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From Annigoni to Banksy: restorers’ crimes against art and graffitist’s crimes against architecture

17 August 2011

In cyber-space, a thousand people a day ask: “Is graffiti an art form or a crime?” Edgar Degas, distraught at the handiwork of picture restorers at the Louvre, once threatened to write a pamphlet of protest that would be “a bomb”. Nearly a century later in Britain, a royal portraitist similarly distraught at the actions of restorers, painted a protest on the doors of the National Gallery. Here, the painter Gareth Hawker, taking graffiti as an art form, examines both the motives and the proclaimed “ethical codes” of those who deface/defile buildings and public spaces, and, the sometimes morally ambivalent responses of the public to such actions.

Gareth Hawker writes:

Colin Martindale developed a theory about the way in which art forms evolve. If he is going to get a place in the history books, each artist must outdo his predecessor. He must produce something more exciting; he must strike the imagination more forcibly. Martindale traced this line of development in many areas, not only in painting and in poetry, where one might expect it, but in the development of gravestones in New England and even in the writing of scientific papers. People seem to crave novelty and thrills. So it should come as no surprise to see a similar pressure at work in yet another art-form, that of criminal damage.

When the form was new, it was easy to outdo predecessors, who had been limited to paint-brushes, chalk and charcoal. The spray-can revolutionised graffiti. Simple slogans could be written with great speed. A tradition emerged. This tradition developed rapidly and soon came to what may be termed its academic stage, where rules were formulated which became widely recognised and accepted amongst practitioners.

I learnt from a television programme that the rules were as follows: 1) The paint cans must be stolen (‘nicked’). 2) The paint must be applied freehand (i.e. without stencils). 3) The surface must be hard to get to – the work must demonstrate that a logistical challenge has been overcome. The artist must show that he is a daring sort of character. 4) The artist should break the law. He should not have permission to spray the surface, whether a wall or the side of an underground train. 5) The work should not incorporate another artist’s work. 6) Painting over another artist’s work may be acceptable, but is generally considered to show “disrespect” and is likely to be frowned on. (The fact that the graffiti artist is himself showing disrespect to the wider community does not seem to figure in these considerations.)

The main purpose initially was to mark out and lay claim to a territory. (“Like a dog pissing on a lamp-post”). The placing of an elaborate signature (tag) could demonstrate that an area was now controlled by the graffiti writer and his pals, not by the police or by the local community. The cleaning off of graffiti was a vital element in the “zero tolerance” approach which police adopted in New York, and which ultimately proved successful in reducing the number of murders in that city. This aggressive cleaning made it clear that the police and the local community now controlled the area, not the graffiti writers and other hoodlums.

However the art form did continue to develop elsewhere. Artists had to find ways in which to make their productions more arousing. In Paris one man [“Blek le Rat“] started to use stencils. This meant he could prepare relatively complicated images at home, in the safety of his own studio, and then use his stencils on site in order to apply complicated images with extreme rapidity. This meant his images were far more interesting to look at than the simple lines and colours which had been used previously.

When Banksy copied this approach in the UK it incensed traditionalists. He was cheating. This is similar to the outcry when Caravaggio started to use big contrasts of light and dark – chiaroscuro. His pictures were more eye-catching than anything before, but the big contrasts of tone made it impossible for the viewer to see the construction of the figures as easily as in previous work. In art there is rarely a gain in one aspect of style without a loss in another. In the case of graffiti art, the gain in recognisability, complexity, humour and wit was matched by an equivalent loss in rhythm, clarity and spontaneity.

Banksy seems to have broken all the rules: 1 His paint is not always stolen (‘nicked’). 2 He uses stencils (cheating). 3 Although he does paint illegally, his work is worth so much that some councils protect it with perspex. As a quasi-acceptable part of the local community, he becomes unacceptable amongst the traditional graffiti writers. In practice, his work is hardly illegal at all. 4 By using stencils he reduced the amount of time he would have had to spend on site if he were to produce an equally complicated image. He was playing safe, not taking as much risk as his predecessors. 5 His work is collected by hedge-fund managers and celebrities who pay high prices. These new clients are the very people whom graffiti was originally meant to scare. Pleasing them represents a complete failure according to the old standards. 6 He partially painted over the work of a predecessor, a classic work of the genre. This shows total disrespect and is extremely offensive to traditionalists. (They seem to see no irony in their position. They are vandals who are furious to see their work vandalised by another vandal. They feel proud to break rules, but hate someone who breaks even more rules than they do. It is an example of very strict honour amongst thieves.)

Graffiti artists are prosecuted from time to time: some of their greatest works are destroyed. Why should Banksy be allowed to get away with it? The man in Camden whose task it is to decide what should be removed and what should be allowed to remain, said he has to make a judgement about how far the graffiti “adds value”. In other words, if the work was by Banksy it might be worth thousands of pounds, but if by another artist, it might be worth less than nothing. It may be worth spending money to get rid of it.

The arbiter in Camden wisely kept away from a discussion about whether graffiti was art. As Gombrich pointed out, many unproductive discussions about the definition of art may be avoided if one substitutes for “art” the word, “skill” – which is the original meaning of the word “art”. The man in Camden has to think about money, not philosophy.

Banksy seems to get away with it because his works are like newspaper cartoons, they raise a brief smile. People seem to be able to accept a great deal as long as there is some humour involved. How far will the public allow this sort of thing to go? Witty old criminals appear on chat shows on the radio, as if they are lovable old rogues, even though they have been convicted of torture and murder. Presumably the same spirit applies to graffiti. People will forgive a rich man many things, particularly if he makes them laugh and is not too close to home. He can get away with a lot more than a poor man who is boring and lives next door.

What would you do if Banksy sprayed your wall? Naturally you would want to cash in, just as if someone stole your expensive paintings you would be prepared to pay a ransom to get them back. But this would only encourage other graffiti artists to paint other people’s walls, and other thieves to steal yet more paintings. Is it reasonable to let a criminal off just because he makes you smile and because you might profit from his crime?

Not all of us find the jokes very funny anyway. I myself like plain old walls undistorted by graffiti. The brick walls seen from the train on the way into Liverpool Street Station used to have a lovely colour and patina – a sombre grandeur. Their intact surface was ruined by graffiti. This was eventually painted over in one solid dense colour. This is better than graffiti, but its surface is dull and unresponsive to the light compared to that of the old brickwork. Cleaning off graffiti can never bring back the original surface. “Something is always lost,” as Nicholas Penny once said of cleaning paintings at the National Gallery (where he is currently in charge).

If the issues are serious, it could be argued that breaking the law can be morally justifiable. When, in 1970, Annigoni wrote MURDERERS on the front of the National Gallery, he was not laying claim to territory, nor was he making a joke. He was trying to draw attention to the destruction wrought inside that building. His protests, and those of other eminent artists, had been ignored and he was desperate. And again his protest met with silence. Annigoni’s graffito had failed. The destruction continued, as the gallery’s own before and after restoration photographs demonstrate.

(For the artist’s earlier, entirely law-abiding but unavailing protest – Letter from Pietro Annigoni published in The Times, 14 July 1956 – see the “Appendix” of our 20 April post.)

Gareth Hawker

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Fig. 1, above: A “Banksy” sold in 2008 for £228,000.
Fig. 2, above: Pietro Annigoni, “Queen Elizabth II”, 1956
Fig. 3, above: Guard by Banksy.
Fig. 4, above: Classic subway spray-can work. Rome 2006.
Fig. 5, above: One of dozens which appear in London.
Fig. 6, above: Brickwork, before cleaning.
Fig. 7, above: Brick work, after cleaning.
Fig. 8, above: Gold Face graffiti faile paste up in Leake Street.
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John Singer Sargent and how something ‘really filthy’ comes off in the conservation studio, time and time again

April 20th 2011

When accused of damaging old master paintings picture restorers have often retorted: “What you think is my injury to this painting is an earlier restorer’s injury that my cleaning has exposed”. Not a brilliant line, perhaps, but, in the absence of photographic records, it has provided a plausible-sounding defence against artists’ technically-informed criticisms. (For Pietro Annigoni’s classic denunciation of cleanings at the National Gallery, see the appendix below.) However, as more and more modern paintings fall under the swab and the scalpel, the “Not me, guv.” defence can evaporate because with such pictures there are almost always photographic records of previous treatments and, often, of the original state itself. In c. 1885, John Singer Sargent’s finished and framed portrait Madame X was photographed next to the artist in his studio. His similarly seminal 1882 group portrait The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit was recorded in a 1903 photograph when it was only 21 years old and unlikely to have been cleaned and/or lined. Here, the painter Gareth Hawker discusses seemingly irrefutable photographic evidence of restoration injuries that that Velazquez-inspired portrait group incurred in 1983 at the Boston Museum of Art. It is ironic that Sargent’s devoted copy/study of Velazquez’s Las Meninas (shown below) should itself now testify to the horrendous restoration-induced losses that that great work subsequently suffered.

Gareth Hawker writes:

I first saw this painting when it was shown at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 1979. The paint exhibited the freshness of touch which is characteristic of all Sargent’s work, and also a certain solidity and firmness, but by the time I saw the picture again, at the Tate in 1998, the paint looked thin, strained, and slippery. I passed by the picture quickly, not wanting the sight of its present state to confuse the memories I had of its earlier state.

A week ago I came across the painting again, this time as a reproduction on the website of the Boston Museum of Fine Art, which has owned the painting since 1919. Those photographs brought back my conflicting memories. (See fig. 5.) With remarkable candour, the Museum shows close-ups of a part of the painting before and after a cleaning. The close-ups record exactly those changes which had so disturbed me in real life. They are attached here so that the reader may have an opportunity to make his own assessment of the degree to which the painting has been changed. (See figs. 1, 2, 3, and 4.) It seems clear that some of Sargent’s paint has been taken off. If so, how could this have come about? Perhaps the conservator had made some unwarranted assumptions about Sargent’s technique?

Sargent is famous as an exponent of the alla prima, or premier coup method of painting. The idea is to start and finish the picture while the paint is still wet – to finish ‘at the first blow’. There is no build-up of paint layers as there might be with, say, a typical Rembrandt. If the painter makes a mistake he will wipe off the paint, or scrape it off, and start afresh. Sargent’s portrait of Vernon Lee (fig. 6) provides a perfect example of this approach. However, as Bernard Dunstan describes so well in his Painting Methods of the Impressionists, Sargent was by no means rigidly devoted to this approach. The attentive student who examines a range of Sargent’s paintings will find many areas where Sargent has allowed paint to dry and has then painted on top.

In fact adhering exclusively to the the alla prima method, while painting a picture as large as the portrait of the Boit girls, would have presented enormous difficulties. In order to cover such a large area ‘at one blow’ one would have to keep the paint wet for many days. Alternatively one might proceed by finishing a section at a time, as with a fresco, but then the completed picture would be unlikely to balance tonally. Following either of these variations of the alla prima method would be extremely problematic, but, even if the painting were to develop perfectly along these lines, the paint would tend to look thin and skimpy, especially if applied with Sargent’s habitual finesse. In a small portrait, such as the one of Vernon Lee, which measures only about 0.7M x 0.65M, thin paint can look perfectly satisfactory. Arguably it can even add to the freshness of the result, but if the same paint quality were to be carried over a large area, such as the 2M x 2M of the Boit portrait, it would start to look thin and meagre. Realising this, Sargent no doubt chose to adopt an approach which would produce a more substantial result than could be expected from painting alla prima.

Sargent was very familiar with such an alternative approach. He had studied Velazquez in Madrid, and made an oil sketch of Las Meninas (see figs. 7, 8, 9, & 10). He would no doubt have observed that Velazquez had begun by painting a representation of the room. It was only later, after allowing this paint to dry, that Velazquez placed his figures on top. (X-rays now confirm this observation.) It is perhaps understandable that Sargent should have proceeded to work on his own very similar subject with similar deliberation.

Consider, for example, the strokes of the pinafore of the girl at our left (fig. 11). They are applied over a dark ground. In this part of the painting the ground is provided by the base colour of the painted wall, not by the white canvas priming which would be typical of Sargent’s alla prima work.

The greatest danger, when departing from the alla prima approach, is that one will be tempted to correct a dry patch of dark paint by covering it with another patch of dark paint, paint of very nearly the same colour. As painters know only too well, dark paint painted on dark paint almost invariably looks dead, dull, and lifeless. Dark paint needs a lighter paint underneath in order to reflect light through it and give it life. This is one reason why house-painters use a brown or grey undercoat when painting a black door.

Similarly Sargent would have painted his initial lay-in (i.e. the big areas of undercoat) in paint which was, in some parts, lighter than the finish he had in mind. It would also have been advantageous to paint this layer in a slightly stronger or brighter colour, so that it would enliven the darker, duller paint which was to come on top. Having made such a preparation Sargent would then have been able to paint with great freedom directly onto the dry paint (as if painting alla prima) knowing that the brighter undercoat would be there to support his colour and give it substance. The result would have had great apparent spontaneity, at the same time as being founded on a solid technical basis. This method would allow Sargent to repeatedly scrape off and repaint areas as he might find necessary in the course of the paintings development.

Years later, when conservation work was considered desirable, a conservator might wipe off darkened varnish. If he then chanced to continue wiping he would find that more dark material would come off, and a paint-layer of a brighter, stronger colour would be revealed. This might seem to him to be the single layer one might expect of a painting made following the alla prima method. Believing that Sargent would have painted only in one layer, the conservator might reason that the dark material he was removing must be dirt, not paint. He might continue to remove it across large areas of the picture. Sargent’s preparatory layer would then emerge, making the cleaned areas appear brighter, stronger and flatter than they had done before. The conservator might take this to be an indication that he had done his job well. He would, perhaps, suppose that Sargent’s single layer had been revealed.

In case this might seem to the reader to be a wild flight of fancy, perhaps I might introduce a personal anecdote: I remember how one of my own paintings suffered in exactly this way. I had left it at a dealer’s in readiness for an exhibition. We had agreed that he would get one of his conservators to give it a coat of varnish. A couple of weeks later he phoned to say his conservators had found some ‘thick, grungy muck’ on the painting and, as a favour to me, had tried to take it off. (Note, though fully qualified in conservation, they had not thought to telephone me first). He said, “someone had put something really filthy on your painting and in the end we had to use a scalpel to get it off. Then, underneath, we revealed some lovely yellow paint.” I have no idea who he thought that ‘someone’ might have been. The painting had never been out of my hands. It was I, the painter, who had put that ‘muck’ on. I had applied it in order to dull down the yellow, which, in turn, I had painted too bright, on purpose, in preparation for my final touches… If this could happen in good faith when the painter was only a phone call away, how much more likely is it to happen when the painter is dead?!

This is what seems to have happened here with the Sargent. It looks as if his carefully prepared finish has been removed by a well-qualified restorer carrying out his work according to the standards of his profession. It appears that in several places the final strokes of Sargent have been removed: we seem to be looking at Sargent’s preparatory work instead. This might explain why the painting now looks so comparatively feeble.


Letter from Pietro Annigoni published in the Times, July 14th 1956.

“Sir, – A few days ago, at the National Gallery, I noticed once more the ever-increasing number of masterpieces which have been ruined by excessive cleaning. This procedure, which in former times created at Munich a veritable scandal and at the same time a reaction as vigorous as it was beneficial, recommenced at the close of the Second World War not only in England but Italy, France, Germany – everywhere, and was received, alas! with almost total indifference.

“The war did not destroy a greater number of works of art. Such is the power of a group of individuals, nowhere numerous, whose proceedings may be compared to the work of germs disseminating a new and terrible disease. I do not doubt the meticulous care employed by these renovators, nor their technical skill, but I am terrified by the contemplation of these qualities in such hands as theirs. The atrocious results reveal an incredible absence of sensibility. We find no trace of the intuition so necessary to the understanding of the technical stages employed by artists in different pictorial creations, which cannot possibly be restored by chemical means. The most essential part of the completion of a picture by the old masters was comprised in light touches, and above all in the use of innumerable glazes, either in the details or in the general effects – glazes often mixed even in the final layers of varnish. Now, I do not say that one should not clean off crusts of dirt, and sometimes even recent coats of varnish, coarsely applied and dangerous, but I maintain that to proceed further than that, and to pretend to remount the past years, separating one layer from another, till one arrives at what is mistakenly supposed to be the original state of the work, is to commit a crime, not of sensibility alone but of enormous presumption.

“What is interesting in these masterpieces, now in mortal danger, is the surface as the master left it, aged alas! as all things age, but with the magic of those glazes preserved, and with those final accents which confer unity, balance, atmosphere, expression – in fact all the most important and moving qualities in a work of art. But after these terrible cleanings little of all this remains. No sooner, in fact, is the victim in the hands of these ‘infallible’ destroyers than they discover everywhere the alterations due at different times, to the evil practices of former destructive ‘infallibles.’ Thus ravage is added to ravage in a vain attempt to restore youth to the paintings at any price.

“Falling upon their victim, they commence work on one corner, and soon proclaim a ‘miracle’; for, behold, brilliant colours begin to appear. Unfortunately what they have found are nothing but the preparative tones, sometimes even the first sketch, on which the artist has worked carefully, giving the best that is in him, in preparation for the execution of the finished work. But the cleaners know nothing of this, perceive nothing, and continue to clean until the picture appears to them, in their ignorance, quite new and shining. Some parts of the picture painted in thickly applied colour will have held firm; other parts (and these always the most numerous) which depended on the glazes, of infinitesimal fineness, will have disappeared; the work of art will have been mortally wounded.

“Is it possible that those responsible for these injuries do not perceive them, do not understand what they have done? Clearly it is possible; for they are proud of their crimes and often group the paintings they have murdered in special galleries to show their triumphs to the public – a public for whose opinion, in any case, they care nothing. For myself, I cannot express all the sorrow and bitterness I feel in the presence of these evidences of a decadence which strives to anticipate the destruction of civilization itself by the atomic bomb. How long will these ravages in the domain of art and culture continue unrestrained and unpunished? The damage they have done is already enormous.”

Gareth Hawker is ArtWatch UK’s picture analyst.

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Fig. 1, above: The feet of the girl at our left on Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Barley Boit, seen before and after cleaning in 1982. The shadow which the girl casts on the floor has been drastically reduced, and the gradation of tone on the floor and the wall has been diminished. The detail of the edge where the wall meets the floor has been removed.
Fig. 2, above: The girl at our left, before cleaning, shown next to the same part of the painting after cleaning. The reader may notice many differences.
Fig. 3, above: The girl at our left, before cleaning. By alternating this image with the following one in rapid succession, in the Picasa slide-show, the reader may find it easier to spot the many differences between them.
Fig. 4, above: The girl at our left, after cleaning.
Fig. 5, above: The current Boston website photograph (retrieved in 2011) of Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, oil on canvas painted in 1882. Although the website provides a photograph of the two details before treatment shown above, it does not, unfortunately, provide a photograph of the whole painting immediately before treatment.
Fig. 6, above: Sargent’s portrait of Vernon Lee. This is an example of painting alla prima. The canvas shows through the paint in a way which adds freshness and spontaneity but which would be liable to appear thin and feeble if continued over a larger area.
Fig. 7, above: Velazquez’s Las Meninas (from the Prado’s website) which Sargent copied in a smaller oil study. When he painted the Boit portrait, Sargent employed a similar technique to the one Velazquez used here.
Fig. 8, above: Sargent’s copy (left) of Velazquez’s Las Meninas (right).
Fig. 9, above: Sargent’s c. 1887 copy (oil on canvas, 39.5 x 44.5 inches, whereabouts unknown) of Las Meninas
Fig. 10, above: The Boit daughters and Las Meninas together at the Prado in March 2010.
Fig. 11, above: The pinafore of the girl at our left. Here the orange brown ground shows through the fresh brush-strokes which make up the white pinafore. This shows Sargent departing from a strict application of the alla prima method. The ground here is formed by the colour of the first layer of paint which he used to represent the wall. He used a different colour to paint the first layer of the floor. This is different from painting alla prima, where the ground is of only one colour all over the canvas, usually white or off-white, but sometimes grey, brown or other colours.
Fig. 12, above: Pietro Annigoni’s 1956 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II
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