to have possessed a good measure of self confidence, but Klimt saw her differently, He applied ‘his’ view of woman to her, and had to accept that the result did not please her.” It may not have pleased her, but affront today at a male artist’s (perceived) imposition of ‘his’ view of woman onto the subject is a politicised indulgence. How the subject might have preferred to see herself may be a matter of some interest, but more so for a novelist or a social historian, perhaps, than for a historian of art who has at hand the artist’s material artefacts that were intended to carry all necessary information and thereby avoid need for speculation.

Besides which, it is quite possible that the source of dissatisfaction was something altogether smaller (and less mentionable). Perhaps the subject and her family did not welcome a too-heavy evocation of down in the shading over the upper lip as it turned from the viewer (see Figs. 27, 28 and 29)? A hint of such had been present in the more frontal 1899 portrait of Serena Lederer. The reported feelings of the subject herself aside, the drawing in this portrait was brilliant. Even at this historical distance – and notwithstanding restoration vicissitudes – this portrait stands remarkably fresh, sympathetic and respectful. We see and sense intelligence, brightness and alertness to the world. She is depicted not lustfully but with grace, self possession and dignity. If the opulent, massively High Fashion Statement skirt on her dress is put aside and consideration given to the upper half of the figure, its sculptural presence is quite astonishingly accomplished and attractive (see Figs. 23, 24 and 25) – albeit in bas relief, so to speak, so as to relate more comfortably to the emphatically flattened and decorated background. In its drawing, this upper figure recalls – and could live in the company of – Holbein’s portrait of the young Anne Cresacre (Fig. 22) and even the more luxuriantly plastic (now) Raphael portrait of a young woman in profile at Fig. 21. Of how many 20th century portraits might such parity be entertained?

In truth, the sense of the body within the costume is subtly but superbly evoked. The massive tulip-shaped skirt certainly conceals the legs – but then who bought and wore this dress? Was the subject making no statement of her own? Did she not dress heself? Partsch observes that the “bearing and facial expression make her seem cooly aloof with an air of expectancy, but also far removed from reality.” But removed from which or whose reality? Should Klimt have set her in an oppulent domestic interior? Did this very rich, culturally privileged and intellectually aspirational young person never betray a degree of aloofness? Was she quite without social expectations and sense of entitlement? On what grounds does one scholar after another complain of the in-corporeality of the body underneath the costume? Partsch once more: “Again the human figure takes up almost the entire picture. The principles which Klimt had developed since the painting of Sonja Knips have been sustained. Again the figure is veiled in a long dress, revealing only head, shoulders and hands. This time it is a dress of white moiré velvet that negates the corporeality of the human figure, and again the dress reaches right down to the ground and is cut off by the frame in the vicinity of the feet.” And how is it that so many avid connoisseurs of the corporeal should miss the fact that, in Klimt, this very feature is diminished every time his works go into the conservators’ wash?

Above, (top) Fig. 21: A Young Woman in Profile, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, presently Raphael but formerly Mino da Fiesole and “sixteenth century Florentine”;
Above, Fig. 22, Holbein’s 1527 drawing of Anne Cresacre (reversed).
Above, Figs. 23, 24 and 25: Details of Figs. 14, 15 and 16 – and so, from no later than: 1956; 2000-01, and, 20012 respectively.

BELOW: IT’S A WASHOUT – IS IT NOT?

Above and below, Figs. 26, 27, 28 and 29: Details of Figs. 14, 15 and 16 – and so, again, from no later than: 1956; 2000-01, and, 20012 respectively.

WHAT MORE CAN BE SAID?

The sequence of three states of the head shown above and below shows why commenting appropriately on the qualities of the portrait made by Klimt in 1905 can no longer be done solely on the basis of the painting as it is encountered today. Klimt’s last intended word has departed involuntarily. What is left is an impersonation of the now lost original and superior state. We should not appraise or speak of the present work without reference to the testimony of its photographic history. For such reasons it is a matter of urgency that the full photographic record of Klimt’s work be assembled and made available to all scholars and art lovers. If we were talk about the portrait today on the selection of three reproductions above, to which image should greatest credence be given: the most recent, the earliest, or the one in the middle? It is not really a difficult question to answer – is it? Graphically-speaking, the three images resemble successive states of an etching – but here with the states running in reverse with less material to hand, not more, at each stage.

If we analyse the changes to the original in detail, we can see for example that the mouth/nose relationship has been mangled by restorers. Assuming that no injury had occurred before the first recorded state (when the painting was no more than fifty years old), we can see among many losses and alterations that the design of the nostril aperture was altered from its original sharply turned upper contour to a blander formulation. Such differences are immensely significant in terms of expression. The greatest student of the pinched, translucent, breathing nostril in women was Rubens. Klimt was very good at and attentive to nostrils. He was also good at mouths. Both are products of astonishingly complex anatomical forces (see Fig. 34 for an entirely unrestored graphic attempt by the author to grapple with just such plastic complexities). Here we see that by 2000/01 the mouth had met with an accident. Both the upper and the lower lip had been garbled in restoration. The loss of definition in the relationship between the lower lip and its surrounding surfaces has resulted in a most unfortunate appearance of an emerging ‘Hapsburg Lip’, the product not of some physical deformity but of an anatomically illiterate restorer who reconstituted beautifully nuanced tonal modelling as a crass, plastically misread linear simplification. More recently, attempt has been to mitigate the previous errors but the general washing-away process continued. Such rapid undoing and redoing of botched restorations is a growing phenomenon, even at the highest levels of the “museum community” (see Fig. 40).

Above, Fig. 30. Note: we are straining below at the edge of enlargements of details of the record as published. Imagine how much more eloquently horrific this comparative investigative exercise would be if we were able to work from high quality copies of the original photographs.
Above, Figs. 31, 32 and 33: Details from no later than: 1956; 2000-01, and, 20012 respectively.
Above, Fig. 34: a detail of a caricature drawn by the author for the Independent on Sunday.
Below, Fig. 35: a detail of a paraphrase of Klimt’s Judith II (Salome) made by the author in an illustration for the Independent, 3 June 1992. Note the similarity of the arched nostril apperture and upturned nose with that seen in the painting of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein until 1956. It has been claimed, however, that the model for both of Klimt’s Judith paintings was Adele Bloch-Bauer – see Susanna Partsch, Gustav Klimt ~ Painter of Women, p. 78. Even as a young woman, Bloch-Bauer did have markedly heavier eyelids – perhaps Klimt was fusing features from different models when composing invented characters?
Above, Fig. 36: A detail of Klimt’s Judith II (Salome) of 1909, as published in 1956 (left) and in Angelica Bäumer’s 1985 Gustav Klimt ~ Women.
Above and below, Figs. 37, 38 and 39: The ear from Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, before and after cleaning. Those responsible for the losses in the Sistine Chapel claimed in response to criticisms that the disappeared material had not been Michelangelo’s own finishing adjustment but arbitrary accumulations of centuries old dirt, soot and restorers’ glues. Klimt’s restorers are luckier: the losses have yet to be acknowledged.
Morelli famously held that attributions lay in the details of figures – ear lobes, finger tips and such. Which of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein’s ears might best now be taken as carrying the fingerprint of Klimt – the earliest, or the most recent?
Above, Fig. 40: The Week’s summary of Dalya Alberge’s June 13th 2010 Observer article “Louvre masterpiece by Veronese ‘mutilated’ by botched nose jobs”.

AN UPDATE: THE FINE ART OF SELLING KLIMT

Fig. 41: “Two employees of Sotheby’s auction house pose by a portrait of Gertrud Loew (Gertha Felsovanyi) by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt painted in 1902” ~ The Daily Telegraph 19 June 2015.

On June 5th we examined the photographic record of Klimt’s 1902 painting of a young Jewish woman (Gertrud Loew) that had been restored to the heirs of her family (Now Let’s Murder Klimt). Despite its manifestly degraded condition (see below), the portrait sold at Sotheby’s on June 23rd for £24.8m (on a £12-£18m estimate). The July/August Art Newspaper attributes the high price not to the picture’s condition – which it does not discuss – but to the history and poignancy of its backstory which Sotheby’s held to have “added to its value” (“The Lure Of A Backstory”, The Art Newspaper, Section 2, p.12). Restoring works to families whose forbears were robbed and murdered is an indisputable good. Questions of ownership, however, like questions of attribution, are less urgent than questions of condition. Whatever their gravity, ownership or attribution disputes might always be resolved at some future point. With restorations, injuries are irreversible and cumulatively compounding. Nothing might now return Gertrud Loew to the beautifully nuanced condition in which she was bequeathed to posterity by Klimt.

Above, Figs. 42, 43 and 44: (Top) Holbein’s portait of the fifteen years old Henry Howard. (Centre) Klimt’s 1902 portrait of Gertrud Loew, as seen before 1956, and (above), as seen today.

Note, among many alterations, how the definition of the eyebrows and the shading around the eyes have been debilitated. Note, too, how changes to the line of parting in the lips have altered the subject’s expression; how an eyebrow has been cocked; how the eyes are now open wider. Note how the loss of shading at the sides of the nose makes the present nose larger than its original self. Note how credibly and well this portrait once lived in the company of Holbein’s full-on portrait of the young Henry Howard and ask if this picture might not have had the mother-of-all ‘cosmeticising’ restorations? Perhaps it’s backstory is richer than Sotheby’s and the Art Newspaper have appreciated?

Michael Daley, 25 July 2015

ENDNOTES:

1) In the massive, ambitious and welcome 2007 book Gustav Klimt, the editor writes: “It was a major concern of ours to see, as far as possible, all Klimt’s paintings in the original, and to take new photographs of all them.” With so many recent photographs of Klimt’s works the authors’ were perfectly placed to make comparative studies with the earliest photographs. As seen above, one such a photographic comparison was made with a portrait to show the differences before and after its completion. So why not show some, if not all, of the earliest visual records against their most recent counterparts? In the catalogue, another photo-comparison is made with with Klimt’s portrait of his niece Helene – but this is with a portrait by Fernand Khnopff, and not with the picture’s own earlier recorded self. This was a terrible lost opportunity: as shown below, there are such great differences between the Helenes seen in 1956 and in 2007 as to suggest the existence of two versions of the portrait. There are dramatic differences of design in the dress. In 1956 the lightest part of the hair was at the crown and the back of the head. The hair got progressively darker as it ran down and as it approached the girl’s face, which it emphatically framed. That logic has been reversed. The darkest part is now at the crown and the hair lightens as it approaches the face.

Above, (top) Fig. 45: Klimt’s portait of his niece Helene in 1956.
Above (centre) Fig. 46, showing the niece as seen in 2007.
Above, Fig. 47: The juxtaposition of photographs of Klimt’s and Khnopff’s portraits made in the 2007 Gustav Klimt catalogue.
Below, figs. 48 and 49: Further comparisons of Helene’s drapery.

Does the treatment of the drapery now present (above, right) on this privately owned work on loan to the Kunstmuseum, Berne, seem worthy or typical of Klimt in 1898?

2) In a recent BBC “Fake or Fortune” television programme the resident art sleuths faced the challenge of proving that three small Lowry paintings (all of which which carried labels and numbers on the back from the reputable gallery that had sold them) were authentic Lowrys even though the present owner had no paperwork showing right of ownership. What proved to be the programme’s MacGuffin was the presence in the paintings (revealed by technical analysis) of the wrong kind of white paint – zinc not lead. To surmount this hurdle the sleuths examined old photographs of Lowry at work in his studio. A bit of digital enhancement of one showed a whole boxful of the ‘wrong white’ in use. The question still to be resolved still was whether these labelled, numbered paintings really were Lowry paintings. Another old photograph of Lowry’s studio was found to show the three presently ‘homeless’ paintings. When a small image of one of the paintings was digitally enhanced and superimposed over a photograph of the painting today, it proved a perfect match, “brush stroke by brush stroke”. This accumulation of photo-evidence was taken to be so clinching that it trumped both the potentially lethal absence of any paperwork and the scientifically established presence of a ‘wrong’ pigment. When the Big Four Lowry experts were duly assembled to examine the three paintings (away from the cameras) they emerged after a couple of hours to give the trio of paintings the thumbs up. And so, it was photo-evidence that carried the day, not science, not documents. Things might, however, have been very different had the Lowrys been restored to the point where their brushmarks no longer coincided with those recorded in the artist’s studio.

3) At the 2011 ICOM conference in Lisbon, two conservators complained in a joint paper (“To Err is Human: Understanding and Sharing Mistakes in Conservation Practice”) that because a belief exists that it is unacceptable for conservators to damage objects, members of the conservation fraternity are hampered in their desire to make a “collective acknowledgement and sharing of mistakes”. The experience of other fields, such as medicine and aviation, it was explained, demonstates the value of admitting and sharing errors so as to “reduce the risks of their occurrence”. This proposal/demand will be discussed in the Autumn issue of the ArtWatch UK Journal by Michel Favre-Felix, the president of ARIPA (association for the respect of the integrity of artistic heritage).


And the World’s Worst Restoration is…

WHICH COUNTRY, might you think, has produced the World’s Worst Restoration – Spain? Italy? The UK? India? France? China? Egypt? The United States? Consider the evidence.

THE EVIDENCE IS ABUNDANT and the answer is “All of the above”. There are more contenders than there are countries. No country and no professional stratum is free of recurrent restoration injuries. This evidence can only suggest that injuries are intrinsic to the practice of restoration. Manifestly, no restorers anywhere can “treat” a Renoir – or a Veronese – without injury (see below). Restoration error is the by-product of a singular un-regulated sphere where the distinct languages of art, aesthetics, technology and “science” are conflated in support of presumptuous would-be improvements to the works of others. The official response to demonstrations of error is not engagement but intensification of promotional hype. This dynamic must be reversed and the necessity of criticism ceded.
In response to the latest “restoration” blunder (on the classical heritage in Turkey) we revisit our accumulating chamber of horrors and invite nominations to news.artwatchuk@gmail.com for the title of The World’s Worst Restoration.

Contender No. 1: Turkey

The BBC reports that Turkey’s culture ministry is investigating claims that valuable Roman mosaics have been badly damaged during botched restorations at an archaeological museum:

“Authorities are looking into the claims of a local craftsman who raised concerns over the condition of at least 10 mosaics at the Hatay Archaeology Museum, the Hurriyet Daily News website reports. Mehmet Daskapan first spoke out in an interview with a local paper in February, but the news was only picked up by mainstream Turkish media on Monday. ‘Valuable pieces from the Roman period have been ruined,’ Mr Daskapan told the Antakya Gazetesi website at the time. ‘They have become caricatures of their former selves. Some are in an especially poor condition and have lost their originality and value.'”

Above, Figs 1 and 2: Before restoration (left) and after (right) photographs by Mr Daskapan testify to devastating iconographic, pictorial and plastic injuries during supposed “conservation” treatments of mosaics held in the Hatay Archaeological Museum in Turkey.

The Guardian reports that (as so often in these disputes) the restorers deny error and allege that the testimony of before and after photographs has been rigged by the press. However, a culture ministry official has confirmed that “erroneous practices” caused injury by adding pieces of mosaic. As always, the restorers further allege that today’s damage had been done by previous (French) restorers in the 1930s who added material which has now been removed because past practices have now been outlawed. The culture official confirmed that today’s restorers at the centre of controversy have had years of experience “including the restoration of the renowned mosaics at Zeugma Museum in south-east Turkey”. Notwithstanding this assurance, all restorations have been halted and investigation is underway. A spokesman from the opposition Nationalist Movement party (MHP) called the restored work a “massacre of history” and blamed the Islamic-rooted ruling AKP for a “bureaucratic scandal”. The BBC reports that the allegedly shoddy restoration “has been compared to an incident in Spain in 2012…[when an] attempted restoration rendered the image of Christ unrecognisable and became a global laughing stock.”

Above, Figs. 3, 4 and 5: The above STR/EPA photographs all testify to simultaneous enfeeblement and vulgarisation.

This below is not a “restoration” or a “conservation”, it is precisely what Mr Daskapan has claimed it to be: the travestying and rendering inauthentic of an ancient classical image.

Above, Figs. 6 and 7: Details of Fig. 1 showing the subject before (top) and after “treatment” (above). (Photos: Tamer Yazar/AP)

When horrendous things are done to art in the name of its “conservation” people struggle – vainly – to divine a possible motivating rationale. In the face of inexplicable actions, truly awful restoration abuses frequently provoke/generate humour. In Turkey, The Hurriyet Daily News reports that the botched restoration has indeed become a matter of humour: “Perhaps, the restoration’s target was to liken him to Erdoğan [President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – see Fig. 7b below],” joked famous cartoonist Selçuk Erdem, from the weekly magazine Penguen.” The Huffington Post fleshes out the joke with the photo sequence below. Doing so in Turkey might carry a risk. As the The Hurriyet Daily News adds, two other cartoonists at Penguen, Bahadır Baruter and Özer Aydoğan, were jailed for 11 months in March over a satirical piece on free speech in which they were convicted of including a hidden gesture that was considered to be “insulting” to the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Contender No. 2: Spain

When a granny in Spain, Cecilia Giménez, indulged in a bit of do-it-yourself restoration in her local church, Santuario de Misericordia, in Borja, north-eastern Spain, the whole world fell about laughing. Ms Giménez’s unauthorised restoration of “Ecce Homo – Behold the Man” caused the work to be dubbed “Ecce Mono – Behold the Monkey”. The church threatened to sue and restoration experts from around the world converged to advise on how or whether the damage might be undone. This prompted thousands to petition for the wreck to be left untouched for all to see for all time. The publicity greatly boosted tourism and the church levied a charge on visitors. The “restorer” then sued in protection of her intellectual property rights. (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.)

Above, top, Fig. 8: This shows the head of Christ before (left and centre) and after (right) restoration.

Above, Fig. 9: One of many spoofs carried on Upi.com was this of the late TV painting instructor Bob Ross.

Above, Fig. 10: A satirical news blog (pocho.com) saw a resemblance between Cecilia Giménez’s monkey-faced Christ and a newly discovered species of monkey…The Church has left the desecration of a sacred image in place.

Contender No. 3: Egypt

As shown here recently (A bodge too far: “Conservation’s” catalogue of blunders), whenever ineptitude strikes, those responsible – curators, conservators, trustees, art bureaucrats – run for cover, slinging blame to every other quarter. When news of a bungled repair to the beard of Tutankamun’s death mask in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum leaked out, three conservators, speaking anonymously, gave three different accounts of the injury, but all agreed that orders had come down for the repair to be made quickly. The Daily Telegraph reported that while some said the beard had been broken off by cleaners, other said that it had simply come loose. The Guardian’s account went as follows:

“Did bungling curators snap off Tut’s beard last year, and if so was it stuck back on with with the wrong kind of glue?
These are the allegations levelled at the Egyptian Museum, the gloomy, under-funded palace in central Cairo where Tutankhamun’s bling is housed. Employees claim the beard was dislodged in late 2014 during routine maintenance of the showcase in which Tut’s mask is kept…The director of the museum, Mahmoud el-Halwagy, and the head of its conservation department, Elham Abdelrahman, strenuously denied the claims yesterday. Halwagy says the beard never fell off and nothing has happened to it since he was appointed director in October.”

Although this gaffe caught the western world’s imagination (because of intense abiding interest in ancient Egyptian culture), the incident was of relatively trivial significance: neither the beard nor the head were damaged. When it emerged that “a few little conservation things had to be done” to Assyrian carvings from the Nimrud Palace after the British Museum had irresponsibly flown them to China, the international press looked the other way.

Contender No. 4: The United Kingdom

One of the greatest all-time serial offenders as pioneer in technically advanced but artistically destructive “total cleaning” techniqes has been the National Gallery, London. For an account of the falsifying art historical consequences of such aggressively intrusive restorations, see The National Gallery’s £1.5 billion Leonardo Restoration.

Above, Figs. 11 and 12: A detail of the National Gallery’s Titian Bacchus and Ariadne, shown (top) before restoration by Arthur Lucas in 1967-69, and (above) after restoration. Notwithstanding such dreadful injuries throughout the painting, the restoration was hailed a triumph and the restorer took to boasting to painting students at the Slade School of Art, London University, (where he taught painting techniques) that there was “more of me than Titian in that sky”. One of Lucas’s “advanced” technical wheezes (which was concealed from the trustees and the public) was to iron the canvas painting onto a double laminate (‘Sundeala’) board of compressed-paper. Such boards were used on many of the gallery’s largest paintings and have now become unstable.

Above, Fig. 13: Titian’s Portrait of a Man (detail) at the National Gallery, before being restored by Arthur Lucas (left) and after restoration (right). As part of his preparation for repainting the subject’s head, Lucas hired a bearded student at the Slade School of Art to model for certain “preparatory” studies that he wished to make of hair and beards.

Above, top, Fig. 14: A detail from the National Gallery’s Renoir The Umbrellas before cleaning in 1954.

Above, Fig. 15: The detail from the National Gallery’s Renoir The Umbrellas after cleaning in 1954, showing pronounced solvent-induced paint losses and new cracking when the picture was barely seventy years old.

The Courtauld Gallery, London

That Renoir is exceptionally vulnerable to solvent-cleaning can also be seen in this example below from Courtauld Gallery, London.

Above, Figs. 16 and 17: A detail of Renoir’s La Loge, as seen (top) in 1938, and as seen in the Courtauld Gallery’s 2008 exhibition catalogue “Renoir at the Theatre – Looking at La Loge“.

Contender No. 5: China

On 23 October 2013 the Daily Telegraph reported the outcome of a 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 historical patrimony only 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”. 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 when an elderly parishioner performed “a disastrous restoration” on a 19th century fresco of Christ in the Spanish town of Borja (- as shown above at Figs. 6, 7 and 8 ). One Chinese website user echoed charges made against the restored Sistine Chapel frescoes of Michelangelo: “They have turned a classic painting into graffiti. It looks like something out of Disneyland, doesn’t it?”

Above, Figs. 18 and 19: The devastating falsification/obliteration of ancient temple murals in China.

See Qing dynasty fresco ruined in botched restoration which makes work look like garish cartoon; and China sackings over ruined ancient Buddhist frescos; and, A restoration project that turned a Qing dynasty fresco into a series of “sloppily drawn” modern paintings has drawn outrage in China; and Assaults on History: Dishing Donors; a Vatican Wobble; and, Reigniting an Old Battle of Hearts, Minds, Interests and Evidence.

Contender No. 6: Austria

Below, Fig. 20: A detail of Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze (the figure Poetry), as seen before 1956 (left) and today (right), as featured on the cover of the Spring 2008 issue of the ArtWatch UK Journal.

Contender No. 7: France (principally, and Spain)

Picture restorers inflict two kinds of injury by first removing material that is integral to paintings and then by adding their own repainting so as to bring works up to what they consider to be acceptable degrees of finish and artistry. When paintings suffer this double combination of subtractions and (“corrective”) additions, the impositions frequently betray gross artistic and anatomical ignorance. This deficiency is found not just among jobbing restorers at the bottom of the art trade, but in even the most technically advanced, scientifically supported, and institutionally prestigious institutions such as the Prado and the Louvre, as we explored in the Journal No 26, shown below. (See also: A spectacular restoration own-goal: undoing, re-doing and (on the quiet) re-re-doing a Veronese masterpiece at the Louvre Museum, and From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures.)

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Above, Figs. 21, 22, 23 and 24. These illustrations show, respectively, from the top down:
1) The ArtWatch UK Journal No. 26 with before and after restoration details of Titian’s Empress Isabella at the Prado and Veronese’s Pilgrims at Emmaüs at the Louvre;
2) A face from Veronese’s Pilgrims at Emmaüs, as seen before the first of two restorations in five years;
3) The same face from Veronese’s Pilgrims at Emmaüs after the first restoration (that is, after the first stripping down and subsequent repainting);
4) Press coverage (in The Week) of the controversy over the two botched repaintings of the Veronese face that had been monitored and disclosed by Michel Favre-Felix, the painter and president of the Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique (ARIPA). Favre-Felix’s discoveries had been laid out here on 29 December 2010.

…meanwhile, in London:

An implicit acknowledgement by restorers of certain professional insecurities in this area was made in the above 2010 book on different “approaches to” the retouching of cleaned paintings. This publication was a by-product of three one-day workshops organised by two restoration groups, the Icon Paintings Group and the British Association of Paintings Conservator-Restorers (BAPCR). The organisers were taken aback by the demand for the events which “exceeded our expectations. The lecture theatres were packed…” It was explained in the book’s Foreword that the subject of the three events emerged because, athough it could have been:

“…consolidation – or structural work…the general consensus in the brainstorming sessions was that retouching (or inpainting for those across the pond) was the topic for which there was a burning desire to expand knowledge, exchange ideas and gain more practice. There was a need for a practical kind of conference, dealing with the actual techniques involved in the conservation of paintings. With retouching, every conservator-restorer tends to harbour preferences for materials and practices based on experience, types of artworks as well as what is available to hand. This series of events was envisioned as a showcase for the knowledge and skill of individuals in a welcoming and supportive environment that would provide an opportunity to learn by listening and looking (in the morning lecture series) and by doing (in the afternoon practice sessions)…”

The conscientiousness of the participants is not in question and the enthusiasm brought to the task is touching. What is alarming is the sense that emerges of the absence of any artistic and anatomical expertise and guidance. The preponderance of activity addressed the acquistion of technical skills not of artistic comprehension. Some indication of the sense in which conservator-restorer speaking unto conservator-restorer is tantamount to the artistically blind speaking to the artistically blind is found on p.127 in one of the case histories (the conservation-restoration of a painting at the Rijksmuseum):

“…shortly after purchase [in 1976] the picture was cleaned to remove some discoloured varnish layer(s) [- the presence of which material is the most frequent pretext for restorations] and some clearly visible retouches. At the time of the restoration under discussion here, the only known record of how the painting looked before the cleaning was a black and white photograph taken at the Rijksmuseum. It was during that initial cleaning that the restorer [not Arthur Lucas] removed the clouds from the sky exposing blue underpaint. Though he claimed to be removing only over-paints, a shocked curator stopped the restoration and the picture remained in storage until 1995 when it was decided to examine and subsequently restore the picture for an exhibition planned for 1997…since the restorer who had cleaned the painting died in the late 1980s and left no account of the cleaning it can never really be known what had been removed or how…”

On the absence of artistic expertise among conservator-restorers, see Review: Who Cleaned the Queen’s Windows and the Lady’s Pearls?

Contender No. 8: Italy ~ The Vatican

The most controversial restoration in modern times has been that of Michelangelo’s frescoes for the Sistine Chapel, a subject on which we have published many times. In addition to the restoration injuries, the fame of the restored frescoes has drawn (paying) crowds to the chapel of such magnitude as to imperil the physical fabric of the frescoes. For a summary listing of our previous coverage on all aspects of that continuing debacle, see Michelangelo’s disintegrating frescoes.

Above, Figs. 25 and 26: Details of Michelangelo’s Cumaean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, as seen before restoration (top), and after restoration (above). The explanation for the otherwise inexplicably profound changes that occurred during this cleaning, is that Michelangelo had finished off and elaborated his frescoes (when dry) with painting consisting of pigments bound in animal glue or size. With this painting Michelangelo adjusted and enriched his colours while, at the same time, greatly increasing their dramatic lighting and shading. (The revolutionary nature of this theatrical lighting is explored in this post: Coming to Life: Frankenweenie – A Black and White Michelangelo for Our Times.) However, on the authority of technical analysis of the glue-paint, the Vatican treated all of this surface painting by Michelangelo as if it were dirt and soot and washed it off. In this comparative detail above, the loss of shading on the bag and around it is immense.

Above, Figs. 27 and 28: The head of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, before restoration (top) when showing Michelangelo’s systematic and consistent modelling of forms via a transition from light to dark from the top of the head to the neck and shoulder, as it had survived from 1512 until 1980; and (above), after the restoration in which all of Michelangelo’s supplementary painting had been removed.

Contender No. 9: Italy ~ Milan

If any Renaissance mural might be thought to rival the importance of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling it would be Leonardo’s Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Unfortunately this great work has suffered badly from its experimental technique and subsequently from multiple restorations over the years. It was thought, by Bernard Berenson among others, to have received the best-possible, final and definitive act of rescue in a two-part restoration of 1947-49 and 1952-54. (See The Perpetual Restoration of Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ – Part 1: The Law of Diminishing Returns and The Perpetual Restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper, Part 2: A traumatic production of “a different Leonardo”.)

Just twenty-one years later in 1975 a former student of the previous restorer reported falling fragments of paint. Two years later another (and $8m Olivetti-sponsored) restoration began with the express intention of undoing every trace of all previous restorations. In entirely predictable consequence, vast areas of bare, pictorially disfiguring wall were exposed. To return a semblance of iconographic coherence and legibility to the by-then devastated sacred images, the restorer colourised all of the exposed wall (which constituted most of the mural), not in any semblance of Leonardo’s original pictorial method, but flatly, “abstractly” with water-colours that took their values from the local colours (but not the forms) of adjacent areas. This technique, therefore, imposed an entirely alien and ahistorical modernist sensibility on the remains of a once-supreme Renaissance evocation of real figures, in action, in real spaces. The operation thereby constituted an artistic misrepresentation and a cultural falsification: once-living theatre was effectively pulled onto a decorated backdrop. Aside from the conceptual unaptness of the enterprise, the restorer made errors – or took liberties – within her own terms of operation. (See below.) This was not a restoration and nor was it a recovery. Moreover, as an imposition of a markedly 20th-century sensibility and mindset, it will “date” rapidly and therefore licence those who will next wish to intervene on a world renowned work.

Above, Figs. 29, 30 and 31: The central section of the Last Supper is here shown (top) before the last restoration; during restoration (middle); and (above) after restoration and repainting. One error made at the repainting stage was to the central figure – Christ. Leaving aside what happened to His Face, the restorer decided against all historical testimony (see below) that Leonardo had painted the drapery of Christ’s right arm so that it came to rest on the table cloth among the food and crockery. When our challenge to the decision was reported in the press, Professor Pietro Marani, the Leonardo expert who directed the Last Supper restoration, sarcastically downplayed the criticism – “A small piece of drapery. Oh, my God.” (See Have art restorers ruined Leonardo’s masterpiece?). It might have seemed a small error to the director of the restoration, but it has left drapery in place that Leonardo had not painted. How seriously, then, should we take assurances about the high “ethical” standards of today’s restorers?

Above, Figs. 32, 33, 34 and 35: Details showing (top) the restored [sic] drapery of Christ’s right arm and, below it, two copies of the original arm, as painted by Leonardo’s associates Andrea Solario and Giampietrino (whose copy is shown above in colour and in greyscale).

Contender No. 10: The United States ~ The Clark Institute

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, has high scholarly aspirations and was generously founded on Sterling Clark’s passionate and well informed love of art. In his will of 1946 Clark expressly prohibited any restoration of his own to-be bequeathed pictures:

“It having been my object in making said collection to acquire only works of the best quality of the artists represented, which were not damaged or distorted by the works of restorers, it is my wish and desire and I request that the said trustees…permanently maintain in said gallery all works of art bequeathed hereunder in the condition in which they shall be at my death without any so-called restoration, cleaning or other work thereon, except in the case of damage from unforeseen causes, and that none of them be sold, exchanged or otherwise disposed of…”

Sterling Clark’s greatest love was for Renoir – he owned thirty-eight of his paintings, including the once magnificent A Box at the Theater (At the Concert) shown in two details below. Sterling died first in 1956 and his widow Francine died in 1960. Within three years of her death, pictures from the collection were being “restored” and (some) sold in breach of the terms of their generous bequest. The consequences were as horrendous as the deeds treacherous.

Above, Fig. 36: A detail (top) of the Clark’s Renoir A Box at the Theater (At the Concert), as seen as recently as in the Clark’s 1996/7 exhibition catalogue “A Passion for Renoir: Sterling and Francine Clark Collection, 1916-1951″,

Above, Fig. 37: A Box at the Theater (At the Concert), as seen in the 2008 Courtauld Gallery catalogue “Renoir at the Theatre” exhibition. In all likelihood, the (typically disastrous) Renoir cleaning will have been carried out in so-called preparation for travel to and from the London Exhibition – and in all probability, this would have been the first time the picture had been cleaned and “restored”. (For more information on the systematic institutional abuse of the Clarks’ bequest, see Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners.)

On Francine Clark’s death the first of what were to be two radical and utterly deranging restorations of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water was under way at the hands of a then leading restorer, William Suhr (below, Fig. 38) after which only traces of the nearer steamboat survived.

Above, Fig. 39: Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights… after its 2003 restoration by David Bull during which the last traces of the nearer steamboat were removed.

For every restoration there is an apologia. With this picture’s second restoration in forty years (which restoration, once again, preceded a loan across the Atlantic) the story went like this: The painting had been falling apart; and, besides, seventy-five per cent of it consisted of earlier restorers’ repaint which had been applied to “disguise the evidence of some unknown earlier trauma”. Only by removing most of the present paint, could “a full understanding of what lay beneath” be achieved. After the removal – on the authority of the Clark Institute’s trustees – all parties responsible proclaimed a “resurrection” which had created “effectively a new picture”.

Brass cheek does not come bolder than that. This was indeed a new picture, no longer a Turner, more a Suhr-Bull. For one thing, one of the picture’s two original storm distressed coal-burning steamboats had disappeared under the waves with its former belching smoke converted nicely into a white water funnel. When our criticisms (initiated by the painter Edmund Rucinski) were first aired, a feeble, soon-abandoned, claim was made to the effect that the disappeared steamboat had been a 19th century restorer’s addition – another brazen defiance of reality given that the picture’s original title refered to boats, not boat, in distress. The evidence of there having indeed been an original second boat was overwhelming (see below) but there was no apology. Instead, the entire museum establishment, as if in complete solidarity with the Clark Institute (which lends loads of paintings), bigged-up the official line that this was somehow-still-a-Turner by proclaiming that the manifestly wrecked work had now become an especially desirable Turner.

At the time of the UK trip, the Tate Gallery issued a press release claiming that the picture comprised “one of the stars of the show…[having] recently undergone major conservation”. Credulous British art critics lapped up and regurgitated the claims. And they did so once again when this “Turner” returned to the UK for a Tate Liverpool show where Cy Twombly’s solipsistic scribbles and dribbles were flatteringly permed with works by Turner and Monet, no doubt helping the former’s reputation more than Turner’s or Monet’s. We repeated the criticisms to no discernable effect. In 2014 an extraordinary publicity barrage accompanied the launch of the National Maritime Museum’s “Turner & The Sea” blockbuster. It centred on a single painting – yes, the now notorious Rockets and Blue Lights. The decision to celebrate that particular wrecked and critically challenged work had passed beyond the brazen. As Maurice Davies observed in the spring 2014 issue of Turner Society News:

“The most unnecessary loan is Rockets and Blue Lights… The catalogue talks diplomatically of ‘alterations to some areas of the painted surface.’ It is in fact so horribly damaged that there’s little value in seeing it in the flesh. ArtWatch talks of the picture as an example of ‘the bizarre and perverse phenomenon of promoting demonstrably wrecked paintings in special loan exhibitions.’ It would have been quite enough to include a small illustration in the catalogue and move swiftly on.”

By this point the museum establishment had, in truth, passed beyond all reason. The wreck was not just billed as a star of the show, it was flaunted in every advertisement, publication cover, billboard and online marketing venue – see From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures. The message to critics seemed Clinton-esque: “We do it, because we can”.

For the record: Proofs that Turner really had painted two Steamboats

Above, (top) Fig. 40: Detail of an 1852 (14 stages) chromolithographic copy by Robert Carrick of Turner’s 1840 oil painting Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water. Note particularly the detailed depiction of the distressed steamboat and crew members on the right.

Above, (centre) Fig. 41: The steamboat as recorded in a photograph of 1896 (shown by courtesy of Christie’s).

Above, Fig. 41: Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights… (detail) after its 2003 restoration by David Bull when the last traces of the nearer steamboat had been removed and the painting was fast approaching the appearance of a 20th-century abstract painting.

Contender No. 11: Location unknown

We knew at a glance that something was amiss. On 16 June 2012, a newspaper photograph trailed an imminent auction sale of Renoir’s Baigneuse of 1888. Even on the evidence of a single de-saturated newsprint reproduction it seemed clear that the privately owned masterpiece had gone through the picture restoration wash cycle a time (or two) too often.

Renoir’s Baigneuse had been given star billing (on a £12/18m estimate) at Christie’s June 20th Impressionist/Modern sale. While much was made in the eight pages long catalogue entry of an impeccable and unbroken provenance through ten successive owners, not a word was said about any restorations of the painting, and although many early photographs were identified in the picture’s literature, none was reproduced. It was disclosed that the Renoir was to be included in a forthcoming “catalogue critique” of the artist’s work being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute from the Archives of François Daulte, Durand-Ruel, Venturi, Vollard and Wildenstein.

On the night of the sale, an announcement that the picture had been withdrawn drew gasps of surprise. Artinfo reported that the vendor had accepted a private offer from an unidentified buyer for an undisclosed sum somewhere within the estimate. Trade and press eyebrows have been raised at such secretive, pre-auction sales and the withdrawal was the more confounding because expectations of a big auction house “event” had been raised by extensive – and quite stunningly fetching – pre-sale press coverage with photographs of the painting enlivened by the seemingly routine inclusion of beautiful young female staff members. We wondered whether the present condition of the picture might have contributed to the withdrawal. Without any knowledge of by whom the picture is owned, or by whom and how often it might have been restored, we are content to leave the photo-evidence of condition to speak, as it properly should, for itself. The three then and now pairs of photographic details below (Figs. 42-47) are drawn respectively from Michel Drucker’s 1944 “Renoir” and the 2012 Christie’s “Impressionist/Modern” sale catalogue cover.

Michael Daley – 8 May 2015.


From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures

24 March 2014

Part 1: Veronese into Botero

A rupture between words and pictorial realities has emerged in the museum world. It is the product of an over-heated international scramble to produce blockbuster exhibitions. After prising and pulling together works from many quarters, curators of temporary exhibitions write as if blind to the most glaring differences of condition and as if ignorant of all restoration-induced controversies. This widespread critical failure to address the variously – and often very recently – altered states of pictures corrupts scholarship and confers international respectability on damaging local restoration practices. In doing so, this effective pan-national conspiracy “not to notice” also compounds and sanctions the general reluctance of museums ever to acknowledge their own errors in the “conservation” treatment of art. The injuriousness of so much picture restoration is more the product of aesthetic/artistic incomprehension than of any self-agrandising intent. If every unhappy restoration is unhappy in its own way, so to speak, with Veronese, the best balanced of all painters, the most commonly encountered crime against his art is the debilitation of his firm plastic grip by restorers in hot pursuit of brightened and heightened colours.

The catalogue to the National Gallery’s show “Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice” provides a usefully explicit and clear-cut case in point. Its text is entirely the work of the show’s “guest” curator, Xavier Salomon. The National Gallery’s director, and fellow Veronese authority/champion, Nicholas Penny, declares the catalogue “a significant book”. Formerly of the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum, and presently the chief curator of the Frick Collection, New York, Dr Salomon has (with the National Gallery’s own ten Veroneses) assembled no fewer than fifty, often very large, works. Salomon describes his own catalogue/book as both a general introduction for the public and a work offering “stimulating and original insights for experts and longstanding lovers of Veronese’s work”. In doing so, he claims that:

“The two over-arching principles in the selection of paintings for the London exhibition have been quality and condition, in order to show Veronese’s art at its best.”

We recognise that (as Dr Penny once acknowledged to us) it can be impolitic as well as seem ungracious to attack the conditions of generously loaned works. However, given Salomon’s own declaration on the importance of condition – which he reiterates as being “crucial” – we must assume that he is untroubled, for example, by the present condition of the Louvre’s Veronese The Supper at Emmaus and that he is happy for it, along with all other works in this compilation, to be seen as both of the highest artistic quality and in the best possible physical condition.

Concerning the condition of this particular painting, among many procedural shortcomings present in the course of its recent treatment at the Louvre (as here reported in December 2010), the restorers were discovered by our colleague, Michel Favre-Felix, to have repainted a face twice within five years, on each occasion atrociously, and the second time in a secret intervention at which no records were made (– see below and Figs. 1 to 4b ). Far from alerting neophyte visitors or readers to this picture’s now grossly adulterated state, Salomon specifically praises its “opulent and majestic” overall effect; its “superb” portraits; and its details in which “Veronese reached a level of poignant harmony that was unprecedented”. This is an exhibition and an issue to which we will return but, first, another wrecked painting that is presently being flaunted in London calls for attention.

Part 2: Smoke into Steam

Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights

An extraordinary publicity barrage accompanied the launch of the National Maritime Museum’s “Turner & The Sea” blockbuster. It centred on a single painting – the artist’s Rockets and Blue Lights. The decision to favour that particular wrecked and challenged work passed beyond the brazen. As Maurice Davies observes in the spring issue of Turner Society News:

“The most unnecessary loan is Rockets and Blue Lights … The catalogue talks diplomatically of ‘alterations to some areas of the painted surface.’ It is in fact so horribly damaged that there’s little value in seeing it in the flesh. ArtWatch talks of the picture as an example of ‘the bizarre and perverse phenomenon of promoting demonstrably wrecked paintings in special loan exhibitions.’ It would have been quite enough to include a small illustration in the catalogue and move swiftly on.”

That painting is held by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA (see “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners”). We first discussed its restoration fate in an article published in the winter 2003 ArtWatch UK journal by the painter Edmund Rucinski who disclosed that the restorer, David Bull, had not only removed the surviving remains of one Turner’s two steamboats but had defended his decision on the grounds that the boat had probably been some later restorer’s invention – even though the existence of a second steamboat was confirmed by the plural “steamboats” in the picture’s full title: Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water, and by visual records of the painting, as shown below right.

As we later reported in the summer 2005 ArtWatch UK journal, the picture had been restored in preparation for its inclusion in a travelling exhibition (“Turner, The Late Seascapes”) which began at the Clark Institute and moved first to Manchester and then to Glasgow. It was said that seventy-five per cent of the picture’s surface (which had last been restored and relined in 1963-64 by William Suhr) was repaint and that by removing this paint Turner’s own brushwork would be liberated. What was “liberated” was a wrecked work in which a boat disappeared and the dark coal smoke from its funnel was converted into a white water spout. Despite this pictorial corruption, when the picture came to Britain, the Tate issued a press release in which it was claimed that:

“One of the stars of the show is Turner’s dramatic Rockets and Blue Lights (Close to Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water, 1840, which has recently undergone major conservation and is a loan from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA.”

In 2003 Eric Shanes, of the Turner Society, wrote (TLS 19 December) that although the painting had long been a physical wreck, “until its recent ‘conservation’ it at least constituted a pictorially coherent image. Now it’s right half has been entirely rubbed away, leaving an incoherent shambles that not only bears no similarity to Turner’s original but looks like nothing else in the artist’s oeuvre…”

Shanes later took a more indulgent stance towards the Clark Institute. Writing in the May 2005 Apollo, he held:

“…Yet if we adopt a wider perspective it is easy to see that the Clark Institute found itself in a fairly impossible situation in 2003: it was damned if it restored the painted and damned if it didn’t.”

This seemed to assume the institution had to send the painting across the Atlantic to Manchester and Glasgow. It did not. On October 28th 2003 the Times had reported the disclosure by Selby Whittingham that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts had refused to lend its Turner Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying – Typhoon coming on to the Clark exhibition because when it had returned from a loan to the Tate, the previously sound picture had been found damaged and “extremely unstable” (see below). By 2005, the incoherent work that had borne no resemblance to anything in Turner’s oeuvre in 2003 had, for Shanes, staged a partial recovery, becoming a presentable work once again, albeit if accompanied by a health warning:

“Without doubt the Clark Institute can validly argue that Rockets and Blue Lights is once again fully a work by J. M. W. Turner, possibly for the first time in well over a hundred years. But quite evidently, the museum also faces the concomitant duty to be absolutely honest with its public by making it abundantly clear that the Turner now seen by that clientele is but a shadow of its original self. To claim otherwise is very dangerous…”

Institutional intransigence

When on October 15th 2003, the Times reported the article we were about to publish by Edmund Rucinski, Libby Sheldon, a paint materials historian at University College, London, said: “It’s good that [institutions] are being challenged. It makes them take more care. Organisations like ArtWatch, irritating though they are to institutions, are a good watchdog”. In response, a spokeswoman for the Tate Gallery which had extolled the restoration of Rockets said “We don’t want to comment further.” The Tate might have been sanguine about British newspaper reports of criticisms because elsewhere in the press the gallery’s hyperbolic estimation of Rockets, as transmitted through its press release, found many echoes among art critics:

“…this show contains some of the most extraordinary passages of painting ever applied to canvas. Its centrepiece, the recently restored Rockets and Blue Lights… is an unbelievable vision of swirling blue, orange and white light thrusting through fog [Sebastian Smee, Daily Telegraph]; Easily the most stunning picture in the show is Rockets and Blue Lights…The canvas has been given a restorative makeover…Turner’s brushwork is revealed in all its glory” [Lynne Walker, the Independent]; Most splendid…is the dramatic and recently restored Rockets and Blue Lights, a picture so spectacular, that like the shadowy group of figures on the foreshore, you can only stare and wonder [ Rachel Campbell-Johnson, the Times].”

Just as exhibition organisers might seem incapable of spotting or acknowledging an abused picture, so it would seem that the temptations (or the pressures) to lend precious and vulnerable works of art remain irresistible for many institutions. On 24 October 2007 we wrote in a letter to the Daily Telegraph:

“The Mellon Center’s decision (report, October 17) to break its own rule never to lend Turner’s fragile ‘Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed’ seems perverse: only seven years ago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston lent its Turner ‘Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying, Typhoon coming on’ to the Tate. On its return to Boston, that painting was found to have suffered losses of paint and to be in an ‘extremely unstable’ condition. A Tate Spokeswoman said: ‘It arrived here safely…Its condition was stable…However, Turner’s paintings are notoriously unstable’. This being so, why are trustees and curators prepared to take such risks with priceless works of art?”

When asked why no records had been kept of the second bungled repainting of the Veronese face in the Supper at Emmaus, a Louvre spokeswoman described the second restoration attempt as one in which the picture was simply being spruced up (“bichonnée”) and added, “That’s why you cannot find it in the painting’s dossier”.

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Fig. 1: A detail of the Louvre’s Veronese The Supper at Emmaus, as published in the catalogue to the National Gallery’s Credit Suisse sponsored exhibition “Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice”.
Above, Figs. 2a and 2b: Photographs (as supplied to Michel Favre-Felix) showing the group of the mother and children on the right hand side of Veronese’s The Supper at Emmaus. Fig. 2a (left) shows this group before the painting’s recent restoration and Fig. 2b shows it afterwards.
Among the many injuries evident in this photo-comparison, notice the reductions of sparkle and vivacity in the treatment of draperies, when, if disfiguring varnish and dirt alone had been removed, the former vivacity of those passages that was present and evident – even under discoloured varnish and dirt – would reasonably be expected to increase, not diminish. On the logic of restoration’s own declared practices, such reversals require explanation from both restorers and (supervising?) curators alike. Notice, too, the weakening of the modelling of the heads and, once again, the reductions of former tonal contrasts when increases of tonal ranges should be expected to follow a cleaning, not their compression.
Above (top), Figs. 3a and 3b; above, Figs. 4a and 4b: Fig. 3a shows the head of the mother before the recent restoration. Fig. 3b shows the head after cleaning and after the first of its two (disastrous) repaintings. Fig. 4a shows the head after the second repainting (and as reproduced in the new National Gallery catalogue).
In the early post-war years the great French scholar René Huyghe (rightly) complained of the tendency of overly-invasive “Anglo-Saxon” restorers in London and the USA to impose entirely inapproriate modernist values on the old masters. How depressingly ironic it is, therefore, that restorers working within the Louvre should now be permitted to impart to a Veronese head (as seen at Fig. 4a) the bloatedly pneumatic forms found in the playful spoof Mona Lisa painted by Fernando Botero shown above at Fig. 4b.
Above, Figs. 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9: Examples of the use of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights in the promotional campaign that accompanied the launch of the National Maritime Museum’s exhibition “Turner and the Sea”.
Above, Figs. 10, 11 and 12: Coverage in the ArtWatch UK Journals 19 and 20 of the last restoration of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights.
Above, Figs. 13 and 14: Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights after its 1963-64 restoration by William Suhr (top); above, Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights after its restoration by David Bull in preparation for the Clark Institute’s travelling exhibition “Turner, The Late Seascapes”.
Above, Figs. 15, 16 and 17: A sequence of photographs showing the disappearance of one Turner steamboat (on the right) and the grave weakening of the second. Top, Fig. 15, the now “disappeared” steamboat as recorded in Robert Carrick’s 1852 chromolithographic copy of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights. Centre, Fig. 16, the steamboat as recorded in a photograph of 1896 (shown by courtesy of Christie’s). Above, Fig. 17, the section of the sea formerly occupied by the steamboat, as left after the last restoration.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


Mantegna’s Dead Christ : They Know Not What They Do

13 March 2014

The first curators and directors of museums and galleries were titled “Keepers”. It was a nicely ungrand reminder that the curator did not own but was merely required to guarantee the safe-keeping of collections. Those modest days are past. Today’s museum is no longer the means by which interested members of the public are granted access to fine collections of art in circumstances conducive to tranquil contemplation and reflection. The Modern Museum is an instrument wielded simultaneously (and rarely coherently) on behalf of assorted vested interests. Governments can treat museums as tools of social engineering. Sponsors can use them as means of burnishing tarnished corporate personas. For many groups and interests they constitute both job-creation schemes and marketing or catering opportunities. Possession, notoriously, is nine parts of the law and today’s museum directors and curators often act as if, for the duration of their tenures of office, they themselves own the works. For some, art collections constitute harvestable assets, a kind of tradable currency that can project institutional and personal brands/egos onto the global stage. No one retains a career interest in leaving well alone. Even when they are not being shuttled around the world, pictures can be physically or virtually “restored” so as to generate newsworthy “discoveries” and dramatically upgraded attributions. Even when circumstances preclude the generation of physical transformations and excitements, curators can, as our colleague, Michel Favre-Felix, the president of ARIPA (Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique), here discloses, deploy purely “presentational” techniques to identically detrimental effects. [M. D.]

Michel Favre-Felix writes:

In her desire to give “more visibility” to Mantegna’s Dead Christ (see Fig. 1), the iconic masterpiece of the Brera’s magnificent collections, the museum’s director, Sandrina Bandera, could have given carte blanche to a trendy museum designer or to a provocative artist. Instead, she chose the movie-maker Ermanno Olmi as “a humanist concerned by the human tragedies and a humble artist who would not try to hold his own with the painting.” [See, bottom right: Endnote 1.]

The result, as seen since late December, is that the Dead Christ is now housed in a special crypt-like dark room, stripped of His historic frame and visually isolated by spot-lighting, as if now embedded into a monolithic black wall – and at a height of only 67 cm from the ground. (See Figs. 2, 3, 4 and 5.) This presentation is intended to be permanent and the film-maker, humility notwithstanding, declares “This will last: I will fight for it”. [1] (See Figs. 6 and 7.)

While not doubting the sincere empathy of the 83 years old film director with Mantegna’s tragic moving image, likely created in the mid-1480’s, after the loss of his two beloved sons, his declared ambition, after a “deep intellectual research” (“profonda ricerca intellettuale”) to “present the painting just as its creator wanted” [2] cannot be accepted. To begin with, Ermanno Olmi holds that “the frame was a nuisance. It is a painting that would have been hung upon Mantegna’s bed or on its side, not a decoration.” [1] This discarding of the frame (see Fig. 8) is a matter of no regret for the Brera, which states that it was documented “only” from the XVIth century. However, the idea that a religious painting rightly becomes a “decoration” as soon as it gets a frame is a post-modern conception that rests on an inability to comprehend how paintings were conceived and viewed in the religious climate of the 15th century.

Far from being an alien ornamental addition, the frame is a device that serves as a gateway marking a separation between the surrounding real/material world and the depicted ideal world. It marks the step away from our daily views into the world of artistic and spiritual contemplation – both a border and a bridge: the intermediary moment that permits the introduction of the “epiphany” of the image.

Decorum was, on the contrary, a native part of the religious display and sincere piety was expressed through the enriched appearance of images. Dismissing “decoration” with Mantegna, who gave unequalled expressive importance to decorative elements in his own art by elevating ornamentation to the highest degree of artistic and spiritually expressive means, is singularly regrettable. (See Figure 9, which shows the outstanding subtlety and complexity of Mantegna’s design and its interrelationships between the carved gilded architectural frame and rich depicted ornaments.)

Clearly, in his quest of the essence of the image, Olmi felt compelled to “liberate” the Dead Christ from any kind of “decorum”. Instead, by acting without any self-critical distance, he has merely wrapped the sacred image in the stereotypical “decorum” of our modern times: the non-framing of modern paintings and the omnipresent practice, in books and on computers screens, of reproducing old paintings without their frames. Such a reading might have been acceptable had the museum announced: “this is the creative movie-director’s own personal vision of the painting”. But M. Olmi claims to have “recovered” Mantegna’s original intentions by means of new historic-scientific deductions.

He does so with contradictory explanations. First, he asserts that, historically, “this painting has not been painted to be exhibited for all to see but was intended to remain hidden from any external sight”. [3] (Giovanni Agosti, the art historian and Mantegna specialist at Milan University, refutes this account.) Why, then, has Olmi gone to such lengths to give “more visibility” to the painting – which was the very aim of the Brera’s project?

Other inconsistencies stem from Olmi’s singular and highly specific conviction that the raison d’être of the Dead Christ was to be a private devotional image positioned on the side of the artist’s bed at 67 cm from the ground – at which height he claims to insure a “correct” prospect for a viewer not in the bed but in a standing position next to it. As Olmi argues: “If I have placed the painting at 67 cm from the ground it is because, when it is placed at the eyes level, the Christ looks deformed and stunted as if he was hanging by his arms. It is true that one could feel inclined to kneel, but the viewpoint that I impose is not religious. It is the most adequate with the view chosen by Mantegna.” [1]

The film-director’s attempts to “correct” the prospect with his disconcerting and precise 67 cm calculation fails to address the long established but puzzling fact that at least two, contradictory prospects were used in the construction of the scene. Actually, Mantegna’s representation is not bound to a formulaic appliance of mathematical prospect but, rather, used an expressive, sensitive one (in accordance with Alberti’s conceptions). Should the Brera’s visitors be instinctively inclined to kneel, M. Olmi might consider that they might instinctively be right, and that he is intellectually wrong.

Let us test Olmi’s calculations. The painting would have hung near Mantegna’s bed, at 67 cm from the floor, as a devotional image for his own kneeling prayers. Nevertheless, the artist would have set the “correct” prospect for the viewpoints of rare visitors to his bedroom. And thus, every day, Mantegna, while kneeling would have, on Olmi’s account, seen no more than a “deformed and stunted” Christ. That the Brera also asserts that this level is “the same that the artist wanted ” [4] only illustrates the well-known phenomenon of collective misleading.

In truth, Mantegna’s intentions are implicit within the painting. The key is the position of the three lamenting figures at the Christ’s side. These three mourners (the Virgin, St John and the Magdalena) are not standing but kneeling. A recently rediscovered ink drawing, dated to the 1460’s and which may be thought to be part of Mantegna’s own steps towards his final composition shows figures, standing and leaning around the Christ (see Fig. 10). As Mantegna eventually chose kneeling figures, he thereby rethought the prospect. The resulting unusual viewpoint in the Brera masterpiece makes sense when we realize that it represents the prospect drawn from a position similar to that of the three mourners: Mantegna places the spectator as a fourth mourner looking from a similar kneeling position and point of view (See Fig. 1).

Now, there are not so many plausible solutions. In the first, the painting is positioned near the ground, hypothetically as in the artist’s bedroom or – in another hypothesis – as it might have been placed on Mantegna’s grave. In both cases the spectators are rightly situated when kneeling. But a museum is not a church, nor a graveyard, nor an artist’s bedroom. In another reading, the painting hung at eye level and the standing spectators share the sight of the kneeling mourners. Although dashing the Brera’s hopes to revolutionize the traditional display, this solution works perfectly and is consistent with other sight level solutions by Mantegna, as can be seen in his “Wedding Chamber” of 1465-1474 in the Ducal palace of Mantua (See Figs. 11, 12 and 13).

The only wrong choice is that of M. Olmi. Andrea Carandini, the archaeologist president of the Italian equivalent of the British National Trust, put it trenchantly: “this means placing the body of Jesus at the level of the genitals that have everything except eyes” [5]. The Italian professor further slammed Olmi’s failure to understand what a painting is and is not, by confounding an artistic representation of the sepulchre with a mimicked reproduction of a sepulchre room.

Of Olmi’s overly theatrical design, Carandini stresses that the painting is now dematerialized and degraded to a projected image. This new projected slide effect of the Dead Christ offends art historian Philippe Daverio who complains of a present resemblance to the reddish glow of a Pizza furnace [1]. Personally, I am even more struck by the similarity with a movie screen. Could it be that M. Olmi does not realize that he is here replicating the very situation, so familiar to him, of a cinema showing in the dark? Should a row of cinema chairs be put in the present gallery, the seated spectators would be at the perfect height for looking at his Dead Christ film.

As for the Brera’s desire to increase the “visibility” and to recover the “true” (original) the viewing of the Dead Christ, such aims coincide with current (controversial) definitions of contemporary restoration, which pretend to increase the “legibility” of the artwork [6] and to reveal its “true” colours, by some supposed recovery of its original state.

As with the numerous controversial restorations that have been the subject of critical analysis by ArtWatch and others, hypotheses that are cast up as alleged discoveries are given the status of facts and misleading calculations are supplied for “scientific” proofs. Ambitious restorations and spectacular displays alike are – however awkward their results – made in the name of retrieving the artist’s original intentions.

In both cases, close analysis shows a contemporary aesthetic prevailing over the artist’s own original one. Professed humility in restorers and exhibition designers is unable to constrain the contamination of the past by our present artistic prejudices. By similar processes, through invasive restoration or intrusive display, the old masterpieces are modernized and thus, for ongoing decades or even irreversibly, falsified.

Michel Favre-Felix

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Fig. 1: The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, circa 1480, distemper on canvas, 68 x 81 cm, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano.
Above, Figs. 2, 3, 4 and 5.
Fig. 2: The Dead Christ (top) isolated in the dark – in the forefront, Bellini’s Pietà. (Source: arte.sky.it.)
Fig. 3, 4 and 5: Other views of the painting embedded into the black wall. Source for Figs. 3 and 4: Milano.corriere.it
Above, Fig. 6: Ermanno Olmi in his new and, he hopes, permanent display in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano.
Above, Fig. 7: Ermanno Olmi during the presentation of his new display and debate held in the Sala della Passione of the Brera Palace on the 12th of December 2013. Source: Milano.corriere.it
Above, Fig. 8 Mantegna’s masterpiece with its frame, before December 2013. Source: lacittanuova.milano.corriere.it
Above, Fig. 9: a detail of the central panels of Mantegna’s The San Zeno Altarpiece of circa 1457-1460. This work of tempera on panel (the whole altarpiece being 480 x 450 cm) is housed in the San Zeno basilica, Verona. Source: en.wikipedia.org
Above, Fig. 10: A study for a Lamentation of Christ, circa 1460, ink on paper, 15,1 x 10 cm, Private collection. For further details : http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/27819 Source: thehistoryblog.com
Above, Figs. 11 and 12: A view of Mantegna’s the Bridal Chamber (Camera degli Sposi) 1465-1474, frescoes, Ducal Palace, Mantova, indicating (top) the elevated viewpoint of the frescoes.
Above, fig. 13: A detail of Mantegna’s the Bridal Chamber (Camera degli Sposi).
CODA:
Above, Fig. 14: Mantegna’s Ecce Homo, circa 1500, distemper and gilding on canvas, 54 x 42 cm, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris.
This distemper painting by Mantegna is one of the best preserved paintings in the world. It has never been lined. It has never been varnished and, so, has never been “dis-varnished”. It retains its original panel on which the original canvas is glued only by its edges [7]. Crucially, we can see that this miraculous survivor of Mantegna’s art displays the same subdued tones (albeit in even smoother and more delicate manner) as those found in the artist’s Dead Christ (Fig. 1). As works painted with pigments bound in distemper (glue) not oil or tempera or resin, both the Dead Christ and the Ecce Homo belong to a kind of painting that inevitably looks slightly muted and darkened and which cannot be enhanced or “brought out” by any restoration means. Disappointing as this might be to the curators of the Brera, no cleaning could ever uncover – as is otherwise invariably promised by restorers – any bright colours under its subdued looking tones. Those tones are the birthmarks, the intrinsic pictorial characteristic of the distemper painting technique. However, it might seem that for the resourcefully modernising contemporary curator, the physical impossibility of brightening and colourising an historic work, need constitute no obstacle. As the above described (mis-)treatment of Mantegna’s Dead Christ demonstrates, other substitute technological subterfuges exist in the displaying of paintings. The increasingly frequent curatorial resort to historically and artistically falsifying theatrical/cinematic/virtual techniques might deserve further commentaries.
ENDNOTES:
[1] ”Le « coup » du Christ”, by Philippe Ridet, Le Monde, 15/02/2014 [2] The Brera’s website [3] “Capolavori meditazione da”, Francesca Bonazzoli, Corriere della Sera, 3/12/2013 [4] “Brera, «processo» pubblico per il Cristo del Mantegna ”, Giacomo Valtolina, Corriere della Sera, 13/12/2013 [5] “Un Mantegna da vedere in ginocchio”, by Andrea Carandini, Corriere della Sera, 11/12/2013 [6] For critical studies of the use of this term in conservation, see: Salvador Muñoz Viñas, Contemporary Theory of Conservation, , Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann, 2005, and, Hiltrud Schinzel, “Visibility of Restoration – Legibility of Artworks : the Topicality of Compromise”, in Visibilité de la restauration, lisibilité de l’œuvre, 5th colloquium ARAAFU, 2003 – Debate in the Italian restoration review Kermes n°44, 2001 / n°47, 2002 / n°50, 2003, with Antonio Natali, Giorgio Bonsanti, James Beck, Anna Maria Maetzke, Walter Schudel et al) [7] Andrea Rothe, “Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi”, Historical Painting Techniques, Materials and Studio Practice, The Getty Conservation Institute, 1995


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

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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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.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part II – CODA: The Remarkable Responses to Our Evidence of Injuries; and Thomas Hoving’s Rant of Denial

28th March 2013

Before considering the third and concluding part of our examination of the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration, it might be helpful to note the responses made to the first two posts (“Setting the Scene, Packing Them In” and “How to Take a Michelangelo Sibyl Apart, from Top to Toes”). Without exception, these have comprised outright expressions of support and/or of indignation and distress at the fate of the frescoes. Such phases as “I had no idea”, “I was horrified to see” and “that things were so bad” abound. Serious and intelligent websites have reported our accounts in similar terms. As is discussed below, no one has challenged our evidence of injuries and everyone who has responded has been shocked and alarmed by it.

Bob Duggan on the Big Think site expressed this concern with precision: “When I learned that my very breath and perspiration could contribute to the slow destruction of the frescoes, I felt sad. However, when I read Art Watch UK’s accusation that the Vatican undertook a 20-year restoration project of the frescoes ‘in full knowledge that the stripped-down bare fresco surfaces would thereafter be attacked by atmospheric pollution unless given some other protective covering’ (which has not yet happened), I felt rage over the local mismanagement of a global cultural treasure…” Duggan added that he was “reminded of a similar, more recent restoration fiasco involving Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic. Years after the artist’s death, overzealous conservators stripped away darkening varnishes applied by Eakins to reveal the brighter colors beneath that were more in line with the Impressionism then en vogue.”

Ikono, an organisation dedicated to democratizing art through the production and broadcasting of short films that present art to the wider public sphere, reported that “ ‘The Vatican authorities are in conservation crisis today because they stripped the Sistine Chapel frescoes bare in the 1980s and 1990s. They did so against material and historical evidence that Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based a secco painting,’ writes Artwatch in an excellent two-part article on the Sistine Chapel Restorations…”

Our case was re-presented in the pithiest form imaginable on the Left Bank Blog: “OY! According to ArtWatchUK: ‘The Vatican authorities are in conservation crisis today because they stripped the Sistine Chapel frescoes bare in the 1980s and 1990s. They did so against material and historical evidence that Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based a secco painting. That original, autograph material was removed in full knowledge that the stripped-down bare fresco surfaces would thereafter be attacked by atmospheric pollution unless given some other protective covering. An attempt to coat the frescoes with synthetic resin (Paraloid B72) was abandoned leaving some surfaces clogged and the rest unprotected. The authorities then promised to install hi-tech paraphernalia that would somehow prevent the polluting atmosphere from making contact with the Chapel’s painted walls and ceiling. As was shown in our previous post, that cockamamie promise was not delivered. Today, in a chapel increasingly over-crowded with paying visitors, these stripped-down frescoes stand in greater peril than ever.'”

A number of questions arise. If the import of the evidence we have assembled over the past 23 years is so clear to so many, why does it have so little traction with the authorities who sanctioned the affronting restorations? Does the absence of any challenge to our evidence mean that everyone is now (privately if not openly) persuaded that – quite aside from the present and ongoing environmental assaults within the chapel – Michelangelo’s painting has indeed been gravely and irreversibly injured artistically, in terms both of its individual component parts and its general orchestration of effects? Or does it show that the authorities, in pursuit of their own interests, are now impervious to and politically insulated against any criticism?

When we first began making this case over two decades ago in the dark pre-digital era, the ink was scarcely ever dry on our criticisms before someone or other claimed that our comparative photographs were misleading; that old painted, drawn, or engraved copies of the ceiling were not to be trusted and had no force as testimony; that we were technically ignorant, or victims of “culture shock”, or agents of mischief – or worse. Could it really be, as it still sometimes seems, that no matter how grave and persuasive the evidence of injuries might be, there exists a wider disabling public resignation and conviction that nothing might today impede the lavishly funded, sponsorship-attracting, Conservation Juggernaut?

To be institutionally specific and somewhat blunt: could it be that the Vatican authorities today think it better to continue sheltering behind a fantastical fairy story of the transforming powers of Wicked Soot and Imperceptibly Darkening Varnishes, than to concede a professional misjudgement made by a small group of in-house experts over a third of a century ago?

Our colleague in France, the painter and the President of ARIPA (The Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique), Michel Favre-Felix, adds weight and urgency to these considerations with a two-fold reaction. In the first instance, he too was startled by our further evidence of “this incredible statement by the chemist: ‘Ammonium carbonate alone tends to tone down colours…sodium carbonate livens them up'”, and the little-noticed admission of the ferocity of the cleaning agent AB 57 by the chief restorer and co-director of the restoration, Gianluigi Colalucci: “Here’s a tiny patch where I left it on too long. In this little experimental patch you see completely solid violet paint, but around it you can see the gradations of dark and light, which are the shadings of Michelangelo’s own work”. As Favre-Felix notes, whenever a given chemical is known to have even the slightest effect on the original colours, it is rightly forbidden to use it.

His second and generous reaction was to offer further visual corroborations in the form of evidence produced for ARIPA’s journal Nuances of other damages made on the monumental figures of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The injuries to one of these, the Cumaean Sibyl, are of great strategic significance in our joint battles. That is, we have just shown in our two previous posts the gross damages inflicted on two of the greatest figures that came at the end of Michelangelo’s cycle when he was at the height of his conceptual, painterly and figurally inventive powers – his Libyan Sibyl and his Prophet Daniel (see Figs. 2 and 3). To that catalogue of injuries, the further evidence of this third case must surely now establish an indisputable and irresistible critical mass? Of the ceiling’s twelve alternating Prophets and Sibyls that constituted Michelangelo’s most heroic monumental and spiritually expressive achievement, we can now demonstrate how three in a row of these painted colossi suffered grievously. Statistically, a sample of a quarter might be considered sufficient to make a general case? We could, God willing, pursue the evidence further if necessary, but is it not now time sufficient for the Vatican to confront and address past heritage preservation errors and desist from what would otherwise constitute an effective falsification of scholarship and art history?

The Portuguese online newspaper Publico reported our criticisms of the Sistine Chapel’s restorations on the second of March. Professor Charles Hope, a former director of the Warburg Institute, was quoted in further criticism of the restoration. The present director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, conceded a pressing need for ameliorative environmental measures which he said would shortly be announced. Unfortunately, he nonetheless and bullishly defended the restoration itself as one which will last for centuries – even before any measures have been announced. (We understand that since those comments were made, the promised announcement has retreated from this April to “the end of the year”.)

If we might at least now be sure that the Vatican is aware of our criticisms and evidence, we recognise that for its part, the Vatican will also appreciate the potential material and political risks of abandoning defences of the restoration. Visitors to the chapel greatly swell attendances to the Vatican Museums. In 1976, about 1.3 million people visited the museums. By 2007 the number had reached nearly 4.3 million, netting some $65 million and providing the Vatican City with its most significant source of income. An admission of error would also embarrass the many major players within the international art world who proclaimed a Revolutionary Restoration in the 1980s. To what degree of embarrassment might be sensed in an ill-tempered and defensive outburst by (the late) Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in a filmed interview for a portrait of the late painter Frank Mason, an early critic of the restoration and a founding member of ArtWatch International.

Thomas Hoving and selected dialogue from an interview in the film A Light In The Dark:

00:53:02 – Thomas Hoving:

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about (Frank Mason). There’s a guy at Columbia, some professor who’s been screeching about this for years. (pause) Turns out that he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. (pause) Do you think Michelangelo was honestly going to deliver it to the Pope something that looked dirty?! (laughs) His marble was going to look gray, his marble was going to look blackened out?! You think that he really mixed his fresco to look like that?!”

01:07:01 – Alexander Eliot:

“I wouldn’t say that the Sistine ceiling had been destroyed myself. I wouldn’t use that word. I would say that it had been desecrated.”

01:07:24 – Thomas Hoving:

“I was part of the desecration personally, if this idiot is right. I am part of it so he ought to put my name on it. (pause) I was invited by the man who cleaned it, Paolucci – whoever, (pause) [Gianluigi Colalucci was the chief restorer and co-director of the restorations, which ran from 1980 to 1994. Antonio Paolucci became the Director of The Vatican Museums in December 2007. – Ed.] to come up in the rickety elevator (makes sound effect of elevator) all the way to the top, and he gave me a beautiful fresh sponge, dipped it in the solution and (he) said OK clean. And they were finally doing the Separation of Earth, (uh) Separation of Light and Darkness, the last one. They started with the Flood and worked backwards. I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Ya, try it.’ I went (reaches up) ‘shooo!’ (wiping motion) And this thin film of black just disappeared. “It was just built up soot over hundreds of years from the stoves that they used to drag in there when the Cardinals all had to meet. That’s what they all did. They had little cubby holes, their servants had cubby holes, they had tents, they had bunks, full service catering, and stoves. “And fresco is impervious to anything other than being blasted by (uh) laser beams you know (does sound effect) out of Star Wars. Not only did they not desecrate or ruin it, they didn’t do anything to it that wasn’t there. So the guy is full of shit (!) if he said that they damaged the Sistine ceiling in any way, they didn’t! I know it. I was there. I cleaned about eight inches of the Sistine ceiling – personally!”

01:10:11 – Thomas Hoving:

“It’s not a controversy, the guy is full of it (Alex Eliot) He’s never been there, he’s never seen it. Did he clean a part of it?”

Interviewer Sonny Quinn:“He made a film…”

Thomas Hoving: “Big deal.”

SQ: “He was close enough so he…”

TH: “Close enough? It’s about 55 feet, give me a break!”

SQ: “…they built scaffolding for him and he was there for six weeks…”

TH: “During the cleaning?”

SQ: “No, before the cleaning…”

TH: “Ya, so?”

SQ: “Well, he wanted everybody to examine his film and…”

TH: “Ah the guy is just full of it…”

For the record (once again), in 1967 the art critic and writer Alexander Eliot and his wife Jane Winslow Eliot spent over 500 hours making a close-up documentary film of the ceiling, The Secret of Michelangelo, Every Man’s Dream. Eliot was up there on the scaffold, every bit as close to the ceiling as Hoving was to be – and for much longer. On 20 May 1985 Eliot had pleaded with the Vatican’s Secretary of State for him to view the Vatican’s own copy of the Eliots’ film and to “have it stopped at the images of the Ancestors [on the lunettes]. Compare what it proves was there against what’s left today”. That precious record of the unrestored ceiling awaits a re-showing. One can only wonder why the Vatican never pressed the testimony of that filmed footage of the pre-restoration ceiling in support of the later cleaning.

For footage of the cleaning itself in progress, see the Ikono site mentioned above which links to three short films. The narrations of all are unspeakably hagiographic and tendentious: critics of the restoration are said to have been “divided”, while the restorers displayed a “passion for their task that recalls that of Michelangelo himself”. The restoration’s outcome is said to “speak for itself” and to have answered “all but the most severe critic”. Most brazenly of all, an outing for that old canard: this restoration had provided “rich opportunities for study”.

We should perhaps resign ourselves to the possibilty that the Eliots’ film may never be aired again – but it will never be possible to expunge all the photographs of the unrestored frescoes that permit the kind of directly comparative visual analysis routinely conducted on this site. Such comparisons truly do “speak for themselves” because they permit like fairly to compare itself with like. For those with eyes to see, such photo-comparisons will forever tell the same heart-breaking story: a misconceived, technically aggressive restoration inflicted grievous injuries on Michelangelo’s art.

Michael Daley

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CAN YOU SEE WHAT IT IS YET?
Above, Fig. 1: A cleaned fragment of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling – but from where?
Above, Fig. 2: A section of Michelangelo’s ceiling before restoration. At the bottom, we see three of his great monumental figures. Two of these, the Libyan Sibyl and the Prophet Daniel, were discussed in the previous post in terms of the great injuries they suffered during restoration. The third figure in the row is that of the Cumaean Sibyl, whose restoration fate is examined below.
Above, Fig. 3: The Cumaean Sibyl seen centre between the Prophet Daniel (left), and the Prophet Isaiah (right).
Above, Fig. 4: The Cumaean Sibyl seen before restoration. Note especially the richly modelled (i.e. shaded) interlocking forms of the two nude boys arms; the dramatic range of tones in evidence on the Sibyl’s monumental left arm; and, the deep, darkly hollow, sculpturally punctuating pool of shadow bounded by the boys’ elbows and the Sibyl’s upper right arm. In general terms, note the extraordinary sculptural fusion of the three figures and their (seeming) collective occupation of a real and palpable space in front of the architectural wall behind them. The plastic lucidity of this group had survived for nearly five centuries. To alert observers it had remained what it had been initially to Michelangelo’s contemporaries: astounding. Note the brilliance with which the twin, linked left arms of the boys had mimicked and echoed in dutiful witness the colossally concentrating anatomical transmission of the Sibyl’s intellectual power and prescience via her own gigantic (and otherwise overblown) left arm. The great Michelangelo scholar Charles de Tolnay must surely have had this figure in mind when he wrote of how Michelangelo had, in the painting of his ceiling, rendered all preceding art “an imperfect preparation” for it, and all the art that followed it “a decadence”.
Above, Fig. 5: The Cumaean Sibyl seen after restoration. There are many differences between the two states and none of the recorded changes has proved beneficial. Note first the transformation that took place in the hanging bag holding manuscript papers, the post-restoration state of which features as our mystery object at Fig. 1. Note the obliteration of the shading which had explained the forms and spaces of the architectural elements on which the Sibyl is enthroned. Note how the escalating, sculpturally expressive tones that ran around the Sibyl’s left arm turning its forms in space have been vitiated by the emergence of a linear highlight on the arm’s underside which overly asserts the drawing of the figure and undermines its calculated tonal simulations of real forms in real spaces. That assertion of marks-on-a-flat-surface now recurs throughout the group and, to echo René Hughe, imparts a distinctly modernist and ahistorical character on an iconic work in which the artist had originally and triumphantly done the greatest violence to the “integrity” of the picture surface on which it had been composed.
Above, Fig. 6: The Cumaean Sibyl seen before restoration. Note the varieties of shades of green that were to be seen on the board of the book and on the hanging bag of papers. Note the highlight on the left side of the cushion (or cushioning drapery) that supports the giant book and the strong dark shadows to left and the right of the hanging bag. Note how the glazing on the drapery had not only darkened and sharpened the sculptural forms (by turning surfaces away from light sources) but had also intensified the hue, moving it away from the tan/orange to a deeper, richer red. We see evidence of a red glazing having been deployed over the base green colouring of the bag, so as to produce the dark shading which is expressive of the forms held within the bag.
Above, Fig. 7: The Cumaean Sibyl seen after restoration. Note the destruction of the varieties of green and with them the flattening of the hanging bag. Note the disappearance of the highlight on the cushion under the book. Note how an abrupt change of hue occurs between the drapery over the leg and that under the book. The justification of the changes induced by the restoration has been that (- as pugnaciously described by Hoving, left) nothing other than black filth had been removed and that this removal had been made expressly to liberate cleanliness and brilliance of colouring. What, then, must the restorers have thought that they were doing when these changes of hue occurred? For that matter, what must the Japanese photographers have thought was happening through their recording lenses?
Above, Fig. 8: A drawing (detail) of the Cumaean Sibyl made by Rubens in 1601, showing the bulging and the shading of the bag. If all the features that were sacrificed in the cleaning really had been misleading impressions created by gradual accumulations of soot and darkening varnishes, as the restorers claimed, the process would have to have begun with a very dramatic spurt between 1512 when the ceiling was unveiled and 1601…and then done nothing much at all for nearly four hundred years.
Above (top), Figs. 9 and 10 showing catastrophic changes of hue and tones. Above (centre), Figs. 11 and 12, showing the catastrophic losses of shading (lights as well as darks) during restoration. The method of the restoration has only ever been defended in general terms, when what is required is some explanation for the various local changes that occurred throughout the ceiling. Because Michelangelo had made elaborations and modifications with paint applied to the dry frescoes, in varying degrees, some parts of the ceiling were more badly affected by their removal than others. It was for the restorers first to acknowledge the changes that were occurring under their sponges and then to explain them section by section. This was never done. If we reverse the sequence as directly above at Figs. 13 and 14, the question then becomes: If Michelangelo had left the bag as is now seen after the restoration (left) at Fig.13, what non-man made process could account for the changes that had occurred by 1601 and then survived without further change until 1980?
Above, Fig. 15: An engraved copy of the Cumaean Sibyl by Cherubino Alberti made before sometime before 1615 which shows the bulges on the bag much as copied by Rubens. The engraving is also eloquent – as so many copies were – on the generally dramatic “Trompe l’oeil” effects created by Michelangelo, one of the most crucial of these being his posited brilliant lighting sources which appeared to have cast shadows from real figures onto surrounding surfaces. These devices are virtually universally recorded in countless copies throughout the centuries and regardless of stylistic changes between artists. A simple cleaning of the paintings would have enhanced their surviving tonal contrasts and thereby intensified the illusions. Instead, what we see along with a compression of these tonal values is a reduction of Michelangelo’s once revolutionary sculptural and spatial effects. Thus was Michelangelo’s original celebrated vanquishing of the ceiling’s complex surface geometries itself vanquished by the actions of technicians.
Above, Fig. 16: An aquatint copy of the Cumaean Sibyl made c. 1790 by Giavanni Volpato, again showing the rich modelling on the bag, the richly modelled arms of the boys first seen in the above copies nearly two centuries previously. Below, Fig. 17: A still from the animated film Frankenweenie. In our post Frankenweenie – A Black and White Michelangelo for Our Times we held that Tim Burton’s vivid black and white photographic images of hand-made models participated brilliantly in one of Western art’s most distinguishing traits. From Alberti to Ruskin, artists have deployed tonal gradations so as to conjure three-dimensional effects on flat pictorial surfaces. Until the 1960s every art student learnt to manipulate tonal values in this fashion. Tragically, such conventions have been discarded in (most) fine art education and in much of today’s fine art practice. Fortunately, those ancient empowering lessons have not been lost in Cinema and Photography. In Burton’s hands they have found singularly powerful expression. It is Art’s great tragedy that Michelangelo’s stupendous and pioneering exemplar of plastic illusionism should have been injured by its intended restorers.
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Review: Renoir at the Frick – The Curatorial and Conservational Photographic Blind Spots

I June 2012

The Frick Collection’s recent temporary exhibition “Renoir ~ Impressionism and Full-length Painting” contained ten pictures and took ten years to assemble. It was organised by the deputy director, Colin Bailey, to showcase the The Promenade, the museum’s sole and “somewhat overlooked” Renoir – “overlooked” because Henry Clay Frick’s entrenched prohibition against loans had prevented the picture from travelling to major Renoir shows such as the 1997-78 “Renoir Portraits” exhibition which Bailey had organised for the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, The Art Institute of Chicago and The Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. If the Promenade could not join the international party then the party might come to the Frick.

For this celebration of a single work nine major pictures were borrowed from seven museums and Bailey, a distinguished scholar of French art, produced a book/catalogue that contains much illuminating material on contemporary costume and fashionable mores. As delightful as the show itself ought to have been, the experience proved dispiriting and alarming. Partly, this was because such temporary compilations of dream combinations always come with downsides and a common glaring omission. In this case, for several months a gallery-full of important Frick pictures were bumped from view as important works from other, also temporarily depleted, museums were put at risk. The Musée d’Orsay, for example, sent both its Dance in the City, which had been transferred from its original canvas and relined (see Figs. 10-13 and below), and its Dance in the Country, across the Atlantic. The National Gallery (London) sent its already travel-damaged The Umbrellas, and did so at a time when it had lent its brittle, fragile, shotgun-blasted, “never-to-travel” Leonardo Cartoon to the Louvre. The Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, lent its fire-damaged Madame Henriot “en travesti” (The Page)…and so forth.

The omission that is common to all borrowed compilations was the failure – perhaps for reasons of institutional politesse – to take the opportunity to assess the relative physical conditions of the variously treated and restored cross-section of pictures from within an oeuvre or, in this case, from a specific moment within an oeuvre – “the decade of Impressionism”. This commonly encountered lacuna was the more apparent because Bailey himself discusses conservation matters rather more than most. He does so, however, as a seemingly grateful recipient/beneficiary of museum restoration departments’ technical largesse and their routinely delivered “discoveries”. With his prefatory expression of deep gratitude to an international slew of conservators for “their participation in undertaking technical examination on the paintings in their charge and for allowing me to publish their findings in this catalogue” we knew precisely what critical appraisals not to expect.

Strictly speaking it would not be necessary to call for comparative assessments on such occasions if museums were all, as a matter of course, completely frank about the restoration-injured conditions of individual works. By way of an example of what might be discussed at a time when recollection of the show is still fresh and when armed with Bailey’s book/catalogue, which is as intensively researched and handsomely illustrated as might ever be expected, we consider here the technical history, in so far as it has been disclosed, of just one of the nine loaned pictures – Renoir’s beautiful invention of arrested intimacy-in-movement, his Dance in the City.

The obvious starting point for any appraisal of a picture’s successive states should be the earliest photographic record of the work. With Renoir we enjoy an immense if not comprehensive photographic record. We even have film footage of him painting and sculpting. We have contemporary or near-contemporary photographs that show his paintings in the context of close proximity to other paintings and in a common light (Fig. 1). When the testimony of early photographs differs markedly from presently photographed states (as so often is the case with modern masters – see Figs. 3-7), then, self-evidently, there is an issue crying to be addressed.

When, for example, we compare the very different states of Renoir’s Dance in the City, as seen in Figs. 3 & 4, despite making allowances for photographic variations (such as the great discrepancies of size between the earlier and later images) and being mindful of Bailey’s own thanks to the photographer Michael Bodycomb for having “improved the quality of almost every image”), it is clear that the painting today is not the work that it once was; that its values and relationships have changed. Consider the floor on which the dancers perform: then, it was more varied in its tones; today it is more equal. Then, the floor to the right of the ball gown was darker than the floor to the left of the couple. That darkness served to emphasize the sweeping profile at the back of the trailing gown. Reading downwards from the waist, the shape of two convex masses of material formerly made a leisurely elegant descent towards the train. Today, that “materially” expressive clarity of design in the lower of the two draped forms has been quite disrupted, if not lost, as the now lighter tone of the floor merges with the now diminished shaded tints of the gown (see Figs. 3, 4 & 11).

For all of Bailey’s admirably close (and expertly advised) attentiveness to the dress-making “mechanics” of the gown – “…The skirt is draped in puffed folds (en bouillonée) with a tier of drapery in the front and two pleated flounces at the bottom. The long train is is draped and pleated to form poufs in the back, and a petticoat can be glimpsed beneath it” – he misses the weakened and possibly redrawn profile. Bailey well describes Renoir’s preoccupation with costume. As the son of a tailor and a seamstress, how could that artist have been unaware of or indifferent to the expressive “cut” and sweep of a costume on a swirling, waltzing figure? Previously, the costume of the male dancer was more various in its tones. Today it reads as a uniform black appendage to the female dancer. Previously there had been no hint of the present overly-assertive, sharpened and darkened treatment of the coat tails which pictorially are now as disruptively emphatic as the head of a claw hammer.

For Bailey, the now lighter toned, more equal floor is “immaculate”. To a charlady that might well seem gratifyingly the case, but Renoir, as Bailey acknowledges, fretted greatly about establishing integrated relationships of figures and backgrounds. As Renoir himself put it: “I just struggle with my figures until they are a harmonious unity with their landscape background, and I want people to feel that neither the setting nor the figures are dull and lifeless.” (“Renoir by Renoir”, N.Y., 1990, p. 50). “Harmonious” sometimes seems to be an elusive concept to non-artists. It is not synonymous with “more-alike”. Rather, it describes the uniting through an artistically forged equilibrium of otherwise potentially disparate, disjunctive elements. We constantly see in artists’ preliminary, intimate sketches how their very first thoughts attempt to anticipate and resolve the requirements of such pictorial equilibriums – see Figs. 8 & 9.

Rendering Renoir’s dance floor more homogeneous has had a spatially flattening and pictorially deadening effect. Rendering it both generally lighter and more equal has contributed to the unfortunate effect of detaching the couple from their swirling space and leaving them as isolated and self-contained as a pressed flower in a book. Indication of the painter’s pictorially melding preoccupation is unmissable in the small oil sketch at Fig. 9 that Renoir made for another of his dance paintings. Compared with the earlier state of Dance in the City, the present one resembles an artificially sharpened photograph.

With apparent injuries we must always look for causes and look for them behind as much as within official accounts. As mentioned, and as Bailey euphemises, this picture has “had a complicated structural history”. That is, it has been both transferred and relined. Both operations are highly dangerous. When the paint film was detached from (its presumably original) canvas, the restorers took the opportunity to photograph the painting from the back of the paint, capturing the image in reverse. This image is excitedly presented as having afforded “a rare glimpse into Renoir’s initial preparations…we can see the lines demarcating the back and the train of the womans dress” (but see comments and photograph at Fig. 10). In the same vein, an X-radiograph “shows how enegetically Renoir laid out both his figures and the background elements”. Bailey discusses an infrared reflectogram (Fig. 11) and acknowledges that these “technical” images were made by the Laboratoire du Louvre, C2RMF. Our colleague in ARIPA, Michel Favre Felix, advises that a certain number of paintings coming from the Louvre or from “l’Orangerie”, were “more or less restored” in 1986 on entering the Musée d’Orsay. Bailey confirms that the picture entered the Louvre in 1979 and was transferred to the the Musée d’Orsay in 1986 but offers no details on any restorations of the picture. The pronounced differences in the picture that are evident in Figs. 4 and 13 would however suggest that a restoration took place at some point after 1986.

Needless to say, Renoir painted from the bottom up with overlaid patches of paint and his final, most considered statements therefore formed the upper visible surface of the original paint film. That original, considered and final surface (as was best seen and recorded in the earlier photograph at fig. 2), is no longer to be found in current photographs or in the flesh. Whatever interest penetrative imaging might have, it is secondary in importance to the actual appearance of pictures to the human eye. The current escalating vogue for “technical” imaging that probes beneath the surfaces of pictures serves to divert attention from destructive restoration actions on pictures’ critically important upper surfaces. If the present international museums merry-go-round of borrowings makes the need to address the condition of paintings impolitic, then that is a further compelling reason for curtailing it.

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Fig.1: An exhibition of Renoir paintings at the Durand-Ruel Gallery, New York, in February 1914 (as shown in Bailey, p.103). The Frick Collection’s Renoir of 1875-76, The Promenade, can be seen in the centre of the wall on the left. There can be no doubt, vis-à-vis the adjacent Renoirs, that this picture was then, when less than forty years old, a relatively light “blond” painting within the oeuvre – much as contemporary written accounts testify.
Above, Fig. 2: Durand-Ruel’s Grand Salon at 35, rue de Rome, Paris (Bailey, p. 187), showing Renoir’s Dance in the City of 1883 on the left. We can see from the shadows cast by the furniture, that Renoir’s picture was at that precise, now historically-telling moment, brightly lit from multiple light sources. The fact that it is captured against a dark wall and adjacent to a very light painted double door is of immense assistance is assessing the work’s own (then) tonal values.
Above, left, Fig. 3: Detail of Fig. 2.
Above, right, Fig. 4: A greyscale conversion of Renoir’s Dance in the City, as seen in Bailey’s book/catalogue. Note the apparent lightening of the woman’s hair, the model for which was the dark haired artist, Susanne Valadon.
Above, left, Fig. 5: Klimt’s portrait of Serena Lederer, as recorded in 1930 in a photograph published in the New York Neue Galerie’s 2007 “Gustav Klimt ~ The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections”.
Above, right, Fig. 6: Klimt’s portrait of Serena Lederer, in an undated photograph taken after the picture was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1980 and published in the New York Neue Galerie’s 2007 “Gustav Klimt ~ The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections”.
Above, Fig. 7: The cover of the ArtWatch UK Journal No 23 in which it was pointed out that the restorers of Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze (on which the figure in the cover illustrations appears), had failed to provide directly comparable before and after restoration photographs. Museums that own Klimts, like the Neue Galerie in New York, are as unforthcoming on their restoration histories as are museums that own Renoirs, like the Phillips Collection, in Washington. It would be a very good thing for art if every owner had to maintain an up to date logbook that recorded all that was known about a picture’s provenance and the conservation treatments and repairs that it had undergone.
Above, left, Fig. 8: Le Lever (Les Bas), a monotype print in black ink on white laid paper, by Edgar Degas, as published in Eugenia Parry Janis’s seminal 1968 “Degas Monotypes ~ Essay, Catalogue & Checklist” for an exhibition at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.
Above, right, Fig. 9: An oil sketch by Renoir for his painting Dance in the Country, published in Bailey, p. 176. No such sketch exists for Dance in the City, but the overall attack in this small study would seem perfectly in keeping with Renoir’s own claim to have struggled with his figures until they achieved a harmonious unity with their landscape background.
Above, left, Fig. 10: The back of Dance in the City after the paint film had been detached from its canvas, as published by Bailey at p. 180.
Bailey’s excitement at the opportunity to enjoy “a rare glimpse into Renoir’s initial preparations” is problematic. What little evidence is discernable of the first steps of painting the figures is what can be glimpsed through a double white fog. As Bailey describes, on an already preprimed canvas, Renoir blocked in a further section of white ground priming over the area which was to contain the two figures. It is claimed that through this double barrier of white paint we can see how Renoir “laid out the contours of his dancing couple with a brush”. It is even said that we can “see the lines demarcating the back and the train of the womans dress”. It is unfortunate that the small size of the reproduction and its hazy image do not permit a safe reading of the information. It is not said whether or not those initial lines were adhered to in the subsequent painting. Do they conform to the shapes of the back of the gown that were evident in the undated but presumably the earliest known photograph of the painting that is seen here at Fig. 2? Were those shapes that initially defined the forms of the white gown maintained and bolstered during the painting by the darket tones of the adjacent floor? “Information” gained through “advanced”, technically expensive imaging systems is neither self-sufficient nor self-evident, it must always be read and interpreted. If conservators and curators opt not to address the testimony of the most accessible and least problematic technical records of condition (that is, the full range of successive ordinary photographs), they will not be well-placed to ask the right questions and make the best readings. There is every danger at the moment of the new technical imaging being deployed as a diversion from, not a resolution of, the most urgent questions of the physical and aesthetic well-being of old paintings.
Above, right, Fig. 11: Dance in the City, an infra-red reflectogram, made by the Laboratoire du Louvre, C2RMF.
Above, Fig. 12: Renoir’s Dance in the City, detail, as shown in the 1985 catalogue to “Renoir”, an IBM sponsored travelling exhibition organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain in collaboration with the Réunion des musées nationaux and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
Above, Fig. 13: Renoir’s Dance in the City, detail, as shown in the 2012 book/catalogue for the “Renoir ~ Impressionism and Full-Length Painting” exhibition which was financially supported by: The Florence Gould Foundation and Michel David-Weill; The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation; The Grand Marnier Foundation; the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation; the Fiduciary Trust Company International; and, the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.
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Rocking the Louvre: the Bergeon Langle Disclosures on a Leonardo da Vinci restoration

28 April 2012

ArtWatch has been haunted for two decades by a nearly-but-not-made restoration disclosure. In the 1993 Beck/Daley account of the Nippon TV sponsored Sistine Chapel restoration (Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal), we reported that in the late 1980s Leonetto Tintori, the restorer of Masaccio’s “Trinity” in the Santa Maria Novella, Florence, and a member of the international committee that investigated the controversial cleaning, had “urged the Sistine team privately to preserve what he termed ‘Michelangelo’s auxiliary techniques’ which in his view included oil painting as well as glue-based secco” (p. 111). What we had not been able to say was that Tintori (who died in 2000, aged 92) had prepared a dissenting minority report expressly opposing the radical and experimental cleaning method.

Shortly before the press conference called to announce the committee’s findings, Tintori was persuaded by a (now-deceased) member of the Vatican not to go public with his views. He was assured that his judgement had been accepted and that what remained on the Sistine Chapel ceiling of Michelangelo’s finishing auxiliary secco painting would be protected during the cleaning. With a catastrophically embarrassing professional schism averted, the restoration continued and the rest of what Tintori judged to be Michelangelo’s own auxiliary and finishing stages of painting was eliminated. Without knowledge of Tintori’s highly expert dissenting professional testimony, the public was assured that despite intense and widespread opposition the cleaning had received unanimous expert endorsement. Critics of the restoration were left prey to disparagement and even vilification.

On January 4th, we noted that in the widely reported schism that emerged at the Louvre with the resignations of Ségolène Bergeon Langle, the former director of conservation for the Louvre and France’s national museums, and, and Jean-Pierre Cuzin, the former director of paintings at the Louvre, from the Louvre’s international advisory committee on the restoration of Leonardo’s “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, it had been recognised that the resulting crisis of confidence was of a magnitude not seen since the Sistine Chapel controversy. Restoration advisory committees are not imposed on museums and customarily they serve as political/professional fig leaves. In the wake of the Louvre committee resignations, embarrassed and perhaps panicky members of the museum’s staff offered self-contradictory and unfounded assurances (see below). In January, the Louvre’s head of painting, Vincent Pomarède reportedly claimed that “The recent cleaning was absolutely necessary for both conservation and aesthetical reasons.” This assurance proved unfounded on both grounds. Pomarède added that no member of the committee “has ever said that the cleaning was not prudent and had gone too far technically.” One has now done so – publicly – and left museum restorations under an unprecedented spotlight.

During an earlier cleaning controversy at the Louvre, Edgar Degas threatened to produce an anti-restoration pamphlet that would be what he termed a “bomb” – but he never did so, so far as we know. Now, as Dalya Alberge reports in the Guardian, the French Le Journal des Arts yesterday published an interview with Ségolène Bergeon Langle of truly momentous if not incendiary consequence (see below). We learn that her resignation came after no fewer than twelve letters requesting information on the restoration’s course went unanswered; that it was made in specific and pointed protest against the use of retouching pigments whose safety had not been proven; and, that the Louvre’s public claims of some pressing conservation need to remove the varnish were false, having been made despite it being known within the museum that any potential threat to the paint came not from the varnish but from a single faulty board in the picture’s panel which was reacting to the museum’s insufficiently stable environmental conditions. Perhaps most disturbingly serious for art lovers are Bergeon Langle’s disclosures that along with old (but nonetheless still protective) varnishes, original material of Leonardo’s was removed – against her advice – from the painting; and, aesthetically, that it is confirmed that the modelling of the Virgin’s face was weakened (see Figs. 1 and 2; and, for weakening to the modelling of St. Anne’s face, Figs. 12 and 13).

That the Louvre authorities would not inform even so distinguished a member of its own advisory committee might suggest either that the restorers had not known in advance what they would be doing to the painting; or, they feared that disclosure of their intentions would provoke opposition within the advisory committee. Either way, this was clearly an unacceptable (if not improper) way for a museum to execute irreversible alterations to one of Leonardo’s most advanced sophisticated, complex and problematic works. To Bergeon Langle’s now public “insider” criticisms, additional detailed material to highlight further Louvre procedural shortcomings and misrepresentations to the press and to the public will shortly be presented by Michel Favre-Felix, the president of the Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique (ARIPA). Favre-Felix is also to call formally for the establishment of a national scientific ethics committee that would be independent of museums and their restoration teams and be charged with re-examining the conservation file on the challenged St. Anne restoration.

A second member of Louvre’s advisory committee, Jacques Franck, the world authority on Leonardo’s painting technique, has said to the Guardian that a restoration likely to generate such disapproval from leading figures should never have been undertaken in the first place and, given that Ségolène Bergeon Langle is unquestionably France’s highest authority on restoration matters, her alarmed protest is therefore one that should mean a lot to both Leonardo scholars and art lovers the world over.

Unfortunately, the restoration-induced changes on the St Anne are not unprecedented. It is Art’s general tragedy that while scholars have quietly enlarged the oeuvre of Leonardo over the last century and a half, restorers have repeatedly swabbed and scritched away at the surviving fabric of those precious works – sometimes to an astounding degree, as with the “Last Supper” in Milan. With the National Gallery’s substitute version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” we have seen how the distinctive Leonardesque expression on the angel’s mouth was altered (without any acknowledgement) despite the fact that a distinguished scholar and former director of the Gallery, Kenneth Clark, had seen the angel’s face as being “the one part of our Virgin of the Rocks where the evidence of Leonardo’s hand seems undeniable, not only in the full, simple modelling, but in the drawing of the hair”. It is a matter of note that four of the most enthusiastically supportive members of the Louvre advisory committee were drawn from the curators and restorers who were directly responsible for the London and Milan Leonardo restorations.

Of Leonardo’s accepted earlier paintings, in 1939 Kenneth Clark lavished especial praise on the treatment of modelling found on two portrait heads – and in his enthusiasm, he awarded the palm of best preservation to both of them. The “Ginevra Benci”, then in the Liechtenstein Collection but now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, was judged “the best preserved of all Leonardo’s early pictures”; one that “shows most clearly his intentions at this period”; and, one where “within the light oval of the face there is very little shadow, and the modelling is suggested by delicate gradations of tone, especially in the reflected lights.” Clark thrilled to the great refinement of execution: “We see a similar treatment of form in Desiderio’s low reliefs, controlled by the same sensibility to minute variations of surface. There are passages, such as the modelling of the eyelids, which Leonardo never surpassed in delicacy, and here for once he seems to have had none of that distaste for the medium which we can deduce from his later paintings, no less than from contemporary descriptions of his practice.” Ever aesthetically alert and deft, Clark saw all of these ultra-refined technical devices as being entirely “subordinate to the feeling of individual character with which Leonardo had been able to charge his portrait, so that this pale young woman has become one of the most memorable personalities of the Renaissance.” (We are grateful to Carroll Janis for drawing attention to this passage.)

Clark’s alertness to the physical/aesthetic characteristics of Leonardo’s hand was to the fore in his reflections on the “Portrait of a Musician” at the Ambrosiana in Milan. In the “subtle luminous modelling” of its head and its “delicate observation of light as it passes across the convex forms”, this work could only be “by Leonardo’s own hand alone and unaided” and it was “very similar to that of the angel in the Virgin of the Rocks”. As it stood before 1939, this too was “perhaps the best preserved of Leonardo’s paintings”, and in it we were then able to “learn something of his actual use of pigment, elsewhere obscured by dirty varnish, and we see that it was less smooth and ‘licked’ than that of his followers.”

Ironically, Clark, with his pathological aversion to “dirty” varnish (which is to say, old varnish on an old painting on an old support), was more responsible than anyone for the subsequent museum restoration/stripping mania. Looking around today’s museums, it is hard not to conclude that Clark might have been more careful in his wishes. Bergeon Langle’s warning against the modern addiction to penetrative imaging systems is particularly apt and timely: the hyper-active restoration changes (see right) made to the modelling and to the expression of those precious living Renaissance faces have cumulatively thinned and abraded pictures surfaces and material components and thereby remorselessly pushed great paintings into sad resemblances of their own infra-red under-states (see particularly, Figs. 4-11 and 19 & 20). Technical curiosity kills more than cats. In the case of Leonardo it has contrived to pull that artist back from his own increasingly lush highly-wrought subtly atmospheric shading towards the brilliant but thinner decorous linearity of Botticelli, when any comparison of the “Mona Lisa’s” hands with those of Leonardo’s “Annunciation” would have warned precisely against such perverse and regressive adulterations.

The interview given to Le Journal des Arts of 27 April, by Ségolène Bergeon Langle read as follows:

Why resign from the Louvre’s scientific advisory committee for the St Anne? “In January 2011 the committee had agreed on a gentle cleaning of late varnishes and the removal of the stains on the Virgin’s cloak. Yet, between July and October 2011 a more pronounced cleaning was done and presented as ‘necessary’, which I objected to. I was then faced with people who would oppose my position, which is technical and not based on aesthetics. My 12 letters [to the Louvre] asking for precisions on some aspects of the cleaning process and on the materials to be used for retouching, remained unanswered. I had to resign (on December 20th, 2011) to be heard just on one specific point: the Gamblin retouching pigments were not to be used since their innocuousness is not proven. Right from the beginning, false ideas have been put forth, like calling ‘repaints’ original retouches by Leonardo in the work’s early stages, or to attribute flaking in the paint layer to the ‘contracting varnish’, a [consequence that was] actually due to the sawing up of the wood [panel]…”

What do you think of the work done? “In my opinion, the precautionary principle hasn’t been respected. We must face the fact that the Virgin’s face is less modelled now. The cleaning should never have gone so far. However, I was happy that the grove [of trees] be preserved and, also, the ground’s material constituents that some ‘felt’ not original (though between January and April 2011 a brown-greenish section of the ground, located below St Anne’s elbow had been removed already). Besides, another matter of much controversy, the whitened layer on Christ Child’s body, has mistakenly been understood as a late varnish [that has] gone mouldy. I’m inclined to believe it was an irreversibly altered [original] glaze and, therefore, I have recommended that it be preserved, but nobody would hear me.”

The current Leonardo exhibition implies that his other paintings in the Louvre should be cleaned also. How do you feel about that? “Just not to do it, by all means! The original flesh paint in the St John-the-Baptist, being rich in oil, displays a significant network of drying cracks and might be fragile in the event of cleaning. For sure, scientific methods are essential but they need sound interpretation and wisdom dually… To date, there is too much boldness originating mistakes and an alarming fascination for infra-red investigation whereby are revealed under-layers that were never meant to be seen.”

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: The Virgin (detail) from Leonardo’s “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, before restoration.
Above, Fig. 2: The Virgin (detail) after restoration.
Above, Fig. 3: Left, the short Louvre catalogue, published in 2012 after the restoration; right, a plate of the same heads published in 1992.
Above, left, Fig 4: Leonardo’s “The Musician” as published in 1945. Above, right, Fig. 5: an infra-red photograph of the musician published in 2011.
Above, Fig. 6: The musician, as in 1945. Above, right, Fig. 7: the musician, as published in 2011. By any optical appraisal, it can be seen that Leonardo’s painting presently stands somewhere between its 1945 self and an infra-red photograph of itself.
Above, Fig. 8: The musician, detail, as recorded in 1945.
Above, Fig. 9: The musician, detail, as found in 2011.
Above, Fig. 10: The musician, detail, as recorded in 1945.
Above, Fig. 11: The musician, as found in 2011.
Above, Fig. 12: The eyes of St. Anne, in Leonardo’s “Virgin and St. Anne”, before its cleaning at the Louvre.
Above, Fig. 13: The eyes of St. Anne, as found after the picture’s cleaning at the Louvre.
Above, Fig. 14: The eyes in Leonardo’s “Ginevra Benci”, as seen in Bode’s 1921 Studien über Leonardo da Vinci.
Above, Fig. 15: The eyes of “Ginevra Benci”, as found in 2011.
Above, Fig. 16: Andrea del Verrocchio’s “Flora”.
Above, Fig. 17: “Ginevra Benci”, detail, as seen in 1921.
Above, Fig. 18: “Ginevra Benci”, detail, as seen in 2011.
Above, Fig. 19: The musician, detail, as found in 2011.
Above, Fig. 20: The musician, detail, as found in 2011.
Can all the photographs in the world be wrong?
Might anything ever count as a fair demonstration of a restoration-induced injury?
Can no curator or trustee appreciate the inherent physical dangers when allowing restorers, who work with sharp instruments and highly penetrating solvents from the top down, to act upon pictures which artists have built from the bottom up in order to leave their finest and most considered effects exposed at the picture’s surface? Can no one in authority appreciate that every authorised restoration is an accident waiting to happen?
Does no curator ever wonder what has happened to eyebrows and the shading around eyes – and mouths, and nostrils – when pictures are “cleaned” or “restored”? Does no curator appreciate the vital function that shading serves for artists who are attempting to capture from nature, or to evoke imaginatively, a precise and specific personality, state of mind, engagement with the world? Does no curator recognise the tell-tale signs when restorers subvert artistically conjured forms and change the expression on subjects faces?
Would Kenneth Clark, if he were alive today, still consider “Ginevra Benci” and “The Musician” to be Leonardo’s best preserved works – and if not, why not? In the art trade it is recognised that the best preserved works are those that have been preserved least often by “conservators” and “restorers”. Why do people who are charged with protecting art in within the museum service so often take a contrary view? What supports their apparent belief that a much or a radically restored work may count as a “best preserved” specimen?
They all use the words freely, but do any Leonardo scholars, or Leonardo exhibition organisers, truly comprehend the vital conceptual connection between an artist’s system of illusionistic shading and the forms that sculptors literally build? Are any scholars prepared to discuss the manifest changes to Leonardo’s works that emerge in each successive monograph? The elephant in the art restoration room is this: while photography and book reproduction methods improve ceaselessly (see in particular the excellent and instructively enlarged photographs in Giovanni Villa’s Leonardo da Vinci – Painter, The Complete Works), authors themselves habitually refrain from discussing the nature of the often profoundly altered states to which their photographs testify. Ségolène Bergeon Langle, a conservation scientist, has bravely lifted the lid. Will others now discuss what lies below?
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