Artwatch UK

The Battle of Borja: Cecilia Giménez, Restoration Monkeys, Paediatricians, Titian and Great Women Conservators

4th October 2012

The Cecilia Giménez affair has re-combusted. First off, the elderly would-be restorer had reduced the world to incapacitating laughter/disbelief at the bungled restoration of a painting of Christ in her local church, Santuario de Misericordia, in Borja, north-eastern Spain (Fig. 5). When Ms Giménez’s unauthorised restoration of “Ecce Homo – Behold the Man” caused the work to be dubbed “Ecce Mono – Behold the Monkey” the church threatened to sue. When restoration experts converged to advise on how or whether the damage might be undone, thousands of wags petitioned for the wreck to be left untouched for all to see for all time. It was all too much for the well-meaning amateur restorer who, greatly distressed, took to her bed.

Now the eighty-one years old is on the warpath. The church had become an overnight tourist attraction. Ryanair offered cut-price flights from the UK. An entrance charge was introduced that netted two thousand euros in the first four days…upon which the would-be restorer went to law seeking remuneration for having imbued the formerly disintegrating picture with talismanic, money-spinning powers. On September 21st the Times reported the explanation offered by one of her two lawyers: “She just wants [the church] to conform to the law. If this implies an economic compensation, she wants it to be for charitable purposes.” At this startling assertion of intellectual property rights, the church retained lawyers to defend its exclusive right to milk tourists. Giménez’s lawyers now reportedly say that while she demands no cut of the entrance charges, they are investigating possible copyright infringements of her creation with a view to pursuing payments from the many people now using the restored image to sell products. It already appears on T-shirts, cell phone covers, coffee mugs and wine labels.

With everyone in the world now aware that restorations really can damage art, attempts are underway to neutralise this professionally corrosive realisation. What seems to have caused most alarm is the recognition that although Giménez’s restoration was an extreme case it was not an aberration within the wider context of professional conservation practices. (See, for example, the grotesque repeated abuses of a Veronese face at the Louvre: “Restoration Tragedies” in the August 23 Sunday Telegraph and our August 30 post). Normally, publicity generated in connection with restorations is eagerly cultivated by the restorers and the supervising/funding authorities alike. The reputations of the former can be burnished and the revenue streams of the latter increased. However, the October issue of the Art Newspaper attempts to quarantine the Giménez affair by confining it within a discrete sphere of delinquent and destructive amateur restorations, which it then attacks on no supporting visual evidence – without even reproducing the offending Spanish restoration. By courtesy of the Art Newspaper, the incident is thus being pressed to serve as no more than a cautionary tale against failures to pay Proper Fees for Proper Professional Restorers (“Do-it-yourself? Just don’t…”):

Although the likelihood of a well-meaning member of the public walking into a prominent museum like London’s National Gallery, paintbrush in hand, ready to work on a Titian, is slim, what about works in small private collections that remain largely out of the public eye but may one day end up in a museum or national archive? Unfortunately, these pieces are all too often subjected to misguided interventions.”

Dragging the National Gallery into this imbroglio is not helpful to the institution. Has the Art Newspaper forgotten that someone recently walked into the gallery, aerosol paint-can in hand and set about not one but two Poussins? Or, for that matter, that this happened at a time when warder numbers had been halved, prompting subsequent strikes and greatly intensified anxieties about possible thefts and further vandalism? As for Titian, the example can only seem injudicious (or provocative) given the notorious damage done to the artist by the National Gallery’s own professionally qualified restorers (see right). Of two things, we should all be clear. First, in the adulteration of art, amateurs are the also-rans. It is the performance of the professionals that should concern us most. Second, in appraising restorers’ performance we should ignore the restoration chaff of hype and professional apologias and look harder at the material and aesthetic results.

The Art Newspaper gives voice to the leading American academic restorer Joyce Hill Stoner who, while advising the Spanish church on its restoration calamity, takes open professional comfort at this artistic ill-wind: “In some ways, we were heartbroken, but on the other hand, it has resulted in a tremendous boost in advocacy for our profession.” Like many restorers, Prof. Stoner often beats this advocacy drum – elsewhere she has said: “We think public education and advocacy about our profession is one key. Even the Antiques Roadshow people often say, ‘Ah, Madame, if you had not cleaned this piece of early American furniture it would have been worth $70,000, now it is worth no more than $700.’” In the Art Newspaper she elaborates: “Amateur restorers have always been a problem…a geology professor… scrubbed away trees…People say they are treating their paintings and I tell them that’s like telling a doctor that they’re in the middle of removing their own appendix…artists are the parents, we are the paediatricians”.

This reaction to the incident raises the question of why restorers can so clearly see and so forcefully repudiate amateur errors while remaining silent on far more serious professional blunders on vastly more important artists like Titian (see right). Dubbed “picture rats” in the 19th century, restorers defensively rebranded themselves “conservators” and “picture surgeons” in the 20th century. While Prof. Stoner’s invocation of medical authority might be expected from one who is the director of a programme that converts restorers into doctors at the University of Delaware’s Preservation Studies Doctoral Program, it is singularly ill-advised. If picture restorers bear any resemblance today to medical practitioners, it is to morticians who doll up artistic corpses or, fractionally more charitably, to the controversial branch of cosmetic surgery, where vain attempts to put back clocks and recover earlier states result in ghastly mishaps and the use of dangerously inappropriate materials. (For industrial-grade silicone breast implants, read synthetic resin picture varnishes. For “trout lips”, simply Google: “Veronese nose-jobs”.)

In 1999 Prof. Stoner, one of her profession’s more thoughtful exponents, gave an academic paper at Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, in celebration of Women’s History Month and asking “Are There Great Women Art Conservators?” She sought permission to “muse for a bit about the practical side of the conservation of paintings” and characterised modern conservation as a “three-legged stool” comprised of art history (reading); chemistry (part reading, part doing); and studio art (doing). This year she elaborated in an interview:

We call it ‘the three-legged stool’— you need a thorough grounding in art history or archaeology or library science (depending on your specialty); you need excellent hand skills—painting, drawing, sewing, sculpting, casting, etc. (depending on your specialty); and you need excellent training in organic and inorganic chemistry; you need to understand thoroughly the properties of materials making up the works of art AND the materials you might use in a treatment.”

At the time of the Great Women Conservators paper, Prof. Anatoly Alyoshin of the Repin Institute, St Petersburg (where restorers must spend many years training as artists), had recently criticised western practitioners for their inadequate “hands-on” artistic skills. Visiting Stoner’s alma mater, New York University’s restoration school, Prof. Alyoshin asked how a student lacking artistic abilities would be handled. No problem, he was told, “We give him a job connected with surveys or the theory of restoration”. But, on qualifying, would such a person be permitted to work in a museum as a restorer? “Probably he can”, was the answer.

Prof. Stoner’s own query carried the implicit sub-question: What makes a great practising conservator of either gender? She answered thus: “Let us suppose that I was the GREATEST conservator that EVER worked. What would it mean?” It would mean that she had “removed previous repaints, old discoloured varnishes and grime very sensitively”, and then filled in all the resulting lacunae and abrasions with “easily removable” fresh paint, taking care perfectly to match the “surface texture, gloss and colour” of the surviving paint. However, were she ever to achieve these goals, “no one would know that I had actually worked [and] my success would be measured by my invisibility”, which would provide no basis for “greatness, fame or immortality”. Additionally, she expressed concern that restorers might be thought mere “hand-maidens to the artist”.

Concerning the egotism of professional restorers, we have already seen how those at the National Gallery claim and have been granted a right to impose personal aesthetic readings on pictures. In France, we have challenged restorers who explicitly claim a right to determine how old paintings be “presented” today, as if they are texts or scores to be performed and not unique concrete historical objects (“LA RESTAURATION EST UNE INTERPRÉTATION”, letter, Beaux-Arts Magazine, No 203, April 2001). On questions of mechanical competence, it might be noted that Stoner’s own nominee as Great Woman Conservator was none other than Joyce Plesters, the then recently deceased former head of science at the National Gallery (London).

This seemed perverse. Plesters was not a restorer. Nor was she was an artist. She was a scientist who took a degree in art history while working at the National Gallery and was thus at best a “two-legged stool”. She mistook a large panel painting composed of three butterfly-keyed boards for a single giant one and half metres wide plank. On another panel she counted six boards when there are seven. She reported that Raphael’s Cartoons at the Victoria and Albert Museum had been mounted on backing sheets, when they had not. She believed a planed-down panel had been set into a sheet of block-board when it had been glued onto it. As head of science she failed to warn the Gallery’s restorers against their technically delinquent practice of ironing some the largest and most important canvases (such as Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”) onto sheets of Sundeala board. As for her art historical judgements, she mocked the great scholar Ernst Gombrich for suggesting that Renaissance painters might, in emulation of Apelles, have toned down their own pictures with overall dark varnishes, when just such a painting was later identified within the National Gallery itself.

Prof. Stoner might more plausibly have nominated her fellow American picture restorer Caroline Keck (who held it important to accept an equal number of men and women into restoration lest the field lose power by becoming too “feminized’’). Although Keck, with her restorer husband Sheldon Keck, wrecked a major Phillips Collection Renoir when restoring it without authorisation (- like Cecilia Giménez), and also got badly mauled when disputing the British art historian John Richardson’s charge that restorers had committed crimes against cubist painting, she too was an ardent restoration propagandist, advising in 1993 that her profession should conduct its own PR:

A group as large as ours has become must contain colleagues with the skills we need: run competitions for the best magazine and TV scripts, get communication going. The least each of us can do is make our treatment reports to owners lively and readable, attractive enough so these are left on the cocktail table to show off to guests…If we fail to assume responsibility for publicizing a fine image of ourselves, our work and the need for that work, no one else is likely to.”

Conservators are frequently urged by their professional “unions” to solicit professional hype. In the March 2008 ICON NEWS, the (female) head conservator of Westminster Abbey protested when “one of the big Sunday newspapers published what we thought was to be a nice piece on the forthcoming restoration of the Westminster Sedilia [but instead] sensationally claimed that the central heating had directly damaged the Coronation Chair” – even though another (female) conservator at the Abbey had precisely told The Art Newspaper that “The central heating is the main problem” (see ArtWatch UK Journal 23). The Guardian and the British Museum recently ran a joint course advising conservators on planting conservation friendly stories in the press and broadcast media. As for whether or not there any great women picture restorers, there are certainly professional awards aplenty for them. In 2003 Stoner herself was awarded the AIC University Products Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011 she further received both the AIC Paintings Speciality Group Award “for outstanding contributions to the field of paintings conservation”, and the College Art Association and Heritage Preservation Award for Distinction in Scholars