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Lucian Freud’s blast against picture restorers, and a fellow painter’s note of appreciation

25th July 2011

In his book “Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud”, Martin Gayford reports that Neil MacGregor, when director of the National Gallery, “often met Lucian Freud wandering around there in the evening, and learned a lot from him because he sees as an artist. This is quite different from the angle of an art historian.” Unfortunately, there is one lesson that Mr MacGregor might appear not to have learnt from Lucian Freud.

Few of the artists who enjoy the privilege of being able to visit the National Gallery after hours, alone or with a few friends, have attacked the gallery’s picture restorers publicly, but it so happens that the late Lucian Freud was one who bit the hand that indulged him. We can thank Martin Gayford for putting Freud’s condemnation of the National Gallery’s and other restorers on the record in his account of a visit they made to an El Greco exhibition at the gallery in February 2004:

It is a slightly eerie experience being almost alone in this place that is usually so packed. LF is struck by the great sense of reality of certain works – the St Louis from Paris, the boy with a lighted coal from Edinburgh, the wonderful portrait from Boston (but not its horrible frame). But overall, he is disappointed. He is particularly upset by the slick, glossy, over-cleaned, over-bright appearance of many of the works (including, sadly, St Martin). ‘I have never seen so many completely fucked-up pictures. Sometimes I feel I could almost name the Winsor and Newton white the restorer has used.’ LF is highly conscious of a painting’s physical constitution. He is already thinking, he says, about how his own works will age through time, and wishes restorers would allow ‘old things to look old’. He was utterly infuriated, years ago, by the effect of restoration on Piero di Cosimo’s Satyr Mourning over a Nymph (c.1495), in the National Gallery, which was previously a painting – with reclining nude, tender mourning faun and attendant dogs – he loved.

This condemnation is notable for two reasons. First, Freud was demonstrably right (see below and right). Second, as a great modern painter, he gives the lie to the common restorers’ slur that their artist/critics mistake dirt and old varnish for original paint and are romantic traditionalists who cannot adjust their prejudices to the “reality” that old master paintings, when properly scrubbed, are just like modernist paintings – i.e. brighter, cleaner, thinner and flatter. Freud, on any reckoning, was no such creature: although working entirely and un-apologetically as a figurative painter, his means were (in the tense we must now sadly use) both personal and products of no age other than our our own. They were radical and fully cognisant of the wherefores of modernist picture-making – being, as John Wonnacott so perceptively and elegantly describes below, a kind of locally applied “analytic” cubism. And Martin Gayford quotes Freud’s own precise warning that an “excessive reverence for the art of the past would be, I imagine, completely crippling.”

Anyone who possesses a particular couple of books can gauge the error of the National Gallery’s picture cleanings and “restorations”. In 1938 the gallery’s then director, Kenneth Clark, published a fine book of black and white photographs of details from pictures in the gallery (“One Hundred DETAILS from Pictures in the National Gallery”). Those photographs were of very high quality and had been taken for scientific rather than aesthetic purposes. In 1990, the gallery re-published Clark’s book but, this time, with recent colour photographs. In a foreword to the new edition, Neil Macgregor wrote that in 1938 the National Gallery’s pictures were “among the dirtiest in the world”. (There is surely a study to be made of the almost pathological disposition of those commentators who equate evidence of aged materials in pictures with dirt.) MacGregor acknowledges that while Clark complains in some of his commentaries of pleasure lost as a result of the interposition of “discoloured varnish or […] clumsy retouchings”, he remained fearful of “what might be found if the golden veils of dirt and varnish were ever to be removed.” Clark had good reason to be fearful: his then recent cleaning of Velazquez’s full length portrait of Philip IV of Spain (the “Silver Philip”) had – rightly – unleashed a firestorm of criticism and controversy.

Mr MacGregor acknowledges that following the wholesale cleanings that took place at the gallery after the Second World War, many pictures were now “different in critical respects” from the paintings about which Clark had written. It might be tempting to take the phrase “different in critical respects” as a MacGregor-esque euphemism for Freud’s “completely fucked-up”, given that he acknowledged that readers possessing both editions of the book “will decide how much is gain, how much loss” as a result of those cleanings. Alas, from that point onwards, Mr MacGregor seems to have lashed himself to the mast of the Good Ship Conservation and kept private any reservations that he might have had about picture restorations.

Clark’s book paired photographs of similar subjects taken from pictures by different artists and eras. The two details published of the Piero di Cosimo of which Freud lamented, his “A Mythological Subject” (or “Satyr Mourning over a Nymph”), were paired with pictures of Rubens, in the case of Piero’s faun, and Hogarth (a cat from his “The Graham Children”), in the case of Piero’s portrayal of a dog. Clark appended this note on the latter:

Hogarth enjoyed painting this cat so much that the Graham children look hollow and lifeless beside her. She is the embodiment of cockney vitality, alert and adventurous – a sort of Nell Gwynne among cats. Her vulgarity would hardly be noticeable, were she not confronted by the noble silhouette of Piero’s hound who regards her with the gravity of an antique philosopher. The novelist Paul Bourget, when asked what the English critic Walter Pater looked like, replied: ‘Il ressemblait à un amant de Circe transformé en dogue.’”

To appreciate the changes wrought on that hound and a nearby pelican, see Figs. 1 to 6, right. The colour photographs published in the 1990 edition are here shown in greyscale so that like may be compared with like for the purposes of easier and more revealing comparisons.

Michael Daley

A Reflection on the painting of Lucian Freud by the painter John Wonnacott:

I am told that on the blogosphere, I am yet again misquoted as saying that Lucian Freud couldn’t “compose” a picture for toffee. I am no more interested than was Lucian in rearranging objects to make art. What I actually said to the late Bruce Bernard over a bibulous Soho lunch for the Sunday Times colour supplement some twenty years ago was that Lucian couldn’t “design” a painting for toffee. We were talking only of his great late nudes. By contrast, an early head like the John Minton could hang next to Van der Weyden, with its delicate surface and clarity of design. When Bill Coldstream, Lucian’s contemporary and equal, made a paint mark in response to appearance it was related immediately to every other mark on the surface, leading the eye from edge to edge of the picture; that is, drawing as design. Lucian’s brush marks were related directly only to others within the particular object of his scrutiny. As Bruce Bernard went on to quote me: no one else could paint so intensely and so powerfully within the figure.

Never the less I was wrong.

Lucian, as Martin Gayford records in his book the “Man with a Blue Scarf”, always worked standing up so that he could dart backwards and forwards from his easel to subject particular objects to closer observation. In the grandest of the late images, different areas of the painting would be created from different viewpoints, different angles, different distances. These areas seem to crash in to each other, along surface fault lines that I at least find visually exhilarating. Whether this is design or anti-design matters not, it is brilliant and original.

I have been asked to compare Lucian Freud’s approach to painting a Royal Portrait with my own. When I was commissioned to paint the Royal Family I virtually lived in the Palace for a year, trundling my easels and materials, Spencer-like, from the “artist studio” right round to the White Stateroom where Lavery had made his equally large 1913 painting, of George V and family. I drew and redrew the room as the central subject of my design, only occasionally meeting my Royal sitters, about seven hours with each, on different sittings, allowing their figures to grow from and into my design. In Martin’s book we see Lucian standing some two metres from the Queen with a tiny canvas on a simple radial easel. He had the courage to deal with even so eminent a figure just as he dealt with every other human being: to quote his own words, “zoologically”.

Asked what his Royal sitter had thought of John Wonnacott, I regret to pass on the disappointingly minimal – – – – “scruffy”!

John Wonnacott’s magnificent portrait group of the Royal Family is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, where, since the arrival from the Tate of Sandy Nairne, as director, it has been consigned to the reserve collection. It can, however, be viewed on request.

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Above, Fig. 1: A Dog from “The Death of Procris” (NG 698) by Piero di Cosimo, painted by about 1500, as published and described in Kenneth Clark’s 1938 “One Hundred DETAILS from Pictures in the National Gallery”, and as recorded before cleaning.
Above, Fig. 2: A dog from “A Mythological Subject” by Piero di Cosimo, painted about 1500, as published and described in the 1990 edition of Kenneth Clark’s book, and as seen after cleaning.
Above, Fig. 3: A detail from Fig. 1, as before cleaning.
Above, Fig. 4: A detail from Fig. 2, as after cleaning.
Above, Fig. 5: A detail from Fig. 1, before cleaning.
Above, Fig. 6: A detail from Fig. 2, after cleaning. What might explain the manifest differences between the sequence of before-cleaning and after-cleaning photographs shown above? If the restorers had merely removed dirt and discoloured varnishes (and some earlier restorers’ retouchings), we would expect to find an enhanced, not a diminished, range of tone values. That is because, old yellowed varnishes simultaneously darken light values and lighten dark ones. Why then, in all of the above photographs do we see the opposite: individually reduced values and compressed, not extended, ranges of value. What is so striking to any student of National Gallery restorations is the consistency of this thwarting of reasonable optical expectations. Almost no picture – not even Titian’s great “Bacchus and Ariadne” shown below – escapes injury. There are other ways of calculating injuries. You might play “Spot the Changes” – and begin by counting the dark feathers on the bottom edge of the pelican’s near wing. By identifying the lost feathers, we simultaneously identify the injuries to the artist’s drawing and design. Defenders of rotten restorations sometimes claim that published photographs are misleading. The two Titian details below are not taken from books but from hard copies of the National Gallery’s own photographic records. They tell the same story, record the same losses.
Above, Fig. 7: A detail from Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne” before its cleaning began at the National Gallery in 1967. On May 11th that year the Duke of Wellington congratulated the gallery’s director, Sir Philip Hendy, on his “courageous decision” to clean the picture.
Above, Fig. 8: The detail shown in Fig. 7, after its cleaning, about which the restorer, Arthur Lucas, boasted “there’s more of me than Titian in that sky“.
Above, Fig. 10: a photograph (detail) by David Dawson of Lucian Freud and Martin Gayford in the artist’s studio, from the sitter’s book “Man with a Blue Scarf”, published by Thames and Hudson, 2010. Below, Figs. 10 and 11: David Dawson’s photographs of Lucian Freud’s etching “Pluto Aged Twelve”, 2000, and his painting “Double Portrait”, 1985-86.
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Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic – A suitable Case for Treatment?

April 6th 2011

A director of the National Gallery, Sir Philip Hendy, once joked that the (helpful) consequence of successive picture restorations was the eventual recovery of a perfectly preserved, pristine white under-painting. After several further generations of modernist stripping and purging, even the restorers have taken fright. Now – and perhaps feeling licensed by the indulgencies and frivolities of post-modernism – they are discovering the delights of “putting back” what their (sometimes very recent) predecessors should never have taken off. After a century of pictorial reductionism, the latest pioneering “recoverist” restoration at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Thomas Eakins’s painting The Gross Clinic, has been heavily trailed in the press. In celebrating their own attempts to reconstitute what had been wrongly discarded, today’s restorers seem little aware that they, too, are entering methodological quick-sands.

James Keul writes:

The Thomas Eakins picture The Gross Clinic is arguably the most important American painting of the 19th Century. In spite of – or perhaps because of – this exalted status it has had a difficult and complicated history. Aside from suffering the “theme park” indignity of being relegated to a mock-medical tent when first exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Expo in Philadelphia, and an initial rejection by contemporary critics, it has been humiliated further through its subjection to no fewer than five major restorations in its relatively short existence of 136 years.

The painting has been relined three times – one of which nearly caused it to tear in half. (Why should a modern canvas require relining even once, let alone three times?) It was dramatically altered in 1925 by the removal of dark glazes that Eakins had applied with the specific artistic intention of toning down areas that were meant to recede. As recently as 1961, an overall varnish was applied that has since darkened enough to be used as one of the justifications for the most recent restoration of the painting last year (- but see photograph and caption comments at top right). The days when museums could credibly refuse to admit that paintings were damaged by past restorations have passed and it has become increasingly common to see labels next to paintings admitting such unfortunate occurrences. At the Metropolitan Museum’s 2008 exhibition “The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, for example, numerous paintings were accompanied by specific acknowledgements of past restoration-induced injuries. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s decision to restore the Gross Clinic is another example of this new trend – but one, as will be seen, with a crucial difference.

It is almost inevitable that each new generation of restorers views itself as superior to its predecessors. Perhaps restorers today are more cautious than those of a half-century ago and it is encouraging to see that with the benefit of hindsight many earlier harmful practices have been abandoned. With new developments in x-radiographs, infrared reflectography, chromatography and other specialized equipment, restorers certainly have a lot more technical (if not artistic) information at their disposal, but the question remains: what does this mean for the art itself?

In the case of the 2010 restoration of the Gross Clinic, it meant that Mark Tucker, Senior Conservator of Paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with a team of restorers, including a Mellon Fellow in Conservation, felt sufficiently confident in this new technology to undertake the task of repainting large portions of Thomas Eakins’ masterpiece in an attempt to bring it back to the way Eakins had intended it to be seen. At best, however, this could only have been a partially realisable goal. Attempting to return a painting to its original condition is, on its own, an area of great debate. With age, paintings acquire patinas and, as with all objects, time takes its toll. What makes this restoration the more troubling is the fact that the latest restorers in the chain are not trying to bring it back to its (supposed) original condition, but rather to a specific condition that is represented in photographs from a period more than thirty years after the painting was completed and after the painting had already been lined with an ironed-on backing canvas – a procedure now widely acknowledged to risk adversely effecting a painting’s appearance.

Our concerns about the questionable nature of this enterprise have been compounded by the explanations that have been offered to us concerning its execution. Mr. Tucker informs us, for example, that, in order to maximize the accuracy of the placement of his own “in-painting”, tracings were made on clear Mylar film from an enlargement of a photograph of the painting taken in 1917. Some of these tracings were cut out, “producing something that looked like a stencil”, and were used to “place small temporary reference marks that were useful in attaining an appearance in the restored damages that is as faithful as possible to the early images of the painting”. [Emphasis added.] Inferring what an artist wanted his work to look like decades or even centuries after it was made is problematic enough, but attempting to recreate one particular historical state of the painting based on black and white photography is problematic to say the least.

In addition to the inherent problems presented by using photography for this purpose at all, because no colour reproductions of the painting exist prior to the 1925 restoration, determining even the proper colours becomes itself a major issue. When asked how the freshly added colours were determined, Mr. Tucker replied that their colour choices were:

based on a determination of the pigments present in a preserved area of the original surface, on a direct visual match to the colour of the best preserved areas of the passageway, and on close consideration of the relationship between the colours present on the painting and the tones recorded in the 1917 photograph”.

This attempt itself raises concerns. Because pigments vary greatly depending on their source, how can one be sure that the pigments used by today’s restorers will be the same as those used by Eakins? Any artist who has bought raw umber from different manufacturers will immediately notice differences in colour “temperature” and value from one brand to another. If the latest restorers were to say that it does not matter since the colours used were matched to the adjacent colours that had survived on the painting, the question would arise: what, then, was the point of even “determining” the pigments that the artist had originally used?

There would also be a question concerning the reliability of the tones present in the period photograph that was chosen as a point of reference.The restorers have informed us that they also used a drawing made of the painting by Eakins himself as a source of reference. But, aside from questions concerning the level of its accuracy to the original painting, the fact remains that the drawing is a different work of art from the painting and whatever its accuracy might be (see comments right), it is clear that on close examination it differs greatly from the picture today in terms of pictorial/tonal values. To use some combination of the testimonies of a drawing that does not match the painting and a period (1917) photograph whose reliability cannot be assumed, in order to infer some compromise position on the artist’s original intent as a basis for present “in-painting” (- which is, properly speaking, re-painting) leaves a great deal of room for error and artistic interpretation on the part of the restorer, and possible historical falsifications.

On the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) website, under a heading ‘compensation for loss’, the recommended practice states that “If compensation is so extensive that it forms a substantial portion of the cultural property, then the compensation should be visually apparent to all viewers”. Though only a recommended practice, it is indicative of the importance of authenticity. This recommendation was not followed in the case of the Gross Clinic. The “in-painting” on the occasion of the last restoration was an attempt to recover an original condition that had been lost, and to match it perfectly (- that is to say, deceivingly) to the surviving surrounding passages. If a group of school children were to go to the Philadelphia Museum today and look at the Gross Clinic, they would not be able to tell where Eakins’ work ended and where Mr. Tucker’s began.

The video which accompanied the recent Eakins exhibition and which covers the history of the painting by examining the evidence left by its various restorations, states that this is the third painting by Thomas Eakins from their collection that has been “renewed” with repainting (- the other two being his Between Rounds and Mending the Nets). As a society, we must think about what we want to see when going to museums. Is it the image that is important, or is it the authenticity? For sure, the picture will have changed significantly since it was painted (more by restoration than by time), but attempting to bring back something that has been lost is simply not possible. While Thomas Eakins’ painting might look closer to the original now than it previously had, it is by no means an original picture today. Rather, it is a reconstruction of what today’s restorers take to have been its likely original condition, had so many bad things not been done to it by their predecessors. We trust that future visitors to the museum will be fully informed of the eventful “conservation history” of this painting.

James Keul is a painter and the executive director of ArtWatch International

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

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Above: Thomas Eakins’ masterpiece, The Gross Clinic, oil on canvas, (96 x 78 inches) as photographed at a date uncertain (– see below). Restorations are complicated operations where success is difficult to judge. Unfortunately, once a painting has been restored we can only base our judgment on the end result. The public can use before and after photographs to help determine exactly how a painting has changed, but this is greatly reliant upon the accuracy of the photographs – which accuracy is likewise not always easy to gauge. When the most recent restoration of Thomas Eakins’, the Gross Clinic, took place in 2010, there was great confusion in the press about which images correctly displayed the “before” condition and which were “after”. When the influential cultural commentator, Lee Rosenbaum, published critiques of the restoration in the Huffington Post as well as on her CultureGrrl blog, she based her argument on photographs that had been supplied by the Philadelphia Museum itself. Later, on a resubmission by the museum of its own photographic testimony, she wrote a clarification. The incident served to demonstrate how inaccurate photography can be, even when handled by two branches of the same museum. On the museum’s own acknowledgement, it would now seem that images taken for the purpose of press and publications might differ from those taken as a record of conservation and that publicly released and disseminated images might first be, as an officer of the museum’s press office confirms, “colour-corrected”. (For another example of a major museum hitting the photographic buffers with its colour corrections, see our post of January 20th 2011. For the variations of photographic records that exist within the highest levels of the museum world, see our post of January 10th 2011.) With such apparent difficulties of determining photographic accuracy in mind, it makes one wonder how a painting might be said to have been accurately restored when relying heavily on the testimony of a 96 year-old photo that was taken in unknown lighting conditions. With the withdrawal of the original markedly yellow and warm-toned photographic record of the picture’s pre-restoration condition, a relatively narrow chromatic band is occupied by the before and after treatment photographic records when the discoloured state of the varnish had itself been cited as one of the reasons why the picture required treatment again after its restoration of 1961.
Above: the (second) released photograph showing the pre-cleaned state of the Gross Clinic.
Above: the Gross Clinic after cleaning but before repainting.
Above: the Gross Clinic after cleaning and repainting. Although it is difficult when looking at the above “before”, “during” and “after” treatment images to know with any confidence what is Eakins and what might be a by-product of one restoration or another, there are some areas where clear artistic choices can be seen to have been made by the restoration team – but none match either the 1917 photograph, as mentioned left, or the ink drawing as shown below. A good example of this is the apparent lightening of the area to the viewer’s right of Dr. Gross and the “fuzzing” of the line above the corridor. Perhaps the most dramatic change is the new prominence of the man standing in the corridor with his arm extended. He is now sharp and clear, but stiff and nearly as dark as anything else in the picture. Had the restorers really been able to use the ink drawing to aid in the restoration, we would expect to see a man who stands out as being lighter than his surroundings, with good form and in a vest no darker than even the lightest parts of Dr Gross’s jacket. Instead, we see a bell-shaped man whose arms lack any of the modelling that was apparent even in the (already many-times restored) pre-2010 restoration state.
Above: Eakins’ 1875-76 India ink and watercolour version of the Gross Clinic, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This study was prepared by Eakins to form the basis for a collotype (a carbon print print produced by photomechanical means) to be published by the famous Adolph Braun and Company. Interestingly, Eakins went to the trouble of making this elaborate and refined study, after the event of painting his picture, because he felt sure that a photograph would mis-represent the picture’s tones and values. It has to be admitted that it is not inconceivable that this drawn record is presently a truer account of the picture’s original values and relationships than any photograph of the period might provide – and is perhaps truer even than the painting itself in its present state.
Above: a detail of the pre-treatment photograph, showing the entrance to the corridor.
Above: a detail of the after-treatment photograph, showing the entrance to the corridor.
Above: a detail of Eakins’ tonal study of the painting, showing the entrance to the corridor.
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