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6 January 2014

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

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

MacGregor versus Penny

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

Parliamentary Concerns

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

Fresh Crimes Against Art and History

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

An Old Crime Implodes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further and Fresh Doubts

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

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

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

Art Market restorations

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

Concealment and Disclosure

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

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

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

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

Michael Daley

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

Another Restored Leonardo, Another Sponsored Celebration – Ferragamo at the Louvre…

8 April 2012

The penny dropped last week in Paris: museum picture restoration is becoming a money-making machine in which the artistic sums may not necessarily add up. The Louvre’s restored Leonardo “Virgin and Child with St. Anne” re-appeared in a series of openings for a swish exhibition-of-celebration, “La Sainte Anne l’ultime chef-d’oeuvre de Léonardo de Vinci”, sponsored by the Italian fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo (whose 2012 fashion show is to be held within the Louvre). The official defences of the restoration are found in the exhibition literature and in a DVD film (“Leonardo de Vinci The Restoration of the Century”) celebrating “The spectacular operation, the likes of which occurs only once a century”. Although there may be a touch of “The Official” in the film, acknowledgement is certainly made of opposition to the course of the restoration that came from within the advisory committee itself. Jean-Pierre Cuzin, the former director of paintings at the Louvre, is seen to speak with great eloquence on the option of, essentially, leaving well enough alone. Reference is also made to wider opposition that was reported in what is described as “a virulent press campaign”. The organisation of the exhibition itself is seen to testify to the rapid growth of mutual support systems within the international museum community. At the same time, we can now better gauge the restoration’s artistic consequences and better appreciate why two eminent art authorities, Ségolène Bergeon Langle, the former director of conservation for the Louvre and France’s national museums, and Jean-Pierre Cuzin, resigned from the restoration’s international advisory committee.

As with the Credit Suisse sponsored exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci – Painter at the Court of Milan” which gathered £1.5bn worth of Leonardos in celebration of the National Gallery’s restored “Virgin of the Rocks” (see Figs. 17 & 18), this Ferragamo/Louvre exhibition has drawn masterpieces by Raphael, Michelangelo, Pontormo, Andrea del Sarto and others. The National Gallery (two of whose staff members served on the St. Anne restoration’s international advisory committee) loaned its hitherto unloanable Leonardo “Burlington House Cartoon” in a straight swap for the Louvre’s earlier loan of Leonardo’s original “Virgin of the Rocks” to the London Leonardo-fest. It would seem that in this international bonanza, one restored Leonardo begets another and each begets a plumply lucrative exhibition and catalogue. The current escalation in travel and restoration risks for works of art is terrifying.

The Louvre’s current exhibition is said by the curator, Vincent Delieuvin, to comprise “a science workshop”. But this “workshop” could not inform the treatment of the painting because it followed, not preceded, the restoration. Moreover, the exhibition itself imposed a guillotine on the restoration. Members of the international advisory committee who wished for more tests, for more consideration of vexing issues, felt thwarted by the Louvre’s need to finish the restoration in time for the arrival of the stupendous borrowed treasures. The cumulative assembled testimony of the exhibition’s many borrowed copies and derivatives of the “St. Anne” might well have been instructive, but, not having been seen, it finds no reflection in the restored Leonardo which artistically has pulled away from its own off-spring (see Figs. 13-16). Delieuvin’s reported twin claims that the restoration “is a true resurrection of the ‘St. Anne’” and that “The painting has recovered a depth and a relief almost like sculpture, with an intense palette of lapis lazuli blue, lacquer red, grays and vibrant browns”, seem both rather tastelessly hyperbolic and at variance with visual evidence (- see right).

Certain structural stresses in the over-heating art economy have become visible. At the exhibition’s epicentre the “Burlington House Cartoon” and the “St. Anne” (for which picture the drawing was a study), have been brought together side by side in a spectacular but counter-productive coup de théâtre (see Figs. 13 & 14). The drawn study, now discoloured but sombrely potent in a magnificently worthy black frame, conjures a breath-taking orchestration of monumentally poetic forms, forms that rightly have been seen to rival the pedimental female groupings of the Parthenon sculptures. Since the Second World War there has been no drawing in existence to rival this fragile and brittle manifestation of the grandeur of Leonardo’s thoughts. (If lost – and in recent years lorries have been burnt-out in the Channel Tunnel and a ferry and its lorry cargo was lost in the Channel – no insurance money or state indemnity could acquire another of its kind.) In contrast, the restoration-weakened “St. Anne”, with its now arbitrarily floating, obtrusively abstract and glitzy lapis lazuli blue drapery, has departed from its formerly-realised self, as the adjacent cartoon and the exhibition’s many derivative pictures mutely testify. To see strong colours subsumed within tight sculpturally integrated groups, we must now look to derivatives of Leonardo rather than to their progenitor (see Figs. 15 & 16).

As if to inoculate the exhibition viewer against this back-firing juxtaposition, the wall immediately opposite the cartoon and the “St. Anne” carries a portentous notice headed “A fundamental restoration”:

A fundamental restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s St Anne was initially envisaged in the 1990s when a few quite conclusive cleaning tests were carried out.

The picture’s dull appearance, its hues discoloured and distorted by numerous repaintings of the sky and the Virgin Mary’s blue mantle, demanded the intervention that finally began in 2009. Minute bulges, very probably caused by the stress exerted on the picture layer by the hardening of old restoration varnishes rendered the restoration inevitable.

Preceded by an exceptional series of preliminary examinations and scientific imagery analyses carried out by the laboratories at the Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France (C2RMF) and generously financed by Mr Barry Lam, the restoration itself began late in 2010. The restorer, Cinzia Pasquali, was chosen following an invitation to tender and worked for more than a year at the C2RMF in the painting workshop in the Pavillon de Flore.

The restoration comprised two principle problems: the removal of the discordant repaintings, some resulting from very ancient and thick accumulations of retouches, the thinning of restoration varnishes oxidised and deteriorated by too many partial cleanings, the moving of excess varnish from one area to another using solvents, retouches and refixings down the centuries throughout its long history, the picture had obviously been devarnished and revarnished many times but fortunately the picture layer had been sufficient robust to resist this. The extremely irregular and oxidised state of the surviving varnishes distorted all the tints and, by a well-known physical effect, ‘decolourised’ and yellowed the original hues.

The gradual thinning of these varnishes to a uniform level was therefore the restoration’s major challenge. During this process, resin analyses and measurements of varnish thickness, conducted by new techniques developed at the C2RMF enabled an extremely precise approach to the thinning, which had to be undertaken delicately, both to preserve a degree of patina on the picture and protect the painting itself from any contact with the solvents used. This extremely gentle cleaning process revealed a painting in vivid colours and resuscitated the splendid lapis lazuli blues and refined violet reds and crimson kermes gum lacquer.”

In this classic museum PR conflation of aesthetic and conservation “needs”, we are variously told that aesthetic changes had been necessary on urgent conservation grounds; that the restoration was “envisaged” some time ago and that this aspiration had been reinforced by the picture itself whose dull appearance “demanded” a restoration. Meeting this demand from the inanimate is said to have been made “inevitable” by a mysterious conservation ailment in the form of “minute bulges” which “very probably” were being caused by the varnish itself.

“Very probably” is a distinctly weasel-phrase and seemed the more so because Ségolène Bergeon Langle had very recently pointed out that the minute manifestations were confined to a single board (which had been badly cut when first made) within the panel, and therefore could not have derived from overall varnishes which some were itching to remove. This analysis of the actual cause was accepted on the DVD film where it was claimed that the restoration had had to proceed because of “lifting due to contraction of the wooden panel”. That raised the larger restoration question: if the varnish was not causing the lifting, was there any conservation reason for removing it at all? A frankly negative admission on that point would, of course, have greatly strengthened the position of the “moderates” on the advisory committee who were, under any circumstances, urging restraint and caution. We now hear that not only is it admitted that the liftings of paint were indeed caused by this plank, but also that they had easily been repaired locally. In hope of preventing future liftings, the panel painting is to be encased in framing that will incorporate a suitable micro-climate designed to stabilise the offending wood. On the face of it, this is good news but, in today’s museum practice, a risk removed often seems to make space for another to be incurred. And, sure enough, we also hear it is now thought that, with the provision of its own micro-climate, this great picture can be regarded as safely peripatetic – and that as such it is to be despatched in the first instance to an annexe of the Louvre at Lens, in northern France. But then where next – Tokyo? Dubai? California? And on what tariff? Perhaps in addition to adding this “restoration of the century” to our list of cleanings sold on misleading conservation-necessity prospectuses, the picture should also be put on our Now At Grave Risk of Travel Injuries category? We trust that the Louvre authorities will amend their misleading wall notice on the restoration.

The material on the picture’s surface is said to have been the accumulated product of many and various previous restorations (some with caustic substances), throughout all of which Leonardo’s original paint had suffered no injury. What chance, therefore, could the last restoration’s highly advanced, “extremely precise” techniques have produced anything other than an “extremely gentle” cleaning? Well, first of all, the proof of the pudding is in the appraising of the result – see right. Second, it is never wise to take restorers’ own prognoses at face value. Errors can occur at any point of the restoration process. The suggestion that a uniform layer of varnish had been left in place might surprise members of the international advisory committee who had been under the impression that varying thicknesses of varnish would be left in place according to specific needs for caution (as with the especially vulnerable face of “St. Anne” – see right).

Further, questions arise in terms of conservation methodological practice. In restorations, paintings are stripped down and then reassembled by repainting. Where, then, are the detailed photographic sequences showing the painting before cleaning; after cleaning but before retouching; and, after cleaning and retouching? Without such hard visual documents the path of the restoration cannot be retraced. It was only when the National Gallery kindly provided such photographs that we were able to identify an unacknowledged change that had been made to the angel’s mouth in the London “Virgin of the Rocks” (see comments at Figs. 17 & 18).

In the two versions of the Louvre exhibition catalogue (one of 52 pages at 8 Euros and one of 448 pages at 45 Euros) there are not even any facing images showing the picture before and after restoration. Such a pairing is found in the (excellent) Beaux Arts special “Léonard de Vinci – Les secrets d’un génie” at 6.90 Euros (a similar comparison is shown here in Figs. 14 & 16). There is also a helpful before and after restoration record of the National Gallery’s “Virgin of the Rocks” (see Figs. 17 & 18).

The Louvre and the National Gallery leonardo restorations share a common methodological feature: in both cases it is said that old varnishes were thinned but not completely removed. This claim creates a conundrum because in both cases changes have taken place which seem inexplicable in terms of a mere thinning of varnish. When explanations are sought or when appraisals are attempted, restoration authorities sometimes take fright, retreating behind claims that theirs is a highly specialised technical field whose mysteries are simply unfathomable to outsiders. Restorers themselves often don the proverbial doctors’ white coat and claim to have acted on not aesthetic grounds at all but on (quasi-) medical ones. For the “St. Anne” restorer, Cinzia Pasquali, this restoration was not made for aesthetic reasons. Instead: “This was about caring for a sick patient. From the conservation point of view we had to intervene, primarily to address a cracking of the varnish that could leave the paint exposed to damage.” Well, we now know that in this particular case the patient was not as sick as had been thought. But more importantly, we should remember at all times that works of art are made by people to be looked at by people. They are not created as laboratory specimens. Artists work with materials so as to produce values and relationships between values. No scientific test can analyse a value, let alone an inter-related group of values. To its maker, the professional test of a work of art is how it looks – the painter stops working precisely when the picture looks right.

In the realm of art and away from corporately funded museum politics, the ultimate test of a restoration is also how it looks – but that is to say, not how it strikes the passing viewer (who may or may not be thrilled by solvent-brightened colours) but how it looks now as compared with how it looked previously; how it looked not just immediately prior to restoration but in its successively recorded history; and, most especially, how it looked the last time it was cleaned. If picture cleanings did no harm, if they were as simple and non-destructive as cleaning a window, each restored work would return to its appearance when last cleaned, and there would be no surprises, “discoveries”, “revelations”, “restorations of the century” – or controversies. While no one ever berates a window cleaner for ruining the views, restorations irreversibly change a picture’s “view” on to the world. Restoration is a one-way street that runs away from history, away from the original work.

All cleaning controversies turn on the extent to which pictures suffer during restoration. Even among those who authorise restorations, some concede that there are losses as well as gains and frankly admit to seeking the best trade-off between improved legibility and pictorial injury. Defensive restorers insist that pictures cannot be harmed by their own “advanced”, “gentle” and “scientifically underpinned” methods. Making a fetish of the “safety” and the “science” of restoration methods attempts to shelve restorers responsibility to identify and account for all material and aesthetic changes. Given that all restorers’ methods cannot be superior, none should be held beyond question. With the physical alteration of art, aesthetic appraisal is essential to scholarship and art’s protection. In appraising restorations, the comparison of like with like is of the essence.

In visual arts, appraisals are necessarily made by visual comparisons. Pictures are made by eye, hand and mind, to be viewed by eye and mind. Because each cleaning destroys the earlier state, comparisons can only be made between pre and post-restoration photographs. While straightforward cleaning might always be expected to achieve a greater vivacity of pictorial effect, it should never be made at the expense of the pictorial relationships, patterns, or gradations made in the service of modelling, that can be seen to reside in the uncleaned work. If the relationships can be seen it is because they are there – whatever chemical analyses might suggest to the contrary. The aesthetic production of pictorial values by artists is the proper science of art. Unfortunately, in such terms, the values that were formerly evident in this great picture seem not to have fared well in this last cleaning.

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail, before cleaning. Note the artist’s very selective and artfully focussed disposition of his brightest lights, and, at the same time, the extremely subtle but sculpturally effective modelling of the Child’s right shoulder and arm. Note too, the careful placement of tonal values throughout this grouping and how successfully these values contribute to a general sense of sculptural placement in space – for example, how the Child’s left forearm recedes behind the bright wooly top of the lamb’s head, and how appreciably it recedes from the Child’s nearer right arm.
Above, Fig. 2: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail, after cleaning.
How to explain the differences between these two greyscale versions above, of Figs. 3 and 4 below? It has been said that the restorer left a thin layer of varnish over the paint throughout the picture. It is hard, on the face of it and given the scale and nature of the changes that took place in this single restoration, to see how they might have resulted from a reduction rather than an elimination of the varnish (but see below). And it is hard, too, to see how a restorer, cleaning freely by hand with nothing more precise than a cotton wool swab (evidently dragged not rolled in this instance) might differentiate perfectly between the lowest level of a varnish and the upper level of an old glaze of similar colour and tonality at every point. When previous restorers had applied their varnishes, often, presumably, after harsh cleanings, would those then-new, solvent-saturated varnishes not have integrated themselves to any degree within whatever material was to hand? One question that might always be borne in mind when evaluating pre and post-cleaning states, is whether or not the cleaned (altered) state looks more or less characteristic of the artist’s known traits. (This might be held a perilously subjective notion to conservators of a certain “scientific” bent, but without such an artistic navigational system, how might any restorer proceed?) Does this after-treatment Fig. 2 detail look more Leonardesque than the before treatment detail at Fig. 1? It is hard to see how this question could be answered in the affirmative. The melting of the Child’s limbs into and out of the artist’s light in Fig. 1 seems quintessentially Leonardesque, while the after-cleaning state of Fig. 2 might be thought rather more Michelangesque by comparison. A key difference between these two great Renaissance figures (and sometime rivals) was that Michelangelo was not averse to autonomously forceful contours. Leonardo, of course, wished to out-sculpt the great sculptor with shaded simulations of form on the picture plane; with forms disposed within an envelope of space and light that was entirely of his own shaping and in no way dependent on the contingencies of the real world in which sculptors’ productions must always take their chances. The existence of the surface upon which paint was applied was a fact to be denied or concealed by the sheer force of artistry. One consequence of this cleaning is that the painting’s picture surface comes further to the fore. The restorer, Cinzia Pasquali, attributes this to the fact that although the work was known to be unfinished, “now we can actually see it”, as if that might be considered some kind of gain, but anything that causes the picture surface to compete for attention with the intended illusion upon it can hardly be thought characteristic of Leonardo’s wishes or intentions, and anything that causes a picture to seem unfinished and less resolved than previously was the case, might more realistically be taken as an aesthetic alarm call than as a vindication of raw method.
Above, Fig. 3: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail, before cleaning. Work on this section of the painting produced one of the strongest and most keenly contested controversies within the international advisory committee. A “varnish” on the Child’s body was taken by the restorer (and others) to be an earlier restorer’s decayed varnish. This reading was challenged by the student of Leonardo’s painting technique, Jacques Franck, who noted that this material had contributed to the modelling of the Child to a substantial degree and in a manner that went beyond any straightforward varnish layer. He felt, therefore, that it should be preserved until no doubt existed about its precise function and date of making. He and others of this opinion called for the disputed coating to be revived rather than removed, but they were over-ruled on the committee. Analytical tests were made on the material and these were said to have proved on chemical grounds that the material taken to be constructive orginal glazing by Leonardo was in fact only a later varnish. But if this chemical analysis is held to have provided an indisputable basis for excluding the possibility that the material was original, then it is incumbent upon those who removed it to explain how the various apparently artistic effects that it had contributed, had been achieved. In a nutshell the problem is: How might an overall “varnish” as opposed to a glazed layer, contribute differently in local areas that happen to coincide with discrete parts within an artist’s design? In effect, this is the same challenge that we mounted over two decades ago to the restorers at the Sistine Chapel who held that sculpturally-enhancing shadows on Michelangelo’s frescoes were the happy consequence of soot from candle smoke that had accumulated on the ceiling over many centuries.
Above, Fig. 4: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail, after cleaning. Visually, it would seem clear that the ground around the lamb’s tail has been in effect “scoured”; that darkened passages which threw the lamb into relief and prominence have been in effect “abraded”. Is it possible that a mere thinning of an overall varnish could have been responsible for such a transition?
Above, Fig. 5: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), before cleaning.
Above, Fig. 6: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), after cleaning. The changes in this face can only thought alarming and deleterious. Vincent Delieuvin’s claim that cleaning has enhanced the sculptural effects of the picture seems plain wrong. For any draughtsman or sculptor, the image at Fig. 5 would have to be considered to hold more “information” than that at Fig. 6. The shadows contribute to a far greater sense of sculptural relief and surface relationships. One might say that the cleaned state now appears to be modelled in shallower relief than that found before treatment. Before the cleaning, the plaited braid of hair running over the top of the head, partook of a general system of shading. After cleaning it has emerged generally lighter and, on the viewer’s left side, no longer tucks into the general ensemble that comprises the more shaded side of the head. Moreover, of the shading on the face, it can immediately be noted that a certain transparency has been introduced – it is now possible to see under St. Anne’s (true) right eye, an earlier positioning of the iris by Leonardo. It is a commonly encountered consequence of picture cleanings that they take works further towards the condition of transparency that is seen in infra-red photographs, where the light penetrates the surface of the paint. While that kind of “imaging” is very useful in terms of identifying earlier stages in a work’s genesis and, specifically, in identifying an artist’s own under-drawing, it cannot be a good thing for works of art themselves to be rendered transparent.
Above, Fig. 7: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), before cleaning.
Above, Fig. 8: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), after cleaning. This issue and the artistic dangers of increased transparency had been raised on the international advisory committee by Jacques Franck who had urged that a sufficiency of varnish be left on the face of St. Anne to prevent the inevitable consequence of age-induced transparency in Leonardo’s paintwork from emerging. He has described the peculiarly heightened dangers that were to be expected because of Leonardo’s method on flesh passages at that late stage in his career (when the “Mona lisa” was being produced). He paraphrases his submissions to the committee on the constructive use of “velatura” in the St. Anne head in the following terms: “In Leonardo’s time, those ‘velature’ were meant to interplay optically with the undermodelling and a more roughly worked state of the image. It resulted in opalescent flesh tones linked to the shadows very gradually, thus producing the typical smoky effect called “sfumato” in these sections. The ageing of the binding agent through time has made the opalescent micro-layers become increasingly transparent: details like the eyebrows, some sharp accents in the mouth, in the nose’s end seem to have been executed in the final state of the Saint’s head but have not. They are parts of the underdrawing that are emerging in the visible light due to increased transparency now.The same with the undermodelling. To date, the soft transitions having lessened markedly, the contrasts between light and shade are much stronger, inevitably so. More microns of old brown varnish left [in place] would have compensated for the now missing opalescent subtleties of Leonardo’s “sfumato”. Hence the difference to be observed between before and after cleaning.The Louvre was advised by me not to thin too much for that very reason. Leonardo’s subtleties need a substantial ‘veil’ of old varnish left over them, a situation clearly respected by Alfio del Serra in cleaning [Leonardo’s] Annunciation in the Uffizi, for the picture’s atmospheric effect is beautifully preserved.”
Above, Fig. 9: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), before cleaning.
Above, Fig. 10: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), after cleaning. One sees in this comparison of the eyes, not only the emerged iris but also a substantial degree of lost shading around the eyes. This is very commonly encountered in restored faces. The eye is best understood anatomically as a ball set in a hollow (a hollow that is formed by the brow/nose/cheekbone configuration), and its surface is only made visible through lids that close for protection and during sleep. The “eye” that is defined by the aperture of the opened lids is properly to be understood as a part of the surface of the larger eyeball. The relationships between these component parts are very distinctive to individual heads (or to the idealised “types” of heads devised by artists). Anything that reduces the original artist’s construction of those relationships (made by shading essentially) is extremely harmful to the “plastic” properties of the head as well as to its characteristic expression. A commonly encountered feature of restored faces is that the shading around the eye, which “sets” it properly in its recessed protective zone, is so diminished that the more precisely delineated parts – the shapes of the eyelid apertures and the iris/pupil – of the eye become more apparent, become over emphatically drawn. With regard to the level of cleaning that is said to occurred on the St. Anne, Franck had been assured that varnish would be left in place to a thickness of 18 to 20 microns. A micron is only one-thousandth of a millimetre or 0.001 mm. It might be wondered how a restorer working with solvent-laden cotton wool swabs (as seen in use on the DVD film, for example) might ever be able reliably and predictably to operate evenly to such ultra-fine tolerances. In the event, Franck was told that on the St. Anne the level of varnish that had been retained was of only 12 – not 18 to 20 – microns depth, or in other words of 0.012mm. This raises the question: Was this, as had been promised, the area of greatest varnish thickness that was left in place, or was this, in fact, the “uniform level” to which the painting had been cleaned throughout, as is described in the exhibition on the wall notice?
Above, Fig. 11: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), before cleaning.
Above, Fig. 12: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), after cleaning. It would seem inconceivable, to any sculptor’s trained-eye that this section of the face, after cleaning, might be considered to enjoy enhanced sculptural values. In purely formal terms, what is seen here is an advance and an expansion of the lights at the expense of the darks – which darks had comprised in this working method the “constructive” component of Leonardo’s “modelling” on the light ground of his picture. The lights had not been painted as values, they were merely the sections of ground left unmodified by Leonardo’s meltingly applied shadows.
Above, left, Fig. 13: “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant St John the Baptist”, (“The Burlington House Cartoon”). Above, right, Fig. 14: “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, before cleaning.
Above, left, Fig. 15: “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, copy, c. 1508-13, Armand Hammer Museum of Art, Calif., US. Above, right, Fig. 16: The “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, after cleaning.
Above, left, Fig. 17: “The Virgin of the Rocks”, the National Gallery, before cleaning. Above, right, Fig 18: “The Virgin of the Rocks”, the National Gallery, after cleaning. As with the Louvre’s St. Anne, the varnish (which had been described as having come to constitute a threat to, as well as a disfigurement of, the paint) was said to have been thinned not removed. Indeed, when shown the painting part-cleaned, and when it was lit with an ultra-violet lamp, remains of (patchy) varnish were to be seen on the picture. Against that evidence, we face the problem of how the changes that manifestly occurred (as seen above) could have arisen. For example, how was the angel’s mouth changed if it remained under a film of varnish? What accounts for the fact that after the last cleaning the picture did not return to anything like its condition when previously cleaned sixty years before? Specifically, what accounts for the great lightening of the sky seen in the top right, as opposed to the sky seen on the left? What accounts for the great change in the Virgin’s blue robes?
Above, Fig. 19: The short Louvre catalogue, left; right, an illustration published in 1992 of the principal heads in the “St. Anne.” The emerging chasm between such photographic records of the same painting has yet to be addressed by scholars and curators.
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