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Posts tagged “Prof. James Beck

Art-Trading, Connoisseurship and the Van Dyck Bonanza

There are now two upgraded paintings in two museums that have been claimed as “The Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait” and an upgraded third painting has been presented in a third museum as a lost, earlier Van Dyck self-portrait – see Fig. 1 below. This acceptance by three museums of three self-portraits in six years has coincided with a spate of exposed forgeries and restoration-led upgraded “discoveries”. The opaque means by which three problematic pictures found their separate ways into three museums as upgraded autograph Van Dycks are items of cultural/art-political concern.

This triple elevation has spotlighted levels of scholarship and transparency within the cross-linked spheres of connoisseurship, ownership, restoration, promotion and sales in the wake of the spectacular rise and demise of the now downgraded and disappeared $450m Leonardo School Salvator Mundi that had been bought for barely a thousand dollars and somehow netted nearly two thirds of a billion dollars through three sales in five years on an implausible provenance. The institutionally sensitive roles of upgraded old master paintings serving as conduits for financial exchanges and investment are attracting attention as never before. The Van Dyck bonanza has prompted public challenges on both the artistic status of the pictures being traded and the means and manner by which public and private monies pass hands.

THREE UPGRADED VAN DYCK SELF-PORTRAITS

Above, Fig. 1: Left, the National Portrait Gallery’s “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”; centre, the new Bendor Grosvenor-accredited (and owned) “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”, as loaned to the Rubenshuis Museum, Antwerp; right, the Philip Mould/Grosvenor accredited, privately owned painting that has been loaned as an autograph Van Dyck self-portrait to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota.

All three of the above self-portraits changed hands recently as autograph Van Dyck self-portraits with the first two both now claimed to be the last Van Dyck self-portrait. All three have undergone modern or recent restorations. The two on the right were transformed within the last decade (and possibly by the same restorer). The picture on the left – an undeclared, covert upgrade – was bought by the National Portrait Gallery in 2014 for £10m.

Above, Fig. 2: Left, the “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait” that was published in 1941 by Gustav Glück in The Burlington Magazine (“Reflections on Van Dyck’s early death”); right, the “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait” that was sold to the National Portrait Gallery in 2014.

Above, Fig. 3: Left, the “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait” as published by Glück in 1941; centre, the “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait” as sold to the National Portrait Gallery in 2014; right the painting published by Glück in 1941 as a copy by Sir Peter Lely of the Glück claimed last Van Dyck self-portrait shown left, here.

Above, Fig. 4: Left, the painting published by Glück in 1941 as a copy by Sir Peter Lely of the then-claimed last Van Dyck self-portrait shown above left at Fig. 3; right, the painting published in 2011 as a copy by Sir Peter Lely of the then-claimed last Van Dyck self-portrait at Fig. 1, left, which was sold to the NPG in 2014.

MILLAR’S WARNINGS

The notoriously vexing challenge of identifying autograph Van Dycks was set out with frankness and high expertise by Sir Oliver Millar, a former Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, in his contribution to the 2004 catalogue raisonné Van Dyck – A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, by Susan Barnes, Nora De Poorter, Oliver Millar and Horst Vey and published by the Paul Mellon Centre, London, the educational charity committed to supporting original research into the history of British art and architecture of all periods.

Covering Van Dyck’s last English period from 1632 to 1641, Millar listed 264 works and added an appendix of 37 works that comprise records of lost original paintings. Taken together they would average more than thirty-three paintings a year, including many double and very grand group portraits with brilliant elaborate costumes, accoutrements, settings, animals and part-landscapes but the work rate was even higher because of Van Dyck’s many and often long absences and periods of illness – he spent more than a year abroad in 1634-5 and suffered increasing pain in his painting hand. His employment of assistants caused some patrons to complain of work that was not autograph.

Millar assumed that Van Dyck had emulated the practices and “distribution of responsibilities as organised in Rubens’s studio” when setting up his own studio in London and he could hardly have spoken more bluntly of the artistic consequences of such production systems. A great deal of work “especially towards the end of his life”, he noted, “was assigned to Van Dyck’s assistants, and there was a heavy demand for repetitions, whether replicas, part replicas, variants or copies […] Sometimes Van Dyck would himself paint a new detail in a repetition otherwise painted entirely by an assistant”, whereas his “finest English portraits are painted…noticeably with a greater variety of touch.” A pronounced monotony of touch might itself, therefore, ring authorial alarms.

NEW EXPERTS ARE GROWING THE VAN DYCK MARKET

The art market correspondent, Colin Gleadell, restated the attribution problem in relation to current market expansionism, in the Telegraph (28 April 2018):

“Interestingly, Van Dyck has had more re-attributions than any other Old Master in recent times. Philip Mould, presenter of the BBC’s Fake or Fortune, traces this phenomenon to the publication of the first reliable catalogue raisonné in 2004, which allowed for detailed study of nearly 800 examples of the artist’s work.

“Of the catalogue’s four original scholars, only two are still alive, and a number of former museum directors have offered their views on attribution since. It’s differences in opinion that have allowed additional works to be added to the recognised Van Dyck corpus.

“Because Van Dyck was prolific and used studio assistants in his work, it can be tricky to unravel how much of a painting is solely by the master. Consequently, the number of works attributed to him, his studio and his many followers is plentiful. Around 300 have come up for auction in the last four years, with dozens subsequently upgraded with a full attribution.

“Taking some credit for the change in status was Mould’s researcher, Bendor Grosvenor, now a TV presenter in his own right and also a Van Dyck connoisseur, who has been quietly accumulating a small collection of discoveries of his own.

“But while Grosvenor prefers to keep his finds, his friend, Fergus Hall, is in the business of selling, his trained eye capable of recognising Van Dyck’s touch even through centuries of dirt, degraded varnish and additional paint. It is only after painstaking cleaning, though, that the full picture emerges…”

MAGICIANS ANNOINT SECOND-STRING WORKS

There exists an aggravating sub-phenomenon whereby venerable scholar/connoisseurs effectively acquire powers to elevate best available copies to autograph status. Some, like the late Sir Denis Mahon, have been known to elevate more than one such work to a single “vacancy”. (See “Art’s Toxic Assets and a Crisis of Connoisseurship”.) Occasional misattributions are inevitable (and correctable) in a field that necessarily rests on fine judgements, but wholesale upgrades risk diluting and adulterating oeuvres to the point of jeopardising market confidence. Risk is compounded when upgrades are products of prolonged restorations in which paint is subtracted and added to the surviving carcasses of pictures on singular, sometimes optimistic, readings of authorship.

BENDOR GROSVENOR’S ASSORTED CONTRIBUTIONS

Above, Fig. 5: All six works above have been supported by Bendor Grosvenor.

The three recently and problematically upgraded Van Dyck self-portraits above left were all researched and espoused by Grosvenor. All three works on the right are manifest fakes. The Hals and the Gentileschi were initially accepted by Grosvenor and the “Raphael” attribution was made by him on television.

Respectively, the six are: left, the National Portrait Gallery’s “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”, as shown on the gallery’s 2015 celebratory book on the painting; second left, Grosvenor’s own and self-upgraded “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”, as loaned by him to the Rubenshuis Museum; third left, the privately owned, Grosvenor/Mould-attributed Van Dyck “Portrait of the Artist” that is now on loan to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; third right, the now notorious “Frans Hals” (which Grosvenor, the Louvre Museum and a London dealer took to be authentic before Sotheby’s proved by technical analysis that it was a modern paints-riddled fake and fully refunded its buyer ); second right, the self-contained painted fragment of a figure that Grosvenor held to be part of a larger Raphael panel on his BBC4 Britain’s Lost Masterpieces programme (5 October 2016) with near-unequivocal support from the National Gallery’s then director, Sir Nicholas Penny. (The “Raphael” was subsequently rejected and deemed possibly 18th century by the National Gallery in August 2019 following lengthy examinations, but Grosvenor still insists that Raphael had painted this fragment of a “Madonna in a Cross-over Dress” even though it had been painted inside the edges of a piece of wood and therefore could never have been part of a full panel painting); right, the fake Orazio Gentileschi David and Goliath painted on a lapis lazuli slab and which had been exhibited as authentic at the National Gallery when loaned by an anonymous private collector who had bought it from the dealer who had sold on the fake Hals through Sotheby’s.

RESTORATION “SCIENCE” AND THE DETECTION OF AUTHENTICITY

Even before Millar’s warnings, a non-art market exercise had confirmed the problem of identifying studio contributions in 1999 when, in the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin, the restorer Larry Keith reported that a recent restoration of the Rubens studio work Drunken Silenus supported by Satyrs (Fig. 6 below) had “allowed the opportunity to consider the questions around its authorship and execution afresh in the context of a collaborative technical investigation with the scientific department”. Despite the gallery’s advanced scientific apparatuses and its staffs’ best efforts, it was recognised that “The very nature of the Rubens studio, with its streamlined production and group participation, meant that the painting techniques and materials were also largely uniform, which inevitably limits the ability of technical study to inform specific attributional problems.” In the absence of documentation and relying “heavily on traditional style-based Morellian connoisseurship” the gallery attributed the picture to Van Dyck on a traditional appraisal by eye.

Above, Fig. 6: Above, top left and centre, photographs of a part of the National Gallery’s Rubens studio work Drunken Silenus supported by Satyrs, showing the work before restoration (left), after restoration (centre) and (right) as digitally presented today; below, a detail of a face before and after restoration.

As seen above, the pre- and the post-restoration states are artistically different in their tonal values and relationships. We have examined the National Gallery’s dossiers on the painting and the gallery kindly supplied the two good, hard-copy directly comparative photographs above, top. Where Gleadell shared the sleeper hunters’ proclaimed view of restoration as a benign and “enabling” process, careful comparison of the above detail of a face and its relationship to the foil of a background/sky before and after a single restoration show the debilitating disruptions of values and relationships (relative values) that can occur during a single restoration. Given that what comes off first under restorers’ swabs is what went on last with the artist’s brush, and that highly successful painters like Rubens and Van Dyck often touched up and finished off works that had been largely executed by assistants, it is not hard to appreciate how such subtractions through cleaning followed by painted additions can aggravate difficulties of attribution.

MADE-OVER UPGRADES

The principal instrument in art market upgrades is a long, supposedly “diagnostic”, visually transforming restoration. With dramatically altered pictures, scholars can more easily be chivvied to endorse new and elevating ascriptions. Few restorations give rise to downgrades. Sleeper hunters invariably swear by the brilliance and moderation of their favourite restorers and impute scientific veracity to their methods. In naïve non-specialist circles like the BBC, there exists an unexamined conviction that because today’s technologies are more advanced than earlier ones, aesthetic judgements are now scientifically validated. For example, in short £540 weekend courses at the Royal Academy (with light refreshments, an evening reception and a certificate thrown in), Philip Mould’s former apprentice, Bendor Grosvenor, (who read modern – not art – history and now works as a BBC television arts programme maker, art history blogger, occasional journalist, auction house director, a self-declared ex-dealer collector and, most recently, a picture restorer – see below), promises that “The theory and history of connoisseurship will also be explored, along with the latest scientific techniques for assessing attribution”.

There are no such techniques – science cannot appraise authorship. No matter how technically sophisticated “non-invasive” images might be, they still need to be read for significance. While the “scientific” technical analysis of pictures’ material components can readily disqualify attributed old master works that have been liberally constructed with modern materials, there are no scientific means of assessing authorship, per se.

VISUAL APPRAISALS

Painters make pictures by eye to be viewed by eye and appraisals must also be made by eye, as the National Gallery recognised with its Rubens school picture. When Berenson praised the “seeing eye” and “active not passive eyes” he meant eyes employed “with all the faculties co-operating” but in so-saying he spoke a (self-confessed) part-truth: “As a consumer of the art product I have the right to do all that. As I am neither figure artist nor architect, nor musician, I have no certain right to speak of the producer. I am in the position of most critics, philosophers and scholars. We have enjoyed experiencing the creative process in the art of words only with the logical result that writers on art seldom have in mind any of the arts except the verbal ones.”

Faculties, however refined and words however eloquent, are not the whole story. Too often overlooked is the extent to which for art-practitioners (artists) the powers of the eye are drilled into being both constructive and critical through the marriage of looking and doing that comprises artistic practice. Strictly speaking, that sequence should read: thinking, looking; doing; appraising; looking… Those who see-through-doing are best placed to recognise what counts as undoing and redoing in art. Best-placed but holding no monopoly – Millar fully recognised that restoration alterations handicap appraisals: “…the treatment it may have undergone in the past may also make it impossible to be entirely confident about its quality”. In this regard and for good reasons auctioneers place high premiums on little- or never-restored pictures.

TWO PUBLICATIONS FOUR YEARS APART AND TWO OVERLAPPING CAMPAIGNS OF ATTRIBUTION

Above, Fig.7: Top, left, the 80 pp full colour catalogue FINDING VAN DYCK , pub. PHILIP MOULD LTD, June/July 2011; top right, the Winter 2015/16 British Art Journal, which carried Bendor Grosvenor’s article “A Self-portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) from the collection of Charles I”; above, left, the £10m National Portrait Gallery “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”; above, right, the Grosvenor-owned, Rubenshuis Museum exhibited, “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”.

SHARED EXCITEMENTS, RISKS, AND AVOIDANCE OF SIN

In 2011 Grosvenor, then an employee of the Philip Mould gallery, lauded the gallery’s (and later the National Portrait Gallery’s) “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait” picture in the FINDING VAN DYCK catalogue shown above, top left:

“Our first exhibit, Cat. 1, is Van Dyck’s last self-portrait. It was acquired by this gallery in partnership with Dr Alfred Bader in December 2009 for £8.3m at Sotheby’s in London, a record for the artist at auction. Self-portraits tend to stand out among a painter’s oeuvre as some of their most compelling works, and as an instructive connoisseurial guide in what an unquestionably genuine and pre-eminent Van Dyck looks like, Cat. 1 takes some beating.” (Emphases added.)

As fulsome advocacy the entry itself takes some beating. The FINDING VAN DYCK exhibition celebrated recently claimed works of or after Van Dyck and it constituted the high-water mark of Van Dyck sleeper-hunting at Philip Mould Ltd which became Philip Mould and Co. from which Grosvenor would depart in 2014 with a (rumoured) £1m settlement. Grosvenor seemed unaware that the Cat. 1 picture, then unsold after eighteen months in the Mould gallery, was a recent upgrade made by stealth and without due scholarly interrogation – see below.

The catalogue bore the gnomic dedication “For Dr Alfred Bader CBE. A distinguished progenitor of adventure in old masters”. Bader, an industrialist, philanthropist as well as an “inveterate collector”, as he once put it, died in December 2018 but he had been a key player in the Mould gallery’s acquisition of the “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait” and its subsequent sale to the NPG. Bader and Mould seemed not to – but should – have appreciated how recently the painting had been upgraded. The NPG might not have been aware when buying the £10m painting as Van Dyck’s Last Self-Portrait that it was one of three Van Dyck self-portraits then being processed by the Mould gallery, one of which would shortly be presented as being both the true Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait and one with a better provenance, to boot.

LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED

In the catalogue’s foreword, Mould held that “every time a work of art is bought for reasons of love it is a discovery of sorts, albeit of a personal regard or strong emotional connection that has been visually crystallised” and that by “getting to know the signature strokes and habits of a great master, the characteristics of age, restoration and degradation, the [professional sleeper-hunter’s] eye becomes attuned, and even though there may not be many others around who can see it as you do, it can appear little short of sinful not to express the excitement of it all.” A note of anxiety crept into the self-exultation: the exercise of discovering, proclaiming, and selling lost masterpieces “involves excavation, science, observation and research – as well as a fair degree of sometimes hair-raising financial risk”. The precise burdens of risk and divisions of ownership are rarely disclosed.

WHO FUNDS ATTRIBUTION UPGRADES?

Clarity on ownership is occasionally achieved in the courts. Recent London Court of Appeal proceedings revealed that the fake Frans Hals (Figs. 5 and 9) had been bought jointly by a London-based dealer, Mark Weiss Gallery in Paris, and an investment company, Fairlight Art Ventures, for €3m in 2010 from the prime suspect in a French criminal investigation into a huge group of suspected fake Old Masters. The painting was sold in 2011 by private treaty through Sotheby’s (on a 5% commission) to the Seattle collector Richard Hedreen, for $10.75m. Weiss and Fairlight were shown to have taken an equal share of the benefit. See “’The law has to fall on someone’: Seller of allegedly fake Frans Hals must pay Sotheby’s $5.3m for cancelled sale, judge insists”, The Art Newspaper, 29 November 2020.

After discovering the fraud, reimbursing the buyer, and establishing a technical analysis department, Sotheby’s pursued the dealer, who settled first, and the investment company in protracted legal actions which were only resolved last November. In 2013 the now disappeared and Louvre Museum de-attributed $450m Leonardo School Salvator Mundi was sold by a consortium of New York dealers through Sotheby’s in a private treaty sale. The immediate flipping of the picture from $80m into $127m to a Russian oligarch triggered still-running legal proceedings. The London Court of Appeal held that at the time of the Hals sale there was “no general accepted view of the authenticity” of a “newly discovered painting which had no proper provenance, had not been published and had never been in an exhibition”.

NO FAKE-BUSTER, THIS ATTRIBUTION-MAKER

On 21 March 2016 Grosvenor reported that the London art dealer Mark Weiss had bought and sold-on the fake Orazio Gentileschi that deceived the National Gallery (Figs. 5 & 9). He also provided a (now inactive) link to Weiss’s catalogue note on the Gentileschi and asked: “Is the Gentileschi genuine? I suspect it is, but again I’m not a Gentileschi expert, and nor am I much good with late 17th Century Italian art anyway. My conviction about the painting, such as it is, must be led in part by the fact that greater minds and eyes than mine (not least at the National Gallery) have declared the picture not only period, but genuine… My best guess at this stage, working mainly from photos, is that these pictures are not all fakes.” In truth photographs should have sufficed and would have saved time expense and error. Grosvenor later wrote: “For what it’s worth, I believe it is a forgery. But it took me a long time, and a flight to Berlin to see an undisputed original Gentileschi for comparison, to figure it out.”

Unlike Berenson, Grosvenor has evident difficulty reading photographic testimony: he spent decades believing that critics of the Sistine Capel ceiling restoration were “myopic” until a trip to Rome and sight of the chapel itself disabused him. But how so? What is left on the ceiling is still Michelangelo, and retains its magnificent – abeit less sculpturally enhanced – designs. Today, the restoration injuries can only be identified by recollection of how it once was or, less subjectively, through comparative photo-records of its pre- and post-cleaning states.

Richard Feigen, a New York Old Master art dealer and the author of Tales from the Art Crypt, called the recent fakes affair “one of the biggest scandals in my memory”, and one which should make institutions “very wary about things they are offered and the sources of those things”. Grosvenor reportedly expressed a sneaking admiration for the Moriarty of the Old Masters: “Whoever has been making them is an artist of extraordinary skill. Equally skilful is the ability to age these modern creations in such a way as to make them look centuries old. Sadly, we don’t yet know who this genius is.”

Above, Fig. 8: Patrick Chappatte’s 2017 take on the Salvator Mundi sale/attribution for the New York Times.

On 16 November 2017 Grosvenor responded immediately to the auction of the then attributed Leonardo Salvator Mundi on his Art History News website:

“…Christie’s just did something that re-writes the history of auctioneering. They took a big gamble with their brand, their strategy to sell the picture, and not to mention the reputations of their leadership team, and they pulled it off. They marketed the picture brilliantly – the best piece of art marketing I’ve ever seen… AHN congratulates them all… I was sure the picture would sell, but never imagined it would make this much… We must all now wonder where the picture is going to end up next… Will the sale prompt people to now look anew at Old Masters? Maybe. It will surely end for good now the tired clicheé [sic] that the Old Master market is dead.”

Feigen, who had been offered the “Cranach”, passed on it, and reportedly noted: “We’ve got to know the background and provenance of each object, and be more demanding for sources.”

PHOTO-TESTIMONY AND “ESSENTIAL JUXTAPOSITIONS”

Above, Fig. 9: Here, left, we see the real Orazio Gentileschi David and Goliath (in the Galleria Spada, Rome) and, right, the loaned fake accepted as authentic by the National Gallery. Bottom right corner, the face of the fake Frans Hals portrait.

If, instead of whatever technical and art historical examinations were carried out, the National Gallery had run a few simple photo-comparison checks, as above at Fig. 9, it would have been apparent that the bona fide picture on the left had served as the model for the markedly inferior modern-looking version on the right. Had the fake Hals also been brought into comparison, as above, it would have disclosed a common authorial fondness – in two ostensibly historically disparate pictures – for arbitrary superimposed streaky white smears on the faces. In many respects, photo-comparisons are more helpful to appraisals than ones made from present and recollected pictures. First, there is a chronic logistical problem that Millar put well in 2004:

“…Although in tackling this particular problem it is more than ever essential to see the works in the original, it is difficult to compare works which are closely related but hundreds of miles apart, if not in different hemispheres. In spite of the legendary kindness of their owners these pictures often hang in inaccessible positions and never in ‘museum conditions’. Essential juxtapositions can hardly ever be made. The present state of the picture and the treatment it may have undergone in the past may also make it impossible to be entirely confident about its quality…”

Millar’s alertness to restoration-induced deformations may have been more evident in private than in public: in a letter held in a dossier at the Royal Collection he complained angrily of damage done to a Vermeer. As for his recognition of the need to effect ideal juxtapositions for comparative purposes, today’s sleeper-hunters might heed artists’ examples: when drawing or painting from nature they invariably align their sheet or canvas as closely as possible to their view of the subject, so that their eyes can either flick continuously upwards and downwards or sideways and thereby maintain a stream of direct visual comparisons between the subject and its evolving depiction. Such vital visual comparisons cannot be achieved with pictures in different locations and restorations can only be judged by before- and after treatment photo-comparisons because pre-restoration states disappear in restoration.

THE TWO PRETENDERS?

Above, Fig. 10: Left, the NPG “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”; right, the newly-restored, red-lipped and Grosvenor-accredited (and owned) “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”, as loaned to the Rubenshuis Museum, Antwerp.

When Grosvenor was about to unleash his own “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait” in 2015 (above right), the NPG’s formerly “unquestionably genuine, pre-eminent, Van Dyck” £10m world-record price “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait” (above left) constituted an intrinsic threat: any closely attentive aesthetic appraisal and comparison of the now two rival supposed last self-portraits risked injury to the standing of one or the other. Although many other unresolved problems were attached to Grosvenor’s newly upgraded work (see below), it can sometimes seem that nothing ever counts against an on-the-market potential upgrade – as with the evident discounting of the NPG picture’s utterly out-of-character, out-of-period, anomalous droopy Mexican Bandit-style moustache seen above and below.

Above, Fig. 11: Top, detail of the National Portrait Gallery “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”; above, detail of the 2015 rosy-lipped Grosvenor-proposed “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”.

THE ANOMALOUS MOUSTACHE PROBLEM, PART I: GROSVENOR

Grosvenor has proposed that the NPG picture was a study for his own picture despite their numerous differences (see below). The most inexplicable difference is found in the two pictures’ moustaches, one of which is swept up, the other down. This divergence is presented with some ingenuity as a purposive species of social semaphore. Thus, within the NPG picture, which Grosvenor has reassigned to the role of a “study…[a] first attempt at the creation of a new type of self-portrait”, the moustache droops, where, in his own picture, the “moustache is raised, allowing not only for a more formal look perhaps appropriate to court appearance…” but also to illustrate the “difference between Van Dyck’s public and private faces…” Are we to understand, on the sole testimony of this (covertly upgraded) picture, that Van Dyck brushed his moustache down when going about his house and studio and brushed it up to attention whenever he thought he might be being observed?

While prompting incredulity, such a notion also defies artistic logic: given that works of art are made to a purpose within an artist’s practice, how can the same work be held a magnificent, self-sufficient masterpiece one minute and, in the next, to have been a study for another work of a different composition that would present a different aspect of the artist’s self-image to the world? In 2011 Grosvenor held that “the care and finesse of the brushwork in the face [of the NPG picture] is particularly assured” and that the whole was finished off with “more delicate and transparent glazes”. If Van Dyck really had been rehearsing the frigidly swanky public self-display found in Grosvenor’s painting, why would he have produced a highly resolved head which is not cocked back; where the artist does not look down his nose at the viewer; where he does not sport a cloak; where he does not hold a hand to his breast; or, even, where he does not wear a plausible collar that emerges from within his doublet?

THE ANOMALOUS MOUSTACHE PROBLEM, PART II: GLÜCK

Curiously, the problem of accounting for a rogue occurence within the oeuvre was not a new one. In 1941 Gustav Glück had addressed the same problem when he proposed yet another “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait” version [*] to be Van Dyck’s last self-portrait (as at Figs. 2 and 3 above and 12 below). Describing his Self-portrait (which he had discovered a few years earlier “in a London private collection”) as a much more realistic and therefore interesting version than the Duke of Westminster’s sunflower self-portrait (then regarded as the last), Glück held it to constitute “authoritative evidence of the master’s appearance a short time before his death”, with features “still energetic and expressive, though lean and almost emaciated” – as at Fig. 12 below. The face looked, he felt, almost “spiritualised, and the melancholy character of the expression is enhanced by the ends of the moustaches being turned down instead of showing the upward twist they have in all of Van Dyck’s portraits”. No doubt yet other rationalisations could be made for this unique depiction.

[* We thus encounter two pairs of pictures, each comprised of a supposed Last Van Dyck Self-portrait and a supposed Lely copy of itself. In pressing his two discoveries, Glück acknowledged that “As is the case with most of Van Dyck’s works, several replicas and copies are known of this Self-portrait.” He recalls seeing the [later Mould/Bader/NPG] version and a head and collar copy (“near Matlock”) and a miniature. In 2011, Grosvenor, in contrast, simply accepted the then Mould/Bader picture as an indisputable autograph Van Dyck masterpiece on the authority of Sotheby’s (misleading) provenance and, perhaps, on the strength of it having recently been bought as such for the world record £8.3m by his employer and an investor.

Conspicuously, Grosvenor did not engage with Millar’s estimation of the picture – “The best surviving version of (probably) the last Self-portrait”. Instead, he gushes over the then-loaned privately-owned supposed Lely copy shown at Figs. 4, 12 and 13, as an “exceptionally good copy of a Van Dyck” which “must show that Lely had owned Cat. 1” – the then Mould/Bader picture. But why “must show?” when, as he further reports, the picture’s owners had “contacted us to say that they had a copy of our painting ascribed to Sir Peter Lely, but doubted by some to be by him…the monogram ‘PL’ was not of a type usually seen on Lely’s English portraits, and was thought to be false.” Grosvenor continued “We were immediately interested in researching Cat.4 further, for if it was indeed owned by Lely, it would help confirm that Lely owned Van Dyck’s last self-portrait, a theory much speculated on but unproven.”]

MOVEABLE FEASTS: THE NEW LAST VAN DYCK SELF-PORTRAIT

Above, Fig. 12: Top, left and top right, a detail of Van Dyck’s post-1633 Portrait of the Artist with a Sunflower; second left, the 1941 Glück-claimed “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”; third left, the National Portrait Gallery “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”. Above, left, a detail of the 1941 Glück-claimed Sir Peter Lely copy of the above claimed Van Dyck self-portrait; right, the Mould/Bader-claimed Sir Peter Lely copy of the NPG self-portrait (as published in the 2011 Mould gallery exhibition and catalogue as Cat.4).

In defence of his own Rubenshuis Museum-loaned “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait” (above, Fig. 10, right), Grosvenor cheekily suggested “the dating of the National Portrait Gallery picture, currently thought to be c.1640 may need to be reconsidered, to perhaps between c.1637-39.” But why so – and on what stylistic basis is such chronological fine-tuning estimated? Not only had the NPG picture’s properties, appearance and relationship to other pictures not changed, only four years earlier Grosvenor had endorsed its late dating by “most scholars” to about 1640-1 – and on that late estimation he, like Glück (on another picture), had perceived a “faint air of melancholy” that added poignancy amidst the origins of the civil war about to erupt in London when the artist was “all the while plagued by the ill health that would shortly cause his death.”

It might seem that such recent perceptions notwithstanding, the NPG picture’s previous dating and estimation had to be jettisoned because Grosvenor was now seeking to attach his own painting to a “vacant” entry for a Van Dyck oval self-portrait, painted to the shoulders and with a hand to the breast, in an inventory of Charles I’s collection. If successfully attached, that entry would constitute a provenance jewel beyond price. But, most awkwardly, the original long-missing self-portrait had been recorded in the collection between 1637-39 and, therefore, Grosvenor’s newly upgraded candidate picture could not be said to have post-dated 1639. However, if so dated, and if the NPG picture were to be left in place at c.1640-1, the latter, with its pronounced differences from Grosvenor’s picture, would not only invite potentially damaging qualitative comparisons, it would retain the prized romantic cache on which it had been heavily promoted as Van Dyck’s last and most “modern” personal free-flowing etc., etc. depiction of himself.

Thus, and seemingly as if in protection of his own picture/investment, Grosvenor contended that the NPG picture, may no longer be considered the magnificent self-sufficient masterpiece that had commanded £1.7m on top of its world record £8.3m when sold to the NPG, and must now be moved back in time so as to do fresh duty as a study for his own picture – and therefore to predate his own picture which would become the new “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”, albeit at a somewhat earlier dating.

Although Millar had judged Grosvenor’s picture to be a copy of the lost picture that had been recorded in the Charles I collection, Grosvenor’s redating manoeuvre may have intimidated the NPG. Where it had held in its 2015 celebratory book Van Dyck – The Last Self-Portrait, that “Van Dyck’s self-portrait, now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery… is probably the last and arguably the finest…” it now claims only that its picture is “one of three known self-portraits painted by van Dyck when he was in England, and it probably dates from the last years of his life”.

GROWING THE PROVENANCE

As seen, where Sotheby’s had claimed only that the [NPG] picture was “Possibly in the collection of Sir Peter Lely, d. 1680” and “possibly” in the 18th April 1682 sale of Lely’s estate, Grosvenor held in the 2011 FINDING VAN DYCK catalogue that his Cat. 4 (supposed) Sir Peter Lely copy of the NPG picture, “must therefore confirm that Lely owned [the then Mould/Bader picture and later NPG picture] and that it was sold from his [Lely’s estate] sale in 1682.” Again, why must it so confirm when the justification was especially feeble: “It is quite possible the self-portrait in Van Dyck’s possession at his death in 1641 was his last […] and that it passed into Lely’s possession at some point…Lely may have acquired it in a number of ways…Or, it may be that the painter and art dealer George Geldorp, for whom Lely worked when he first to came to London, was involved…” (Emphases added.)

In other words, Grosvenor had not added an atom of evidence that Lely had owned and copied the now NPG picture. He had not established when Lely first came to London or whether he had ever met Van Dyck: “Frustratingly, we do not know exactly when Lely first arrived in England, and [or?] the extent to which he knew of Van Dyck or knew of his estate. His early biographer Richard Graham, writing in 1695, said that Lely came over in 1641 (the year of Van Dyck’s death), whilst the art historian Arnoult Houbraken gives a date of 1643. It is perhaps most likely that the ambitious young Lely came to London in response to Van Dyck’s death thus ruling out any possible direct connection.” (Emphases added.) Nothing learned, no value added.

Not only had Grosvenor produced no evidence, he had disclosed in 2011 that the self-portrait in Van Dyck’s estate had not been rated highly by the artist’s contemporaries; and, that while the then Mould/Bader picture “now holds the world record for a work by Van Dyck” the painting in Van Dyck’s estate “had little value placed upon it” – to be precise, it was valued at 6s 8d, a fifteenth of a Van Dyck of Charles I in armour, and a sixtieth of Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda now in the Wallace Collection.

“IT IS, IF I SAY SO

Lacking evidence that Lely had owned and copied the Bader/Mould self-portrait, Grosvenor, too, betrayed a note of anxiety in the 2011 catalogue: “The pictures after Van Dyck demonstrate that for the Van Dyck hunter the quantity and sometimes the quality of such copies can present potential danger.” In the absence of documentary evidence, Grosvenor played a bold card by appealing to the authority of his own eye: “…the first and most important skill you need to find a Van Dyck is simply the ability to spot a painting of the highest quality. If a painting is truly exceptional, the chances are it is by a truly exceptional artist.” Chance might be a fine thing, but its prospect is not a proof or a demonstration in the here and now.

THE SUPPOSED LELY COPIES OF THE SUPPOSED LAST VAN DYCK SELF-PORTRAITS

Above, Fig. 13: Top left, the attributed Sir Peter Lely copy, as published in 1941 by Glück; top right, the supposed Sir Peter Lely copy of the NPG self-portrait, as published in the 2011 Mould gallery exhibition catalogue. Above, details of costume from, respectively: the NPG self-portrait; the 1941 Glück-attributed Lely copy; the 2011 Mould/Grosvenor attributed Lely copy of the NPG picture.

Which of the two above versions is the more plausible Lely copy? Where is the Glück version today? Had it fallen by the wayside, much as had his 1934 espousal of what is now the Grosvenor/Rubenshuis last self-portrait (see below)? When did the Grosvenor/Mould-endorsed version of a supposed Lely copy first appear? Was it anywhere recorded before being taken to the Mould gallery? Do early photographs of it exist showing its reported appearance when enlarged onto a rectangular canvas? Did either of the canvases carry any historic material? Who owns it today?

It is said that when this unsettling mystery painting was brought to the Mould Gallery in 2010 shortly after the much-publicised acquisition of the £8.3m Sotheby’s self-portrait, it was “quite dirty and masked by a thick and substantially discoloured varnish.” The cleaning and researching were carried out by the Mould Gallery. Grosvenor claimed they had confirmed Lely’s authorship on the following grounds: [1] that after cleaning and restoration “there is no reason to doubt” it; [2] that “it is in fact by Lely”; and [3] that this is “a rare example of him copying another artist’s work”. The third claim weighed against it being a copy by Lely. The first statement was bluster – “there is no reason to doubt it”. The second contention was a non sequitur – Grosvenor asserted as fact something which had not been established.

SPOT THE DIFFERENCES

Grosvenor declined to address the discrepancies between the supposed Lely copy that had presented itself through an unidentified party to the Mould gallery from nowhere in 2010 or early 2011, and the supposed self-same Lely copy picture that had been published in December 1941 by Gustav Glück in The Burlington Magazine, “Reflections on Van Dyck’s early death” pp 172, 193, 195 and 199 (Fig. 12 above). There is a clear problem here: there are now two rival supposed versions of Van Dyck’s last self-portrait and each has its own supposed copy by Lely. Both pairs cannot be right. Where are the Glück ascribed pictures today? Have they been dismissed? Have they ever been compared with the two published Mould/Bader pictures?

A COVERT UPGRADE

In 2004, the now NPG picture had been described by Millar as:

“the best surviving version of (probably) the last Self-portrait, painted towards the end of Van Dyck’s years in London. The face is delicately modelled. The costume is handled very swiftly and in rough dry paint. There are some alterations made in the painting and it may be partly unfinished.”

In 2009 when included in the Tate’s “Van Dyck in Britain” exhibition, it was described in the catalogue on the (misleading) cited authority of Millar, as “thought to be Van Dyck’s last self-portrait”. Having died in 2007, Millar could not demur over the disappeared qualifier “after”.

On 9 December 2009, on the strength of that very recent Tate show and catalogue, Sotheby’s unequivocally presented what five years earlier had been no more than Millar’s “best surviving version” as an absolutely secure and precisely dated “Sir Anthony Van Dyck” – albeit on a provenance that began with two “Possiblys” – the first being “Possibly in the collection of Sir Peter Lely, d. 1680”. Sotheby’s declaimed:

“An outstanding self portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) – one of the most important Continental European artists to have worked in England – comes to auction with exemplary provenance[*] and an estimate of £2-3 million. The masterpiece, which is the artist’s last portrait of himself, was painted in London in 1641 in the final months of his life. It is one of only three self portraits that he painted in England and this, his last, captures him grandly attired in a black and white slashed silk doublet. The painting epitomises the elegant poise and relaxed informality that van Dyck brought to the art of portraiture in Britain and it undoubtedly ranks among the most important works by the artist ever to come to the auction market.” (Emphases added.)

[* On the accuracy of this estimation of the provenance, see Susan Grundy, below.]

THE “POSSIBLYS” AND “PROBABLYS” PLAGUE

A distinguishing characteristic of the upgrades stampede is the parading of superlatives and the drafting of fanciful provenances linked in daisy-chains of “possiblys” or “probablys”. This method was deployed to the most spectacular effect ever by Christie’s, New York, (albeit on the borrowed authority of the National Gallery which had earlier lifted it from a young art historian’s failed attempt to upgrade another and closely related Leonardo School Salvator Mundi) in their November 2017 sale provenance for the Louvre Museum-demoted $450m disappeared Leonardo School Salvator Mundi. It carried no fewer than three “possiblys” in the first item:

“(Possibly) Commissioned after 1500 by King Louis XII of France (1462-1515) and his wife, Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), following the conquest of Milan and Genoa, and possibly by descent to Henrietta Maria of France (1609-1669), by whom possibly brought to England in 1625 upon her marriage to King Charles I of England (1600-1649), Greenwich…”

In 1980, in Christie’s (London) sale of the now-National Gallery “Rubens” Samson and Delilah, the provenance began with three items prefaced: “Probably”; “Perhaps”; and “Perhaps”. The “Probably” – “Probably painted for Nicolaas Rockox” – was an own goal: if autograph, the work had to have been painted for Rockox because he was known to have commissioned Rubens to paint the subject. It was also known that two contemporary copies had been made from the subsequently lost Rockox Rubens original. They had survived. Both depart compositionally in the same manner from the National Gallery picture. In another Christie’s provenance item, the NG picture was said to be “perhaps” that recorded in an inventory of 1653 as a Samson (not a Samson and Delilah) by Rubens. There are two entries in that inventory, one to a Samson by Rubens, another to a Samson after Rubens…If those Samsons had been shorthand for Samson and Delilah, then the subject existed in two versions by 1653, one by Rubens and one after Rubens.

OVERTURNING AN INSTITUTIONAL APPLE CART

When, eventually, the Mould/Bader/Grosvenor campaign succeeded and the “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait” was acquired by the NPG acquired in late 2014 many were happy: this was deemed a picture at the very top of the tree and Philip Mould’s apprentice, Grosvenor, had claimed no little credit for making it so (see below). However, some had seen matters differently: the means and manner of this particular upgrade attracted censure in a succession of expert warnings. In the May/June 2014 issue of the Jackdaw, its editor, David Lee, noted both disregarded expert opinion and a seeming over-eagerness to sell the picture – as seen below at Fig. 14:

On 23 January 2014 the Evening Standard’s art critic, Brian Sewell, had written of what was about to become the NPG picture:

“…Van Dyck looks wistful, apprehensive and uncertain; he has not flattered himself and his image is the more compelling for its melancholy, yet this careful self-analysis is set on a bust painted with almost vulgar bravura, a rumpled collar of white lawn over a black doublet slashed with white. Not since he painted himself in Italy in black and white has there been such impetuous painting — and not nearly with so loaded a brush.

“I sense dissonance between the face and the costume, as though two quite opposing aesthetics are at work. Does the head sit easily on the bust, the shoulder more brilliantly lit than the face? What exactly is the form of the wide collar and how is it related to the neck? Has the hair been extended over the collar to disguise this awkwardness? It is of a darker tone and subdued definition.

“One question leads to another. Is it possible that Van Dyck painted no more than his face and rather shorter hair, and left posterity an unfinished portrait, to be completed by another painter?”

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Sewell’s doubts had been elicited more colourfully by the MailOnline on 7 December 2013 (“Petra Ecclestone’s husband hopes fight to keep £12.5m Van Dyck in Britain will fail as he snaps it up for their £55m palace of bling in LA”):

“Mr Sewell said: ‘The painting must have been as important in 2009 as it is now. Why did we not buy it then? They [the NPG] didn’t try.[*] They said they put their heads together with Tate Britain to see whether they could do a joint purchase, but they didn’t say a word in public. There was no question of raising funds from the public. But now they’re perfectly happy to start a fundraising campaign at £12.5m. The logic of it completely escapes me…If the picture is as important as everyone’s saying it is, it should have been bought at £8.3m. Now that it hasn’t, they’re putting £4m in the pockets of Philip Mould.”

[* What was not disclosed at the time was that the National Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund had told the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery, in terms, that they would not get a grant towards the picture’s purchase because of the great drain on those funds for the 2012 Olympics. That unexpected arts funding shortfall had killed off any chance that might have been hoped to exist to make a quick-flip profit on the world record £8.3m Van Dyck by selling it on to the NPG.]

On 9 December 2013, Grosvenor responded in a blog post (on his Art History News site) to Sewell’s criticisms with a double slur: “This is, of course, only the latest salvo in Brian’s apparent campaign against the painting, which can only, I presume, benefit the overseas buyer… His remarks are a good example of that unattractive British habit of demeaning anyone who happens to be successful. Sewell sniffed at something Mr Stunt may or may not have said about his collection (which is already one of the best for 17th C English portraits), when as a lover of art he should applaud the fact that a successful British businessman under the age of 30 not only cares about ‘old’ British art, but also supports, very strongly, exhibitions, publications, loans and research.” (Had Stunt supported the Mould Gallery’s FINDING VAN DYCK exhibition and its 80 pp catalogue? On his support for other Mould/Grosvenor research, see below.) Sewell’s remarks had been given in response to this MailOnline quote from Stunt:

All my Lelys are important. In Althorp, the Earl of Spencer has the Windsor Beauties, which is a very famous group of pictures by the artist. I’ve been trying to rival the Windsor Beauties. I have more, I think, than him, and I’m just five off the Royal Collection.”

That does not sound made-up. Sewell had responded: “Oh dear. I don’t know him but if he’s setting out to rival Althorp and Buckingham Palace, that’s hardly a meritorious way of collecting. It’s cigarette cards.” Snobby, perhaps, but not without force and humour. Of course, there is nothing wrong with successful businessmen buying art – if: a) they have the means and really are buying; and b) they buy judiciously and not as if from some competitive, vainglorious shopping list. Stunt’s taste for old masters was entirely worthy.

SOME SERIOUSLY AWKWARD CONNECTIONS

The NPG picture’s standing had been again and more radically challenged by Susan Grundy on its authorship, condition, and circumstances. She has shown that both Sotheby’s and the Mould gallery’s citations of the scholarly literature had implied high scholarly support for a Van Dyck ascription that was simply not present. As mentioned, Gustav Glück had seen the now NPG self-portrait picture in 1941 but, then, he had judged it a copy – as had Eric Larsen in 1980 and 1988, and, as seen above, Oliver Millar in 2004. There had been no major scholarly support for the picture as an autograph Van Dyck.

On 26 April 2020 the Mail-on-Sunday reported Grundy’s further startling investigations: “Is the £10m Anthony Van Dyck ‘selfie’ that Kate Middleton helped save for the nation a cheap copy?

Specifically, Grundy had said: “Philip Mould, the dealer who brokered the sale at such a handsome price, is one of Britain’s most recognisable art experts. He makes regular appearances on the Antiques Roadshow [he also fronts, with Fiona Bruce, the BBC’s Fake or Fortune] and is known as something of an authority on Van Dyck. But this story also involves the unlikely figure of Petra Ecclestone’s ex-husband James Stunt, who once described himself as a billionaire art collector, but is today known as a shambolic, foul-mouthed bankrupt. The Mail-on-Sunday has previously revealed that Stunt lent a number of fake paintings to Prince Charles’s charity at Dumfries House in Scotland where, embarrassingly, they were put on public display. And that attempts had then been made by intermediaries to use the fakes as collateral for millions of pounds worth of loans. The paintings have now been taken down from public view, although Stunt still maintains they are originals. But the businessman’s reputation was intact back in 2013 when, while still married to Formula 1 heiress Petra, he was looking to add to a vast and rapidly expanding collection of masterpieces and agreed to buy the Van Dyck from Mould’s client, Canadian industrialist Alfred Bader.”

See “The £50million conundrum: Where is the ‘fake’ Monet painting that hung at Prince Charles’s Dumfries House?

In Grundy’s account “agreed to buy” is both the operative and a problematic term. “Client”, too, is problematic: confusion over the 2009 £8.3m purchase at Sotheby’s abounds. It was rumoured that Mould had bought with money loaned by Bader; some expressed surprise that Stunt should have bought it at all at £12.5m, because his purchases rarely exceeded six figures. Many reports referred to a joint Mould/Bader sale to Stunt but those were ambiguously phrased, and it is nowhere confirmed that Stunt had paid £12.5m, taken title of the picture and was about to remove it to the U.S. The Heritage Fund claimed the picture “was sold to a private collector who wished to take it abroad” but the Art Fund disclosed that the picture was bought by the NPG not from Stunt – or Mould – but from “Alfred Bader Fine Arts”, which, if correct, would necessarily mean that that picture had not been sold to Stunt and, therefore, that public monies had been given to block a supposed but phantom pending removal of the picture from the country.

WHEN WAS THE GROSVENOR “LAST VAN DYCK SELF-PORTRAIT MARK II” BOUGHT?

Establishing the point at which Grosvenor acquired his own supposedly superior and historically more significant “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait” is of interest re both his claimed value-adding role in the promotion of the NPG picture and his subsequent cheerleading role for the public fundraising campaign to secure the picture’s entry into the NPG in 2014. In 2015 Grosvenor disclosed that a restoration of his own picture (Figs. 7 and 10) had taken place “over the last few years”. See below. He also declared that it was only when “all the overpaint and dirt” had been removed, that the very “possibility of a full attribution to Van Dyck [had become] worth pursuing further”.

The “I-had-no-idea-at-first” dealers’ trope was also encountered with the now-famous consortium of New York dealers who had never suspected that their manifest Leonardo School Salvator Mundi might be an autograph Leonardo prototype painting until a certain pentimento on a thumb emerged during restoration. Grosvenor, too, reports a pentimento-on-the-thumb that he, similarly, holds to confirm autograph Van Dyck status on his own picture. However, hands are notoriously difficult to draw even when making a copy – and, as Jacques Franck has demonstrated here, if such thumb pentimenti are to be taken as proofs of autograph states, the Salai copy of Leonardo’s St. John the Baptist would now be considered a second autograph Leonardo St. John the Baptist.

Intriguingly, Grosvenor disclosed that the (eventual) NPG self-portrait had been joined during its near five-year long residence in the Mould gallery by other Van Dyck finds. Of one such, the privately owned picture now on loan to the Minneapolis Institute (Figs. 1, 15 and 19), Grosvenor disclosed on 5 March 2015: “What a pleasure it was to work with Philip Mould in his gallery with it [the now Minneapolis picture] – sometimes we would treat ourselves and hang it next to the later Van Dyck self-portrait we also had in the gallery (the one which was bought by the National Portrait Gallery last year).” But what of the Grosvenor-owned picture which was loaned to the Rubenshuis Museum on 8 March 2016? Had that picture, too, been hung next to the hard-to-shift self-portrait that would enter the NPG in 2014?

A HANDY SOURCE OF POTENTIAL VAN DYCK SELF-PORTRAIT UPGRADES

For those wondering how quite so many Van Dyck self-portraits could turn up in one place in such short time there is a simple explanation: Grosvenor and Mould, like many of us, are avid students of the 2004 catalogue raisonné.

Above, Fig.15: Top row, three “self-portraits” as published in an appendix of copies by Oliver Millar in his contribution to the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue. Bottom row: the three recently upgraded former Millar self-portrait copies, as they presently appear, and the not-for-sale Indianapolis picture.

In this one small section of that invaluable and indispensable account of Van Dyck’s English period, Millar had unwittingly compiled a sort of sleeper-hunters’ treasure chest. Grosvenor has now upgraded the first two of Millar’s three Van Dyck self-portrait copies – and acquired one – both having been privately owned. Only Millar’s third self-portrait copy (above, top right) which cannot turn a penny because it is already in a museum – The Clowes Fund Collection, Indianapolis Museum of Art – remains on the upgrades shelf.

Thus, in the bottom row at Fig. 15 we see: left, the NPG picture judged by Millar to be “The best surviving version of (probably) the last Self-portrait, painted towards the end of Van Dyck’s years in London”; second left, the privately owned, Grosvenor/Mould upgraded self-portrait, now loaned to the Minneapolis Institute; second right, the Grosvenor-owned, restored and new “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait” that Millar judged a copy of an unknown work recorded in the collection of Charles I; right, the Indianapolis picture with a fine gold chain – for excellent close-up photos, see here – that Millar judged the best-surviving version of an informal Van Dyck self-portrait of c.1634. It might be noted that in this informal attire and unhaughty demeanour, the artist’s moustache had not drooped or turned down.

VAN DYCK’S NOW TWO “LAST SELF-PORTRAITS”

Above, Fig. 16: Left, the National Portrait Gallery’s “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”; right, the Grosvenor/Rubenshuis Museum “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”.

So, to return to Grosvenor’s second and Rubenshuis loaned “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”, there are, as he acknowledges in his 2015-6 British Art Journal account, many outstanding problems of provenance: 1) “We cannot currently draw a direct documentary link from the painting today back to the royal collection”; 2) “there is no record of a payment by Charles I for the picture”; 3) the picture “was first certainly recorded in 1854 when accepted by Gustav Glück” [- sic Glück was born in 1871*]; 4) had the picture been the one owned by Charles I, it would most likely bear the royal monogram (the letters “CR” capped by a crown) on the back of the canvas – but it does not – see Fig. 18 below; and, 5), that the “somewhat loose, rapid handling of the Self-portrait is unlike the high degree of finish and detail that Van Dyck normally produced for Charles I”.

The last admission might seem particularly damaging given Grosvenor’s claim that the (in part) highly wrought NPG picture had been executed as a dress rehearsal for his own picture. Indeed, the NPG’s 2015 book had made a somewhat fanciful virtue of its picture’s stylistically incongruous execution: “The broad, rapid, virtuoso handling of the costume contrasts with the exquisitely fine painting in the face. The relative lack of finish in the costume draws attention to the act of painting that has produced this portrait, perhaps even suggesting that the artist is still in the process of creating it, while we, as viewers, watch him. It may be that Van Dyck was working in a more experimental way in this part of the painting, or it may simply be that it was left unfinished.” (Emphasis added.)

Which, then, might have been the case? The NPG, understandably, was at a loss because: “Nothing is known of the circumstances in which this portrait was produced: whether it was a gift for, or a commission from, a friend, relative or patron, or whether the artist had painted it for himself…” The work is therefore, an orphaned “one-off” or unicum – that intrinsically problematic art historical creature of which Professor James Beck warned his students at Columbia University always to beware. (He also cautioned students to address “what we know about this artist before what has been said or written”.)

[* Grosvenor effectively self-corrects the above slip in his BAJ footnote no. 27, when he cites the earlier and intended Gustav – Gustav Waagen – and his 1854 three-volume Treasures of Art in Great Britain [**]. Although Grosvenor gives the page number, he does not disclose how Waagen had referred to the painting. Had he said something flattering or simply cited an inventory? Grosvenor notes that Gustav Glück had later identified the picture as that in the collection of Charles I and that he had done so not on the grounds of stylistic analysis but of a contingent availability:

As no other self-portrait answering to the same description is known, there can be no doubt that the picture…once belonged to the royal friend and warm supporter of Van Dyck.” Glück was playing the above-mentioned Denis Mahon Manoeuvre – conferring autograph status on the best available picture. In this case, Glück conferred it to the only possible surviving candidate. With his own (Rubenshuis) self-portrait picture, Grosvenor seems to follow the Gluck/Mahon practice even though he has also identified a second version of the picture that is of similar size and composition. Without addressing the possibility that both versions might have been copies of a lost autograph prototype, as Millar had concluded at the end of a long and distinguished career, Grosvenor holds the newly discovered version (below, Fig. 17, top left) to be a later copy of his own picture, and thereby elevates his own picture from Millar’s copy of a lost original to the original Van Dyck painting.]

Above, Fig. 17: Top row, left a copy of a Van Dyck self-portrait attributed by Bendor Grosvenor to Charles Jervas (1675-1739); the Grosvenor attributed Van Dyck self-portrait before its two-year long restoration; the Grosvenor attributed Van Dyck self-portrait after its restoration. Bottom row: left, the NPG “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”; centre, the Grosvenor, Rubenshuis “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait” before restoration; centre and right, the Grosvenor, Rubenshuis “Last Van Dyck Self-portrait”, as before and after restoration.

In the above-cited Mahon case, it took fifty years for the now accepted original version (at the Prado) to emerge and show Mahon’s claimed “autograph original” to have been a copy – which should have been recognised all along because it, just as with the National Gallery “Rubens” Samson and Delilah, was known from an etched copy to be a compositionally truncated version of a lost original. Where Millar resisted temptation to play the Glück/Mahon/Grosvenor gambit and judged what is now Grosvenor’s picture (above, Fig. 17, top right) to be no more than an early copy of a missing painting, Grosvenor has followed Glück’s earlier “opportunist” elevation (of what is now his own painting) even though it had not gained critical acceptance on Glück’s ascription and had been sold in 1969 for $350 as “after Van Dyck” and for $3,120 in 2006 as “after Van Dyck” (- when possibly bought by Grosvenor). As Millar appreciated, being the only available candidate is not a sufficient qualification for a painting to be accepted as autograph.]

[** As for Waagen’s cited but not quoted observation of Grosvenor’s picture, it too might best be treated with caution. When Nicholas Penny upgraded the Duke of Northumberland’s “Madonna of the Pinks” to Raphael in the February 1992 (Burlington Magazine – “Raphael’s Madonna dei garofnai rediscovered”), he quoted Waagen’s fulsome comment: “on occasion of my visit to England in 1854 I had the privilege of spending a day at Alnwick castle as his Grace’s guest…It is well known that the charming composition is by Raphael and of all the numerous specimens of the picture that I have seen, none appears to me so well entitled to be attributed to his hand as this.” High praise, certainly, but there were three overlooked dangers. First, gushing hyperbole in ascriptions might seem a required social obligation for guests of Dukes – Bernard Berenson and his wife were thrown out of a Scottish Duke’s lair late on a stormy evening when the scholar advised that his Grace’s “Leonardo” was no such thing. Second, Waagen had spoken twice on the Northumberland picture and both of his comments should have been addressed together. Waagen’s helpful-to-Penny’s-cause, praise appeared in the fourth and supplementary 1857 volume to his three-volume 1854 Treasures of Art in Great Britain. In the 1854 Vol. III, p. 253, Waagen, who had yet to enjoy the Duke’s hospitality, had dismissed the Northumberland picture (that would, like the NPG Last Self-portrait be Saved the for The Nation at £22m as the National Gallery’s Raphael “Madonna of the Pinks“): “the small picture in the Camuccini collection at Rome which I do not consider to be original. The tone of the flesh has something insipid and heavy. The treatment makes me suspect a Netherlandish hand.” Third, Waagen’s later fulsome revised comments were written in the knowledge that the whole Camuccini collection was to come to Alnwick Castle, having been bought by the Duke in 1856 (- as James Beck disclosed in his posthumously published 2007 book From Duccio to Raphael: Connoisseurship in Crisis, three chapters of which anatomised the untenability of the National Gallery picture’s Raphael ascription). Had Waagen stuck in 1857 to his earlier scholarly/critical guns, a Duke would likely have been mightily displeased, and Italy’s already lucrative “old masters” export industry would have been thrown into question if not crisis. However, of the two Waagen accounts that of the slightly younger, more disinterested c.1854 self better withstood the test of time: as with the Glück-ascribed now Grosvenor last self-portrait, the Duke’s picture duly came to be seen as a version of a lost Raphael autograph prototype painting – as Penny himself described it, as one of “numerous versions” with none being “generally acknowledged as an original work by Raphael”. It was only on Penny’s 1992 advocacy resting on the authority of the slightly older Waagen’s 1857 obsequious effusion that the scholar’s own earlier, sounder appraisal was eclipsed. When Penny stayed at Alnwick Castle – the second greatest castle in Britain – in the early nineteen-nineties (“The author is grateful to the Duke of Northumberland, the Duchess of Northumberland and Lady Victoria Cuthbert for their hospitality and encouragement”) the potential “oven-ready” upgrade in the form of the ex-Camuccini picture remained lurking-in-residence in its elaborate 19th century frame bearing the proud ascription “Raphael”, patiently awaiting a new scholarly response.]

THE MISSING MONOGRAM ON A GROSVENOR UPGRADE

Above, Fig. 18: Left, the back of the Pushkin Museum’s Salvator Mundi by Giampietrino which carries the Charles I monogram, at which period the picture had been attributed to Leonardo; centre, the Charles I monogram found on the back of the Van Dyck painting of Mary Villiers; right, Van Dyck’s Mary Villiers portrait

The presence of a monogram confirming ownership by Charles I adds very considerable value. In 2002 the Mould gallery discovered one (above, centre) on a Van Dyck portrait of Mary Villiers (above, right) that had been bought for £437,587. On discovery of the monogram (made, as with Grosvenor’s picture, during the traumatic act of stripping off and replacing a backing canvas) the Mould picture’s asking price leapt almost fourfold to £1.6m. It follows that Grosvenor’s Rubenshuis Van Dyck will likely be worth a quarter of what it might otherwise have beeen, had it been in Charles I’s collection and duly stamped with the royal monogram.

OUT OF THE FRYING PAN…

Lacking evidence that his picture had been in Charles I’s collection, Grosvenor addressed the absent record of a payment with an initial surmise that the picture had been presented by Van Dyck as a gift to the King. He then added: “Of course, the presumption that the self-portrait was originally presented to Charles I may be incorrect, and if it was part of the collection of Henrietta Maria instead (whose collection was looked after by Daniel Soreau of whom we know little), we would not expect to find a cypher [monogram] on the back.” (Emphases added.)

A neat swerve, but an expectation of an absence of evidence that rests on an unsupported supposition cannot be rolled together and taken to constitute evidence of any kind. If the picture lacks a monogram it lacks a monogram and that tells against it having been in the collection. If it lacks both a monogram and a record of payment, there is certainly no ground for concluding that it must therefore have been gifted by Van Dyck to the King’s wife, because that blatantly begs the question. Grosvenor reports that after the king’s execution the Van Dyck self-portrait that had been in the collection had been bought by the artist’s former assistant and copyist, Remigius van Leemput – and he says so on the cited authority of Oliver Millar, who judged the now-Grosvenor picture…to be a copy of that lost, formerly Charles I Van Dyck self-portrait.

The escape clause possibility of the picture having been owned by Henrietta Maria was suggested to Grosvenor by Margaret Dalivalle who had attempted to underpin the claimed double royal pedigree of the (now-disappeared and Louvre Museum-downgraded) $450m Leonardo school Salvator Mundi with a speculative suggestion that the painting might have been brought to England from the French royal collection by Henrietta Maria. It was also being claimed that the (then New York) Leonardo-attributed Salvator Mundi was the Leonardo Salvator Mundi that had been recorded in the Charles I collection. No evidence supported that claim and in 2018 another picture – the one that really had been attributed to Leonardo when in the collection of Charles I and the one which really does bear the royal monogram (above left, Fig. 18) had emerged in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. However, that Salvator Mundi is of a different composition and, besides, it had been downgraded to Leonardo’s assistant Giampietrino. Thus, the painting that had been in Charles I’s collection as a Leonardo was not a Leonardo, regardless of whether or not it had been brought from the French royal collection, which it hadn’t: after years of trawling archives, Dalivalle admitted that she had found no evidence that Henrietta Maria had brought the painting from France and had abandoned her search.

A SERIALLY BEGGED QUESTION

In the absence of material or documentary evidence on his Last Van Dyck self-portrait, Grosvenor again appeals in circular fashion to the authority of his own judgement-by-eye on the picture’s artistic merits, which judgement he again confounds with hard evidence: “There is however, other evidence to suggest that this painting did indeed hang at Whitehall, in addition to the fact of its overall quality, and the fact that it certainly appears to be an original work by Van Dyck.” Having conflated his own impressions and judgements with facts, Grosvenor proceeds to add that Van Dyck, “is unlikely to have presented his patron with a second version or a studio replica” when he has not established that the (formerly $350) picture which he owns had been presented to Charles at all. (All emphases added.) Once again, “evidence” that “suggests” that something had happened of which there is no evidence, is not evidence, it is simply wishful thinking. Grosvenor’s painting could not have whispered in the Mould gallery (- had it ever been presented there) that it had once hung somewhere else in London.

If proof were ever to emerge that Van Dyck had gifted an unrecorded portrait of himself to the king’s wife, it would immediately beget another sleeper-hunting opportunity: Where is the Van Dyck self-portrait that was listed in the king’s collection and that would be expected to bear the royal monogram? Were such a monogrammed Van Dyck self-portrait to turn up tomorrow, we would then have two self-portraits gifted by Van Dyck to the royal couple (one to each), just as we now have two claimed last Van Dyck self-portraits in the NPG and Rubenshuis pictures.

BOUNCING THE NPG?

Whatever the exact relationship in this recent Mould and Bader “adventure in old masters”, two things are clear. First, an initial attempt to sell the £8.3m picture to the NPG failed. When the Philip Mould enterprise found no buyer for the picture between 2009 and 2013, the £8.3m purchase at Sotheby’s must indeed have seemed a hair-raising liability. Second, that although James Stunt’s much-reported purchase of the painting for £12.5m never materialised, his repeated and noisily declared intention to remove the painting from Britain greatly assisted the picture’s eventual sale to the NPG.

On the picture’s true or fair value between 2009 and 2014, there is no evidence that the already world record £8.3m Van Dyck had been sold for £12.5m to Stunt, a well-known collector of six-figure Lely paintings. Waldemar Januszczak mused in the Sunday Times: “Why Stunt has chosen to go for the Van Dyck now, when it has been hanging in Mould’s gallery for three years I do not know.”

HYPING A TOP-PRICE WORK

Putting Stunt’s involvement to one side, it might also be asked how the NPG’s £10m purchase of a picture that had been stealthily offered as a safely autograph work (on no scholar’s published account) in 2009 and on a £2-3 million estimate at Sotheby’s, came to be taken as a matter of Very Great National Concern. On 8 December 2013, Richard Brooks rebuked the NPG for dilatoriness over the purchase (Sunday Times “£3m bungle over Van Dyck selfie”): “…the gallery had the chance to buy it four years ago for at least £3m less than it will now have to pay”. If Brooks had meant that had the gallery bid directly at Sotheby’s 9 December 2009 auction it could have got the picture for the £8.3m paid by Mould/Bader, Grosvenor has countered: “we were delighted to acquire it in partnership with Alfred Bader for £8.3m. In fact, we had been prepared to bid much higher, and were slightly surprised when the hammer came down.”

Brooks continued: “In fact it [the NPG] missed the opportunity to buy the painting not once but twice…The gallery had in fact been tipped off by the auctioneer, Sotheby’s, that the painting was coming up for sale four months earlier, in August 2009, when one of its staff went to see Sandy Nairne, the director of the Gallery. ‘It was a heads-up for them to see if they could buy,’ said Sotheby’s last week. Nairne decided not to bid. Last week Nairne confirmed that the approach had been made but said he had worried about the ‘uncertainty’ of buying at auction. It was also thought that the earl [of Jersey] did not seem interested in selling privately to the gallery.” This last was likely the case – Grundy established that the earl had put his own family pile on the market at c.£10m, so he was not likely in financial self-sacrifice mode.

Having bought the picture for £8.3 million at auction, Brooks continued, “Mould and Bader offered the gallery another chance to buy it, this time from them. Initially they asked for £10 million but this was subsequently dropped to £9.5 million…” Those successive reductions might have been public-spirited generosity towards a national institution, but they could also have been hard-nosed commercial realism: the picture was proving impossible to shift. Four other parties, including two non-UK museums, were said to have driven the auction price to £8.3m but having dropped out at that price they were unlikely to re-enter at £10m, £9.5m or £12.5m – as indeed had resoundingly proved to be the case by 2013 when the work remained unsold. All in all, Brooks seemed rather cross that the NPG was not playing ball with a gallery that had failed to shift a picture bought three years earlier at a world record price with the assistance of an industrialist/collector.

HOW SOLID WAS STUNT’S OFFER TO BUY AT £12.5m?

Januszczak appreciated that: “the timing [of Stunt’s late-buying and declared intention to remove from the country] has forced the NPG and the government into action” – which action he and Grosvenor supported. As for Stunt’s declared intention to remove the picture from the country, had he bought it earlier for less and immediately applied for an export licence, there would, Grosvenor has claimed, have been no opposition and the picture would certainly “have left the country”. Instead of quietly buying it for £9.5m and removing it unopposed from the country, Stunt waited until the end of 2013 to declare an intention to buy the picture at the then full Mould/Bader £12.5m asking price and, simultaneously, to remove it from the country. For sure, that last declaration prompted the picture’s supporters to seek and obtain a three-month government export ban in November 2013. Stunt then amplified his Threat-to-Remove by saying that although he well understood the move to block his purchase from Mould, he still hoped he would be able to “take it to his home in Los Angeles and enjoy it.” Thus, without costing Stunt a penny, his noisy public stance greatly facilitated the Mould/Bader sale to the NPG when no other buyer was in sight.

A MAN OF SEVERAL HATS

Above, Fig. 19: Left, the newly attributed Van Dyck self-portrait on loan to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (as discussed below); right, a 1925 Max Beerbohm cartoon in his “The Old and the Young Self” series. (Caption: Mr Arnold Bennett – Old Self: “All gone according to plan, you see.” Young Self: “My plan, you know.”)

Grosvenor’s role as a Mould employee becomes a greater matter of interest given his possibly overlapping role as a private, stand-alone collector/connoisseur. On 14 November 2013 he posted a blog saying that the picture had been sold to an overseas buyer [Stunt] and added: “For the art dealing day-jobber in me, this has to be seen as a Good Thing. We [at Philip Mould] bought the picture (in the thick of the global downturn) because we believed in it, and had the aim of adding value and selling it on. And I believe we have done that… However, for the Van Dyck fan, it obviously pains me that the picture might leave the UK. And it doubly pains me that I might in some small way be responsible for that!”

How so? In addition to his value-adding obligations as a Mould gallery employee, Grosvenor had attended a Government Export Licence Review “as a representative of the picture’s buyer [Stunt]”. It is not clear whether Grosvenor had spoken in support of, or against, Stunt’s declared intentions to remove the picture, at the Review – or whether, whichever line he adopted on that occasion, Stunt had known of it. It is possible that Grosvenor confined his remarks to underlining the seriousness of Stunt’s threat to remove the picture from the country but on 14 November 2013 he hinted that he had opposed the Mould gallery client’s declared intentions:

“A month or so ago we attended the UK government’s Export Licence Reviewing Committee – as representatives of the picture’s buyer – at the Arts Council’s new office… [and the picture] was temporarily blocked for export by the committee on all three ‘Waverley’ criteria (which is unusual). I felt a strange pride in Sir Anthony for pulling that off.” For “Sir Anthony”, we can only read “Dr Grosvenor” and further assume that Stunt was happy to have his by then doubly expressed determination to remove the picture from the country thwarted by a Mould gallery employee. Grosvenor asked: “Will a UK institution [now] be able to raise the funds to stop the sale?” With his gallery salesman’s hat on, he helpfully volunteered: “The price is £12.5m (about 1/3 of a Koons Orange Dog).”

Eleven days later (25 November 2013) Grosvenor reported: “I went to the launch this morning of the National Portrait Gallery’s campaign to save Van Dyck’s last self-portrait for the nation. The picture has been sold to an overseas buyer, and the NPG has 8 months to try and raise £12.5m to keep the painting in the UK. It’s the largest such campaign ever mounted by the NPG… Regular readers will know that I work for the company which has sold the picture, so I’m in something of a predicament. But of course, the Van Dyck fan in me (he’s my favourite artist) wants to see the picture remain on public display in the UK. A large part of whether the campaign to save the picture succeeds will come down to how the public reacts…” (All emphases added.) On the face of it, Grosvenor was openly campaigning against the interest of a Mould/Bader client who, reportedly, had already paid £12.5m and delivered a £4.2m profit to Mould/Bader on an £8.3m picture, and yet, at the same time, he was commanding the country to come to the aid of a public institution so as to help it buy the picture for £12.5m from a dealer and his “progenitor of adventures in old masters” partner/backer.

“ULTIMATE BUYERS”

Again, concerning the price, in his 25 November 2013 post, when scolding Sewell for challenging the attribution and for claiming the NPG could have bought for less than £12.5m had it acted sooner, Grosvenor retorted: “How does Brian know where we, as the ultimate buyers (in partnership with Alfred Bader fine arts) would have stopped bidding? I can tell you now that the NPG would not have got it at auction for less than the asking price today.” Thus, we learn that the Bader-backed Mould gallery had been prepared to buy the supposed Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait for very appreciably more than £12.5m. Having already routed all opposition in 2009 with an £8.3m bid, who – other than the NPG – might have been expected to buy the picture after four years of no-sale? We say “no-sale” because if the picture had belonged to Stunt it would have been reputationally reckless behaviour for the vendor, after taking payment, to seek to block the buyer.

In November 2013 Grosvenor complained “Waldemar [Janusczcak] is mounting a one-man campaign to have my employer donate the picture to the NPG…” – which tacitly disclosed that Mould/Bader were still the owners. An anonymous, but evidently well-informed reader commented on Grosvenor’s website: “…Mould and co are entitled to profit from 1) saving the Van Dyck four years ago by taking the risk of purchasing it at auction during a very difficult period 2) holding the painting for four years with a lot of someone’s capital in it 3) researching the picture to add to its value all that is now known about it.”

THE PRESS WEIGHS IN

When Stunt’s reported bid to remove the picture spurred the NPG’s attempt to retain the picture in Britain at £12.5m, many journalists urged the public to contribute to the “Save-the-Picture” fund. In the Times Ben Macintyre hailed Van Dyck as an exemplary immigrant who had enriched his adopted home – a mongrel nation avidly open and welcoming to foreign talents, in which he was knighted, married into the aristocracy, buried in St Paul’s and had left as his legacy a transformed British school of painting that, having passed through Gainsborough and Reynolds to Singer Sargent, “is still felt nearly four centuries later”. That was a perfectly fair and attractive (if by no means original) analysis. Van Dyck’s last and greatest of all self-portraits, Macintyre assured readers, depicts a man who has found his home from home, “and that is where he should stay.” Against that somewhat sentimental reading, evidence suggests that, ahead of the end of Charles I’s reign, Van Dyck was looking to jump national ships.

Jonathan Jones in the Guardian asked “£12.5m for a self-portrait by Anthony van Dyck? That’s what the National Portrait Gallery and the Art Fund are trying to raise in an appeal launched today. Is it worth it?” Sporting hyperbolic philistinism, he self-answered: “Absolutely. I think this is one of the most worthwhile campaigns in years to ‘save’ a work of art for the nation. Van Dyck’s Self-Portrait would make a spectacular addition to the National Portrait Gallery. Quite frankly, it could make the place. It would give a gallery stuffed with pictures of primarily historical interest a true artistic masterpiece, by the man from Antwerp who gave birth to British art.”

In the Spectator the historian Andrew Roberts wrote: “Of all the great British portrait painters, Van Dyck is by far the most important not to be represented by his own portrait in one of the great British public collections, considering how central he is to the history of the British school of painting and how his influence has grown over the centuries. ‘We are all going to heaven’, Gainsborough said on his deathbed, ‘and Van Dyck is of the company.’ For the National Portrait Gallery, the story of Britain that it attempts to tell through portraiture is simply incomplete without a portrait of Van Dyck, which has long been identified as one of the major lacunae in its otherwise superb collection. This is the only chance a museum or a gallery in the United Kingdom has of acquiring the masterpiece and it’s the only portrait of the artist ever likely to be made available for acquisition by a British public collection…”

Grosvenor purred on his 28 November 2013 post: “excellent piece by historian Andrew Roberts in the Spectator on the NPG’s campaign” without disclosing that since May 2013 Roberts had been an NPG trustee. Nor did he demur when Roberts assured the public that this was “the only chance” of acquiring what was the “only portrait of the artist ever likely to be made available for acquisition”. Not the slightest hint was given that three Van Dyck self-portraits were in the offing and on 8 December 2013, the Sunday Times prodded laggards: “James Stunt, who is married to Bernie Ecclestone’s younger daughter Petra, has already put in an offer of £12.5m and hopes to hang the piece in his Los Angeles mansion.”

A PROLONGED STRUGGLE TO RAISE THE READIES…

On 17 February 2014 Grosvenor announced:

“The National Portrait Gallery has successfully argued for an extension to the export bar on Van Dyck’s c. 1640 Self-Portrait. This means they have another 5 months to try and raise £12.5m, which is the sum required to match the picture’s sale price. The NPG has already raised a quarter of that amount, from bodies such as the Art Fund, the Monuments Trust, and also (impressively) nearly a million from smaller donations made by members of the public…” That left some £8.2-3m to find – effectively the full original world record price paid at auction. Once again, Grosvenor reminded his readers: “I’m in something of a quandry [sic] on this one, given that Philip Mould & Co., for which I work, sold the picture to an overseas buyer.” (Emphasis added.)

AN EMPLOYEE HELPS BROKER A NEW CUT-PRICE MYSTERY DEAL

On 26 March 2014 Grosvenor announced he had been working on “a new deal to help the National Portrait Gallery’s campaign to acquire Van Dyck’s final Self-Portrait” and that the target price “has now been reduced from £12.5m to £10m.” Who exactly was working with whom – and how – on this deal? What role had Grosvenor played? Stunt, he reported, had issued a statement: “When I agreed to buy [not when I bought] this great portrait I didn’t expect the huge swell of public opinion and strength of emotion its export would generate…I have reconsidered my position and have decided, with Dr Bader and Mr Mould’s agreement, to withdraw from the process.” Had Stunt owned the painting he would neither have been able to withdraw from a process, nor have required the agreement of Bader and Mould to sell his own picture to the NPG at a supposed-billionaire’s public-spirited £2.5 million loss, should he have wished. Presumably, Stunt meant only that he was withdrawing both an earlier undertaking to purchase and a declared threat to remove the painting on purchase.

Had Stunt feared opprobrium on removing the picture from the country, he could have bought it on an agreement not to remove it – he had three homes in London at that time. Given that, for whatever reason, the well-publicised Stunt purchase had vaporised, and that Mould/Bader still had no buyer in view – other than the NPG which was clearly struggling to match the reported sale at £12.5m – why did they not revert to their earlier £9.5m offer to the gallery?

At that price, Mould/Bader would still have made £1.2m profit on their £8.3m purchase – almost as much as the £1.4m contributed by the donations of 10,000 members of the public – while earning kudos for contributing to the public weal. Grosvenor reported that Mould and Bader had responded separately. Mould had said: “I am delighted to be able to help the National Portrait Gallery’s campaign in this way”. In what way had he helped? Had he volunteered a £2.5 million cut on a painting he (or he and Bader) still owned but could not sell? Or, had the elderly Bader been the near- or actual owner, with Mould and Grosvenor having acted as his agents in an attempt to flip a £8.3m painting to the National Portrait Gallery?

A CHEERLEADER CONSTRAINED

“And, for what it’s worth”, Grosvenor continued, on 26 March 2014, “here’s what I have to say. Regular readers will know that previously I’ve had to tread carefully when it came to the NPG’s campaign. Van Dyck is my favourite artist, and I’d naturally like to see his final Self-Portrait stay in the UK and on public display. But my responsibilities towards our clients meant that I couldn’t be as much of a cheerleader for the [fund-raising] campaign as I’d liked. Now that Mr Stunt is no longer buying the picture, and Dr Baders [sic] and Philip Mould have agreed this new plan in favour of the NPG, however, all efforts can be focused on the Gallery’s fundraising. I’m pleased with the outcome.” (All emphases added.)

Ostensibly, that was inscrutable: Grosvenor talks of clients when only Stunt had reportedly been in the picture; Stunt is now not buying and therefore, contrary to all previous claims, he had not bought. How real, then, had been the threat to remove the picture from the country? Had it become apparent to Mould/Bader that even with the extended leave to raise funds, the NPG was unlikely to raise the necessary £12.5m? Was it not the case that no one was interested in buying the picture and that to be sure of a sale, the high asking price to the NPG would have to be slashed; that having paid £8.3m for a stealthily upgraded former copy, Mould/Bader had simply bitten off more than they could chew?

As for who was making the twenty per cent price reduction, Bader made no comment. His family responded: “Alfred Bader CBE, an established philanthropist on both sides of the Atlantic, has been impressed by the public’s response to the painting, and the efforts that both the Art Fund and the National Portrait Gallery have made to keep the picture on public display. He very much hopes that the National Portrait Gallery is able to complete the rest of its fundraising challenge.” That would fit with the view some held at the time that (the then ailing) Bader and his family were impatiently seeking the return of his undisclosed investment/stake in the picture.

THE SECOND “LAST VAN DYCK SELF-PORTRAIT”

In the light of a £2.5m reduction after four years of no-sale, it might again be wondered at what point the now Grosvenor-owned True “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait” that today hangs in the Rubenshuis Museum had emerged. In his December 2015 BAJ article, Grosvenor disclosed that his painting had undergone a long and “sensitive conservation, leaving us with the picture we see today”. Skipping an owner’s obligatory guff on “sensitive conservation”, for how long was it in restoration? Answer: “over the last few years”. That is a lot of sensitivity on a modest painting and it suggests that Grosvenor might have acquired the picture no later than c.2013. [*] Had he at any point advised his employer or the National Portrait Gallery that he had single-handedly acquired a supposedly artistically superior Van Dyck self-portrait with a supposed royal provenance that he would shortly publish and lend to a foreign museum as the True Last Van Dyck Self-portrait? For that matter, had Mould and Grosvenor jointly advised the National Portrait Gallery when the third Van Dyck self-portrait (Figs. 1, 15, 19 and 20) – that would be sold privately and thereafter loaned to the Minnesota Institute of Arts – first came to their attention?

[* Although Grosvenor gives no indication of when or where he acquired the picture, he does track its history as far as 2006 when it fetched $3,120 at Christie’s, NY, in a 6 June sale, as lot 40, ‘After Van Dyck’.]

A RESEARCH AND ADVOCACY-LED BREAK-THROUGH

“Well, hurrah”, Grosvenor had cheered on 1 May 2014, “the National Portrait Gallery in London has successfully raised £10m to buy Van Dyck’s late ‘Self-Portrait’” – but note Grosvenor’s new description of the soon-to-become National Portrait Gallery picture: “Van Dyck’s “late ‘Self-Portrait’”. Why late and no longer last?

“I may write more about the acquisition process later”, Grosvenor went on, “but I’m quite proud to have been involved in both that and the process of research and advocacy that has resulted in the [NPG] portrait becoming what it is today. It’s certainly been a privilege to have handled the picture here at the Philip Mould Gallery. Seeing Sir Anthony in our offices every day made it feel as if he was part of the family. I don’t mind admitting that most days I would greet him with a quiet ‘Morning Ant’, and if I was the first in I’d positively shout it, and even give him a wave. He never waved back of course, but that vivid, knowing expression made it seem as if he was reciprocating in some way. And then there was the strange feeling of having Van Dyck look over us as we made the occasional discovery of a new work by him. These have included – if you’ll forgive the boast – the Portrait of Olivia Porter in the Bowes Museum, the Portrait of a Young Girl now hanging at the Ashmolean, two male full-length portraits painted by Van Dyck while he was in Italy, a Holy Family painted in Sicily, three important head studies, and his last Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria as St Catherine. There are others which unfortunately I can’t tell you about – at least, not yet. I hope, now that he’s left us, the discoveries don’t dry up.”

THE THIRD VAN DYCK SELF PORTRAIT

Above, Fig. 20: Left, a photo accompanying Grosvenor’s 5 March 2015 post on a painting loaned as an autograph Van Dyck self-portrait to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota; right, a Grosvenor photo carried on 31 March 2015 with the caption: “Wanted – good homes for second-hand picture crates.”

So, yet other Van Dyck Discoveries-in-Waiting – but which would emerge next? Well, the one now hanging in the Rubenshuis museum had first been written up by Grosvenor in the December 2015 British Art Journal but, in 2018, Gleadell had reported in the Telegraph that Mould’s favourite Van Dyck upgrade “is a self-portrait that he found at auction in Germany, in 2012. Thought to be a copy and with a €30,000 estimate, he bought it for €572,000. By 2015 he had sold it on privately, since it appeared at the Minneapolis Institute of Art on loan from the American investment financier, Scott Minerd. Taking some credit for the change in status was Mould’s researcher, Bendor Grosvenor, now a TV presenter [etc….]” Presumably, with Mould having bought for only half a million, Minerd will have paid very considerably less for his attributed Van Dyck self-portrait than had the NPG for its now Grosvenor-shunted former “Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait”?

KNOCKING SIR OLIVER MILLER

Grosvenor had claimed his own credit on the upgrading of the Mould-to-Minerd self-portrait on 5 March 2015:

The Art Newspaper seems to have scooped a story I’ve been dying to tell you about for some time; the re-discovery of an important self-portrait by Van Dyck. The picture was one of the last important portraits I worked on with Philip Mould in London.” Grosvenor then cited Martin Bailey’s Art Newspaper coverage:

“Martin Bailey writes: ‘A self-portrait by Van Dyck that was dismissed a decade ago as a copy is now hanging in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota, as an original work. The painting which has been authenticated by experts, was quietly put on display in February…An unpublished paper on the self-portrait, prepared for the owner, dates the work to around 1629 and states that this attribution is accepted by four key experts: Susan Barnes, a co-author [one of four] of the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonné, Christopher Brown [*], the former director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, David Jaffé [**], a former senior curator at the National Gallery in London, and Malcolm Rogers, the outgoing director of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. The attribution is also accepted by Patrick Noon, the head of paintings at the Minneapolis Museum…The late Oliver Millar, another co-author of the 2004 catalogue raisonné, dismissed the work as ‘possibly a very early copy’. He assumed that the original painting was missing…’”

[* As senior curator at the National Gallery in 1982, Christopher Brown had been instrumental in the gallery’s £2.5m 1980 purchase of the Rubens Samson and Delilah. **David Jaffé, a successor as senior curator, strongly defended the picture’s acquisition and in 2005-6 organised the National Gallery exhibition, Rubens: A Master in the Making that showcased the Samson and Delilah. Conspicuously, neither of the contemporary copies of the original lost Rubens Samson and Delilah – which, as mentioned, had both testified to a wider composition in which Samson’s toes had not been cut off at the edge of the painting – were brought to the exhibition.]

Grosvenor continued: “The unpublished paper referred to above was written by me, and I’ll share further details with you soon. There’s a great deal to discuss. I think the picture was probably painted in late 1628. A few quick additional points: The Art Newspaper mentions that the late Sir Oliver Millar ‘dismissed the work’ – but in fact when he saw it at an Agnews exhibition in 1968 he pretty much accepted it. [Source?] Indeed, although the picture was little known and only exhibited once, it was continuously published as ‘a Van Dyck’ right up until 1999, and it was only in the 2004 Catalogue Raisonné co-written by Sir Oliver Millar that the picture was first doubted. I’m not sure why Sir Oliver changed his mind, but it was probaby [sic] due its pre-conservation condition; it had been substantially over-painted, and was also really quite dirty under old varnish. I believe Sir Oliver was perhaps also misled by the gold chain, thinking that chain was that given to Van Dyck by King Charles I, and that the portrait must therefore be an English-period work (that is, in the section of the catalogue that he was responsible for), dating to after 1632 – when Van Dyck’s technique was rather different. In fact, I linked hte [sic] portrait to a a [sic] gold chain Van Dyck was given earlier, in 1628 by the Archduchess Isabella in Brussels, when she appointed him her court painter…”

The paper for which Grosvenor claimed credit may well have formed the whole or part of this entry in the Mould gallery’s Historical Portraits Picture Library.

The Minneapolis picture, too, Mould reports, had gone into restoration. Had that been in London and, perhaps by the same restorer who sensitively “retrieved” the now Rubenshuis picture over a couple of years? Given that Grosvenor had researched this second, 2012 acquired, rival Van Dyck self-portrait and prepared a scholarly paper on it for the Mould Gallery, had either sleeper hunter informed the NPG of its presence in London before the gallery paid £10m for it’s then – but now Grosvenor-demoted “Last Van Dyck Self-portrait”?

If it might be thought a remarkable coup for all three Mould/Grosvenor Van Dyck self-portraits to have found homes in museums – the NPG, the Rubenshuis and Minneapolis – on this aspect, Grosvenor has shown a certain professional diffidence. Writing in the Financial Times of 3-4 March 2018 on the subject of collectors lending works to museums, he weighed the pros and cons of collectors lending and held: “Critics claim that museums are being used by lenders to enhance the value of their work…It is true that in some circumstances a period on loan can make an artwork better known, and thus more saleable. And there are other benefits to lending, too; the former National Gallery director Sir Nicholas Penny points out that museums can offer collectors the ‘double service of a free safety deposit with a shop window.’” Grosvenor hastened to add: “But the suggestion that a period of display can transform an artwork’s value is overblown…And while there undoubtedly are unscrupulous art owners, most collectors are driven not just by a passion for art, but by a passion to share it, too (disclaimer, this includes me; I have lent works anonymously since I started collecting over a decade ago)…at the Rubenshuis museum in Antwerp, which has only a small collection of its own and an even smaller budget, the well-publicised loan of a Tintoretto that once belonged to David Bowie helped increase visitor numbers by 30 per cent…It is time for museums to become the liggers of the art world, and borrow as much as they can. There’s a good chance they’ll get to keep it.” Grosvenor made no mention of his own loaned Last Van Dyck Self-Portrait, but we all get the picture, so to speak.

“CALL THE CONNOISSEURS!” – MOULD, GROSVENOR AND STUNT BID TO PRODUCE A NEW VAN DYCK CATALOGUE RAISONNÉ

Above, Fig. 21: Top, the entrance to the Paul Mellon Centre, London. Above, left, Bendor Grosvenor; centre, James Stunt; right, Philip Mould.

Leaving the Minneapolis Museum picture aside for Part II, we can now disclose that in 2014, Grosvenor and Mould jointly sought support from the Paul Mellon Centre to write a new catalogue raisonné on Van Dyck – and, also, that James Stunt had presented himself to the centre in support of the two dealers’ proposal with an offer to fund the costs of their proposed venture. It was a combined offer and proposal that could not be accepted, a) because the above-mentioned major catalogue – written by the four specialist Van Dyck authorities, Susan J. Barnes, Nora De Poorter, Oliver Millar, and Horst Vey – had been published by the Mellon Centre in 2004 and which work was then, as it remains today, widely regarded as an indispensable reference source; and, b) because the two would-be revisers were considered to have no real scholarly credentials to conduct such a massive and monumentally important art historical project.

When Mould and Grosvenor parted company (the latter with the rumoured £1m payoff) Waldemar Januszczak declared support for Grosvenor – and the pair now give joint podcasts (“WALDY AND BENDY’S ADVENTURES IN ART” on the Sunday Times’ fire-walled website.)

At 9.44 on 10 January 2021 Grosvenor tweeted the above “in-restauro” picture with this comment: “Ever fancied a go at cleaning a painting. In this week’s #WaldyandBendy we talk conservation and I have a go myself. It’s easy!”

GROSVENOR’S PROLONGED CALLS FOR A NEW VAN DYCK CATALOGUE RAISONNÉ

In August 2014 Grosvenor began disparaging past catalogues of Van Dyck’s work. Thus, of one painting on 19 August: “The above picture has recently gone on display at the Courtauld Gallery in London. It’s currently catalogued as ‘Van Dyck’. I think it was last published by the late Erik Larsen (whose Van Dyck catalogue raisonné is, alas, probably the worst single demonstration of connoisseurship ever published).” Ten days later in another post: “Surely, the most important pre-requisite in compiling a catalogue raisonné is not a degree in art history[*], but the confidence that you will be able to know for certain that your chosen artist really did paint the picture that some label/institution/scholar says they did…Now, I haven’t written a catalogue raisonné[**], but I have (and I hope this doesn’t sound too much like boasting, but there’s no other way of saying it) a proven track record of having a good ‘eye’. So for the benefit of any budding connoisseurs out there, I would add the following three crucial tips (obviously, this is all mostly relevant to Old Masters, and not modern and contemporary catalogues)…”

[* Although Grosvenor does not possess a degree in art history, having read modern history, his PhD dissertation on “The Politics of Foreign Policy: Lord Derby and the Eastern Crisis, 1875-8” might well have developed the usefully transferable research skills that were sometimes in evidence on the BBC’s Fake or Fortune programme. For sure, such desirable skills are not always inculcated within today’s university art history departments, so many of which prefer to fry almost any fish other than those of art and its history, but, as mentioned, Grosvenor has gone further and contended (AHN post, 29 August 2014) that “Actually, I’d be tempted to argue that a degree in history is more useful, as it gives a better training in how to evaluate evidence.”]

[** Tantalisingly, in a footnote, Grosvenor added: “Though that might be about to change!” But then… no further dangled hints of a new Grosvenor Van Dyck catalogue raisonné. As for Grosvenor’s not wishing to boast, some might chuckle – before relinquishing his career as a dealer and when temporarily shutting down his own website, he likened what he described as his “enemies” within the art trade to Salieris. As boasts go, likening oneself to Mozart might take some beating.]

FRUSTRATION AND IMPATIENCE WITH ACADEMIC IMPARTIALITY

Perhaps Grosvenor’s fullest expression of dissatisfaction with art historical scholarly expertise came in a March 2015 Art Newspaper piece (“Spare us the so-called experts and call for the connoisseurs”) which carried another Larsen-was-rubbish diatribe with an added slur: “The late Eric Larsen was a hopeless ‘expert’ on Van Dyck, and (it is said) took cash for attributions…Larsen’s example demonstrates two things. First, that it is dangerously easy to become ‘an expert’: all you need is a publishing contract. And second, that the art world – especially the art market – believes that if a painting is published in the latest book, it must be authentic no matter how bad or good that book is…In the quest for academic impartiality, however, we often ignore actual ability. True attributional expertise…can only be gained through years of experience…”

When Gleadell reported in 2018 that Grosvenor now prefers to keep his finds and is “quietly accumulating a small collection of discoveries of his own”, he added: “At this rate, the 2004 [Van Dyck] catalogue raisonné is going to need updating fairly soon – if everyone can agree on things, that is.” Perhaps Mould and Grosvenor have not altogether abandoned hopes of pulling off The Great Connoisseurship Double of being the art trade’s most proactive sleeper hunters and the arbiters of their own field?

In Part II we consider the Two Last Van Dyck Self-portraits on their relative artistic merits.

Michael Daley, 27 January 2021


The Disappeared Salvator Mundi’s endgame: Part I: Altered States and a Disappeared Book

Michael Daley writes: As the world reels from China’s latest plague, the fifteen-year Salvator Mundi Saga has slipped into never-never land. The famously disappeared picture has been likened to an opera by its instigators and is set to become a musical in 2022 in which “artistic liberties will be freely taken to make an enlightening and entertaining experience”. Amazon is offering T-Shirts that carry the Salvator Mundi not as it looked in 2017 when it disappeared but as it looked in 2011 when first presented as a Leonardo at the National Gallery (see below, Fig. 3). The restorer’s own paintbrushes (which had been used to produce three distinctly different states or appearances) were auctioned on eBay with a $1,000 reserve. No bid was received. Back in the real world, before considering the rise and demise of a perpetually morphing disappeared picture’s attribution upgrade that netted $80 million, $127 million and $450 million in two restoration guises over four years on a $1,000 purchase that was overstated tenfold by its owners, we note three further bizarre developments, including a disappeared book of technical analysis and a disappeared Louvre catalogue.

1 – THE LOUVRE’S DISAPPEARED BOOK OF TECHNICAL DATA FOR A DISAPPEARED PAINTING

Above, Fig. 1: Left, a disappeared book; right, a disappeared ascription.

On 30 March, the Art Newspaper disclosed that last year the Louvre vaporised a 45-page book of technical examinations made in 2018 on the disappeared Salvator Mundi painting by C2RMF (Centre for Research and Restorations of the Museums of France). The Editions Hazan book, Léonard de Vinci: Le Salvator Mundi (Fig. 1, above, left), had been produced for the October 2019 opening of Léonard de Vinci, the Louvre’s major exhibition marking the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, but it was withdrawn shortly before the opening even though the authors reportedly considered their examinations “to have demonstrated that the work was executed by Leonardo”. (The claim, of course, is implausible: technical examinations can sometimes disprove an attribution but can never establish artistic authorship.)

A Louvre spokesman said the book, written by the Louvre curator Vincent Delieuvin and C2RMF’s Myriam Eveno and Elisabeth Ravaud, had been “a project in case the Louvre got the chance to exhibit the painting” and that because this had not happened “it is not going to be published” – which seems tantamount to saying “If we can borrow it, it’s a technically-supported Leonardo; if we cannot, it’s not”. A copy of the disappeared book has been seen by Dianne Dwyer Modestini, who had restored the picture between 2005 and 2017. Modestini feels the conclusions confirm her own, earlier, judgements, even though they “do not reveal anything I did not already know about the materials and techniques…”

2 – THE LOUVRE’S DISAPPEARED CATALOGUE WITH A NON-APPEARING, NOW DISAPPEARED PAINTING

Second, to the embarrassment of a disappeared book of technical examinations, we disclose another disappeared Louvre publication: the catalogue for the museum’s 2019-20 Léonard de Vinci exhibition was also junked and replaced shortly before the opening. The two editions of the catalogue were identical except for one detail. In the first, the disappeared painting was splashed on the front cover as by Leonardo – “Front cover: Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi (detail of cat. 157), Ministry of Culture, Saudi Arabia Kingdom”. (See Fig. 1, above, right.) The author of that endorsing entry was Vincent Delieuvin, who co-curated the exhibition with Louis Frank. Delieuvin’s public commitment to the Leonardo attribution was made in the catalogue of a small 2016 Leonardo exhibition at the Italian Embassy titled: Léonard en France. Le maître et ses élèves 500 ans après la traversée des Alpes, 1516-2016 (Leonardo in France. The master and his pupils 500 years after the crossing of the Alps, 1516-2016). There, Delieuvin ventured of the now-disappeared picture “…Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi whose autograph version seems to have reappeared very recently, unfortunately in very bad condition. The circumstances of the creation of this work are unfortunately not known.”

In the second printed catalogue, Delieuvin – with no explanation for the volte-face – correctly describes the Salvator Mundi as the Leonardo studio work that entered the Cook Collection in 1900 (on no provenance and that was later sold for £45) – namely: “Salvator Mundi, version Cook, vers 1505-1515″. A second Leonardo studio version, the de Ganay Salvator Mundi, was included in the Louvre exhibition as catalogue no. 158: “Salvator Mundi, version Ganay”. The choice of substitute may have been pointed: the Ganay picture had flopped when proposed in 1978 and 1982 as the supposedly lost autograph Leonardo prototype Salvator Mundi painting of which no record exists. Such notwithstanding, provenance claims made on behalf of that candidate were adopted and merged with those made on behalf of the Cook version. Because of the non-appearance of the disappeared Cook version, originally no. 157 in the catalogue, there is now a gap in the published catalogue between cat. 156 and cat. 158. That numerical lacuna testifies to the fateful loss of institutional support for the second would-be autograph Leonardo Salvator Mundi in forty years. (See Fig. 1, above, right.)

Above, Fig. 2: Left, the de Ganay Salvator Mundi which, in 1978 and 1982, had been proposed as a long-lost Leonardo prototype painting; right, the more heavily damaged and made-over ex-Cook Collection Salvator Mundi, which was presented as a long-lost Leonardo prototype painting at the National Gallery in November 2011.

3 – SOME DAY, MAYBE, NEVER…

After fetching $450 million in 2017 at Christie’s, New York, as Leonardo’s (supposedly) autograph, (supposedly) long-lost, (supposedly) iconic male equivalent of the Mona Lisa, the painting (really did) disappear without a trace, leaving the world bemused and the picture’s briefly “vindicated” advocates to play blame games. It was promised the painting would be launched as a Leonardo at the official opening of the United Arab Emirates spanking new Abu Dhabi Louvre Museum in 2018. That did not happen. It was said the painting would star as A Discovered Leonardo at the Paris Louvre’s grand 2019 Leonardo blockbuster. That did not happen either, just as we had predicted. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture has possession of the disappeared painting and plans to store it while deciding whether or not to build an exclusively Western art museum to house this once again officially-deemed Leonardo school Christian image (“Saudi Arabia’s Secret Plans to Unveil Its Hidden da Vinci-and Become an Art-World Heavyweight”, 6 June 2020).

A MUSEUM FOR A PICTURE NO MUSEUM WANTED

It might seem unlikely that the disappeared former Leonardo Salvator Mundi will reappear in a purpose-built museum of Western art in Arabia when it is now well known (thanks to Ben Lewis’s 2019 lid-lifting book The Last Leonardo) that the picture had been offered to, and rejected by: the Getty Museum; the Hermitage; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Vatican; the Dallas Museum; a German auction house; Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, and even, at a knock-down $80 million, to the Qatari royal family.

WHY DID THE BIG WESTERN MUSUMS BACK OFF?

The National Gallery launched the Leonardo attribution in its 2011-2012 Leonardo blockbuster, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, after covertly helping to assemble its proclaimed “Unusually Uniform Scholarly Consensus”. The gallery made no attempt, however, to buy the Salvator Mundi. Similarly, and notwithstanding National Gallery claims of blanket endorsement by the Metropolitan Museum’s curators of pictures and drawings, the Met, too, did not buy what Christie’s dubbed “The Last Leonardo”. Despite publicly avowing support for the Leonardo ascription, the Met’s Chairman of European Paintings, Keith Christiansen, has (so far as we know) written nothing in its support – in marked contrast to his decisive role in the museum’s 2004 purchase of the tiny Madonna and Child that Christie’s offered as the “The Last Duccio”. Where the Met’s director, Philippe de Montebello, shuffled financial mountains to acquire the Duccio at Christiansen’s behest, Thomas Campbell, de Montebello’s successor from 2009 to 2017, tweeted after the 2017 $450 million Salvator Mundi sale that he hoped the mystery buyer “understands conservation issues” and had “read the small print”. Many were sickened by Christie’s globally-hyped removal of a sixteenth century painting from an old masters’ sale context to offer it (buttressed by cross-linked and mutually assured sale guarantees) among trophy modernist “icons” – and all on a picture Christie’s had passed over when it was offered in 2005.

SALVATOR MUNDI IS A PAINTING OF THE MOST ICONIC FIGURE IN THE WORLD BY THE MOST IMPORTANT ARTIST OF ALL TIME” – LOÏC GOUZER

Above, Fig. 3: Left, Loïc Gouzer, Christie’s former co-chairman of Americas post-war and contemporary art, next to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled at a press preview; centre, the Salvator Mundi as when sold as a Leonardo at Christie’s, New York, on 15 November 2017; right, the Amazon T-Shirt sporting the Salvator Mundi as it appeared at the National Gallery in 2011 with many more folds visible in the drapery at Christ’s (true) left shoulder – see below, Figs. 8, 9 and 10.

Above, Fig. 4, top row: Left, a c. 1913 photograph of the Salvator Mundi when in the Cook Collection, England; right, the Salvator Mundi as when sold at Christie’s in November 2017. Bottom row: the same time-line changes with three intermediary states from 2005; 2005; and 2011-2012 (when exhibited as a Leonardo at the National Gallery).

THE INTENSIFYING CRISIS OF ART MARKET CONNOISSEURSHIP

The epically long Salvator Debacle has put the abiding old masters’ connoisseurship crisis centre stage. To restate the intractable root problem: supply is finite – the old masters aren’t working any-more; most big-name works are already in museums; and infinite new global money craves art that bestows cachet and respectability. In February 2018, Guillame Cerutti, Christie’s CEO, purred: “our major clients are looking for trophies. They want quality and rarity in any field. This painting had both aspects, it ticked all the boxes”. Such a global trophy-hungry market can only be grown with dramatically upgraded art trade “sleepers” or outright forgeries. Both stand on restorers’ transforming skills which, along with claimed technical discoveries, licence scholars’ elevation of formerly nondescript works to revered Lost Masterpiece status.

MUSEUMS BEWARE

For Big-Name buyers, risks are high and can trip the grandest museums. The Metropolitan Museum’s David was one of its most popular paintings… until it wasn’t a “David” anymore. In 2004 the Met’s director, Philippe de Montebello, spoke of the “Stoclet Duccio” Madonna and Child as “Filling a gap in our Renaissance collection that even the Metropolitan had scant hopes of ever closing, the addition of a Duccio will enable visitors for the first time to follow the entire trajectory of European painting from its beginnings to the present. Moreover, the Duccio Madonna and Child is a work of sublime beauty. This was a unique opportunity to not only to add a masterpiece to the Museum’s holdings but to give its collections a new dimension.”

The institutional gush was infectious: “The Stoclet Duccio – we can now proudly call it ‘the Metropolitan Duccio’ – is an astonishing achievement”, wrote the New York restorer/some-time dealer, Marco Grassi, who likened the picture’s emergence to a discovered Mozart quartet. The disappeared Salvator Mundi is now likened by its original owners/supporters to the discovery of a new planet: “Paintings by the master are as significant culturally as the planets are celestially”. (It must seem cruel to have discovered and lost a planet in six short years.) Circumspection would have been prudent for Grassi and de Montebello: the Stoclet vendors had prepared a “four-inch thick” legal contract document and refused to allow the picture to be examined technically by the three big museums (the Met, the Getty and the Louvre) selected by Christie’s to bid in a private treaty sale. In 2003, the vendors had withdrawn the picture at the last moment from a big Duccio exhibition in Siena at which specialists would have had the first opportunity since 1935 to examine the picture – not one of the four Duccio scholars who had published monographic studies since 1951 had ever seen the picture which was known only by an old black and white photograph.

MARKETING “A LAST DUCCIO” AND “A LAST LEONARDO” AT CHRISTIE’S, NEW YORK

Above, top, Fig. 5: The Met Duccio as first photographed before 1904 (left); and as seen when sold in 2004.

Above, Fig.6: The disappeared $450 million Salvator Mundi as seen in c. 1913 (left); and as seen when sold at Christie’s, New York, in 2017.

In 1901 no one thought the tiny Madonna and Child (Fig. 5, above, left) a Duccio. Some thought it a Sano di Pietro. The picture had emerged after 1900 and, just like the Salvator Mundi (above, Fig. 6), it did so without provenance. It was said to have been found in a Tuscan antiques shop by Count Stroganoff, a Russian friend of Bernard Berenson and a big collector of “inediti” works that had not appeared in scholarly publications or exhibitions. Stroganoff had it restored and cradled. When, after buying it, Met conservators removed the cradle in 2005 (the year the Salvator Mundi was bought in a provincial U.S. sale for less than the low estimate of $1,200 – for $1,000 plus a $175 charge – it, as mentioned, having been turned down by Christie’s), they found that the panel’s originally gesso-ed back had been scraped down to the bare wood which bore a pencilled ascription to “Segna della Buoninsegna”, an apparent confusion between the Ducciesque painter Segna di Buonaventura and Duccio. In 1904 the head of the Uffizi Gallery judged it “in the manner of Duccio”. When an exhibition of early Sienese painting was held in 1904, a friend of Berenson’s, Carlo Placci, commended a late inclusion of Stroganoff’s recently restored picture which by then was incorporated within a larger frame bearing a metal plaque announcing a Duccio. Stroganoff had attributed his own antique shop purchase. Berenson’s circle would usher it into stardom at a time of considerable intellectual and financial crisis for the scholar – his principal source of income had dried; finding part-replacements for it were proving elusive; he had stopped writing. (Ironically, Berenson had held hopes until 1904 of finding employment as an advisor on Italian purchases at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

By 1904, as Frances Vieta discovered, Stroganoff had no fewer than eight similarly small gold background Sienese style panels, one of which was ascribed to Duccio’s follower Simone Martini and later bequeathed to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The “Simone Martini” had been dismissed in 1901 by the art historian Giorgio Bernardini as “so heavily restored in the skin tones, and in the red and blue robes, that it is not easy to attribute to anyone.” After seeing it at the Hermitage in 1929, George Martin Richter complained (Burlington Magazine): “Beneath this mantle there is concealed not an organically constructed body but a form rather suggestive of a bag full of washing.”

For all the Christie’s Hype, the Met had bought a Berenson Family-accredited pig in a poke. The museum came under challenge. In 1984 the now c. $50 million picture had been rejected by one of the Big Three Duccio Specialists, Florens Deuchler. ArtWatch International’s founder, Professor James Beck, wrote to the Met’s Chairman, calling for an inquiry and advising the museum to ask for its money back (see Beck’s, From Duccio to Raphael – Connoisseurship in Crisis, 2006, Italy, chapter 6 and Addendum). The Duccio pedigree, like that of the Salvator Mundi, is short, modern and precarious. The Salvator Mundi had no pre-20th century history. The Met’s official history of the Duccio begins not in 1901, when no-one considered it a Duccio, but in 1904 after it had been attributed by Bernard Berenson’s wife, Mary Logan (once), and (twice) by Berenson’s protégé, Frederick Mason Perkins, who trained in music, not art history. Christiansen elaborated: “from that point on the picture has held a central place in the Duccio literature”. Central, but with an unseen and unexamined work that had been dismissed by scholars on its six centuries-late emergence. The then 28-year old Perkins, is cast by Christiansen as a leading specialist in Sienese painting when Logan had written his first article and most of his first book.

Worse, as Vieta further established, Perkins was a fount of lucrative attributional errors. In 1923, he advised Helen Frick (then creating the incredible scholarly resource that is today’s Frick Research Library) to buy two huge marble sculptures from an antiques dealer for $150,000. He attributed these “wonderful” sculptural “masterpieces” to Duccio’s heir, Simone Martini. They had recently been made by the sculptor/forger, Alceo Dossena. Perkins’s fee was ten per cent. In 1933 he attributed an unpublished Madonna and Child surrounded by Angels to Duccio in an article carried in La Diana. The Belgian collector Adolphe Stoclet, the then owner of the now-Met Duccio, bought that second “Perkins Duccio”. In 1989 it was loaned to the Cleveland Museum of Art and there identified by Gianni Mazzoni, an Italian scholar of Sienese art and its forgers, as by the forger Icilio Federico Joni – which experience might have chilled the Stoclet family. Joni is known to have run a little factory of forgers whose works were put onto the market by middlemen, one of whom was Perkins himself. The lynchpin of Christiansen’s case for the “Met Duccio” is Berenson’s subsequent (private) hymning of the Stoclet picture as the loveliest and most characteristic thing Duccio ever did to the Duveen firm which paid him ten per cent on Italian purchases. Despite Berenson’s effusions, Duveen would not touch the “very small and ineffective” picture with a “nearly black” robe.

AN UNPUBLISHED TECHNICAL EXAMINATION AT THE MET

A top-secret post-purchase technical examination of the Duccio was carried out at the Metropolitan Museum. Staff were forbidden to talk to the press. No reports were published. The findings were discussed by Christiansen in the February 2007 Apollo. That article carried an x-ray of the painting showing modern, round-headed, wire nails underneath the picture’s ancient, badly distressed, “candles-burnt” gesso-ed frame. That hard, subversive material fact drew no comment (- other than ours in three consecutive issues of The Jackdaw, in 2008-09, as reprised in this post.) No comment was made, either, about the Met Duccio’s eccentric and pronounced craquelure. Scarcely less remiss than these “material” silences was the Met’s failure to acknowledge and address the uncharacteristically sloppy drawing of the figures, as revealed by infra-red imaging (see Fig. 7, below, centre).

Above, Fig. 7: Left, an infra-red image of the National Gallery’s Duccio triptych (detail); centre, an infra-red image of the Met Duccio (detail); right, an infra-red image of the National Gallery’s indisputably Duccio panel, The Annunciation.

De Montebello, Christiansen and the Met picture restorer Dorothy Mahon travelled to London in autumn 2004 to view the Duccio at Christie’s. They were buying “blind” (unable to conduct technical examinations of the kind made on the other Stoclet/Perkins Duccio) and in knowledge that “the Louvre was working on trying to get the money together”. They spent an hour and a half at Christie’s where “The director made an offer for it on the spot”, and they all then went to see the National Gallery’s “rare and very beautiful Duccio triptych” – “a touchstone of Duccio’s work” (detail, above, left) so that the director “might assure himself that the two works were equivalent”. It would have been better to have gone to the National Gallery first, not only to see the triptych but to study its historical and technical dossiers, and those of the gallery’s absolutely secure Duccio Annunciation. Having bought the picture, all three “felt ‘ours’ was every bit as fine and in some respects more intimate and direct” than the triptych and was “a painting that represented the artist at the very height of his powers”. Two Duccio specialists, Deuchler and James Stubblebine, thought the NG triptych “Shop of Duccio: Simone Martini”.

Having thus bought very expensively without a trace of “buyer’s remorse”, other possible grounds for concern may have been overlooked. For example, Christie’s had won the right to conduct its private, three-museum sale by putting “a significantly higher valuation on the painting than anyone else – by multiples”, as Nicholas Hall, the international director of Christie’s Old Masters department, later told the New Yorker (Calvin Tomkins, “The Missing Madonna”, 11 July 2005). When Hall invited Christiansen (an old friend) to lunch to show him a recent transparency of the Stoclet Madonna, he was immediately smitten and proactive. As he later recalled: “‘Fantastic, how about the price?’ I asked. He told me. ‘OK,’ I said, ‘I will deal with that later,’ and then we finished our lunch.” (Danny Danziger, Museum – Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007.)

Had the Met officers opted to compare the under-drawing of the three works, as above, Fig. 7, before buying, they might have seen that on the quality of drawing one of the three was the other two’s inferior. If we think of the three images as a triptych, it is striking how much more fully and vividly realised the draperies and figures are as form in the two “wings”. Consider the left and centre under-drawing: in the outer image the drapery folds are not notionally indicated with lines that converge, as on the Met picture, but are realised, in anticipation, as autonomous three-dimensional folds and hollows that move over and around the implicit body within – one senses, for example, precisely where the unseen elbow is located, this being no “bag of washing”. The contour on the National Gallery Madonna’s outer edge is not depicted, as is the case in the Met picture, with a long un-lovely single continuous unbroken line of few deviations along which it is impossible to sense the elbow’s location. Rather, it is conceived and shown as a record of the points at which the forms and undulations of the cloth turn away from the viewer. Such differences of drawing speak of radically differing degrees of plastic/sculptural sensibility and comprehension. That on the left is greatly and decisively more sculptural, dynamically expressive, and plausible as a figure adjusting itself to support the weight of a child. Drawing has rightly been described as the probity of art and, as such, its study and evaluation must be considered one of the most pertinent and indispensable tools of critical analysis.

In the face of artistic weaknesses Christiansen blusters: “The drapery of the Virgin is astonishingly three-dimensional in the way it falls over the arm; it’s like a Roman sculpture.” All style judgements are relative: this is more, or less, or identical with, that. When drawing is weak, associated aspects often prove deficient. Viewing the triptych immediately after the Christie’s Duccio, Christiansen noted the former “struck a slightly different key than the picture we had been examining.” That difference, as the Met’s subsequent examinations disclosed, had a material basis. Ultramarine pigment was used in the triptych as opposed to the Met picture’s cheaper azurite. Moreover, the painted relief of the triptych’s ultramarine blue drapery was modelled not so much by progressive (and chromatically-debilitating – as Duveen had complained) dilution with white pigment, but by the addition of carbon black shading enriched by a red glaze – a tri-partite finish made with the best materials – and one that was emulated by Modestini on the background of the Salvator Mundi. Modestini has given two accounts of her actions. They both merit attention, because both are more detailed, and frank, than is commonly encountered in restoration reports.

REPLICATING HISTORICAL AUTHENTICITY TO PRODUCE A “DIFFERENT, ALTOGETHER MORE POWERFUL IMAGE”

Writing in a 2012 conservation report (see below), Modestini recalled:

“There were actually two stages of the current restoration. In 2008 when it went to London to be studied by several Leonardo experts, there was less retouching: I hadn’t replaced the glazes on the orb, finished the eyes, suppressed the pentimenti of the thumb and stole, and several other small details, but, chiefly the painting still had the mud-coloured modern background that was close in tone to the hair. Two years later I was troubled by the way the background encroached upon the head, trapping it in the same plane as the background. Having seen the richness of the well-preserved browns and blacks in the London Virgin of the Rocks”, and based on the fragments of black background which had not been covered up by the repainting, I suggested to the [then two] owners that it might be worthwhile to try to recover the original background and finish the incomplete restoration.

“I began to remove the overpaint mechanically under the microscope. Where it had been protected by the Verdigris [layer, that had been scraped off “at an unknown date and replaced by a mud-coloured background”], the original background was intact, and much of it survived under messily applied fill material. The difference between the original black and the modern brown was dramatic.

“The initial cleaning was promising especially where the Verdigris had preserved [because applied soon after?] the original layers. Unfortunately, in the upper parts of the background, the paint had been scraped down to the wood and in some cases to the wood itself. Whether or not I would have begun had I known, is a moot point. Since the putty and overpaint were quite thick I had no choice but to remove them completely. I repainted the large missing areas in the upper part of the painting with ivory black and a little cadmium light, followed by a glaze of rich warm brown, then more black and vermilion. Between stages I distressed and then retouched the new paint to make it look antique. The new colour freed the head, which had been trapped in the muddy background, so close in tone to the hair, and made a different, altogether more powerful image. At close range and under strong light the new background paint is obvious, but at only a slight remove it closely mimics the original.

“The retouching was done with time-tested materials.” Viz: “with dry pigments bound with PVA AYAB. Translucent water colours, mainly ivory black and raw siena, were used for final glazes and to draw [fake age] cracks. For the black background both AYAB and Maimeri Colori per restauro were used. Except for the background, I mainly used treble 0 sable watercolor brushes in a series of vertical passes until the area of loss matched the surrounding material.”

RESTORATIONS BEGET RESTORATIONS

In her 2018 memoir, Masterpieces, Modestini recalled:

“When the painting returned [in 2008 from London] to New York, I saw it on many occasions and became increasingly dissatisfied with my hastily concluded restoration. This is inevitable, especially when the painting is a damaged work by a great artist. Although I was aware of this, I itched to have it back. Leonardo’s [sic] Virgin of the Rocks in London had just been cleaned, and I made an appointment to see it. It is relatively well-preserved and, at that time, the only Leonardo that was not encumbered with centuries-old, thick, yellow, decayed coats of varnish like the Mona Lisa and the St John the Baptist in the Louvre. When I saw it, I was struck by the richness and depth of Leonardo’s blacks and realized that the principal problem of the Salvator Mundi was that the image was imprisoned by the nineteenth-century, sludge-colored repaint of the background. In a few areas, mostly around the contours of the figure, the original deep black was visible, and I knew from one [!] of the cross sections that Leonardo had paid great attention to it, building it up with four layers consisting of two different blacks, and black mixed with vermilion. I explained this to Robert [Simon], who immediately understood.

“For retouching [aka repainting] I use high-quality dry pigments, and I had a number of different blacks to work with – bone black, which Leonardo was known to favor, and a sixty-year-old tin of finely ground, pure ivory black that I had inherited from Mario [Modestini], which is no longer made. I had never used it but suddenly remembered Mario talking about how special it was…After I had polished and distressed my new paint, the result was reasonably satisfactory, at least when compared to the previous iteration. The difference it made to the painting was astounding: the great head surged forward and became much more powerful. I allowed myself to think that the decision I had taken was not so terrible after all. With the figure now more prominent and three-dimensional, some minor areas of loss and wear began to clamor for attention. This sequence is an essential part of the process of restoring a damaged painting.

“Luke Syson, the curator of the National Gallery’s Leonardo exhibition, asked to borrow the painting, notwithstanding some cavilling from colleagues about exhibiting a work that was on the market…”

Where Modestini was licensed by the owners to act as a painter-in-arms with Leonardo, Christiansen downplayed the triptych’s greater richness of effects and materials by deeming it “Obviously…a deluxe object” made for a rich client as opposed to “the first owner of the Metropolitan’s [who] was also someone of wealth or social standing”. If the force of that distinction is not immediately apparent, there are other, no less telling, differences where cost is immaterial: the triptych’s under-drawing was made with a quill pen – the instrument said to be Duccio’s favourite. That of the Met painting was made with brush… Making repeated allowances for atypical traits is never reassuring. Modestini has disclosed that although the all-blue draperies of the disappeared ex-Cook Collection Salvator Mundi are of ultramarine, it is of low grade – as was the panel on which it was painted. (In 2019 Simon reported that the ultramarine had not undergone full purification and had retained large particles of quartz.) It has been claimed, as described below, that by some technical quirk, whenever the restored Salvator Mundi is re-varnished, the forms of the true left shoulder draperies expand or contract in numbers (see Fig. 8, below) precisely as occurred between 2011 when the picture was at the National Gallery, and 2017, when it was on offer at Christie’s.

ART WORLD CLOAK AND DAGGER

Above, Fig. 8: Left, top, and detail below left, the Salvator Mundi when exhibited at the National Gallery in 2011-12 as a long-lost autograph Leonardo painted prototype Salvator Mundi; right, top, and detail below right, the (disappeared) Salvator Mundi when offered in 2017 at Christie’s, New York, as a long-lost autograph Leonardo painted prototype Salvator Mundi with “an unusually strong consensus”.

In her 2018 memoir, Masterpieces, Modestini describes how the painting was brought to her place of work at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts’ Conservation Center in 2017:

“…I called [the Sandy Heller Group] immediately and was told the Salvator Mundi would be arriving in New York shortly and I was not to inform anyone. On Wednesday evening, July 19, the painting was delivered to the Conservation Center under guard and in great secrecy and was stored in the vault.”

Why? Does Christie’s lack safe storage facilities? Modestini seems to have made preparations for the picture to be sent on its whistle-stop global promotional tour even though she does not approve of such risks being taken: “I had some concerns…A museum would not have agreed to this but the painting was on the market, and I realized that it was essential that prospective buyers in far-flung locations could examine it in person.” With a colleague, she “supervised the reframing and packing at Christie’s.” Why, and on whose authority was it sent to an academic institution, under guard and in great secrecy before being dispatched on its global tour? And, what happened to the painting between being stored in the Conservation Center’s vault and its being prepared for that world tour by Modestini, at Christie’s, New York? For Christie’s explanation of this episode, see Dalya Alberge’s “Auctioneers Christie’s admit Leonardo Da Vinci painting which became world’s most expensive artwork when it sold for £340m has been retouched in last five years”. The Christie’s spokeswoman said to Alberge: “Prior to its presentation for sale at Christie’s, Modestini partially cleaned the passage of paint in the shoulder and the dark streaks disappeared”. So, to disappearing books and catalogues, and paintings, must be added disappearing features within a disappeared painting. It is a pity that Modestini, while describing the manner in which the Salvator Mundi painting returned to her safe-keeping in NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, drew a veil over her own actions therein when writing her 2018 memoir Masterpieces. There are so many questions now dangling: “Why did a small painting that was cleaned in a day and had then undergone several campaigns of restoration over six-years between 2005 and 2011, receive further, covert, treatment just six years later? When Modestini first worked on the painting its varnish was “sticky”. Was it sticky once-more when sold for nearly half a billion dollars in 2017? The disappearances within the painting are one concern. Another is the differences between the picture’s appearance in 2011 when launched at the National Gallery as by Leonardo and its appearance in 2017 when offered to the world in a different guise at Christie’s, New York, as a National Gallery-endorsed miraculously discovered and recovered Leonardo. Those unexplained differences might seem encapsulated in our early split-halves composite image of Christ’s face (as shown below at Fig. 10) where there is a mismatch between the two halves. This Christ has had two faces in our times, the later one with more colour in the cheeks and more focussed eyes. Clearly, both cannot be taken as recovered authentic faces, so the real and urgent question is: Should either of them ever have been presented as Leonardo’s own work?

Above, Fig. 9: Top, left, the Salvator Mundi, c. 1913, when in the Cook Collection; top right, the Salvator Mundi as catalogued by the St Charles Gallery, New Orleans, as “After Leonardo da Vinci” for the April 9-10 2005 sale. Above, left, the Salvator Mundi as taken to the restorer, Dianne Modestini in April 2005 (with a still sticky varnish); right, the picture in May 2008 when about to be taken by Robert Simon (as above) to the National Gallery for a (confidential) examination by a small and select group of Leonardo scholars, after the first stage (as described above) of Modestini’s restorations .

Above, Fig. 10: Left, the ex-Cook Collection Salvator Mundi face, as exhibited in 2011 at the National Gallery; right, the ex-Cook Collection Salvator Mundi face, as offered at Christie’s, New York, in 2017.

A POST HOC SALVATOR MUNDI LITERATURE

As will be examined in Part II, our challenges to the perpetually mutating and “improving” Salvator Mundi were made: a) within days of its November 2011 launch at the National Gallery; b) nearly a month before Christie’s November 2017 sale; c) five days before Christie’s 2017 sale; d) the day before Christie’s sale; and, subsequently, e) in nearly a score of posts – see Endnote below. The undisclosed identity of the original owners was only uncovered in September 2018 (by The Washington Post). Until that date and disclosure, the true purchase price in 2005 was exaggerated ten-fold by both the original owners and the painting’s advocates -and therefore in all press reports over a thirteen-year period. The publication of researches that had been promised in 2011 by the owners and by the National Gallery did not occur until 2019 and, even then, it was not in full.

Four recently published books now comprise a small, belated literature on the rise and demise of the long-unloved Leonardo School work that morphed into the world’s most expensive and least visible picture. They were: Living With Leonardo – Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond, by Professor Martin Kemp, London, 2018; Masterpieces (“Based on a manuscript by Mario Modestini” and with informative chapters on: the Salvator Mundi; Cleaning Controversies; and, Misattributions, Studio Replicas and Repainted Originals) by Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Italy, 2018; The Last Leonardo – The Secret Lives of the World’s Most Expensive Painting, by Ben Lewis, London, 2019; and, Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi & The Collecting of Leonardo in the Stuart Courts, by Margaret Dalivalle, Martin Kemp, & Robert B. Simon, Oxford, 2019.

Until those four works appeared, the literature consisted of the catalogue entry “Christ as Salvator Mundi, about 1499 onwards” in the National Gallery’s 2011-12 Leonardo exhibition catalogue by its curator, Luke Syson; and, Dianne Modestini’s account of the Salvator Mundi’s restoration and art historical credentials that was delivered in January 2012 at a National Gallery conference and published in 2014 as “The Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci rediscovered History technique and condition” in Leonardo da Vinci’s Technical Practice, Paintings, Drawings and Influence, Ed. Michel Menu, Paris. Both Syson’s and Modestini’s accounts acknowledged indebtedness to the private researches of one of the picture’s owners, the New York dealer, Robert Simon.

Specifically, Syson declared in 2011: “This discussion anticipates the more detailed publication of this picture by Robert Simon and others. I am grateful to Robert Simon for making available his research and that of Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Nica Gutman Rieppi and, (for the picture’s provenance) Margaret Dalivalle, all to be published in a forthcoming book.” In 2014 Modestini acknowledged having benefited from “…the knowledge and good eyes of Robert Simon with whom I worked closely on the restoration for six years and who generously shared with me the results of his research for this paper. I am especially indebted to Nica Gutman Rieppi, Associate Conservator in the Kress Program at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, who took the samples, made the cross-sections and coordinated the analytic work which was carried out with great thoroughness, precision and dedication by Beth Price and Kenneth Sunderland, research scientists at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with the help of Dr Thomas J. Tague of Broker, Billerica, Massachusetts who carried out the ATR FTIR analysis of the sizing.”

That research had still not been published in 2013 when the picture was sold privately and under (Simon has revealed) a non-disclosure agreement through Sotheby’s for $80 million. The research had not been published by 2017, when Alan Wintermute of Christie’s wrote (in “Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi”, one among other endorsing/bolstering essays by Frances Russell, Dianne Modestini, David Franklin and David Ekserdjian, in the auction house’s 2017 Salvator Mundi book/catalogue): “The reasons for the unusually uniform scholarly consensus that the painting is an autograph work by Leonardo are several… The present painting, although only recently discovered, has already been extensively studied, with a remarkable campaign of research lead by Dr. Robert Simon. The most insightful and broad-ranging examination of the painting was presented by Luke Syson in the 2011 catalogue of the Leonardo exhibition in London. The following discussion depends heavily on Dr. Syson’s entry, which itself drew on the unpublished research made available to him by Robert Simon, Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Nica Gutman Rieppi, Martin Kemp and, for the picture’s provenance, Margaret Dalivalle…” Having thus drawn the scholarly research wagons around the picture (and the auction house) Wintermute disclosed that the still-unpublished researches by Dalivalle, Kemp and Simon would not be published until 2018 – which was to say, a full seven years after the painting had been declared and exhibited as a Leonardo, at the National Gallery. In the event, and even with its pared-down authorship (see below), the book would be further delayed until 2019, by which date the mystery over the subsequently disappeared picture’s ownership and whereabouts had deepened yet further.

The Simon Researches had originally been earmarked for a book of essays to be published by Yale University Press and sold at the National Gallery’s “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” exhibition. That book proved to be the first on this Salvator Mundi picture that failed to materialise. Reasons for its demise were volunteered by Professor Martin Kemp in his Living with Leonardo:

“Robert [Simon] thought it was a good idea to publish a book of essays by various authors, including Margaret Dalivalle and myself. Yale University Press, which does not normally publish monographs on single paintings, was signed up as publisher. I was happy to go along with this, while expressing reservations about a volume with multiple authors being finished on time. Academics are notably adept at missing deadlines, and I was unconvinced that all the authors actually had anything new to say… In the event the complete book was not delivered and, deprived of the rationale of selling a good number of books at the time of the show, Yale withdrew.”

A GOOD SHEPHERD, AN UTTERLY FANTASTIC CONSENSUS AND A DONE-DEAL

The long-promised book of essays emerged in 2019 (through Oxford University Press) as the Dalivalle/Kemp/Simon compilation – but without a proper technical account of the picture’s campaigns of restoration and technical examination. Simon presents the book as “the first to treat the subject monographically” and “the first complete analysis of this essential addition to Leonardo’s oeuvre”. The authors liken their authorially-trimmed exercise to a three-act opera with each act constituting an in-depth facet of the story while “necessarily bypassing many ancillary issues”. The first act is said to chronicle the painting’s “journey from anonymity in America, with no provenance and in severely compromised condition, to its public revelation as a work by Leonardo at the exhibition in London. The six-year process of research and conservation is related by Robert Simon, who shepherded the Salvator Mundi on this remarkable journey…” When Simon took the painting to London in May 2008 (Fig. 9, above) to show it to a select group of Leonardo scholars assembled at the National Gallery, he made a good and lasting impression on Martin Kemp who, in his 2018 memoir, underscored Simon’s decisive role in the institutionally and ethically problematic attribution upgrade:

…A general discussion followed. Robert Simon, the custodian of the picture (whom I later learned was its co-owner), outlined something of its history and its restoration. He seemed sincere, straightforward and judiciously restrained, as proved to be the case in all our subsequent contacts. We looked, we talked and we looked again. It was a remarkable occasion. By the time I left, I was determined to research every aspect of the Salvator Mundi. It seemed at first sight to resonate deeply with key aspects of Leonardo’s science of art, and his views of the role of God in the cosmos.

I remained in touch with Robert Simon who is strongly committed to scholarly research. I learned that the eloquent painting we had viewed was in fact one of the known versions of the Salvator Mundi, formerly in the Cook Collection – previously heavily overpainted, it had now been cleaned and retouched. It had never before received serious attention; we had paid only passing attention to the black and white photograph of it [Fig. 6] that had occasionally been used as an illustration…

All of the witnesses in the gallery’s conservation studio were sworn to confidentiality [by whom?] and the painting travelled back to New York with Robert. It was becoming ‘a Leonardo’ […and later: ‘Robert quietly introduced the Salvator Mundi to a judicious selection of experts, who – remarkably, given the usual leakiness of the art world – kept their counsel for three years. By the time the painting emerged in public there was a critical mass of influential voices who would speak in the painting’s favour.’]

…Was it on the market? Would exhibiting it mean that the National Gallery was tacitly involved in a huge act of commercial promotion? It seemed highly likely that it was also ‘in the trade’. All I knew at this stage was that it was being represented by Robert Simon. He told me that it was in the hands of a ‘good owner’ who intended to do the right thing by it, and I did not enquire further. I was keen to consider the painting in its own right, not in relation to ownership. I speculated, of course, that Robert might have a financial interest, perhaps a share in its ownership, and I assumed he was gaining some kind of legitimate income from his work on the picture’s behalf…

It was, however, a great surprise to find that the Salvator was to be sold at Christie’s in New York on 15 November 2017 in a mega-auction of celebrity works of art from the modern era. The auctioneers sent the painting on a glamorous marketing tour of Hong Kong, San Francisco and London. I was approached by the auctioneers to confirm my research and agreed to record a video interview to combat the misinformation appearing in the press – providing I was not drawn into the actual sale process.”

TIGHT LIPS

The anonymity of which Simon spoke was a self-imposed, prolonged tactical ploy. In 2013, the three art dealing co-owners, Alexander Parish, Robert Simon and Warren Adelson (who in 2010 bought a one-third share for $10 million, thereby giving Simon and Parish a ten-thousand-fold return in five years on their $1,000 purchase), realised that because it was known within the opaque but gossipy art trade that the picture was being offered to museums, it would be too risky to put it to public auction: “there’s not a deader-in-the-water [thing] than a picture which you put up for auction and which then bombs”, Parish told Ben Lewis: “Supposing we had put a pretty reasonable price on the Salvator Mundi – let’s say we put a $100 million reserve on it – and it tanked, where do you go from there? Absolutely dead.”

The unidentified consortium of owners had other needs for opacity. Again, Parish to Lewis: “We’re a little opaque as to the date and location of acquisition. We purposefully have never corroborated Louisiana as the place where we bought it. And I’m not going to now. Why? Because some grandson of whoever these people are who sold it is going to decide, ‘Oh, that’s my $450 million picture. Who can I sue?’” Parish identified a third danger in professional transparency: “Part of the reason for the secrecy was the mechanics, if you will, that Bob [Simon] had to employ to get the utterly fantastic consensus that he compiled. Because in academic realms, if A says yes, B’s going to say no, just to be a dick. It’s not unheard of that certain experts are contrarian just because an opposing expert has said something else.” That last may sometimes occur but witnessing such spats enables the scholarly and art market communities to gauge the relative strengths of competing or conflicted argument and evidence. In art attributions and art restorations, as in law and in politics, things work better when propositions, expertise and evidence are subject to open appraisal and interrogation. Syson’s exclusion from the May 2008 National Gallery examination of the two leading Leonardo specialists most likely to respond negatively to the picture drew Lewis’s attention and is discussed below. The National Gallery’s preference for a select group of experts was disclosed by Kemp in 2018 when he published his March 2008 invitation to the event from the National Gallery’s new director, Nicholas Penny:

I would like to invite you to examine a damaged old painting of Christ as Salvator Mundi which is in private hands in New York. Now it has been cleaned, Luke Syson and I, together with our colleagues in both painting and drawings in the Met, are convinced that it is Leonardo’s original version, although some of us consider that there may be [parts] which are by the workshop. We hope to have the painting in the National Gallery sometime later March or in April so that it can be examined next to our version of the Virgin of the Rocks. The best-preserved passages in the Salvator Mundi are very similar to parts of the latter painting. Would you be free to come to London at any time in this period? We are only inviting two or three scholars.”

TWO OF A KIND

Note: the claimed similarities between the two supposed autograph Leonardo pictures would once have weighed heavily against the Salvator Mundi. A former director of the National Gallery and a Leonardo specialist, Kenneth Clark, had said of the gallery’s version of the Virgin of the Rocks “A pupil did the main work of drawing and modelling, and before his paint was dry, Leonardo put in the finishing touches. Most of these have been removed from the Virgin’s face but remain in the angel’s, where perhaps they were always more numerous” – see “The National Gallery’s £1.5 Billion Leonardo Restoration”. As for claims of the Cook Salvator Mundi being a long-lost prototype-for-all-other-versions, Clark judged it “one of the versions ‘less close to the [presumed] original’”. He attended the 1958 sale at Sotheby’s where this very Salvator Mundi version limped away for £45 to the United States, and hence, eventually, to Louisiana in 2005, where it would draw just two bids and fetch its $1,000 plus $175 charges – thus, below the picture’s low estimate of $1,200. Even with the overheads of a castle to find, Clark had money to spend on art. As he reported to Bernard Berenson: “In a fit of madness I even bought some pictures at the sale of the remnants of the Cook Collection, including a very beautiful Alonso Cano of Tobias and the Angel, and a Giulio Romano; also a splendid Granet. They were sold for the price of a small Cézanne pencil drawing…” (Letter, 14 July 1958, in My dear B. B. The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark, 1925-1959, ed. Robert Cumming, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.)

THE NATIONAL GALLERY’S SHOW-CASING WITH EXTRA OOMPH

Four months before its 2011-12 Leonardo exhibition the National Gallery defended its decision to include the undocumented privately-owned painting as “an important opportunity to test this new attribution”. Had the painting been included on precisely those terms and shown when cleaned and not-yet restored few would have complained at an opportunity to see a recently discovered version of the Leonardo school Salvator Mundi. That did not happen. It did not happen because Penny had become an instant partisan of the proposed upgrade and was advising Simon on building a necessary consensus of scholarly support for the picture when, all the while, the picture was undergoing transforming campaigns of restoration in accordance with Simon’s (anthropomorphising) conviction that the picture should be allowed to “live once again as a work of art”. Instead of a disinterested display of the work “as-was” after cleaning and before restoration, the Gallery exhibited it after multiple bouts of restoration, the second of which was made in declared emulation of the National Gallery’s own (questionable) version of The Virgin of the Rocks, as a miraculously recovered and, supposedly “long-lost” Leonardo. Begging a monumentally large question of attribution in this manner was a plain abuse of institutional authority and – given the picture’s fanciful and preposterously bloated provenance – a gross misrepresentation of the historical record to boot.

When Ben Lewis asked Luke Syson why the work had been catalogued unequivocally as a Leonardo, he replied: “I catalogued it more firmly in the exhibition as a Leonardo because my feeling at that point was that I was making a proposal and I could make it cautiously or with some degree of scholarly oomph. It is important not to float an idea without saying where you yourself stand on it.” Syson was standing on a house of (double-borrowed) cards. When the exhibition opened on 9 November 2011 our first objection was published within days – see Figs. 11 and 12 below.

Above, Fig. 11: Left, a detail of 1650 etched copy by Wenceslaus Hollar of a painting then attributed to Leonardo that was being claimed to be a record of the Salvator Mundi version in the National Gallery; right, ArtWatch UK letters contesting the attribution on the absence within the painting of optical features recorded by Hollar.

Above, Fig. 12: Left, a detail of the Salvator Mundi as it was immediately before its disappearance in 2017; right, top, AWUK diagrams highlighting many optical differences between the Hollar copy and the painting exhibited at the National Gallery.

SCHOLARLY RESPONSES TO THE NATIONAL GALLERY’S LEONARDO ATTRIBUTION

In the event, the Leonardo attribution was publicly challenged by at least four scholars in reviews of the 2011-12 National Gallery exhibition. Carmen Bambach, of the Metropolitan Museum and author of the major 2019 four-volumes Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered, rejected the Leonardo attribution in a 2012 Apollo review of the National Gallery exhibition and gave the painting to Leonardo’s student Boltraffio (with possible modifying touches by Leonardo). Frank Zöllner of Leipzig University and author of the Leonardo catalogue raisonné, Leonardo da Vinci – The Complete Paintings (Bibliotheca Universalis) had said ahead of the exhibition that the proportions of the nose were “too long” for such a perfectionist as Leonardo and were more likely to have been painted by a talented follower. When the late husband of the restorer, Mario Modestini, first saw the Salvator Mundi he thought it by a very great artist a generation after Leonardo.

Later, in the revised 2017 edition of his book, Zöllner said of the ex-Cook Salvator Mundi that while it surpasses the other known versions in terms of quality, it: “also exhibits a number of weaknesses. The flesh tones of the blessing hand, for example, appear pallid and waxen, as in a number of workshop paintings. Christ’s ringlets also seem to me too schematic in their execution [Fig. 6, above], the larger drapery folds too undifferentiated, especially on the right-hand side [Fig. 8, above]. They do not begin to bear comparison with the Mona Lisa, for example. It is therefore not surprising that a number of reviewers of the London Leonardo exhibition initially adopted a sceptical stance (Bambach 2012; Hope 2012; Robertson 2012; Zöllner 2012). In view of the arguments put forward to date and the above-mentioned weaknesses, we might sooner see the Salvator Mundi as a high-quality product of Leonardo’s workshop, painted only after 1507, on whose execution Leonardo was substantially involved. It will probably only be possible to arrive at a more informed verdict on this question after the results of the painting’s technical analyses have been published in full (Dalivalle/Kemp/Simon 2017).”

As seen, the Dalivalle/Kemp/Simon account did not materialise until 2019. Recently, Professor Charles Hope, former director of the Warburg Institute, pinned the scholarly nub in the London Review of Books (“A Peece of Christ”):

“Many of those who specialise in making such attributions have great confidence in their own judgment, even when this has proved fallible, and they tend to discount or give a tendentious spin to documentary evidence and information about provenance that does not fit with their theories.”

In 2017, Christie’s, New York, cited fifteen scholars as supporters of the Salvator Mundi’s Leonardo ascription. They were:

Mina Gregori, Nicholas Penny, Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Carmen Bambach, Andrea Bayer, Keith Christiansen, Everett Fahy, Michael Gallagher – the Met’s head of picture restoration, David Allan Brown, Maria Teresa Fiorio, Martin Kemp, Pietro C. Marani, Luke Syson, David Ekserdjian and Vincent Delieuvin.

One, Carmen Bambach, as seen above, had rejected the ascription in 2011. As also seen above, another, Delieuvin, has now downgraded the picture to a school work. Crucially, none had supported the attribution in a scholarly publication or forum, and several would disavow their inclusion in this list. When Lewis spoke to the select and confidential group of five Leonardo scholars invited to see the Salvator Mundi at the National Gallery (Pietro Marani, Maria Teresa Fiorio, Carmen Bambach, David Alan Brown and Martin Kemp), he discovered that only two had committed to a Leonardo attribution; two had declined to express an opinion; and one had rejected it.

Moreover, Lewis noted two striking omissions from the event that would likely have tipped the balance. One was our colleague, Jacques Franck, a Leonardo expert who had advised Syson on the restoration of the National Gallery’s version of the Virgin of the Rocks – much as he had done at the Louvre with its Leonardo restorations. Like others, Franck identifies two authorial hands in the Salvator Mundi picture, but he sees no participation by Leonardo in the painting – see his “Further thoughts about the ex-Cook Collection Salvator Mundi” and our “The Louvre Museum’s bizarre charge of ‘fake information’ on the $450 million Salvator Mundi”.

The second was Frank Zöllner, who then had recently written within his catalogue raisonné of Leonardo’s paintings: “In conclusion, mention must be made of the increasing attempts, above all in recent years, to attribute second- and third-class paintings to Leonardo’s hand. In this context it should be noted that the catalogue of paintings presented here is definitive. While there may be works circulating in the fine art trade that stem from Leonardo’s pupils, the likelihood of an original by the master himself ever making a new appearance is extremely small.”

Syson admitted to Lewis that Zöllner’s omission had been a mistake but justified Franck’s exclusion on the grounds that as a trained painter he was “too far outside the world of academic and institutional art history to be invited in to this project”.

Michael Daley, Director, 12 (& 24) August 2020

In Part II, we outline reasons why it might sometimes be of assistance to scholars and curators to heed the views of artists.

Endnote: ArtWatch UK Posts on the Salvator Mundi:

14 November 2017, “Problems With the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi, Part I: Provenance and Presentation”
1 January 2018, “The $450m New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi, Part II: It Restores, It Sells, Therefore It Is”
20 February 2018, “A Day in the Life of the New Louvre Abu Dhabi Annexe’s Pricey New Leonardo Salvator Mundi”
27 February 2018, “Nouveau Riche? Welcome to the Club!”
11 March 2018, “In Their Own Words: No. 3 – The Reception of the First Version of the Leonardo Salvator Mundi”
29 March 2018, “Startling Disclosures on the Re-re-restored Leonardo Salvator Mundi”
10 April 2018, “The Leonardo Salvator Mundi Saga: Three Developments”
9 August 2018, “Leonardo Scholar Challenges Attribution of $450m Painting”
18 September 2019, “How the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi became a Leonardo-from-Nowhere”
11 October 2018, “Two Developments in the No-Show Louvre Abu Dhabi Leonardo Salvator Mundi Saga”
12 November 2018, “The Pear-Shaped Salvator Mundi”
6 February 2019, “The Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Not ‘Pear-Shaped’ – ‘Dead-in-the Water’”
22 February 2019, “The Louvre Museum’s Bizarre Charge of ‘Fake Information on the $450 million Salvator Mundi’”
4 July 2019, “Salvator Grumpi – updated”
20 September 2019, “Forthcoming events: The Ben Lewis Salvator Mundi Lecture and the new ArtWatch UK Journal”
28 October 2019, “The non-appearing, disappeared, $450million, now officially not-Leonardo, Salvator Mundi”
15 November 2019, “Books on No-Hope Art Attributions”
5 & 11 February 2020, “The Saviour and a Stealth-Attribution”
3 August 2020, “Further thoughts about the ex-Cook Collection Salvator Mundi”


The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part II: How to Take a Michelangelo Sibyl Apart, from Top to Toes

4 March 2013

I must confess I harbour a lingering almost subconscious fear that someday someone will come, unexpectedly, with a really intelligent observation that will show all of us to have been blind.” ~ Gianluigi Colalucci, 1990

We were startled when the Vatican authorities admitted that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes are in greater peril than at any point in their history. Powerful art institutions rarely broadcast their own embarrassments. More often, they see off their critics by sitting tight, quietly briefing journalistic proxies and…continuing to be. Welcome as was the acknowledgement of the problem by Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, casting the Chapel’s paying visitors as the principal cause of the present crisis, masked greater institutional responsibilities.

The Vatican has yet to acknowledge that this environmental crisis arose as a direct consequence – and within just two decades – of permitting the Chapel’s ancient frescoes to be used as a test bed for the then new and highly controversial cleaning agent “Mixture AB 57”. And, despite the brouhaha over toxic visitors, there remains no hint of acknowledgement that the restorations of the 1980s and early 1990s proceeded on an art critical misreading which, in addition to stripping the fresco surfaces bare and leaving a chemical time-bomb within the Chapel, inflicted grave and irreversible artistic injuries on Michelangelo’s paintings – see right.

On the cleaning method’s toxic conservation legacy, we had precisely warned in 1993 that: “even if the Vatican team were to concede that the brilliance of Michelangelo’s new colours is a chemical deceit purchased at the cost of a physical and chemical weakening of the frescoes, the dispute would not be laid to rest. The need to avoid further deterioration would still be there.” (James Beck and Michael Daley, “Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, Chapters III and IV.) In similar vein we can now say that today’s promises of dramatic technical “improvements” are simply recycled 1980s assurances that, at best, remain of a palliative nature. Even when promised the first time around, the Vatican authorities had admitted to us (see below) that the measures could not fully solve the then already pressing environmental problems unleashed by the restoration’s experimental method.

The Experimental New Picture Cleaning Method

AB 57 was developed by Professor Paulo Mora and his wife Laura Mora, chief conservators at Rome’s Istituto Centrale del Restauro, for cleaning stone buildings. It comprised: “a mixed gelatinous solvent, consisting of a solution of ammonium bicarbonate, sodium bicarbonate, Desogen (a surf-actant and anti-fungal agent), carboxymethylcellulose (a thixotropic agent), dissolved in distilled water.” Toti Scialoja, a painter and a former professor at Rome’s Academy of Fine Arts, complained that its ingredients were “too powerful – ammonia and soda, the stuff you use to clean your bathtub”. Professor Christoph Frommel, director of the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome, described it as “a sharp and aggressive chemical”.

The Moras presented AB 57 as a means of removing insoluble salts and incrusted materials from wall paintings: “If the original surface of the painting is unaffected by water then this mixture will have no deleterious action on it”. Michelangelo’s frescoes did not suffer greatly from incrusted and insoluble salts but they were extensively covered with water sensitive glue/size painting which artists, conservation experts and scholars held to comprise Michelangelo’s own final painted adjustments. An early sign of the wrongness of the new cleaning method came when the restorers abandoned customary claims of a miraculous “recovery” of original and authentic conditions. The use of AB 57 had produced such a mismatch between the cleaned frescoes and the early copies that had been made of them, that the hype had to be bolder and of a different order. As seen in our previous post, the decision to clean with AB 57 had been taken quickly and in express excitement at the prospect of overturning art history itself. This dramatic technology-led change of conservation philosophy was reported in a 1983 Newsweek account: “As recently as 1976 while cleaning paintings by the other artists on the side walls of the Chapel, workers deliberately kept the colours muted so that Michelangelo’s wouldn’t look too faded by comparison. ‘Even then it entered nobody’s head to start on Michelangelo’, says master restorer Gianluigi Colalucci. But when a new cleaning solvent was developed, Colalucci tested it…”

Selling the Surprising AB 57-induced Changes to Michelangelo’s Painting

Having used it, the resulting rupture between the old Michelangelo and his restored self was trumpeted by Fabrizio Mancinelli, the Vatican Museums’ curator and co-director, with Gianluigi Colalucci, of the restoration. Mancinelli claimed in 1986 that the restoration “had brought to light (and will continue to bring to light) a totally new artist, a colourist quite different in character from the unnaturally sombre character who has in the past fascinated generations of historians, connoisseurs and fellow artists…The cleaning of the frescoes has led to the surprising conclusion that the kind of suggestive painting by shadows for which Michelangelo was admired until a few years ago was essentially the product of candle smoke and still more of glue varnishes applied possibly even before the 18th century.” (“The Sistine Chapel ~ Michelangelo Rediscovered”, p. 218.)

Even though no evidence was ever produced of extensive glue applications having been made by restorers, in the early years, art historians and credulous art critics queued to repudiate what one scholar dubbed the “Darkness Fallacy” and the “Sculptural Fallacy” of traditional Michelangelo studies. The proclaimed “New Michelangelo”, however, was an entirely modern chemically engineered artefact, not a scholarly construct. In fact, it flew in the face of the historical record: Michelangelo had been celebrated at his own funeral not for any colouristic brilliance – let alone for, as one critic recently held, the “sharp and acid palette used by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel” – but for his “fleeting, sombre colours”. The new art historical dispensation rested on a twentieth century purging of aged, sometimes distressed but nonetheless authentic material. Indeed, it was precisely because this was not a historically-informed recovery of an original state that drums had had to be rolled for “The New Michelangelo”.

It was claimed that this revisionist reading of historical and material evidence had been corroborated “scientifically”. But this was a New Science to sanction a New Michelangelo. Scientific examinations of the frescoes in the 1930s by X-ray and ultra-violet imaging techniques had led to altogether contrary conclusions. It was reported in 1938 that Michelangelo’s “overpaintings were lying quite brightly a secco on the fresco layer itself; these overpaintings proved themselves undoubtedly the painting of the Master himself.” (See “Art Restoration”, Chapter III.) It was further claimed that Colalucci and his colleagues had recovered the original fresco surfaces so deftly that they had preserved its “original” patina and even left a thin layer of dirt above them that would protect the new surface from airborne pollution. Well, we all now know from the present panic in the Vatican that that assurance was not worth a used solvent swab and that a couple of years ago “unimaginable amounts” of dirt were scrubbed off the frescoes by conservators working at night so as not to impede the daytime tourism stream.

The Over-Selling of Conservation Science

Conservation science has its uses but it can never analyse or appraise works of art because Art’s essential properties are aesthetic not material; perceptual not mechanical. Insofar as there might be a science of art, it is to be found in art itself and within artists’ own practices. This is because art consists not so much of materials as of values and the relationships between values that artists’ create and orchestrate, albeit, with materials. These values are aesthetically relative, not intrinsic to materials, and they are continuously appraised and adjusted by artists as they work. Self-criticism, self-analysis and continuous aesthetic appraisal are integral to the making of art. With art, critical and analytical faculties can never be replaced by apparatuses or be donned by technicians. Conservation science might sometimes tell us of what something is made but never by whom it was made.

The Mis-Appliance of Conservation Science

In terms of professional art restoration, conservation science can serve a useful diversionary purpose. The restoration-authorising authorities and art lovers alike can be invited to put aside critical responses on an implicit assurance that some inscrutable but infallible force has guaranteed the probity of whichever of the many conflicting restoration methodologies is being used at that moment. We ArtWatchers are not inclined to be so trusting nor so easily led. In the case of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, having examined evidence of the cleaning method and its consequences for two and a half decades, and being now armed with the officially published accounts, we are confident that not only can it be shown that Michelangelo’s tonal/plastic systems were recently injured, but that even his very designs, his drawing, his vaunted disegno were repeatedly violated and corrupted.

A Catastrophic Loss of Art Citical Nerve

These losses and violations were not so much unfortunate by-products of an inappropriately aggressive cleaning agent as the consequence of prior and catastrophic failures of art critical judgement and powers of aesthetic analysis. This failure was evident not only within the Vatican’s curatorial, scientific and conservation staffs, but throughout much of the wider international art historical establishment. By effectively agreeing to “de-attribute” what were – and had always been recognised to be – the last stages of Michelangelo’s own work, an overly deferential art historical establishment sanctioned their destruction. For all this (initial) pan-national consensus, the judgement was historically rogue. In 1986, when defending his own restoration, the chief restorer, Gianluigi Colalucci admitted that his professional predecessors’ judgements had been contrary to his own and “not encouraging” to the restoration. That was an understatement: restorers who had worked on the previous restoration (1935-36) had officially and flatly reported that Michelangelo had “finished off a secco”, that is, that he had painted on top of his frescoes when they had dried.

The Testimony of Charles Heath Wilson

Restorers who had worked on the restoration of 1904 had abandoned attempts to clean the frescoes for fear of damaging Michelangelo’s vulnerable work on the surface. Colalucci, greatly in thrall to contemporary “scientific” analysis, dismissed such official reports as “subjective impressions”. He also ignored the testimony of the British painter and fresco expert Charles Heath Wilson who had reported his own close-hand examination of the ceiling in an 1876 book “Life and Works of Michelangelo Buonarotti”. Wilson had found the frescoes “extensively retouched with size colour…evidently by the hand of Michelangelo”. He found that this secco painting “readily melted on being touched with a wet finger and consisted of a finely ground black, mixed with a size probably made according to the usage of the time from parchment shavings.” He further noted, “The shadows of the draperies have been boldly and solidly retouched with this size colour, as well as the shadows on the backgrounds…The hair of the heads and the beards of many of the figures are finished in size colour …These retouchings…constituted the finishing process or as Condivi [Michelangelo’s preferred biographer] expresses it, alluding to it in the history of these frescoes, ‘l’ultima mano’.”

For Wilson, there could “be no doubt that nearly all of this work is contemporary, and in only one part was there evidence of a later and incompetent hand.” Aside from its artistic force, certainty about the secco painting’s antiquity lay in an elegant technical proof: “The size colour has cracked as the plaster has cracked”. It is a matter of record that the ceiling cracked before any restorers touched it. If, as has been claimed, later restorers had repeatedly applied glues, those glues would inevitably have been brushed into the pre-existing cracks. Wilson, who tested the depth of the cracks with a penknife, saw that none had been. Artists like Wilson appreciate that it is impossible to paint over a cracked surface without working the material into the cracks. Wilson was left in no doubt: having been applied when the ceiling was new and not-yet-cracked, these surface glue paints could only have been Michelangelo’s own work, his finishing stages, his l’ultima mano. Normally, restorers recognise that when varnishes or paints can be shown to have run into age-cracked materials this can be taken as a proof of their more recent origins. On this occasion, the restorers failed to recognise the implications of the converse.

The Vulnerability of Michelangelo’s Glue Painting

Moreover, this original secco work, Wilson appreciated, was water-sensitive, having been damaged when “washed by labouring men with water in which a caustic has been mixed”. As to when the alleged restorers’ glue-varnishes might plausibly have been applied, no evidence was forthcoming. In 1996 Colalucci said that although “countless attempts at cleaning and restoration seem to have been made”, only “four are actually accounted for”. The four are of 1566, 1824-25, 1904 and 1935-36. As we showed in our post of 1 April 2011, that first restoration itself provided the clearest possible evidence of Michelangelo having painted shadows a secco. That evidence, taken together with the copies of the ceiling discussed opposite should have been an end to the matter. The last two restorations cited by Colalucci coincide with photographic records and these, too, offer no support for the claimed superimpositions of secco painting and glue-varnishes by restorers.

Perplexed by the Vatican’s unwavering but evidently unsupported insistence that the ceiling had repeatedly been coated with glue “varnishes”, I asked in May 1990: “Does any documentary evidence exist to support the claim that hot animal glue was repeatedly applied to the frescoes over the centuries in order to revive the colours?” Colalucci replied that there was none. In 1986 he had reported a note in a manuscript which described how the ceiling had once been cleaned with linen rags and bread “scrubbing hard, and sometimes when the dirt was more tenacious, the bread was moistened a little” but added “That is as much as it says. The note does not mention at all the use of substances to revive colours or of glue varnish.” (See “Art Restoration”, pp. 74-78.) If, as Wilson discovered, the secco painting dissolved at the touch of a wet finger, an earlier hard scrubbing with wet rags or bread would certainly have been sufficient to cause the injuries that Wilson and others had reported to parts of the ceiling.

A Filmed Corroboration of Wilson’s Testimony

Wilson’s appraisal was echoed from another scaffold a century later. 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”. Alexander Eliot reported in the April 1987 Harvard Review how “with the exception of the previously restored Prophet Zachariah, almost everything we saw on the barrel vault clearly came from Michelangelo’s own inspired hand. There are passages of the finest, most delicately incisive draughtsmanship imaginable. Michelangelo’s loving depiction of fingernails, eyelids and tiny wrinkles stand in contrast to tremendous swirls of colour…” 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, now historical, record still awaits a re-showing.

Venanzo Crocetti’s Protests Against the Restoration – as a Sculptor and as a Former Restorer in the Sistine Chapel

In 1989 the sculptor Venanzo Crocetti, who had spent “four full years” working during the 1930s as an apprentice restorer on the scaffold, published three photo-comparisons of the cleaned lunettes in an article in the December Oggi e Domani (“Salviamo Almeno il Giudizio Universale”) – see Fig. 28. Crocetti’s account was detailed and technically informed. He began by explaining how he had appealed unavailingly in 1983 to the director general of the Vatican Museums, Prof. Carlo Pietrangeli, to desist from incurring the “rapid biological degradation caused by the cleaning power” of AB 57. Crocetti flatly dismissed claims that the glues had been applied by restorers. He also testified that as early as 1983 applications of AB 57 had been standardised at 3 minutes each, regardless of local conditions (see below). He complained of the folly of cleaning aggressively in small patches, zones that had originally been made with very broad applications. These glue-paint applications, he noted, had been made chiefly in the shaded parts of the figures and to such artistically selective purpose that Michelangelo’s authorship was beyond question. As a (formerly) supreme case in point, see Fig. 1.

The Effects of the Double Applications of AB 57

Crocetti’s testimony on the AB 57 cleaning method then being used on Michelangelo was particularly damning. He noted that while the first 3 minutes long application left the frescoes looking cleaner, the second on the following day, left them with altered and considerably degraded colours. He believed that the first applications effectively “degreased” the surfaces leaving them open to greater penetration by the second applications. He was convinced that the immediately apparent visual effects of these twin applications would not be their final outcome. He argued that their corrosive actions would continue because of the absorption of the solvents to a depth of half a centimetre. Some days after the second applications he noticed (from the scaffold itself) the appearance of “whitish oxidations of variable intensity” over large zones.

He considered the restorers’ claimed discovery of “stratifications of dirt gathered on the frescoes over the centuries” exaggerated and misleading, and he held that the early photographs of the lunettes by Anderson made the extent of this exaggeration clear – see Fig. 28. He believed that the ferocity of AB 57 made any finely tuned cleaning gradated to meet local conditions impossible. He believed that the greatest injury was to the chief feature of the frescoes – their disposition of lights and shades, and not their local colours. He believed that the restorers, in their pursuit of more intense colours, had penetrated the frescoes to their brighter, less modulated preparative layers. He felt confident that he had seen at first-hand how, with “cleaning”, the figures in the lunettes had been remade, becoming “false in form and colour” alike. He saw that many of the shadows from which the figures had formerly emerged had simply disappeared. He saw that corrections which Michelangelo had, with mastery, made invisible, had been exposed (in particular, see Figs. 11-16). Above all, he confirmed that the condition of the frescoes remained “excellent”, and that this was in part due to the absorption over the centuries of greasy substances of chapel smoke which had “strengthened the colour. Leaving upon it a glittering shift of the lightest varnish [thereby counterbalancing] the aridity and fragility” of old fresco. Having worked on the restoration in the 1930s, he found himself near to despair.

The Invasive Ferocity and Likely Legacy of AB 57

The AB 57 water-based paste used to remove Michelangelo’s size painting contained two “caustics”: sodium bicarbonate and ammonium bicarbonate. Professor Frommel had questioned the method of application: “Who knows if they succeed in cleaning this completely away? No one can prove whether or not it will affect the frescoes in the future. No one can say definitely if they get all of it off.” Consider Colalucci’s own account of the method of application:

The times of application, rigorously measured, were: First application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing with water. Left to dry for 24 hours. Second application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing and leaving to dry as before. If necessary, and locally only, small applications, followed by plentiful final washing. In the case of salt efflorescences consisting of calcium carbonate, there was added to the solvent mixture a saturated solution of dimethylformamide…”

Chemically Adjusting Michelangelo’s Colours

AB 57, a calcium dissolving solvent, was thus used to remove organic materials with an oven-cleaner like ferocity and speed even though many experts held those very materials to comprise authentic Michelangelo work. Contrary to assurances otherwise, the aesthetic consequences of this stripping extended, as Crocetti had observed at first hand, into the very fabric of the exposed fresco surfaces. This was a serious matter. The Vatican’s research chemist, Nazzareno Gabrielli had explained that AB 57 contained two separate salts because while “Ammonium Carbonate alone tends to tone down colours…sodium carbonate livens them up”. The Moras’ combination, he judged, had “the proper chromatic effect”. So far as we know, it was never explained by what means the “proper” combination for Michelangelo might have been established.

Juggling with dangerous chemicals and processes constitutes professional chic in some restoration quarters. Restorers often claim that a dangerous chemical in “safe hands” is better than a mild one in “untrained hands”. When restorers speak among themselves, the professional conceits are more evident. The IIC Bulletin carried an obituary on Paolo Mora who died on 27 March 1998. He had studied under Mauro Pelliccioli, who restored Leonardo’s Last Supper, and, reportedly, was fond of claiming that he could clean a picture with a broom and drugstore chemicals. When he found himself too busy to clean a large Bellini altarpiece, Pelliccioli enlisted two students and showed them how to dissolve rods of caustic soda in water. He demonstrated his cleaning technique by sweeping a swab of soda over the picture with one hand followed immediately by a “neutralising” swipe with a turpentine swab with the other. Thus enlightened, the students were said to have “cleaned the large painting in a single day”.

The AB 57 Rinse-Water Menace

Aside from exposing the stripped fresco surfaces to the Chapel’s notoriously polluted atmosphere, yet other risks were taken in pursuit of brighter colours. Removing the water-based solvent gel with copious amounts of washing risked, as Frommel feared and Crocetti had observed, depositing corrosive ingredients within the frescoes. The “highly soluble” ingredients were said to have been selected because “they are easy to wash off”. It was certainly desirable that they should be so: carboxymethyl cellulose is known to encourage sodium retention; ‘Desogen’, being a detergent as well as fungicide, is non-volatile and does not evaporate. The Moras had conceded that these ingredients have “the disadvantage of remaining in the painting unless removed after treatment by rinsing with water”.

There are problems with washing, however. First, the rinse water was absorbed deeply into the porous fresco and with it, inevitably, particles of soluble and corrosive ingredients. Twenty four hours were needed for the water to evaporate before a second application of AB 57 could be applied. Second, tap water may contain solutions of sodium, iron, copper, and chloride, and unless it is packed with sufficient calcium bicarbonate, will itself attack the calcium carbonate of fresco. Even distilled water (which is free of impurities) slowly dissolves calcium carbonate and attacks the frescoes’ structure. When challenged in 1991 on having introduced dangerous materials into the frescoes, Colalucci replied: “AB 57…has been greatly tested and is very old. The actual solvent is held within a gel which does not allow the particles of the actual solvent to penetrate the plaster and the colour. However, the gel is removed and only a minimal (if any) percentage might remain which has no influence on the colours.” In 1986 Colalucci disclosed that, at that date “The work was concluded with abundant rinsing, repeated at intervals of up to several months” and that only “The last rinsing was done with distilled water”. Much copious washing was thus carried out with tap water.

Mirella Simonetti on Dangerous Deposits and their Air-Borne Allies

Far from having “no influence”, experts expressly feared that residues deposited within the frescoes by rinsing would react with airborne pollutants and moisture. The restorer Mirella Simonetti held one of AB57’s ingredients, bicarbonate of soda, to be an “extremely damaging” residue because, when combined with the sulphates of calcium and air-borne sulphuric anhydrites, it produces sodium sulphate – a whitish dust which corrodes the fresco and destroys its coloured surface. Simonetti also maintained that the use of EDTA (ethylene diamine tetra acetic acid) within the solvent gel had chemically altered the fresco by causing a “breakdown in the molecular structure [and] bringing about a disintegration [which] in turn causes the division of the components and the discohesion of the lime.” Once weakened in this fashion, the disintegration would continue – and “even water can favour such a process”. Simonetti’s alarm was later vindicated when, tests showed that the compound’s corrosive properties etched the surface of marble into irregular corrugations, scattering light and imparting a deceiving effect of brightness that provided more routes of ingress to airborne pollutants.

Fresco Painting and Its Known Enemies

It had long been recognised that air-borne sulphur attacks fresco. In 1884 the reverend J. A. Rivington explained in a paper delivered at the Society of Arts in London how air contaminated by coal and gas emissions destroys fresco: “The carbonate of lime is converted into the sulphate, breaking up the paint and becoming itself disintegrated in the process of change.” The notoriously contaminated air surrounding and invading the Sistine chapel contains sulphur dioxide from coal-burning, nitrous oxides from car exhausts and hydrogen chloride from incinerated plastics. When combined with rain or condensed water these substances produce sulphuric, nitric and hydrochloric acids respectively, all fiercely corrosive. Water is brought into the Chapel by tourists in the form of perspiration and breathing vapour while breathing itself gives off carbon dioxide.

On 12 December 2012, Corriere della Sera reported: “‘Dust, temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide are the great enemies of paintings’, Museum Director Antonio Paolucci told reporters in the Vatican, ‘so this threat is something we have to address. The five million tourists who visit the Sistine Chapel each year bring massive amounts of grime and humidity with them, and it is seriously damaging Michelangelo’s frescoes. So starting in the middle of 2013, every tourist will be thoroughly vacuumed, dusted, cleaned, and chilled before admission to reduce the amount of environmental pollution they cause. ‘On entering the chapel, each tourist will be required to pass through a hi-tech vacuum system to remove dust, fibres, skin flakes, hair and other tiny particles, before they are allowed to view the frescoes. At the same time, a special carpet will also clean their shoes, while side vacuums will cool their temperature, to reduce the heat and humidity that emanates from their bodies. The dirt and heat generated by the 20,000 bodies each day has caused grime to accumulate on the paintings, and a thick layer of dirt had to be scrubbed off of the Last Judgment two years ago. This cannot be allowed to happen again.’”

What Goes Round, Comes Round

We have been there before. In “Art Restoration” in 1993 we wrote: “A recent report commissioned by the Vatican on the Chapel’s microclimate noted that the very large numbers of tourists produce the following adverse effects: they carry in from the streets polluted dust and organic particles on their clothing and hair; their combined body heat raises the temperature by as much as 5°C; and they greatly increase the relative humidity of the air. The moisture and carbon dioxide given off by tourists combines to produce carbonic acid which dissolves the calcium carbonate of the fresco. Water vapours convert sulphur particles into sulphuric acid which also dissolves fresco. The body heat creates convective air currents which carry polluted particles up to the walls and ceilings. Water vapour can activate the traces of salt and detergent left behind after the cleaning with AB57.”

In 1981 Colalucci had equated the glue/size paints with “extraneous chemical substances” without which “and with the science we have today” he hoped “the frescoes will remain in good condition for a very long time”. As mentioned, he offered an assurance that he had left “a very thin film of dirt touching the paint surface with its varying ‘patina’. This fine layer of dirt acts as a form of protection to the paint.” As also mentioned, we now know that whatever Colalucci might have left behind performed no such service, and that dirt on frescoes is no protection from further accumulations of corrosive dirt.

Promises, Promises

There have been many unfounded assurances. In 1987 Kathleen Weil Garris Brandt, Professor of Fine Arts, at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and spokeswoman for the Vatican on the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, assured readers in Apollo that, “The substances used for the cleaning…have been used successfully for over twenty years… their chemical action is known and stops once the process is finished…the cleaning chemicals do not actually come into contact with the fresco surface”. Just months before in the Summer 1987 Art News, Summer 1987, the Moras themselves had claimed no more than that placing the solvents in a cellulose gel helped to “reduce penetration into the fresco”. In the summer 1987 Art News, the assurances were becoming more specific. M. Kirby Talley Jr., an independent consultant in fine art, interiors and art conservation, wrote:

In order to prevent the condensation of moisture on the surface of the fresco, the Vatican has already embarked on an extensive programme to control the micro-climate of the Sistine Chapel. Professor Camuffo of the University of Padua spent a year making detailed measurements of relative humidity, temperature and air movement. A climate-control system based on his findings, which will prevent the movement of air above the windows as well as filter it, is now being developed by Carrier-Delchi. Electrical heating coils, ‘A sort of giant electrical blanket,’ as Persegati called it, will be placed under the roof above the ceiling, and will help to maintain a steady temperature during the winter. A dirt absorbing carpet has already been installed on the stairs down to the chapel and on part of the floor inside. Carrier-Delchi is considering a wind shower to remove dust particles from people’s clothing before they enter the chapel. Low heat lamps that can be adjusted to the amount of natural light entering through the windows will further reduce the temperature.”

Synthetic Resins – On or Off?

Talley Jr. reported that Colalucci had assured him that Michelangelo had used no secco paint on the lunettes, and that while the synthetic resin B 72 had been used to seal the walls of the lunettes it had not been used to that purpose on the ceiling. Even the official apologias for B 72 were more disturbing than reassuring: “Like all restoration materials it has its good and its bad points”, Talley said. Frommel was quoted as saying “According to the critics B 72 is something which may become opaque in the future. Are the critics right when they say we don’t know what it will do? They say tests should have been made and then a long period of time should have been allowed to elapse before proceeding. Paraloid can close the surface to respiration. It can close the pores, and if that were to happen it might change the interior life of the fresco.” To this Talley gave voice to B 72’s champions. According to the Moras “If you don’t use Paraloid, what do you use? Organic resins and inorganic fixatives such as lime water, ethysilicates and barium hydroxide all have serious drawbacks. Of the synthetic resins the acrylics are the best, and of the acrylics Paraloid is the least bad.” Was the least bad, good enough for Michelangelo – and better than his own secco painting which had for centuries protected the fresco surfaces from airborne pollutants?

On this question, the Vatican’s accounts prove unsatisfactory and shifting. All that can be said safely is that B 72 was abandoned and not replaced at some point between 1986 and 1991, at which latter date Colaucci claimed “There was no final application to protect or saturate the painting”. This change of mind was defended in 1991: “Our decision not to apply a protective material derived from the awareness that any new material which is not homogeneous with the original components of the fresco will undergo rapid degradation, causing, in the best of cases, aesthetic damage.” This being so, we must expect some parts of the frescoes to deteriorate more rapidly than others – but how many? In 1991 Colaucci put B 72 applications at “lunettes 50 per cent, ceiling 3 per cent”. In 1993 (“Art Restoration” p. 120) we had noted that while protection of the frescoes was to depend on the thin layer of original dirt that Colalucci claimed to have left in place and on the above described plans to stabilise and purify the chapel’s microclimate: “When Michael Daley asked if the air-conditioning system would eliminate the great fluctuations triggered by tourists, he [Mancinelli] replied ‘No. It will reduce the peaks and the troughs but will not eliminate the problem entirely.’” Of course, at that date, as today, the problems could have been halved by halving the numbers of tourists. Then, as perhaps still is the case, on days when the Chapel was closed to visitors, visitor numbers to the Vatican museums fell by 60 per cent.

The Breach of Methodological Good Practice that Menaced Michelangelo’s Shading

In the execution of the cleaning, certain procedural lapses compounded the risks and dangers. Early in the programme (in 1981 when working on the lunettes), Colalucci had said that AB 57: “was created mainly for marble but the Moras experimented with it on fresco. It is like paste. It can be on for a minute or ten minutes. The effect varies with the amount of time it spends in contact with a surface. The danger is that if you leave it on a minute or two too long it will go beyond the foreign substances and start removing the paint. You can see little areas where I’ve applied AB57 in two or three stages. Each time I take it off well before it’s too late. Then I look at it and gauge how much more time it will need…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.”

Why, then, were the varying thicknesses of the (mis-designated) “foreign and extraneous substances” all given identical applications of two three minutes-long applications set twenty-four hours apart? Such an uniform treatment of so vast and varying a programme of painting seemed to breach conservation’s own ethics and “good practice”. As we had reported in “Art Restoration”:

Within four years, Colalucci had abandoned this control of the solvent by constant observation and timing. In its place a standardized procedure was adopted, described in the 1986 ‘General Report on the Lunettes’: ‘First application, three minutes followed by removal and washing with water. Left to dry for 24 hours. Second application, three minutes followed by washing and leaving to dry as before’. These three-minute applications were said to have been ‘rigorously measured’. Colalucci explained the reason for the change of procedure: the size of the ceiling required that work be carried out by a team. Individual restorers, responding to the evidence of their own eyes, would draw different conclusions. Therefore, in order to obtain a ‘homogeneity of result’ – a ‘primary objective’ – they must be denied the opportunity to judge for themselves how long the solvent should remain in place. Solvent applications had to be predetermined, Colalucci felt, in order to avoid ‘either emotional involvement or complex mechanical manipulation on the part of the restorers’. When asked in 1985 at the Wethersfield Conference in New York why he did not adjust the timing to what his eyes were witnessing, he replied: ‘Because emotional or subjective conditions must not be permitted to intrude upon science.’ The scaffold, he added, did not permit stepping back to assess effects and the continuous bright lights of the Japanese film-makers ‘fatigued one’s eyes’. The activity of the film crews was itself a distraction as was also his having to entertain up to sixteen VIP visitors a day…” See Figs. 34 and 35.

Conservation Ethics and Showbiz Restorations

The inventors of AB57 held that cleaning should never be considered “entirely a technical matter…confined merely to the choice of solvent”. The restorer’s responsibility for the control of the solvent’s actions is absolute and should never be left to “depend on the natural uncontrolled action of the products” and must always depend on “the precise wish and aim of the restorer guided by his critical interpretation”. By failing to exercise control at all times, the restorer “deprives himself of the principal alarm signal when faced with new situations; he gives up looking ahead and allows the problem to resolve itself mechanically so that subsequently he can impose the result as an accomplished fact.”

By test-driving a new cleaning agent under television studio conditions in a constricted, over-crowded and art-politically febrile space, the Vatican restorers pioneered a new professional genre: conservation as both entertainment and professional swank. The combination of the Nippon Television Corporation sponsored showbiz and a provocatively radical restoration drew many protests. This spawned intensely propagandistic promotional razzmatazz, the unprecedented scale and character of which will be examined in Part III.

“The activity of restoration can be defined in terms of two overlapping headings, procedure and method. Procedure is fixed and invariable, and consists in the scientific planning and execution of the restoration project, regardless of the material involved. Method, however, is the department strictly of the action taken in the course of the restoration, and is therefore variable, subject to factors arising from the material, technique and state of conservation of the monument involved. “The adoption of a procedure which governs the progress of the work is characteristic of modern restoration. Under the impetus of a marked development in technological expertise, modern restoration has extended its established and primary function of conservation for aesthetic ends to include a research capacity, directed towards the work of art considered as an inseparable duality, conceptual and material. “In the past restoration practice aimed at cancelling out the effects of time and events upon the work of art, termed by Brandi comprehensively its historical aspect, absolute priority was given to its aesthetic aspect, conditioned of course by its contingent situation. The restoration of works of art was therefore entrusted to artists, who were free to introduce personal methods, often secret or private, consistent with the aim of returning the work to its pristine material state, but not necessarily to its original intended state. “In the evolution of the ‘art’ of restoration, the laboratory for the Restoration of Pictures in the Vatican Museums has had a not insignificant role. Founded in 1992 by Biagio Biagetti according to the latest ideas, and subsequently provided with a Laboratory for Scientific Research, the institute is today directed by by Carlo Pietrangeli who in 1978 established its guidlines in Rules for the restoration of works of art. “In June 1980 this laboratory, constitutionally responsible for the restoration of the pictorial patrimony of the Holy See, qualified and informed by its enormous experience, which goes back more than 50 years and has been constantly renewed both technically and in terms of personnel, undertook the most important task it had yet undertaken in its history, the restoration of the frescoes of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel…” ~ Gianluigi Colalucci, “Michelangelo’s Colours Rediscovered”, “The Sistine Chapel – Michelangelo Rediscovered”, London, 1986.

The restoration of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel was a venture that shook the very foundations of the art world more than any other single event has managed to do in the last quarter of a century. “Promoted and conducted with rigorously conservative objectives, over the course of its execution the restoration program assumed an ever-growing significance in historical and critical terms – an importance that was foretold when the first patches were cleaned and was fully confirmed by the restoration of the Eleazar-Mathan lunette.” ~ Gianluigi Colalucci, “Michelangelo The Vatican Frescoes”, by Pierluigi de Vecchi and Gianluigi Colalucci, 1996.

…The intuition that the colours must have been quite different from those that could be seen can be found sporadically in the writings of the more perceptive scholars of Michelangelo, from [Charles Heath] Wilson to Biagetti and Wilde. But clear and conclusive evidence of the original colours was established for the first time in recent times by the extraordinary photographs of the Japanese photographer Takashi Okamura, taken just before the restoration and published in a book of 1980, unfortunately in a small limited edition and now not widely seen. The eye of the camera, in itself much more acute than the human eye, and aided by much stronger light than is usually available in the Chapel, revealed beneath the dirt and deteriorated glue-varnish the tangible existence of of what the restoration today is gradually retrieving. “Although the book with Okamura’s photographs and the restoration that is now proceeding came about independently and for different reasons, the two are complementary, and Okamura’s book is today a valuable record of what for centuries had masked the true nature of Michelangelo’s painting; if the cleaning had not gone ahead, it would have been the sole means by which to achieve a proper or effective analysis of his work…” ~ Fabrizio Mancinelli, “Michelangelo at Work”, “The Sistine Chapel Michelangelo rediscovered”, London, 1986.

Michael Daley

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Above, (top) Fig. 1: Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl, detail.
Above, Fig. 2: Michelangelo’s Moses.
Evaluating restorations (or attributions) requires a clear appreciation of an artist’s most secure works and characteristics. Michelangelo’s phenomenally potent carved figures, such as his Moses (above), found parallel realisation in the figures he was compelled to paint on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, such as the Libyan Sibyl shown at Fig. 1 and below. In the reproduction of his Moses at Fig. 2, we see how (natural or artificial) light and shadows are trapped/made by the architectural projections. Within the constraining rectilinear spaces set by the architecture, the figure’s own component parts move and shift against one another so as to produce planar and volumetric dynamism and expressive anatomical torsion.
MICHELANGELO’S USE OF DRAPERY
The not-naturalistic drapery in the Moses complements and enhances the body’s deportment with its own autonomously animated structures and vitalising rhythms. The deeply undercut, shadow-producing drapery over Moses’s left thigh had found direct pictorial anticipations on the ceiling in the Libyan and Erythraean sibyls shown here. Michelangelo had discovered, as Leonardo had taunted, that a painter controls his own lighting and can (like an etcher) submit it to his own singular will, darkening here, highlighting there, shaping and moulding matter with form-describing tonal values and relationships. In Fig. 1, which is a fragment of a coloured painting reproduced in greyscale, we “see” a piece of sculpture – or strictly speaking, a sculpturally conceived figure that happens not have been made but was depicted pictorially with an imagined optimal lighting so as to render its forms with the fullest sculptural lucidity and force. Such was Michelangelo’s genius in these matters that the fragment from his Libyan Sybil might be thought the creative equal of a fragment of the Parthenon’s carved frieze.
SPOT THE ODD ONE OUT:
Above, Figs. 3, 4 and 5.
Fig. 3 (above, top) is a fragment of the Libyan Sibyl’s drapery before restoration. Fig. 4 (above, middle) is the same fragment after restoration. Fig. 5 (above) is a fragment of an engraved copy of the Libyan Sibyl made in 1797 by a fine (Flaxmanesque) engraver, Tommaso Piroli.
Of the three images, the first is by Michelangelo as found before the last restoration. The second is the same fragment of the figure as it emerged after the last restoration. The third is the corresponding fragment of a copy showing the figure as it had survived for nearly three hundred years. We hold that the differences between the first and the second states constitute evidence of injury, and claim support for this reading in the third image here and in the images at Figs. 6, 7 and 8. As further corroboration, we show below how, in the wake of the restorations of the 1980s and 1990s, many similarly injured passages can be found throughout the ceiling. The painting contained in the first image (at Fig. 3) had never been challenged or doubted as part of an entirely autograph work of Michelangelo. Never challenged, that is, until the beginning of the last restoration when the Vatican’s restorers advanced a claim that this figure, and all others on the ceiling, had been so deformed by dirt and successive layers of restorers’ varnishes as to constitute a corrupted and misleading Michelangelo. The true Michelangelo, it was contended, lay unrecognisably different under alien material accretions which, with the help of some very powerful chemicals-in-a-gel, would be dispersed – even though the resulting change of appearance in the paintings would in turn require that everything previously thought about the artist be overturned. Tragically, the Vatican authorities permitted this hubristic, artistically perverse and historically unsupported programme to proceed. That which had survived for nearly five hundred years in Fig. 1, was turned after two three minutes long chemical dousings into Fig. 2.
THE CHANGED CHARACTER OF THE DRAPERY
The pre-restored image showed drapery that was boldy massed, purposefully shaded and satisfyingly sculptural in its volumetric descriptions and compositional fluency. To educated eyes, its then appearance could only have been a product of artistry. It could not have been an accidental by-product of random accumulations of unequally disfigured accretions, as has been claimed in defence of all the restoration changes. The pre-restoration state, as is shown above, bore too close a family relation to Michelangelo’s carved sculptural forms for its authorship ever to have been in question. By comparison, the post-restoration image is weaker; its forms smaller; its tones consistently lighter. The surviving tonal modelling is more local to each piece of material, less broadly unified across incidents. It is thus weakening to the previously strong overall sculptural effects, spatially ambiguous, and more akin to shallow relief than free-standing sculpture. There is no historical corroboration for today’s appearance – it appears in no copies. All of which raises the question: “Why was the very design of Michelangelo’s work changed by this removal of a piece of drapery?”.
THE LOST SECTION OF DRAPERY
The large fold of drapery that hangs from the lower left leg no longer sweeps down gracefully from below the knee, as seen if Figs. 3 and 5, but emerges abruptly and uncomfortably at the shin. On stylistic grounds alone, the removed material cannot be said to have been an addition made by some other person, let alone by accretions. This section of pre-restoration drapery was entirely, seamlessly of a piece, and served a clear compositional purpose.
Above, Fig. 6. The Libyan Sibyl, as copied in 1797 by Tommaso Piroli. As well as giving the clearest account of the not-yet truncated drapery hanging from the left leg, Piroli (an engraver of antiquities) provides an elegant shorthand account of Michelangelo’s three principal zones of dark tone. The first, at the bottom between the legs, differentiates their positions in space vis-a-vis the viewer: the side of the more distant leg misses the strong light source (as indicated by its emphatically cast shadow) and is therefore optically subordinated by darkened tones. The arms and torso are relieved by dark tone over the drapery hanging from the table. The curving sweep of drapery on the right begins brightly at the top, as if caught by the light. This area of brightness relieves the darker shaded side of the arms and torso. It then darkens as it passes close to the Sibyl’s body before lightening again as it moves froward into the light that catches the left leg and foot.
Above, Figs 7 and 8: Two states of an anonymous 16th-century engraving.
Although the author of this copy (published in “La Sistina Riprododotta”, 1991, and here reversed) was not as fluent a draughtsman as Piroli, and took liberties with the architecture, on the two crucial issues of the right foot’s cast shadow and the shape and the extent of the hanging drapery at the raised left leg, the copy is entirely consistent with the later artist’s testimony. Thus, just as with Piroli two centuries later, we see that the drapery emerged below the knee and at an acute angle. It did not, as today, burst into view abruptly at a right angle from behind the shin, as left by the restorers. We can rule out the possibility that a change might have been made to Michelangelo’s drapery by a restorer even before this 16th-century engraving was made. The restorer known to have been called in during the 16th-century – Domenico Carnevale – did so in 1566. He made five repairs in total and all were made in buon fresco, not a secco. He did no work on the Libyan Sibyl. Thus, only Michelangelo could have amended his own buon fresco work on the Libyan Sibyl’s drapery with a secco painting – just as he can be seen to have done on the sybil’s right foot…which can also be seen to have been injured in the last restoration, at Figs. 11, 12 and 13.
Above, Figs. 9 and 10. The legs of the Libyan Sibyl, as published in 1990 (left) and in the post-restoration state in 1992 (right). In Fig. 9 we see how before restoration the former design of the hanging drapery helped create a compositionally mediating, “fanning” movement between the position of the two legs, as had been recorded in the 16th and 18th-century copies shown above. Both copies show that, as before restoration, the wedge-shaped piece of hanging drapery ran into the shadowed zone that served to push back the right leg and give greater prominence the left leg.
THE MANGLED FOOT AND ITS DISAPPEARED SHADOW
Above, Figs. 11, 12 and 13.

This sequence records many alterations made in the Libyan Sybil’s right foot: before cleaning (top); after cleaning (middle); and after repainting (bottom). In fig. 11 we see a mini fanning movement in the three short dark accented folds at the ankle of the sybil’s right foot which have melted away in Fig. 12. We see also in Fig. 11 examples of what Alexander Eliot described as “Michelangelo’s loving depiction of fingernails, eyelids and tiny wrinkles”. Once again, Michelangelo’s habit of placing a dark shadow beind the lit edge of a form and a light ground behind its shaded side was evident here in his treatment of the strategically dramatic arched foot.
UNDOING AND (PARTIAL) REDOING

This sequence also comprises a tacit acknowlegement of error on the part of the restorers. Evidence is here present not just of the loss of the foot’s cast shadow (as also with the Jonah below) but even of its anatomical credibility. Michelangelo had repositioned this foot, scraping away one part and adding another. The cleaning undid this revision, and thereby produced (uniquely in Michelangelo’s oeuvre) a human heel that was not rounded but that came to a point, as in Fig. 12. We questioned this transformation (and that of the Erythraean Sibyl’s right foot, shown below) to Fabrizio Mancinelli, the co-director of the restoration, when he gave a talk on the restoration at the Courtauld Institute, London. Later, on visiting the Chapel we discovered that the heel had become rounded again if not entirely whole, as seen at Fig. 13. Clearly, if the repainted addition is now correct, it should never have been removed in the first place.

Above, Fig. 14: An article in The Independent of 22 November 1991, which first showed the Erythraean Sibyl’s right foot as it emerged after restoration.
Above, Figs. 15 and 16: The Erythraean Sibyl’s right foot before cleaning (left) and after cleaning and restoration (right). Note, in addition to the mangled foot, the changes made to the forms and the colours of the drapery. We assume that no one believes that the foot today is as Michelangelo intended it to be left. We have found deafening the collective silence of art historians and art critics on this grotesque blunder. Perhaps some think that such sacrifices of authentic painting are a price worth paying to get at brighter colours?
Above, Fig. 17: The Libyan Sibyl and the Prophet Daniel, before restoration
Note how effectively Michelangelo had simulated monumental figures set within palpable architecturally bounded spaces. On the left, we see the Libyan Sibyl (discussed further below) and the Prophet Daniel. Note particularly with what force the drapery over Daniel’s right shoulder cascades and twists, and how emphatically it captures a deep dark shadow next to his right side.
Above, Figs. 18 and 19: The Prophet Daniel, before restoration (left) and after restoration (right).
In this pairing, we see one of most massive destructions of a Michelangelo a secco revision. Once again, corroboration of the pre-restoration state – and disqualification of the post-restoration state – is found in early copies of the figure, as shown below.
Above, Figs. 20 and 21. Engraved copies of the Prophet Daniel.
These two copies made in the 1790s by artists working in very different graphic styles (in tones in the case of Giovanni Volpato, left, and with lines with Tommaso Piroli, right) both testify to the then survival of Michelangelo’s unprecedented pictorial chiaroscuro – his emphatic placement of lights against darks which had so struck and thrilled his contemporaries.
When we first reminded the restoration’s supporters of Michelangelo’s original pictorial schema and drew attention to the corroborating copies, Nicholas Penny, for one, rushed to be dismissive, saying of the copies that “none of them support the claim Daley makes”, and added, “I am surprised to hear that the ceiling was ‘praised precisely for its unprecedented chiaroscuro’.” In the 11 February 1993 London Review of Books Dr Penny had recited the then Standard Defence For The Restoration:
Study of the ceiling now that it has been cleaned tends to distance Michelangelo from the art of recent centuries – and from the work of artists who were inspired by the ceiling – and reveal a far closer connection with the dazzling colours favoured by artists in his immediate following and also evident in some of the better preserved 15th-century panel paintings.”
The operative words were “now that it has been cleaned”. While it is true that Michelangelo’s biographers had suffered the handicap of having to respond to the ceiling when it was freshly painted and not yet “cleaned”, it was remiss of Penny not to have noticed that none of Michelangelo’s contemporaries had spoken of dazzling colours or likened his great fresco cycle to 15th-century panel paintings. The truth is that Michelangelo had shown his figures and his fictive architecture as if placed in a brilliant “cinematographer’s” light – why else, how else, could so many of his feet have originally sported such dramatically cast shadows on the ceiling’s illusionistic mini projected “floors”, and so many of his figures have cast such dramatic shadows onto the walls?
EVEN GOD WAS AT RISK FROM THE CLEANERS
Above, Figs. 22 and 23: God (detail) in Michelangelo’s panel showing the bestowing of life upon Adam, before cleaning (top), after cleaning (above).
If old pictures were simply being cleaned and not injured, their ranges of tonal values would be extended and not diminished, as seen here. For example, in the bottom left-hand corner what was graduated, nuanced, modelled, has become uniform, flatter, more “on the surface”. The ridges of drapery which formerly wrapped round the shoulder, now break off short. The folds themselves have become simpler in drawing, less expressive in shading. Lines of under-drawing emerge more strongly, while crisp tonal demarcations blur. Individual hairs get lost. If Michelangelo really had left his painting as in this “cleaned” state, what might have improved the drawing and modelling to the degree seen in the uncleaned state through all the (alleged) foreign accretions and filth?
Above, Fig. 24. This pre-restoration photograph shows the crucial junction between the Last Judgement and the ceiling. The zone contains some of Michelangelo’s most brilliant figural inventions, of which the commanding central Jonah earned the greatest admiration when the ceiling was unveiled. Note the general dispositions of tonality, the relative lightness of the illusionistic compartmentalising architectural elements, and the then legibility of the shadow cast by Jonah’s left foot – which foot, curiously, touches the same architectural arch as the foot of the Libyan Sibyl, above and to the right of Jonah.
Above, Fig. 25: Jonah’s left foot, before cleaning (left), and after cleaning (right).
While no one enthused over Michelangelo’s colours, everyone marvelled at his unprecedented use of light and shade on the ceiling. Among them, Condivi thought the Jonah the “most admirable of all…because contrary to the curve of the vault and owing to the play of light and shadow, the torso which is foreshortened backward is in the part nearest the eye, and the legs which project forward are in the part which is farthest.” Vasari asked: “Then who is not filled with admiration and amazement at the awesome sight of Jonah…The vaulting naturally springs forward, following the curve of the masonry; but through the force of art it is apparently straightened out by the figure of Jonah, which bends in the opposite direction; and vanquished by the art of design, with its lights and its shades, the ceiling even appears to recede.” [Emphases added.] Note carefully what was being said at the time: by his drawing and his use of lights and darks, Michelangelo had made surfaces which were actually advancing towards the viewer seem to recede. What was not said, pace Mancinelli, was that Michelangelo’s colours had been used “pure” and that, as such, they had played “a primary structural role”. No authority then existed for the restorers’ recent trading of those impeccably accredited lights and darks for today’s heightened colours.
Above, Fig. 26. Four copies of Jonah, as published in “Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” in 1993.
Most certainly, no authority existed for removing the shadow cast by Jonah’s foot. Countless copies over the centuries had recorded it. Giulio Clovio, in his copy shown here in the top left-hand corner, also recorded (in the bottom corners) parts of two lunettes that Michelangelo had painted before 1512 but destroyed before 1536 to prepare a continuous surface for the Last Judgement.
Above, Fig. 27: A 19th century engraved copy of a now lost drawn record of the two sacrificed lunettes. The copy of a copy of the sacrificed lunettes shows precisely “the kind of suggestive painting by shadows for which Michelangelo was admired until a few years ago”. Its testimony specifically contradicts the restorers’ claim that the suggestive painting was “essentially the product of candle smoke and still more of glue varnishes applied possibly even before the 18th century.” The dramatic shading in this record captures the decisively drawn shadow at Jonah’s left foot, as glimpsed at the top left. Fabrizio Mancinelli’s claim that the lunettes had erroneously “been interpreted for centuries by scholars as chiaroscuri with light and shade distributed so that the figures seem to be emerging from the darkness”, flouted Paolo Giovio’s 1525 testimony that Michelangelo had “used a gradually diminishing light to suggest some figures in the distance, almost hidden…”
Above, Fig. 28: A lunette figure before (left) and after (right) restoration. This was one of three photo-comparisons of the cleaned lunettes published by the sculptor Venanzo Crocetti in the December 1989 Oggi e Domani. That there was much surface disfigurement on the lunettes is not in dispute. Crocetti had seen for himself after years on the scaffolds that the effects of smoke varied by location within the Chapel and that the lunettes had been disproportionately affected because of their position at the junctions between the walls and ceiling. The central question in the restoration generally, as here, is why previously evident artistic features (shadows, folds of drapery and so forth) disappeared along with the dirt through which they had formerly been visible? How, for example, could the left thigh of this figure have been perceived before restoration with a light upper surface and a darker side surface – and why did that tonal distinction disappear?
Above, Fig. 29: An engraved copy of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl made in the 1570s by Giorgio Ghisi. Here we see that shadows that disappeared in the last cleaning had been recorded within sixty years of the painting and therefore could not have been products of later accretions. It has sometimes been suggested that the testimony of engraved copies is not reliable because engravers exagerated tonal effects. Ghisi produced five other major plates of the prophets and sibyls (and of their surrounding figures). Like his Erythraean Sybil above, all showed a strongly dramatic use of shading that was still to be found in the figures themselves until the restoration. If Ghisi had exaggerated, what had he been exaggerating at a time when soot and restorers’ alleged varnishes had yet to impart their (Mancinelli-attributed) chiaroscuro-esque effects? Had Ghisi and other early copyists like Giulio Clovio collectively anticipated dramatic effects that Time and Accident would bestow centuries later?
Above, Fig. 30: The Erythraean Sibyl before cleaning. Note the many correspondences of lighting and shading between the engraving and the photograph four centuries later. In both, the Sybil’s head casts a shadow onto the architecture. In both, the face’s lit profile is thrown into relief by background shadow. In both, the deeply undercut ‘U’ shaped fold of drapery that runs from the right thigh begins in the light but sinks progressively into a shadow which merges with the shadow that the figure casts onto the architecture.
Above, Figs. 31 and 32. The head of the Erythraean Sibyl before cleaning (left), and after cleaning (right), showing catastrophic losses of modelling and shading. Note here the particulary emphatic and successful use of the tonal convention of relieving light contours against dark grounds, and vice versa, so as to deploy the most sculpturally expressive range of half-tones in between.
Above, Fig. 33: This (rotated) view of the ceiling in which the vertical wall appears in the bottom left corner shows the complicated curved geometries on which Michelangelo’s images were painted and the curious way in which the shadow-casting feet of Jonah and the Libyan Sibyl touch the same piece of curving architectural moulding.
Michelangelo’s task in designing and executing such a complex array of figures in so precise an “architectural” context was immensely difficult. In this respect, it would be less than human not to feel some sympathy for the restorers whose handicaps were compounded by the decision to allow the sponsors (the Nippon Television Corporation) to film the entire operation from the scaffold. In addition to the TV crews, other photography was permitted as part of the restoration’s promotion in the media. In one specialised respect, photographs that catch restorers at work can illuminate restoration proceedures to a degree rarely encountered in offical presentations.
Above, Fig. 34: The Libyan Sibyl during cleaning. This photograph, of a restorer being filmed at close quarters while working on the Libyan Sibyl, was reproduced across two pages of a 1992 book “Michelangelo and the Creation of the Sistine Chapel” by Robin Richmond, a painter who was supportive of the restoration. It shows that the figures were being cleaned first and separately from the backgrounds. A slight overlapping of the cleaning onto the figures’ dark green “relieving” background has introduced a light green halo-effect. The difference between the light green ‘halo’ and the adjacent dark green between the figures indicates the magnitude of the reductions of tonal values that took place in the shaded zones throughout the cleaning. As Crocetti had observed, Michelangelo had used his size or glue painting most of all in these zones. Wilson, testified that he had done so with a finely ground black pigment.
Above, Fig. 35: The Libyan Sibyl during cleaning. Over the years, many excellent photographic records of major restorations have appeared in National Geographic. The December 1989 issue carried an article (“A Renaissance for Michelangelo”) which contained the stunning photograph above by Adam Woolfit (here in greyscale for comparative purposes). This photograph records the cleaning as it approached the draperies over the Libyan Sibyl’s legs. The halo effect seen at Fig. 25 had by then disappeared along with the removal of almost all of the dark green background toning. Only a small rectangle of the former dark paint on the background remained, temporarily attached to the bottom of the Sibyl’s left upper arm. Woolfit eloquently captures the extremely bright artificial television lighting under which the restorers worked, and, most valuably of all, an “in-between” state when the incoherences that emerge in the stripping-down of paintings have yet to receive restorers’ tidying and patching-up with the paint brush (-or, in restoration trade posh, “reintegration”) .
Above, Fig. 36: The Libyan Sibyl as published in 1990.
Above, Fig. 37: The Libyan Sibyl as published in 2010. The transformation during restoration was immense. In 1986 Mancinelli claimed that Michelangelo had used his colours “constantly pure” and that they had served “a primary structural role” enabling him to “abandon almost altogether traditional chiaroscuri modelling”. The following photographs chronicle the swift demise of Michelangelo’s nearly five hundred years old chiaroscuri.
Above (top), Fig. 38, the torso of the Libyan Sibyl, as published in 1904 and, Fig. 39, in 1996. Within the characteristically restoration-compressed range of tones, the boy’s hair, which previously was light and blonde, relieved against a blackish green ground (as seen in Figs. 36 and 38), is now darker than the radically “cleaned” light green background drapery. If we consider the whole figure before cleaning (as at Figs. 17, 33 and 36) we see a consistent and dramatic light falling on it from the left. As well as casting the strong shadow from the right foot, that light illuminated the left side of the sibyl and the right-hand side of the architecture. The sibyl’s head had a lit side and shadowed side and, just like that of the Erythraean Sybil, each side was set off by a tonally contrasted background. Similarly, the brightly lit left arm was strongly relieved by the very dark green drapery, while the shaded right arm was thrown into relief against the light stonework…and so forth. After a cleaning, we would expect Fig. 39 to be like Fig. 38 in its values only more so with lighter lights and darker darks. Instead, while Fig. 39 is now certainly cleaner looking and tidier, by comparison with its former self, it resembles an early state of an etching before the dark tones and blacks have been worked up – rather as may be seen at Figs. 7 and 8.
Above, Fig. 40. The Libyan Sibyl’s head, as published in 1966, before restoration. Note the progressions of tones, and the brilliant highlight at the shoulder.
Above, Fig. 41: The testimony of Woolfit’s 1989 photograph (detail) of the cleaning in progress. We see at this stage of restoration that along with the removal of the glue-based paint on the background green draperies, the formerly clear and precisely established contours of the left upper arm have been disrupted by the emergence of dark patches of sketchy, inconsistent and disconnected outlining. Given that these arbitrary irregularities are not present in either the pre- or the post-cleaning states, we must consider how they arrived and how they were persuaded to depart.
Above, (top) Fig. 42, the Sibyl’s forearm, as seen in 1904. Above, (middle) Fig. 43, the Sibyl’s forearm, as seen during cleaning in 1989. Above, Fig. 44, the Sibyl’s forearm as seen after cleaning and repainting. At Fig. 43, once again, along with the removal of the former dark toning material behind the arm, we see remarkable changes to the tonal modelling of the arm itself and to its previously lucid, now erratic contours. We would claim that such changes cannot be seen as anything other than restoration-induced injuries: 1) It is inconceivable that Michelangelo would ever have been content to leave a limb in such a condition. (Think of the Virgin’s arms in the Doni Tondo.) The massively intrusive overdrawing of the thick bar-like contour of the thumb and forefinger seen after cleaning at Fig. 43 is inexplicable except as preliminary underpainting. (Remember that Crocetti complained of AB 57 having penetrated the frescoes to a depth of half centimetre.) 2) It is inconceivable that Michelangelo would have depicted the left contour of the forearm being ruptured by the intrusion of the edge of the giant book’s cover board that rests on the top of the draped table behind the sibyl, as seen at Fig. 43 (and as such, exclusively by courtesy of Woolfit’s photograph, so far as we know). Such an illogical intersecting relationship might have appealed to Picasso in his analytical cubist phase, but it could hardly have done so to Michelangelo. How, then, did it arise and how did it disappear? Have any accounts been published of the emergence and swift extinguishing of this extraordinary pictorial phenomenon? Has film of the cleaning of this arm been broadcast? 3) Finally, it is of course, inconceivable that had Michelangelo left the forearm drawn and modelled as seen in 1989 at Fig. 43, that subsequent accumulations of soot and glues could have sufficiently remedied his defects of drawing so as to bring the work to the condition seen in 1904 at Fig. 42. Clearly, the restorers themselves did not accept the emerging injuries to the arm to be a fair recovery of some original and authentic condition, because it is apparent from Fig. 44 that steps were taken to paint out some of the more glaringly incongrous defects. But who was the author of the “corrections” to the very defects that the restoration unleashed? Who should be accredited for authorship of the hybrid, revised arm as seen at Fig. 44?
Above, Fig. 45. In December 1989 National Geographic published this beautifully balanced record (here flipped) by Victor R. Boswell, Jr. of the last moments of the Sistine Chapel ceiling as finished by Michelangelo. Springing from the centre top of the not-yet-cleaned Last Judgement we see Jonah around whom congregate, in the last section of the ceiling that Michelangelo painted, some of the artist’s most miraculously inventive figures set in their fictive temple-in-the-sky. For a little longer this section retained the majesty and mystery of the infinite space and dark depths that had survived for nearly half a millennium.
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The Sistine Chapel Restorations: Part I ~ Setting the Scene, Packing Them In

21 January 2013

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 (see right and our posts of 1 April 2011 and 12 November 2012). 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 (see Appendix below). 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 (see caption at Fig. 4). As was shown in our previous post, that cockamamie promise was not delivered. Today, in a chapel increasingly over-crowded with paying visitors (see Fig. 1), these stripped-down frescoes stand in greater peril than ever.

Ironically, the “cleaning” of the ceiling, which arguably constitutes the greatest single restoration calamity of the 20th century, occurred at a time when picture restorers had skilfully rebranded themselves as safe, scientifically validated “conservators” of all that is valuable – even though Kenneth Clark had recently admitted to having founded the National Gallery’s science department in the late 1930s in order to dupe the public and wrong-foot restoration critics. A grandly titled “Laboratory for Scientific Research” had been created at the Vatican in 1922 on the “latest ideas” but during the 1980s Italian restorers admitted that running technical “tests” before restorations was professional “window-dressing” because it was always known in advance which materials were to be used.

Some restorers sincerely believed in the scientific hocus pocus that supposedly had trumped anachronistic and unacceptably “subjective” aesthetic responses. The appointed chief restorer of Michelangelo’s frescoes, Gianluigi Colalucci, was one such, insisting that: “Emotional and subjective considerations must not be permitted to intrude upon science”. At that time the Vatican’s curatorial and administrative authorities may not have sufficiently appreciated the extent to which every restoration of a great work of art is an accident waiting to happen: a collision of sublimity and incomprehension made tangible. In 1993, at the beginning of the fourth chapter of the JamesBeck/Michael Daley book “Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, we asked:

If authentic painting by Michelangelo has been lost in the course of a scientific restoration, many questions need to be answered. Did a blunder occur because of or in spite of the use of a scientific approach? Has too great a dependence on scientific data undermined crucial powers of aesthetic discernment and judgement? Is the scientific method of restorers rigorous or slipshod? Is the scientific status of modern conservation legitimate or bogus? Do restorers always follow their own ground rules?”

In the last twenty years it has become clearer that the claimed scientific underpinnings of picture restoration methods were spurious and that an appreciation of the workings of art and its internal relationships is not to be gained through some analysis of material components in a laboratory, however highfalutin and expensive the “investigative” or “diagnostic” apparatus may be. Beyond its conceptually simplistic and aesthetically impoverished terms of reference, the very reporting of “scientific” conservation methods has lacked both critical rigour and methodological consistency. In practice conservation science has provided a flag of convenience under which fundamental artistic questions can be evaded while ever-more ambitiously grandiose, lavishly funded and spectacularly transforming projects are launched. The authorities at the Vatican seemed quite oblivious of the ease with which even the most modest restorations can escalate into dangerous and irreversible treatments.

In 1964 Dr Deoclecio Redig de Campos, the Vatican museums’ curator and director of restorations, launched a cautious cleaning of the 15th century frescoes by Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandio, Rosselli and Signoreli on the lower parts of the Sistine Chapel’s north and south walls. After 15 years, that programme led to the cleaning of two minor 16th century frescoes by Matteo da Lecce and van den Broecke on the east wall. By that date, direction had passed to Dr Fabrizio Mancinelli, the new curator (and soon to be, with Colalucci, the co-director of the Nippon Television Corporation-sponsored restoration of all of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes). As we reported in “Art Restoration”, Mancinelli decided that “Redig de Campos’s cautious policy of removing only part of the layer of grime and foreign substances…was not appropriate in this situation.”

What Mancinelli deemed appropriate was that the minor frescoes should be cleaned with the new aggressive cleaning compound AB 57, even though this would obliterate original painting applied a secco by the artists onto their frescoes when dry. Curiously, Mancinelli’s justification for this removal of authentic and historical material was primarily aesthetic. That is, he held that a cautious cleaning and repairing of the damaged original secco paints would give only “disappointing results” compared with what might be attained by what he termed “a more radical cleaning”. We should be absolutely clear: “radical” was a euphemism for stripping the paintings down to their bare fresco surfaces in order to introduce heightened (but inauthentic) colours. Although the programme was to prove unethical by restorers’ own professional codes, Mancinelli persuaded the authorities that the visual “gains” to be had by trading original material for chemically brightened colours on those two minor works would outweigh even a directly consequential need to “return to the side walls and [do] a more thorough job there too.” (Just as the slowest ship determines the speed of a convoy, so in decorated chapels the most brightly scrubbed surface sets the overall level of cleaning. Michelangelo’s fate was sealed.)

While restoring the east wall works in 1979, a single test of AB57 was made on one of Michelangelo’s lunettes (see Fig. 8 and, for the consequences, Figs. 4-7). Professor Carlo Pietrangeli, the director of the Vatican Museums, said in 1982 “the results were so encouraging that it was decided to take on the whole ceiling. By the summer of 1980 the work had begun.” As Pietrangeli told Patricia Corbett in the May 1982 Connoisseur, once AB57 was shown to deliver chromatically transformed frescoes, “No one was able to resist the temptation”. In 1987 Dr Walter Persegati, the Vatican Museums secretary and treasurer, said in the Bible ReviewThese tests brought forward such colours that we were both scared and excited…It was decided that the procedure developed for the cleaning of the van den Broeck and Matteo da Lecce was applicable to Michelangelo’s frescoes. Therefore, we decided we had to do it.”

Note that because it had been decided that it could be done, it was “therefore” also decided that it should be done. In Part II we investigate the means, the methods and the artistic consequences of that novel application of a new cleaning agent to the very old, very precious decorated surfaces of the Sistine Chapel. In doing so we also show why the Vatican’s curators were right to be scared.

Michael Daley

APPENDIX

“A major purpose of the conference was to underline a basic truth: the conservation of any work of art is doomed to failure unless equal emphasis is given to its past and its future vicissitudes…Scientists and historians worry that conservators can be too ready to intervene, too impatient of prior tests, and insufficiently heedful of future dangers.” ~ Kathleen Weil Garris Brandt, Professor of Fine Arts, at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and spokeswoman for the Vatican on the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, reporting the proceedings of the “London symposium on the conservation of wall-paintings” in the November 1987 Burlington Magazine.

“There is therefore much concern about the future of the frescoes, given that no protective layer has been applied in this campaign (the controversial use of paraloid was abandoned at an early stage of the cleaning of the lunettes). The Vatican has decided to seal the windows and introduce an air-conditioning and filtration system. Doubts were expressed at the conference. Could the threat from faulty air-conditioning be worse than the threat from atmospheric pollution and mass tourism? ” ~ Caroline Elam, editor of the Burlington Magazine, reviewing the 1990 symposium on the Sistine ceiling restoration held in Rome to give preliminary consideration to the cleaning of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement”.

“A ‘drunken herd’ of ‘unruly’ tourists is damaging Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel paintings, one of Italy’s leading arts figures claimed as the pope prepared to mark the 500th anniversary of the iconic frescoes’ creation. Some 5 million people visit the chapel every year – sometimes as many as 20,000 in a single day — and an increasing number of experts are now arguing that mass tourism is damaging the paintings. Despite a major, 14-year-long restoration project in the 1990s, they claim that the breath, sweat, dust and pollution brought in by visitors dramatically changes the Chapel’s humidity and temperature – factors to which frescoes are particularly sensitive…” ~ Claudio Lavanga, NBC News, 31 October 2012.

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Above, Fig. 1: Visitors thronging the Sistine Chapel as shown in the 21 December 2012 Guardian (Photograph: Oote Boe Ph/Alamy).
On 12 November 2012 Art Daily cited a disturbing Associated Press report on the Sistine Chapel:
“The Vatican Museums chief warned that dust and polluting agents brought into the Sistine Chapel by thousands of tourists every day risk one day endangering its priceless artworks. Antonio Paolucci told the newspaper La Repubblica in comments published Thursday that in order to preserve Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and the other treasures in the Sistine Chapel, new tools to control temperature and humidity must be studied and implemented. Between 15,000 and 20,000 people a day, or over 4 million a year, visit the chapel where popes get elected, to admire its frescoes, floor mosaics and paintings. ‘In this chapel people often invoke the Holy Spirit. But the people who fill this room every day aren’t pure spirits,’ Paolucci told the newspaper. ‘Such a crowd … emanates sweat, breath, carbon dioxide, all sorts of dust,’ he said. ‘This deadly combination is moved around by winds and ends up on the walls, meaning on the artwork.’ Paolucci said better tools were necessary to avoid ‘serious damage’ to the chapel. Visitors who want to see Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ in Milan must go through a filtration system to help reduce the work’s exposure to dust and pollutants. This has made seeing da Vinci’s masterpiece more difficult: 25 visitors are admitted every 15 minutes. The Sistine Chapel, featuring works by Michelangelo, Botticelli and Perugino, underwent a massive restoration that ended in the late 1990s. The restoration was controversial because some critics said the refurbishing made the colors brighter than originally intended.”
Above, Fig. 2: Some indication of the extent to which Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement” has departed from its original self may be gauged from this 1549 copy by Marcello Venusti which was made not only within Michelangelo’s lifetime but also met with his approval.
Above, Fig. 3: Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement, as shown in the Guardian on 29 September 2012 (“Vatican in row over ‘drunken tourist herds’ destroying Sistine Chapel’s majesty”, Photograph: Alex Segre / Alamy/Alamy). The Guardian reported:
“In an article in Corriere della Sera, Pietro Citati, a leading literary critic and biographer, has demanded that the Vatican limit access to the chapel, claiming it would save the frescoes from damage and restore some decorum to the consecrated site. Describing a visit, Citati claimed that ‘in the universal confusion, no one saw anything’ and ‘any form of contemplation was impossible’. The answer, he said, was to reduce the number of visitors drastically. ‘The church needs money for its various activities, but these monstrous conditions are not possible,’ said the writer, a close friend of the late novelist Italo Calvino. The manager of the Vatican museums, which include the chapel, fought back on Friday in the pages of the Holy See’s daily paper, L’Osservatore Romano. ‘The days when only Russian grand dukes and English lords or [American art expert] Bernard Berenson could gain access to the great masterpieces are definitely over,’ wrote Antonio Paolucci. ‘We have entered the era of large-scale tourism, and millions want to enjoy our historical culture,’ he said. ‘Limiting numbers is unthinkable.’”
The Vatican was recently reported to be $19m in the red [Ed.]
Above, Fig 4: In 1988, when the controversy over the Sistine Capel restorations was its height, Bible Review carried an account by Jane and John Dillenberger, professors of visual arts and theology. It derived markedly in its (uncritical) sentiments from from the Vatican Museums’ secretary/treasurer Walter Persegati: “We learned from Dr Persegati that the Vatican is installing an air system that will protect the cleaned ceiling by making sure that no contamination, human or other, reaches it. The system provides a warm cushion of air just below the frescoes that will be a barrier to keep the chapel’s slightly cooler air containing dirt and dust away from the paintings. This cooler air will circulate throughout the chapel, but just below the warmer cushion of air.”
Above, Fig. 5: A detail – before cleaning – of one of the ancestors of Christ depicted by Michelangelo on the lunettes (the sections of wall that surround the tops of the Sistine Chapel’s arched windows).
Above, Fig. 6: The detail of the ancestor of Christ shown above, after cleaning.
Above, Fig 7: The complete figure shown above at Figs. 5 & 6, as published in a December 1989 article, “SALVIAMO ALMENO il Giudizio Universale”, in the art magazine Oggi e Domani by the sculptor Venanzo Crocetti. As a young man Crocetti had worked on a restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the 1930s and was one of the earliest critics of the last restoration. His photo-comparison shows the figure before cleaning (left) and after cleaning (right) and therefore pinpoints the indefensible inversions of value that occurred, where what was once darker than becomes lighter than, and vice versa.
Above, Fig. 8: A test cleaning strip made on one the lunettes, to show the effects of the cleaning gel when left in place for varying lengths of time.
Above, Fig. 9: The figure shown above, as published in Charles de Tolnay’s 1945 “The Sistine Chapel Ceiling”. In the section on the volume’s illustrations, the brilliant Michelangelo scholar and Columbia University professor wrote: “Because of the war it was not possible to procure the same quality of ink for the reproductions as that used in the first volume, and therefore the chiaroscuro lost something of its softness.” Tolnay died in January 1981. Soon after, Fabrizio Mancinelli claimed that his cleaning had led to the “surprising conclusion that the kind of suggestive painting by shadows for which Michelangelo was admired until a few years ago was essentially the product of candle-smoke and still more of glue varnishes”. Mancinelli died some years ago and can therefore no longer defend himself, but his attributing of Michelangelo’s brilliant sculpturally informed chiaroscuro to the arbitrary centuries-long cumulative effects of smoke and glue, must stand as one of Scholarship’s loopier contentions.
Above, Fig 10: The head of Michelangelo’s painting of the Erythraean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, as seen before restoration (left) and after restoration (right).
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ArtWatch Stock-taking and the Sistine Chapel Conservation Debacle

10 January 2013

ArtWatch is entering its twenty-first campaigning year with strengthening critical bite. The new ArtWatch UK website greatly extended the published reach of our Journal (see Figs. 1-4), attracting 22,000 visits in its first year and 52,000 visits last year, half coming from the UK and the USA and the rest from 139 other countries. With this post our archive comprises 59 articles by 8 authors. In New York the ArtWatch International site has been revivified under its new director, Einav Zamir. In France our colleagues in the Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique (ARIPA) have re-structured their website which now carries much of the contents of their excellent, rigorous journal, Nuances. Our efforts now attract fewer hostile and more respectful responses. We enjoy (sotto voce) support at high levels in many quarters – including among some conservators – and we sometimes earn outright vindication, as shown below. International and national press interest in our campaigns remains high. Unfortunately, in the art world itself many players remain in official denial on the subject of restoration injuries. They can see and admit that this is wrong and that that is wrong, but not that pictures are still being injured in restoration.

Our debut post on 12 December 2010, “The New Relativisms and the Death of ‘Authenticity’”, contrasted the consequences of musical and pictorial reconstructions. Last May, in a fascinating talk (“The Pursuit of Excellence: A Call to Arms”) at the 4th annual Lufthansa Lecture, at St John’s Smith Square, London, Andrew Manze, a former baroque violinist and Artistic Director of the English Concert and now Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, noted: “Musicians are lucky that they can do no permanent harm to their material compared to the irreversible damage inflicted on the plastic arts, as reported by the ArtWatch organization for example…

Our second post on the 13 December 2010 (“An Appeal from Poland”) drew an immediate response. Distinguished scholars, curators and conservators in Poland had asked ArtWatch UK to support their opposition to a proposed loan of Leonardo’s “Lady with an Ermine” to the National Gallery (see “The National Gallery’s £1.5bn Leonardo restoration”). We were then attacked in Poland – abusively – by Count Adam Zamoyski, chairman of the Princes Czartoryski Foundation which had agreed to loan the many-times borrowed Leonardo for a substantial fee. It was later reported from Poland that: “In order to improve the functioning of the Foundation of the Czartoryski Princes and to assure the correct collaboration with the National Museum in Krakow”, Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski of the Czartoryski Museum had dismissed the entire board and its chairman, his cousin, Count Adam Zamoyski. Although the contracted loan went ahead it was announced that the fragile panel painting would not travel again for at least a decade.

Our posts of 8 February and 14 March 2012 produced evidence of a mis-reconstructed sleeve of Christ in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. This was reported in the Independent of 14 March 2012. In the National Geographic special issue “Exploring History” it is said that: “Generally lauded by art historians and appreciators, the restored work has aroused controversy. Some say too little of Leonardo’s paint is left, or cavil about the mural’s altered forms…As the debate wears on, we at least – and at last – have a legible ‘Last Supper’ to savor.” “Legible-but-false” could stand as a motto in those museum conservation departments where restorers paint photographically manipulated “virtual realities” onto old master pictures.

Last week our November 12 post on a Black and White Michelangelo drew an artistically perceptive endorsement from the painter and art critic, Gerry Bell. ArtWatch’s genesis was rooted in the tumultuous battles over the 1980-1990s Sistine Chapel restoration battles. That controversy has recently re-combusted – and in precisely the manner we had anticipated two decades ago in the 1993 James Beck/Michael Daley book “Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”. It is now clear that having first engineered a needless artistic calamity, the Vatican authorities have additionally contrived a situation in which the already adulterated remains of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes are also presently in grave physical peril. On January 2nd 2012 Art Daily carried an Agence France-Presse report on the panic that has beset the Vatican authorities over the present and worsening environmental threat to the Chapel’s frescoes:

The Vatican Museums chief warned that dust and polluting agents brought into the Sistine Chapel by thousands of tourists every day risk one day endangering its priceless artworks. Antonio Paolucci told the newspaper La Repubblica in comments published Thursday that in order to preserve Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and the other treasures in the Sistine Chapel, new tools to control temperature and humidity must be studied and implemented. Between 15,000 and 20,000 people a day, or over 4 million a year, visit the chapel where popes get elected, to admire its frescoes, floor mosaics and paintings. ‘In this chapel people often invoke the Holy Spirit. But the people who fill this room every day aren’t pure spirits,’ Paolucci told the newspaper. ‘Such a crowd … emanates sweat, breath, carbon dioxide, all sorts of dust,’ he said. ‘This deadly combination is moved around by winds and ends up on the walls, meaning on the artwork.’ Paolucci said better tools were necessary to avoid ‘serious damage’ to the chapel. Visitors who want to see Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in Milan must go through a filtration system to help reduce the work’s exposure to dust and pollutants. This has made seeing da Vinci’s masterpiece more difficult: 25 visitors are admitted every 15 minutes. The Sistine Chapel, featuring works by Michelangelo, Botticelli and Perugino, underwent a massive restoration that ended in the late 1990s. The restoration was controversial because some critics said the refurbishing made the colors brighter than originally intended.

In our next post we examine the consequences of the last restoration and its contributory role in the present crisis – a crisis for which the blame is brazenly being shifted by the authorities from the authorities and on to the (paying) visitors.

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig 1: The front cover of ArtWatch UK Journal 27, showing (left) a draped figure in the National Gallery’s Entombment, which is attributed to Michelangelo, and (right) showing a figure (reversed) from the later Marriage of the Virgin by Rosso Fiorentino.
Above, Fig. 2: The back cover of ArtWatch UK Journal 27.
Above, Fig. 3: The front cover of the commemorative ArtWatch UK Journal 22.
Above, Fig. 4: The back cover of Journal 22, showing, top, Giotto’s Despair before (left) and after (right) restoration, and, bottom, the gilded altar from the Benedictine church of Sao Bento, Olinda, Brazil and, right, when moved (temporarily) to the Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2001, after restoration.
Above, Fig. 5: A detail of the anamorphic skull in the National Gallery’s Holbein The Ambassadors, when being cleaned during the Esso-sponsored, BBC-filmed, 1993-96 restoration.
Above, Fig. 6: The anamorphic skull in Holbein’s The Ambassadors before cleaning and reconstructive repainting at the National Gallery.
Above, Fig. 7: The anamorphic skull after it was repainted on the basis of a computer-generated distortion of a photograph of an actual skull. (This was because because it had been thought that modern imaging techniques offered “the greatest scope for exploring possible reconstructions” – “Holbein’s Ambassadors”, National Gallery Publications,1997, p. 96.)
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“Pick Up A Pencil”

17th December 2012

The theme of the new ArtWatch UK members’ Journal (see right) is “The Primacy of the Visual”. Failures to acknowledge, address, or even recognise visual evidence are examined. The text of Charles Hope’s 2011 James Beck Memorial Lecture is carried in full. Professor Hope cites failures of the National Gallery’s curators and restorers to address opponents’ arguments or to recognise the import of key historical documents on artistic practice. When Professor James Beck, the late founder of ArtWatch International, lent support to artist-critics of the Sistine Chapel restoration he came under vicious attacks from some scholarly peers – for all the world as if he had betrayed a priesthood of the visually ignorant. Prof Hope cites a letter of that kind. If artists do sometimes discomfort scholars, it is no presumption: knowing how art is made they are precisely the best qualified to detect its un-making. Here, the painter (and photographer) Gareth Hawker discusses both fundamental differences between painting and photography and the widespread failures to recognise these differences. His demonstration is timely. If (as we have argued elsewhere), art schools have given up the ghost with regard to teaching the traditional skills that formerly equipped artists to recognise restoration blunders, in the wider world of commercial film-making there are signs – notwithstanding giant leaps in the powers of digitalised image-making – of a renaissance in traditional art practices. We discussed this paradoxical relationship in connection with the extraordinary accomplishment of the hand-crafted animated film Frankenweenie. Another such heartening case is discussed opposite. [M. D.]

A Photograph is a Copy, not a Creation, Gareth Hawker writes:

…we have realised that we should give more attention to photography”. So wrote the Director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, in his introduction to the current exhibition, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present [1]. Several reviewers seem to agree. Tabish Khan wrote that, “…photography is a contemporary art form that can be just as inspiring and impressive as painting” [2]. But photographs do not incorporate the high-level thinking that paintings do. It would be misleading to put them in the same category.

The difference between painting and photography is frequently glossed over. For example, many people suggest that the camera is a tool just like brushes and pencils. At first sight, this may appear to make sense. The photographer decides what to include in the picture, in the same way that a painter often does. He chooses where to place the camera; in which direction to point it; how far to zoom in on a subject; and when to press the shutter. He may select models, costumes, and arrange lighting. All these factors contribute to what is called the ‘scene’ – the image in the viewfinder. The ‘scene’ may be recorded by a photographer just as well as by a painter, so the argument goes: they just use different tools in order to complete the same task. However this is to ignore what the tools are used for. The camera is used to record the scene, while the brushes and pencils are used to analyse it. The importance of this analysis is often overlooked.

Photographers who have wanted to claim equal status with painters have made various approaches, all ignoring this analytical element. At first they blurred and smudged photographs in order to make them look like paintings. Then photographers claimed that theirs was a totally separate art form, a pure record of the scene. Some argued against this, saying that if a photograph were pure, it could not be artistic. Before this issue could be resolved, some writers swept it aside. They suggested that what mattered was, “conceiving an image in the brain and finding some way of expressing it” [3]. What counted was the viewer’s response – whether a work, “spoke” to the viewer [4]. This disregarded a significant factor: people do not respond to paintings in the same way as they do to photographs, especially if they can see that a painting provides evidence of thinking, in a way that a photograph does not.

Paintings look different from photographs because they are made differently. A painting is constructed from brushstrokes; each stroke the result of a decision. A painting may represent a scene, or it may represent nothing at all. A painting is an independent creation, whereas a photograph is dependant on the scene. A photograph can be made only if there is a scene to be copied.

A representational painting may be compared to the summary at the beginning of a scientific paper – the paragraph which is entitled, “Abstract”. Its writer makes a personal judgment about which are the most important topics dealt with in the paper, and writes a brief account of his own. The “Abstract” is a new and independent piece of writing, just as a representational painting is a new and independent analysis of the scene. In contrast, a photograph is like a photocopy of the whole scientific paper. The photocopy shows no analysis, and no judgment.

Brushstrokes are only the most basic way in which a painter’s analysis or abstraction may be seen. Another is in the simplification of the human figure – in its reconstruction in terms of geometrical solids, such as eggs and cylinders. Even a simple tracing – the lowest form of analysis – shows which lines the painter has considered to be more important than others.

To give a computing analogy: a photograph is like a bitmap image (which records only pixels – spots of colour), but a painting is like a vector image (which records instructions about where lines are to go). A tracing programme can convert a bitmap file into a vector file. The computer makes a simplification which looks similar to a paint-by-numbers drawing. This computer drawing may be thought of as the beginning of an attempt to imitate human analysis – a type of artificial intelligence – though the computer has a long way to go before it catches up with the human brain in this respect (Fig. 1). If anything may be thought of as being a tool comparable with brushes and pencils, it is a tracing programme (which helps to analyse), not a camera (which does not).

To express the difference in another way: Scene = Photograph (Scene = Photograph) × Analysis = Painting

Analysis is an essential part of what makes a representational painting interesting to look at; whereas what makes a photograph interesting to look at is the scene, not its treatment.

Analysis demands abstract thinking – whether it is done well or done badly. What distinguishes the great painter from the mediocrity is the quality of this thinking, not any manual skill. Anyone who can sign his name, already has enough manual skill to make a great drawing. (This includes drawing in its wider sense: deciding where to place marks made by the pencil or the brush, even when no outlines may be involved).

The modern digital camera provides the most effective means for recording the scene that has ever been devised. Strangely, many photographers want to use it for a different purpose, to express an interpretation – a purpose for which it is singularly unsuited. Some photographers deliberately introduce all sorts of inaccuracies which mean that the result is neither a pure substitute for the scene, nor an independent creation.

The classical case for photography’s status as an equal to painting was put forward by the man who was perhaps, “the most important figure in the history of the visual arts in America” – Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) [5]. In his usage, the word ‘artist’ meant someone who, “got the spirit of the truth” [6]. He held that only 0.1% of painters were artists, and only 0.1% of photographers were artists. But not everyone takes such an exalted view. For example, a tax inspector wants to know whether a painter is a house-painter or an artist, not whether he has, “got the spirit of the truth”. So when a painter says that he is an artist, he is simply describing his activity. He is not claiming to be either good or bad at his job: that is for others to decide. But when a photographer says that he is an artist he is claiming to be in the top 0.1% of his profession: he is pushing others to accept the valuation he has placed on his own work.

By using the word ‘artist’ in this way, Stieglitz moved attention away from a vital distinction; that between creating something new (a painting) and making a copy (a photograph). He persuaded many viewers to ignore analysis, and to concentrate on the selection and arrangement of a scene – on pointing and shooting.

Stieglitz’s advocacy, along with that of other theorists, seems to have desensitised many viewers. They see only the subject which has been represented. They fail to notice that a painting exhibits the working of a mind – not just in the choice of subject, but in every single stroke. One consequence of this desensitisation became apparent when the Sistine ceiling was treated by restorers, and much of the best painting ever produced was wiped off. The picture of a man looks like a man, whether it is drawn well or drawn badly. Most historians were satisfied with what remained after the paint-stripping because they could still identify the subjects which had been depicted. Very few noticed how drastically the quality of the drawing had been reduced.

Many people were better informed about these issues in the days when Michelangelo painted his great work. Contemporaries who saw it for the for the first time commented at least as much on the power of its drawing, as on its subject matter [7]. The way in which influential men looked at nudes in those days may be compared with the way in which they look at motor cars now: with an appreciation of the beauty of engineering and construction – an appreciation which derives in part from an understanding of how all the parts connect together.

The paint-stripping made nonsense of some of the connections in Michelangelo’s nudes. His contemporaries would have been appalled, but most of today’s historians and television presenters do not even notice. They focus on the imagery and the iconography, not on the drawing. It is as if they were waiting for the work to ‘speak’ to them – for the artistic content to make itself felt. But, being sensitive only to subject-matter, that is all that they are able to see. Such narrowly prepared minds will respond only to the crudest visual stimulus (the colours looking brighter after the top layer of paint has been removed, for example).

Just as the critical response to painting has become limited, so the meaning of the word Art has expanded – to such a degree that almost anything seems to be embraced by it, including photography. However painting remains distinct: it is a creation which is independent, and which can embody the kind of analysis described above. This is why painting may be categorised with the higher expressions of the human mind, along with poetry and philosophy. Photography does not fit into this category because it cannot display abstract thinking.

But painting is now so little appreciated that, to many people, it seems comparable with photography. This has allowed photography to be called Art, and so to enter the National Gallery. Arguably this is the same lack of discrimination that has allowed paint-stripping to take place, not only on the Sistine ceiling, but on almost all the great works of painting in the Western World, including those in the National Gallery.

Giving more attention to photography”, seems to be one more example of this downward trend, but perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. When a great artist’s paint has been removed from a picture, the decline in its artistic quality is irreversible; but a decline in critical awareness is different: it can be reversed. At present, many people are only distantly aware that, in every brushstroke, a representational painting gives evidence of analytical thinking. Perhaps the exhibition at the National Gallery will help to promote this awareness. If so, it will have served a very useful purpose.

ENDNOTES:

1 The National Gallery, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, Yale University Press (9 Oct 2012), ISBN-10: 1857095456, ISBN-13: 978-1857095456 The exhibition runs from 31 October 2012 to 20 January 2013 2 londonist. Art-review-seduced-by-art-photography-national-gallery. Retrieved 8 November 2012 3 Gerry Badger. Collecting Photography. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003. ISBN 1-84000-726-5 p23 4 Gerry Badger. Collecting Photography. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003. ISBN 1-84000-726-5 p24 5 Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography, Aperture, 2000, p ix 6 Alfred Stieglitz, Is Photography a Failure?, The Sun, New York, March 14, 1922 – reprinted in, Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography, Aperture, 2000, p 229 7 http://artwatchuk.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/12th-november-2012/ Retrieved 12 November 2012

Gareth Hawker

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Above, the covers of the new AWUK Journal. In 2013 two further James Beck Memorial Lectures will take place.
In New York in April, Professor David Freedberg, Director of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, will speak on Morality and Movement in Renaissance Art.
In London, in October, Jacques Franck, the Leonardo specialist and Permanent Consulting Expert to the Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, will speak on Painterly Practice and its Light on the Old Masters.
(For information on these events, or on Artwatch membership details, please contact the Membership and Events Secretary, Helen Hulson – hahulson@googlemail.com.)
In the Daily Telegraph Magazine on 15 December, Georgia Dehn reported a visit to the animation studios of a new animated film, The Snowman and the Snowdog, based on Raymong Briggs’s The Snowman:
“…a team of about 40 people is busy colouring in with Caran d’Ache pencils…Eight people who worked on the original film are working on The Snowman and the Snowdog. ‘We had to get them out of retirement…A lot of the others hadn’t used drawing skills like this for years because now they are all drawing on tablets straight into the computer – and we’ve trained some new people as well’, [Camilla] Fielding says. Lupus [Films] has employed 78 renderers in total…As a lead animator, [Pete] Western was responsible for four ‘key’ drawings per second, which plot out the main action of the shot. An animation assistant – or ‘inbetweener’ – does the remaining eight drawings per second to fill the gaps…’ We had a debate about all the programmes you can use to make something seem handmade’ [Joanna Harrison, the art director, co-writer and and co-owner of Lupus Films] adds, ‘but I think if you go to all the effort of getting something to look as if you have picked up a pencil, why not just pick up a pencil?'”
Above, Fig. 1: Photograph by Julien Vallou de Villeneuve 1854. Tracing by Delacroix.
Delacroix made a tracing, perhaps from the back of the photograph held up against a window. I flipped the photograph horizontally to make comparison easier. I placed a semi-transparent image of the drawing on top of the image of the photograph. The lines correspond with the painting almost exactly, thus confirming that the drawing was in fact a tracing, not simply an accurate drawing. Tracing may seem to be a task which is almost mechanical, requiring little mental input, but when the task really is done by a machine – a computer – the tracing is far less informative than the one made by a human.
For example, Delacroix has outlined the arms and hands in a way which is impossible for the computer. The computer divides the image into areas which are equal in tonal value, then places a line around these, whereas the human can discern the meaning that these tonal areas have structurally, even when they are the same in tone value as adjacent areas. For instance, the arms and some parts of the costume are clearer in the drawing than in the photograph. In the tracing made by the computer some of these lines are missing altogether.
Above, Fig. 2: Standing man looking to the right. Drawing by Delacroix.
This pairing of photograph and drawing presents a rare opportunity to view exactly the same photograph as a great artist did when he made his drawing. We can compare the analysis which he made with the analysis which we might make. It is as if Delacroix had constructed the figure out of egg-shaped lumps of clay, which he pressed into shape to conform to the structure of the body; but he has not pressed and smoothed to such an extent that the original eggs become invisible.
After a few days training, most 10 year old children would be able to draw more accurately than this, in the sense of making an outline which resembles a tracing; but accuracy of this kind was not of primary importance to Delacroix. His outline forms a clearer description of a three-dimensional construction than a tracing would have done. In some ways it is harder to draw like this from a photograph than from life. In life the model and the artist move slightly, which makes the construction easier to see and to draw.
Above, Fig. 3: Heads by Memling and Stieglitz.
On the left a detail from a portrait of a man by Memling, the “first photographer”, according to Alfred Stieglitz; and, on the right, a detail from a portrait by Stieglitz. The comparison is not on a perfectly equal basis, because the subject of the Stieglitz is a woman (Georgia O’Keeffe) but it was the closest I could find which might bear comparison with the Memling.
Notice how the painting clarifies the structure of the head, while the photograph does not. It would be easier to make a sculpture based on the Memling than on the Stieglitz. Even a very exact copy of a photograph shows some kind of analysis (although it may be of a poor quality).
Above, Fig. 4 Nude drying herself by Degas.
Degas may well have taken this photograph at about the same time as he made the painting. This does not necessarily mean that he worked from the photograph. Quite often painters take photographs of the subjects they paint, only to have historians jump to the conclusion that they must have painted from the photographs. (An historian did this with my work on a couple of occasions. He suspected me of hiding my modus operandi, even though I was quite happy to point out paintings of mine which I really had painted from photographs).
This comparison shows the type of departure Degas would have made from a literally accurate tracing. In the computer tracing, the form of the model is difficult to discern. The painting contains about the same number of lines or edges as the computer tracing, but Degas’ lines give a clearer idea of the model’s shape.
Those who believe that the camera is a tool just like pencils and brushes tend to think that analysing a scene is a mechanical process, done equally well by a machine as by a human. That is a fallacy, as this comparison shows. The translation of a scene into a painting is not a mechanical process: it involves making choices – choices which are different from the mechanical ones which might be made by a computer.
Above, Fig. 5 Kneeling woman by Delacroix.
It is possible to see exactly where Delacroix has departed from literal accuracy. In its place he has provided some clarification of the three-dimensional structure of the model, though not as successfully as in the previous drawing (Fig.2).
Delacroix has brought to the photograph his knowledge of the figure, and how its parts fit together. Note, for example, how the small of the back links the back with the hips, something which is almost invisible in the photograph.
Even so, he seems to have had difficulty with some of the forms. The position of the woman’s shoulder-blade, for example, is not clearly expressed, and in many places the shading is not very informative about the construction. Compare this with Figs. 2, 6 and 7, all of which are better drawn in this respect.
These are the sort of deficiencies which one frequently sees in the drawings which students make in life classes. Even a great artist like Delacroix could sometimes make drawings which fell below his customary high standard.
Above, Fig. 6 Drawing of a seated man by Delacroix.
Notice how Delacroix has outlined the volumes, rather than making the equivalent of a tracing. Given the task of constructing the figure out of pieces of plasticene, the drawing would explain where to put them better than would the photograph.
Delacroix has found a clear place for the ridge of the shoulder blade and the muscles on the man’s side, all of which link together logically; but he seems to have lost his way along the spine. It almost looks as if he has introduced a distant arm behind the man’s back.
This illustrates the sort of intellectual exertion which is needed when making a drawing or a painting (and when viewing one). The drawing informs the viewer about Delacroix’s analytical thinking (whether of high quality or low), while the photograph does not.
Above, Fig. 7 Delacroix (1798 – 1863), Liberty Leading the People, 1830 (detail).
Photograph by courtesy of the Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Analysis has formed the main topic under discussion so far, but this example illustrates its complement, synthesis – drawing from memory and imagination. The approach to drawing is similar. Delacroix has drawn lines around volumes, and they represent equivalent volumes in the subject. But while a drawing from life or a photograph may be checked against the scene to see whether it is a reasonable summary (Fig. 6), the construction of an imaginary scene may be checked only in so far as it strikes the imagination of the viewer.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


Coming to Life: Frankenweenie – A Black and White Michelangelo for Our Times

12th November 2012

As an organisation with an essentially critical raison d’etre we get few opportunities to celebrate bona fide creative achievements. This post, in part, is an exception. Longer than usual, it is a tale of two separate but cross-linking events. One is the case of a dog that has not barked, the other is a story of a dog that has been brought back from the dead. To a surprising degree, the latter throws light on the former, which case we consider first.

The 500th anniversary of the completion in 1512 of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings has gone almost entirely un-celebrated. On October 31st, in a small “in-house” service marking the 500th anniversary of Pope Julius II’s service celebrating the completion of the ceiling, Pope Benedict XVI asked a group of cardinals, Vatican employees and guests to imagine what it must have been like 500 years ago, adding that contemplating the frescoes renders them “more beautiful still, more authentic. They reveal all of their beauty. It is as if during the liturgy, all of this symphony of figures come to life, certainly in a spiritual sense, but inseparably also aesthetically.”

Apologists for the transforming 1980-90 restoration of the ceiling are nonplussed by the missed opportunity for a mega-beano half-millennium art celebration. In truth, it is not hard to see why this opportunity should have been foregone by the Vatican. Just two decades after completion of the most intensely controversial restoration of modern times, the state-of-the-art air-conditioning system installed to protect the chemically stripped-down plaster ceiling is failing to cope with the “unimaginable amounts of dirt” and massive atmospheric fluctuations caused by the Sistine Chapel’s throngs of paying visitors whose disrespectful raucous behaviour is a source of shame and censure within Italy. On November 1st it was reported that the Vatican has no plans to try to limit tourists”. There is not a lot to celebrate here.

This latest failure of an “ultimate restoration” to anticipate and meet future conservation needs carries an implicit call for further urgent conservation but, with it, an indication of art restoration’s specious philosophy and too-frequently destructive consequences. When Art begets art there is pure gain, a life-giving gift. The old art remains to exert its own powers; the new brings fresh experiences and perspectives; running in tandem, each enriches the other as traditions are extended and invigorated (see Figs. 29 and 30). Restoration begetting restoration is another matter altogether.

Art restoration is not a bona fide life-conferring process. Because Art is self-renewing and self-extending, it does not follow that its historically rooted artefacts may be renewed endlessly, routinely, by technicians. To the contrary, in order to read Art’s trajectories it is imperative that its works remain unadulterated. Restorers, with their ever-more ambitious and presumptuous attempts to undo and redo earlier restorations and to reverse all evidence of age, leave old works of art as increasingly spurious impostors. It cannot be otherwise. This is not a question of finding the right “Professional Ethics”. Restorers cannot act outside of their own heads and times, which is why the most authentic old works of art remain those that are least restored. Nor can restorers submit to criticism and evaluation, as all bona fide creators must do. Their professional mystique must be preserved at all times. It rests on impenetrable screeds of pseudo-science and systems of technical “analysis” that preclude evaluation of the optical consequences of interventions on works of visual art.

In this depressing art cultural milieu it was startling and refreshing to encounter the recent stunningly brilliant black and white photographic stills promoting Tim Burton’s new animated film Frankenweenie (Figs. 1, 3, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 23 and 27). The wit and force of these images rewards examination. The technical key to what might otherwise seem an improbable (if not blasphemous) artistic connection between the unique theologically-charged high art enterprise of Michelanglo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and an animated horror film for children in which one reviewer detected an anti-creationism polemic, can be found in the film’s eschewing of colour, and in Michelangelo’s superimposition of black painting over his own frescoes.

A more general connection is that, for all the marketing hullabaloo of expensively made films, Frankenweenie proves to have been a remarkably art-driven and shaped enterprise (see Figs. 10 to 14). That the full-blown cinematic realisation of this film’s essentially personal and idiosyncratic vision required the specialised contributions of an enormous range of talents and expertises, links it organisationally to the ambitious artistic productions of the great Renaissance art studios.

In part, the power of Burton’s images stems from the simple optical fact that the contrast between a pure solid black and a clean white is the most potent tool in the visual box. But even more, it stems from the fact that between those graphic poles an effectively infinite but individually discernible continuum of values (tints and tones) can be run. An examination of the highly disciplined, imaginatively constructive deployment of such tone/values in Frankenweenie helps pinpoint the nature and the scale of the artistic losses suffered through the “restoration” of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings (see Figs. 2, 8, 9, 19, 20, 21, 22, 31, 32, and 33).

Burton’s vivid black and white photographic imagery truly participates in one of modern Western art’s most distinguishing traits. From Alberti to Ruskin, artists have appreciated and explained how tonal gradations can magically conjure three-dimensional structures (form) 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, Cinema and Photography generally have sought (however awkwardly) to absorb those ancient empowering lessons, and in Burton’s hands they find singularly powerful expression.

To take Michelangelo first: he did not want the job of painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He wished to work on a massive carved marble tomb of sculpted figures. When compelled by the Pope (Julius II) to paint the ceiling as a novice frescoist, he attempted to get out of the job as soon as he encountered technical difficulties. He was made to continue after being instructed on avoiding future errors (by mixing plaster properly) and concealing existing ones (by applying transparent washes of glue/size). The onerous duty turned into a labour of love and on completion of his hurried, direct painting into the wet plaster of the ceiling, Michelangelo continued working on the dried fresco surface with dark pigments bound with glue or size – to the fury of an impatient Julius II. With those additional (or “auxilliary”) paints he added details and generally strengthened and revised his designs so as to make his pictorial effects more dramatically and unprecedentedly sculptural.

Between 1980 and 1990 the frescoes were transformed in a filmed restoration sponsored by NTV, the Nippon Television Corporation. The restorers contended that the paint applied on the dried frescoes’ surface was not Michelangelo’s and they removed it to artistically adverse and violently controversial effect (for a full account of which, see “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, by James Beck and Michael Daley, chapters III and IV). With the work left less sculptural and more stridently coloured, the restorers pronounced the “discovery” of a New and True Michelanglo – an artist who, contrary to all previous understanding, was a brilliant colourist who had abandoned “traditional chiaroscuro modelling” in favour of vibrating “electic contrasts of hue and much irridescence”. This post hoc rationale defied both historical testimony and technical evidence.

It is a matter of record both that Michelangelo made sculptural models of the ceiling figures to study the shadows that their forms would cast (see Fig. 9), and that the shadows he had painted onto the dry ceiling were copied countless times from within his own lifetime until the time of the last restoration (see Figs. 19 to 22). When Michelangelo was compelled to stop painting, the world was astonished by his sculptural – not chromatic – effects. He had revolutionised mural painting by imposing upon the chapel’s curved ceiling the (inverted and paraphrased) monumental architectural tomb peopled by carved figures that he would have preferred to be executing. The restorers, having injured the material realisation of Michelangelo’s revolutionary pictorial conception, demanded a re-writing of art history. That so many scholars were intitially compliant might testify to a profession that writes more than it looks and that uses images as illustrations to theories or texts, rather than as records of the most primary of all sources – the works of art themselves.

Thus, the restorers and their art historical supporters jointly insisted, against hard evidence, that what had been taken for centuries to be carefully studied sculptural effects were deceiving byproducts of “candle smoke and still more of glues” applied by previous restorers. Their suggestion that such phenomena were responsible for “the kind of suggestive painting by shadows for which Michelangelo was admired until a few years ago” was patently absurd: how could gradual arbitrary accumulations have arranged themselves along Michelangelo’s designs so as to enhance his sculptural effects? Conversely, if those effects really had been products of gradual accidental accretions over the centuries, what might have deceived Michelangelo’s own contemporaries, biographers and copyists into believing that they already existed?

Consider further the very weight of the historical evidence. One of Michelangelo’s biographers, Giorgio Vasari, marvelled at his ability to conjure seemingly palpable bodies that had somehow wrested themselves from the surfaces on which they had been painted, into the (seemingly) real space of the artist’s invention:

Then who is not filled with admiration and amazement at the awesome sight of Jonah…The vaulting [of the ceiling] naturally springs forward, following the curve of the masonry; but through the force of art it is apparently straightened out by the figure of Jonah, which bends in the opposite direction; and thus vanquished by the art of design with its lights and shades, the ceiling even appears to recede.”

Vasari’s testimony on Michelangelo’s deployment of “lights and shades” to sculptural effect was echoed in the short biography written by Ascanio Condivi, a student and assistant through whom Michelangelo is believed to have spoken by proxy. For Condivi, too, the figure of Jonah was:

…most admirable of all…because contrary to the curve of the vault and owing to the play of light and shadow, the torso which is foreshortened backward is in the part nearest the eye, and the legs which project forward are in the part which is farthest.”

As a single instance of evidence, consider the copy of Jonah shown at Fig. 22. This ink and wash record was made by Giulio Clovio who was known as “the Michelangelo of small works” and recognised by Vasari as a most “excellent illuminator or painter of small things…who has far surpassed all others in this exercise”. His copy happens also to record a group of figures below Jonah. These figures had been painted by Michelangelo beteween 1508 and 1512 but were destroyed by him in 1535 when he prepared the altar wall to receive his single massive Last Judgement mural. Thus, we can see through Clovio’s copy of those long lost passages of Michelangelo painting that strong and cast shadows were decisively present when the painting was brand new. A nude youth then held the tablet bearing Jonah’s name. That figure and the tablet both cast shadows onto the very wall on which they were painted. Michelanglo had thus employed a trompe l’oeil pictorial device to deceive the eye into believing that the figure stood in front of the surface to which it adheres. On this testimony alone claims that Michelangelo’s “suggestive painting by shadows” was a product of “candle smoke and still more of glues” should never have been uttered.

Where the Vatican’s restorers cavalierly discarded Michelangelo’s shadows, in Frankenweenie, Tim Burton has laboured lovingly to produce his shadows. It is remarkable to how great an extent photography and film-making today have been informed and nourished by fine art conventions and the lessons of painting (see Fig. 16). On the influence of painting on the great cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, for example, see the tribute paid to him by Martin Scorcese in Fig. 15. On the early cinematic influences on Burton, see Figs. 4 and 5. It is also remarkable to how great an extent film-making has taken possession of the traditional humanly engaging story-telling and symbolic functions of art that contemporary museum and gallery “fine artists” have abandoned. With animated films, where the characters and their settings are drawn or modelled, distinctions between artistic and photographic media lose almost all force.

Burton’s own film – a remake of his earlier (1984) half-hour, live-action film of a boy who resurrects his pet dog after a fatal accident – was made on an acknowledged artistic impulse: “I’d look at the drawings I did originally, and there was a simplicity to them I wanted to get” (see Fig. 11). Where Michelangelo had completed his vast cycle of painting with hundreds of figures – and probably thousands of preparatory studies – in just four years, thirty modellers (led by puppet makers Ian Mackinnon and Pete Saunders and the animation director, Trey Thomas) each spent over a year working on Burton’s 86 minutes long film. Technically speaking, the film is a 3D black and white stop-motion animation. That is, models of characters are placed in model sets to be moved in tiny increments each of which is separately recorded in a process that is notoriously slow and laborious – a skilled animator might produce five seconds of footage in a week. Burton, a former Disney animator, opted for this method in preference to digital animation for a variety of reasons but, perhaps, primarily because “There’s an amazing amount of artistry in it”, as he told Mark Salisbury in the Daily Telegraph.

This is certainly the case. In the first instance the models for every character and prop are made by hand (see Fig. 10). Then they are then painted. Then they are arranged on sets. Then they are then lit. Finally they are animated and photographed. The models themselves exert great appeal to Burton who loves their handcrafted tactile feel. He loves the challenge of embedding characters in inanimate objects and then “bringing them to life” through motion and changing expressions and relationships. The tactility of the models is deliberately enhanced by showing the film in 3D: “…it’s the closest thing to walking on the set of stop-motion animated film, seeing what the artists have done, feeling those textures and feeling the dimensional quality you get when you are there.” (A delicious glimpse of the artistry evident in the sets by Rick Heinrichs can be found in the online animation magazine Skwigly.)

Capturing individual characters in the models was preceded by immense thought and study. For “Sparky”, Burton required the animators to visit dog shows, and to study and film dogs in the studio. This is very much in the Disney tradition: in Katherine and Richard Greene’s 1991 “The Man Behind the Magic”, a photograph shows no fewer than eighteen draughtsmen and an instructor, surrounding and drawing a live deer from every angle as preparation for the film Bambi. Disney is quoted as holding that “We cannot do fantastic things…unless we first know the real”. (Modern art schools notwithstanding, the Renaissance and its studio practices are not yet extinct.)

The beauty of Burton’s enterprise is that everything in it is given a value and every value serves an express purpose in terms of physical structure, characterisation, emotional force, and/or narrative development. When made, the models were painted in monochrome, in shades of black, white and grey (apart from grass, flowers, drapes and certain other items) because, for Burton “The black and white is very much part of the story, the character and the emotion of it. There’s something very pleasing about it, seeing this kind of animation this way, a certain depth, and the way things go in and out of shadows…” On which, let us further consider Michelangelo’s “suggestive painting by shadows”.

In Fig. 18 we see an apparently brilliant (but in truth deceivingly) “cinematic” photographic exploitation of cast shadows. In Fig. 19 we see (on the left) that before restoration Jonah’s left foot cast a strong shadow across the floor, which shadow merged with another dark shadow under the seat. The shadow under the seat “drew” a sharp, tonally contrasting vertical boundary between the lighter front-facing plane of the upright block that supports the seat and the receding (shaded) side face of that block. To the right of that block (and Jonah’s left leg) another, albeit less strong, shadowed zone threw the block’s right-hand edge into relief. After the restorers removed what they took to be dirt and disfigurement, the shadow cast by the foot disappeared (as seen on the right) – as also did much of the shadow under the bench, thereby exposing the previously hidden side of the upright block. The shadow to the right of the block was also weakened.

Mere dirt settling on a painting would weaken and blur outlines and edges. It would lighten dark sufaces and darken light ones, thereby compressing the range of values present. It is technically inconceivable that it might sharpen edges by intensifying contrasts. There is no dirt (or discoloured varnish) that is simultaneously capable of lightening already light surfaces while darkening dark ones. Had the shadows really been applied, as is claimed, by later restorers, the paint would have run into cracks in the plaster ceiling. And yet we know that it had not. We know that it had in fact cracked as the plaster had cracked. The paint was therefore applied when the plaster was smooth and new – because we also know that the plaster had cracked before any restorers went near it. Besides all of which, as we have seen, the shadows were recorded before 1535. The inescapable truth is that restorers removed painting that could only have been Michelangelo’s own.

Burton’s handcrafted models have an immediate engaging presence but the means of their humorous psychologically charged personalities are complex and artistically sophisticated. They display distinctly sculptural qualities and the satisfyingly palpable presences of diminutive figures in a real space that is continuous with our own. We are drawn into their world much as Michelangelo brought living old testament figures into ours. For force of cartoon-like effect and clarity, Burton’s heads are highly stylised and plastically simplified. Of Sparky, Burton explains: “Obviously he looks like a cartoon. It’s not like he’s an anatomically correct dog” (see Figs. 10 to 14).

Formally speaking, these sculptural simplifications might be related to the abstractions of 20th sculptors such as Brancusi who were in pursuit of “pure” or “significant” form (see Figs. 23, 24 and 25). However, plastic simplification is only part of the artistic/expressive equation with Burton’s Gothic characters who must be sentient engaged actors in intense psychologically-charged emotional dramas.

The chief expressive features of a face are the eyes and the mouth. Making the eyes large and the jaws small enhances childhood traits and vulnerabilities (see Figs. 1, 3, 14 and 27). The placement of the black pupils in the large wide-open eyes permits acute laser-like precision of gaze, as is seen to masterful effect at Fig. 14 in the affectionate twin-engagement of the boy and his beloved and devoted dog. The mouth is the most emotionally expressive feature of all, and although childhood-small in these characters, it becomes a vehicle of astonishingly subtle expressions (see Figs. 1, 3 and, especially, 27).

The antithesis of Brancusi’s plastic self-compression is Daumier’s cartoon-like sculptures where the imperatives of caricature pull the head this way and that with scant regard for any residual internal self-composure (Fig. 26). If the subject in Daumier has a bird-like personna, the nose may become a beak and the forehead may recede at an alarming rate. Burton’s compactly eloquent pebble-smooth but animated heads are a remarkably successful synthesis of these disparate sculptural traditions.

In terms of connections with Michelangelo’s painting, particular consideration should be given to the brilliantly combined effects of modelling and lighting in Frankenweenie. The boy’s head shown at Fig. 27 is articulated with seamless lucidity. It also happens to be exquisitely lit. Everyone knows the Impressionists to be painters of light but, then, light is fair game for painters who may produce their own (artistically, not literally). For the apprehension of form sculptors depend on actual light in the world. (Sculptors can, however, create an implicit light in their own graphic renderings of form, and may even depict forms that are lit as if from within, as seen at Fig. 28.) Cinematic model-making animators are advantaged: they make their own forms and may then provide their own expressively optimal actual light. The lessons of cinema, in this regard, are the more valuable because the relationship between sculptors’ forms and light may be insufficiently appreciated – certainly sculptures suffer terribly at the hands of exhibition designers. Rodin famously described sculpture as the art of the bump and the hollow – or, perhaps more accurately, as an art of hollows and projections: “de creux et de bosses”. He demonstrated this claim to Paul Gsell (“Art, by Auguste Rodin”, Paul Gsell, 1912) in the following manner:

One late afternoon, when I was with Rodin in his atelier, darkness set in while we talked… He lighted a lamp as he spoke, took it in his hand, and led me towards a marble statue which stood upon a pedestal in a corner of the atelier. It was a delightful little antique copy of the Venus di Medici. Rodin kept it there to stimulate his own inspiration while he worked. ‘Come nearer,’ he said. ‘What do you notice?’ he asked. At the first glance I was extraordinarily struck by what was suddenly revealed to me. The light so directed, indeed, disclosed numbers of slight projections and depressions upon the surface of the marble which I should never have suspected…At the same time he slowly turned the moving stand which supported the Venus. As he turned, I still noticed in the general form of the body a multitude of almost imperceptible roughnesses. What had at first seemed simple was really of astonishing complexity. Rodin threw up his head smiling. ‘Is it not marvellous?’ he cried. ‘Confess that you did not expect to discover so much detail. Just look at the numberless undulations of the hollow which unites the body to the thigh…notice all the voluptuous curvings of the hip…And, now, here, the adorable dimples along the loins…You almost expect, when you touch this body, to find it warm…'”

Unfortunately, Rodin’s demonstrations were not recorded on film (as far as we know) – although a short film does exist of Henry Moore and Kenneth Clark making a nocturnal visit with a lamp to the British Museum’s Greek and Roman collection in order to re-enact Rodin’s lesson. In any event, in the case of Burton’s boy’s head, at Fig. 27, every depression and prominence finds beautiful expression in subtle tonal transitions that would have warmed Rodin’s heart. There is pictorial/plastic alchemy here, as there once was in Michelangelo’s frescoes. The softly continuous undulations of the head are gently disclosed within a dramatic over-arching artificiality of illumination that sets the relatively bright head off against a Great Gothic Darkness. Within the stridency of these clashing lights and darks, the subtlest emotional expression of the mouth is perfectly captured.

The expression of a mouth is controlled by the interplay of many facial muscles and it is notoriously difficult to capture, as even so great a portraitist as John Singer Sargent ruefully noted (“A portrait is a picture in which there is something not quite right about the mouth”). In this model the play of facial muscles at the mouth has given rise to a subtle but distinctive mini-topography of light-catching bosses and light-evading depressions that perfectly express the boy’s finely balanced state of delight and trepidation/wonderment. The artistry here is consumate – this is a mouth to rival Ingres’s or Holbein’s in the precision of its forms and its delicacy of expression. We see another living expression evoked in a painting at Figs. 29 and 30 where Picasso, in one of his greatest neo-classical inventions, has not modelled actual forms but evoked them by simulating an optimal play of light and shade on his imagined forms with a myriad of mosaic-like deftly placed and adjusted patches of tone.

In the Michelangelo head seen in Fig. 2, we see how (before restoration) the artist had expressed sculptural forms by drawing and by tonal manipulation. The tones disclose a three-dimensional head held in very specific and sculpturally revealing lighting. Long before cinema, in his painting, Michelangelo was simultaneously his own model-maker, lighting specialist and recording “camera man”. (This is not to claim that he, in any sense, invented or anticipated photography. Rather, it is to note the extent to which photography was a mechanically aided outgrowth of pre-existing artistic preoccupations.) Before discussing the specific lighting scheme Michelangelo deployed, it might be helpful to consider something of the great variety of lighting options that cinema and photography show to be available. Brilliant examples of lighting made for the purpose of specific and self-consciously artistic effects from the 1920s to the 1950s in the Kobal collection (see Figs. 6, 7 and 18) are illustrated and technically explained in the marvellously instructive book “Hollywood Portraits ~ Classic Shots and How to Take them” by Roger Hicks, a writer on photography, and Christopher Nisperos, a studio portrait photographer who specialises in Hollywood-style photographs (which subject he has studied for nearly thirty years).

In their examination of the photographs, the authors deduce from personal knowledge and the evidence of the images themselves, how many sources of light (lamps) were employed and where they were positioned in relation to the subject. With each photograph a diagram shows the likely positioning of the light sources. In the course of this highly instructive exercise, photography is seen to acknowledge great indebtedness to painting. Such technical analysis of photographic means has, we believe, direct application to the analysis of changes made by restorers to the artistic values of painters, as is discussed at Figs. 8, 19, 27 and 31-33.

In figs. 6 and 7 we see two heads of two beautiful women that have been expertly lit to very different expressive purposes. In the portrait of Ingrid Bergman (Fig. 6) the lighting is soft and greatly emphasises the invitingly tactile values of the wool clothing, the hair, and, above all, of the face itself, which is a perfect essay in the soft plastic undulations that Rodin so cherished in the “radiant appearance of living flesh” found in the finest sculptures of late antiquity. In the portrait of Lana Turner (Fig. 7), a more self-consciously sculptural purpose is evident as the beauty of the subject’s head is directly juxtaposed and equated with both a classical bust and a bouquet of flowers. This portrait is more intensely lit so as to contrast the planar divisions between the front face of the head and its shadowed sides, and to isolate the features of the eyes and mouth. The lights and the darks generally are placed with the utmost calculation, but to the end of a more chilling, marbled perfection – here, the groomed perfection of the coiffure extends no invitation to touch. Every part of the subject’s head and shoulders is drawn with the utmost Bronzino-like clarity by means of carefully adjusted tonal contrast: where the face is brightest there is a dark shadow. Where the blonde hair sinks into dark shadows there is a lighter background. However, these seeming photographically recorded artful placements of value have, the authors disclose, been achieved with the assistance of considerable photographic retouching, which practice was extensively prevalent in the portraits under examination (see comments at Fig. 7).

In Michelangelo’s (unrestored) head at Fig. 2 we see a treatment of background lighting that is, like that of the Lana Turner portrait, subservient to the clear plastic expression of form. Within the head, however, Michelangelo deployed a much wider range of half-tones. His head runs progressively from its brightly lit profile of the face to a very darkly shaded neck and shoulder. The bright profile is emphasised and thrown into relief by a shaded background, while the very dark back of the neck is set off against a light background. We see in Fig. 8, however, that after “restoration” the logic and the dispositions of the tones have been massively weakened and subverted: the dark ground at the face’s contour has been largely removed; the consistent form-disclosing tonal progression within the shading of the head (from brightest light on the upper right to the strongest darks on the left) has been horrendously undermined. This head now looks as if lit by a multiplicity of form-flattening lamps

But that is not all the damage. If one looks carefully at the left contour at the back of the head, it is evident that the very design of Michelanglo’s head has been changed. The forms have been reduced. The space, for example, between the body of the hair and the little plaited “pony tail” has grown larger. This feature of the coiffure has grown smaller and smoother. We have seen recently how a restorer at the National Galleries of Scotland promised to “improve Titian’s contours” with the assistance of his director. Who might have authorised this redrawing of Michelangelo’s contours? Or was the change simply not noticed? Whichever, the more closely one looks into the details of this restored work the more evident the losses of Michelangelo’s work become.

In Fig. 31 we see how, before restoration, the aperture of the nostril was larger. We see how shading that had made the corner of the mouth tuck more covincingly into the forms of the cheek has been sacrificed. We see how the background had been darkened by systematic parallel vertical strokes of black. The restorers deny that such work was Michelangelo’s own. Once again, they defy historical testimony. Giovanni Battista Armenino went to Rome in 1550 and stayed for seven years copying the “best Pictures”, including Michelangelo’s very recently painted Last Judgement (which was made between between 1536 and 1541). In 1587 Armenino produced a treatise on fresco painting in which he noted that, as frescoes begin to dry and no longer absorb pigments with same effectiveness, the painter must:

…then finish it of with moist and dark shade tints…the muscles of the naked figures as being of greater difficulty, are painted by hatching them in different directions with very liquid shade tints, so that they appear of a texture like granite; and there are very brilliant examples of this painted by the hand of Michelangelo…they can be perfectly harmonized by retouching them in secco…in retouching the dark parts in this manner, there are some painters who make a watercolour tint of black and fine lake mixed together, with which they retouch the naked figures and produce a most beautiful effect, because they make the hatchings upon the painting, as is usual to do while drawing upon paper with black lead…Some persons temper these dark tints with gum, some with thin glue…this I affirm from what I have both seen and done and also what I have been told by the best painters.”

When the ceiling was examined in the 19th century by the painter and fresco expert, Charles Heath Wilson, he found that not only had Michelangelo’s ancient size painting cracked originally as the plaster had cracked but that it now melted readily to the touch of a wet finger. In accordance with Armenino, Wilson saw that the surface painting consisted of:

…a finely ground black, mixed with size…The shadows of the draperies have been boldy and solidly reouched with this size colour, as well as the shadows on the backgrounds…other parts are glazed with same material, and even portions of the fresco are passed over with size, without any admixture of colour, precisely as the force of water colour drawings is increased with washes of gum. ..These retouchings, as usual with all the masters of the art at the time, constituted the finishing process or as Condivi expresses it, alluding to to it in the history of these frescoes, ‘l’ultima mano’. They were evidently done all at the same time and therefore when the scaffold was in place.”

All of that retouching has gone but record of it survives. In 1967/8 the writer, painter and former art critic of Time, Alexander Eliot and his film-maker wife, (now the late) Jane Winslow Eliot, spent over 500 hours on the scaffold making The Secret of Michelangelo, Every Man’s Dream, in the course of which film they noted that:

With the exception of the previously restored Prophet Zachariah, almost everything we saw on the barrel vault came clearly from Michelangelo’s own inspired hand. There are passages of the finest, the most delicately incisive draughtsmanship imaginable.”

Someday, the Eliots’ film (made for ABC Television) might be re-shown, but meanwhile, Alexander Eliot’s testimony is now on the record in a new full-length film/DVD biography, A Light in the Dark: The Art and Life of Frank Mason, in which he and other early campaigners against the restoration (including the late painter, Frank Mason, and the late Professor James Beck) are given voice on the Sistine Chapel restoration. Not least of the delights among this film’s precious and historical footage, are Tom Wolfe’s account of his lessons in Frank Mason’s painting classes at the Art Students League, New York, and the sight of the former Metropolitan Museum of Art director, the late Thomas Hoving, belligerently boasting that he himself had helped sponge from the ceiling the “filth” that was in truth the last stages of Michelangelo’s painting.

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: The girl, Elsa, in Tim Burton’s teenage horror story, Frankenweenie.
Above, Fig. 2: The head of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, before restoration and 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. (For the grave disruption of these pictorial values during restoration, see Fig. 8.)
Above, fig. 3: The dramatically lit adults in Frankenweenie.
Above, Fig. 4: The shadow of Vincent Price (a hero of the maker of Frankenweenie) frightens Phyllis Kirk in Warner’s 1953 House of Wax.
Above, Fig. 5: The famous and massively influential shadow of Max Schreck in the 1922 film Nosferatu. Denis Gifford, in his 1973 “A Pictorial history of Horror Movies”, points out that the Germans were so fond of shadows that, just a year after Schreck had crept across cinema screens, they made a film…about shadows – Warning Shadows.
Above, Fig. 6: Ingrid Bergman, c. 1941, as photographed by Laszlo Willinger and discussed in the 2000 book “Hollywood Portraits” by Roger Hicks and Christopher Nisperos. The authors comment: “The use of shadows in the background is a Hollywood cliché, in some cases as much because of technical incompetence as because of the photographer’s vision. But such an accusation could never be levelled at Willinger. The almost cubist use of light and shadow here is the work of a master.”
The reference to painting with this photographer seems well appropriate. Willinger, the son of a photographer mother and a news agency owning father, produced a body of work that “shows clear influences of the artistic ferment in which he grew up in Europe in the 1920s and of the highly intellectualized and formalized Berlin (and Soviet) school.”
Above, Fig. 7: Lana Turner (detail), as photographed by Eric Carpenter in 1942 and discussed in “Hollywood Portraits”. The authors comment: “The chiaroscuro is striking, but there is much retouching in this picture. Most of what we see between the actress and the statue looks like airbrushing, particularly the shadow next to her cheek, but the keyline on the chin is genuine and beautifully executed – a reflection from the background…the profile is masterful, and the canting of the camera – a popular device at the time – is all but essential: it places the main subject’s face at a more attractive angle and greatly reduces the apparent mass of the statue, which otherwise might dominate the composition. The principal tricks in re-creating this picture , first the very careful control of the chiaroscuro; second, the angled camera; and third, diligent and extensive retouching…”
Hicks and Nisperos on Retouching:
Although some Hollywood portraits are not retouched at all, many more are – very heavily. This was done on the negative: comparatively easy on an 8 x 10 in. negative for contact printing and not too difficult on a 4 x 5 in. negative for enlargement, but next to impossible on roll film. Not just minor flaws in the complexion were taken out; complexions were completely remodelled with a soft pencil, backgrounds were cheerfully ‘blown out’ with the airbrush, and ‘hammer and chisel’ corrective retouching was applied to faults on the negative… Retouching on 8 x 10 in. negatives is actually easier than one might expect, though there are a few tricks worth knowing. Use a soft pencil. Don’t press too hard or you will end up with shiny areas that won’t take any more retouching. Work with tiny ticks, scribbles or figures of eight: don’t try to follow lines too clearly. Fix the retouching with steam from a kettle, but remember to let the negative dry fully afterwards.”
Above, Fig. 8: The head of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, before restoration (left), and after restoration (right) showing the catastrophic loss of modelling on the head and neck; the losses of volume in the hair; and, even, the changes to the design of the hair and neck. Destruction is found in the tiniest details: note the weakening of the collar and its partial break-up on the right; see Figs. 31-33 below. In terms of Hollywood photographic lighting practice, Michelangelo’s head (before restoration) might be said to have been modelled by a single dominant (“Key”) light source which established highlights at the temple and the subsequent tones and shadows which ran across and down the head and neck. In reality, Michelangelo devised his own implicit light source so as to produce the greatest force of modelling in his figures, combined with the greatest possible legibilty when viewed, as the figures were, from not less than sixty feet away.
Above, Fig. 9: A page from “Michelangelo Models”, 1972, by Paul James Le Brooy, showing a terra cotta arm (left) next to paintings of “Slaves” on the Sistine Chapel ceiling – before restoration.
Above, Fig. 10: Tim Burton holding the model for “Sparky”, the dog in Frankenweenie.
Above, Fig. 11: Tim Burton’s drawing (of 1982) for the chief protagonists in Frankenweenie: “Victor Frankenstein”, the boy, and “Sparky”, his beloved dog (after resurrection).
It is remarkable how the initially envisaged principal characters established here have informed and survived all the technical proccesses involved in the film – see Fig. 14. The drawing is a wonderful invention and characterisation. Graphically speaking, it might be thought to combine the delightfully light and playful touch of, say, a Quentin Blake, with something rather darker than a Maurice Sendak. But appraisals of style do not quite touch what is happening here. Confronting our worst nightmares and terrors, Burton shows them vanquished and transcended by a Love made palpable. Note the thinness and frailty of the boy’s arms against the weighty corporeal mass of the devoted dog, enhanced and underlined as it already is, in cinematic anticipation, by shadows.
Above, Fig. 12: “Sparky” before his (temporarily) fatal accident. In interviews, Burton has spoken much of his own childhood relationship with a dog: “A dog can be your first love, and I was that way. Unconditional. You don’t get it often with people. You don’t get it with all animals. But my dog had that soulful quality and it got distemper, which meant it was not going to live for long…” On the portrayal aimed for in the film, Burton said that an attempt was made to “capture the behaviour and the mannerisms and characteristics of a dog, the way when you leave they don’t want you to leave, and you walk out and then forget your keys and you walk back in and [it’s like] they haven’t seen you for a week. That pure emotion and a love that’s not questioned…You don’t get that with people – that was the goal.”
Above, Fig. 13: One of the film’s spookier girls (left), and “Sparky” sporting his “Frankenstein” bolt (right).
Above, Fig. 14: “Victor”, the Frankenweenie boy, with his resurrected dog, “Sparky”.
Above, Fig. 15: Martin Scorcese’s appreciation of Jack Cardiff, as reproduced in the programme to the 2001 ArtWatch UK lecture “Light for Art’s Sake”, given by Jack Cardiff. (See Figs. 16 and 17 below.)
Above, Fig. 16: A page from the “Light for Art’s Sake” lecture programme, showing (detail, top) the life class at the Vienna Academy, 1790, in a mezzotint by Johann Jacobe, after Martin Ferdinand Quadal; and (bottom) Jack Cardiff shooting the “exteriors” on the set of Scott of the Antarctic at the Ealing Studios.
Above, Fig. 17: The cover of the “Light for Art’s Sake” lecture programme, showing “L’Origine de la Peinture, ou les Portraits a la mode, in a 1767 engraving after Scheneau by Jean Ouvrier.
Above, Fig. 18: This striking 1940 Laszlo Wallinger “photograph” of Fred Astaire appears in “Hollywood Portraits” in a section on shadows. The authors write in general terms that: “In most varieties of portraiture, double or ‘crossed’ shadows are anathema: any student on a craft-oriented photographic course would fail the basic examination if he or she turned in portraits with such a defect. In Hollywood portraiture, this convention does not seem to apply, perhaps because shadows don’t normally matter in a movie: when the subject is moving we expect shadows to move, while in a still portrait we expect a more ‘painterly’ and natural use of light…”
Of this portrait, the authors comment: “Things are not always what they seem. When you look at this picture closely, you realize that the ‘shadow’ [in the spotlight] does not quite match the pose and that there are no corresponding shadows between Fred Astaire’s right foot and the somewhat truncated shadow which appears to be a cardboard cutout.”
Of interest to us, in connection with Fig. 19 below, is the shadow cast from Astaire’s right foot. It seems to be the product of a light behind and slightly to the right of the dancer but its straightness must also arouse suspicion of retouching trickery.
Above, Fig. 19: The left foot of Michelangelo’s Jonah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, as it was before restoration (left), and after restoration (right), in the course of which the shadow cast by the foot was removed. Note the loss of other shadows and the changes that occurred to the design of the draperies.
Above, Fig. 20: The wash drawing of Jonah made before 1534 by Giulio Clovio showing (left) the shadow cast by the left foot, and, below it, heavily shaded figures painted before 1512 by Michelangelo and destroyed by him in 1535. A copy (right) of Jonah made in 1886 by Piccinni.
Above, Fig. 21: An enraving (left) of Jonah made in 1805-10 by Rado. A drawing (right) made by Conca in 1823-29.
Above, Fig. 22: The wash drawing of Jonah made before 1534 by Giulio Clovio. Note the emphatic shading on the Michelangelo figures seen at the bottom of the drawing, and the shadow cast by the bearded man on the left on to a subsidiary figure seen standing behind his left arm.
Above, Fig. 23: The girl, Elsa, in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie.
Above, Fig. 24: Constantin Brancusi’s 1912 white marble portrait, Mlle Pogany, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Above, Fig. 25: Brancusi’s 1911 white marble Prometheus, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Above, Fig. 26: Honoré Daumier’s portrait of the banker Lefèvre in bronze (left) from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture garden, Washington, and as a lithograph (right) published in Le Charivari in 1833. Lefèvre who was a director of the Banque de France and a member of the General trade Council had been described as having a face “as sharp as a knife blade” and was considered to be one of the most conservative deputies (he served for Seine region) of Louis-Philippe’s reign.
Above, Fig. 27: The controlled use of shading in this head is a tour de force. The shape of the complete face (a distinct heart shape) is rendered with the absolute clarity of an unbroken outline drawing. The face generally is light within its boundaries, so as to stand in relief against the dark and shadowy background. Within that generally light tonality, however, there is a full and effective range of modelled relief. This can be seen to have been established by two primary light sources: a dominant light to the (viewer’s) right of the head, with a secondary source to the left of the head which highlights the edge of the cheek and the jaw. Reflections of these two sources of light can be seen in the white of the eye on the left. There is a full and plastically descriptive range of tones, even, in the small form that is the boy’s ear. As mentioned left, the treatment of the mouth in terms of its delicacy and precision of expression is quite astonishingly sophisticated and psychologically eloquent.
Above, Fig. 28: A polemical ink drawing (detail) by Michael Daley on the relationship between classical and modern treatments of the female figure.
Above, Fig. 29: Pablo Picasso’s oil on canvas Bust of a Woman, Arms Raised (Buste de femme, les bras levés) painted in 1922. This privately owned work is currently showing (until January 23rd 2013) at the Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in an exhibition “Picasso Black and White”. In the catalogue, the Guggenheim’s director, Richard Armstrong, and the director of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Gary Tinterow, write:
Though many exhibitions and publications have examined manifold aspects of Pablo Picasso’s art, this presentation is the first to focus on a striking feature that continued to occupy the great Spanish artist throughout his prolific career: the use of black and white. Indeed, by means of his persistent return to a black and white palette, which highlights the structure of his compositions, Picasso created artworks of particular strength and visual richness. His Cubist paintings and those from the period of the Spanish Civil War and World War II have often been associated with monochromy and a severe palette, but this exhibition reveals that early in his career Picasso was already purging color from many of his works – a reflex that continued until well into the last years of his life. It is no exageration to say that these evocative black-and-white paintings and sculptures held a special place in Picasso’s opus. That many of them remained in his own collection until his death suggests his emotional attachment to them, and their particular importance to his art…”
Armstrong and Tinterow add: “The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is grateful to Bank of America for its generous contribution in support of the presentation of Picasso Black and White in New York. Bank of America has recognized the significance of this project not only by sponsoring the exhibition, but also by funding a separate research and conservation study of Picasso’s masterpiece Woman Ironing (La repasseuse, 1904), an iconic work from the Guggenheim’s Thannhauser Collection that is featured in this exhibition.”
Above, Fig. 30: Pablo Picasso’s oil on canvas Bust of a Woman, Arms Raised (detail).
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Above, Fig. 31: A detail of the head of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, before cleaning (left), and after cleaning (right). We often show such greyscale comparisons of details before and after restorations, whereas restorers hardly ever do so. This is a pity: such comparisons are more easily comprehended and evaluated than are large scale and fully coloured comparisons. If we consider here the striking differences between the before and after states, pertinent questions may be asked. For example, defenders of this restoration might be asked if they believe the post-cleaning state on the right to have been the original condition of the painting when new. If so, they might then be asked to say how they believe the painting then came to acquire the radically different and, arguably, superior values seen in the pre-cleaning state on the left.
Above, Fig. 32: Following the comments at caption 31, we would ask the viewer to note particularly the tonal dispositions in this pre-restoration section of the head, and the nature of the brushwork (in the treatment of the ear lobe, and the individually drawn strands of hair, for example), and then to compare these with the values found below in the post cleaning state.
Above, Fig. 33: Here, too, we would ask the viewer here to consider how (if this state is taken to be original and as left by Michelangelo in 1512) the features and brushwork which are absent here but present above, came into being. As described left, two artists and writers (Charles Heath Wilson and Alexander Eliot) who examined the frescoes of Michelangelo at touching distance on scaffolds in the 19th and 20th cenuries respectively, testified that Michelangelo had finished details as well as broad areas with dark pigments bound in glue or size. If we examine here the ear lobe, it is apparent that in the post-cleaning state there is much less “modelling” than was previously seen. The edge of the ear was underscored by a black line which has disappeared. The folds of the ear were previously modelled with a greater variety of tones. Before the cleaning one saw on the neck evidence of the cross hatched finishing off of figures that Armenino had described in his treatise of 1587. We would thus contend, for the reasons already given, that the now missing features on the frescoes were not late and accidental accretions but original work made by Michelangelo himself in the finishing stages of his painting.
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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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wibble!