The Futurist Louvre and Leonardo’s Fate: nothing ventured, nothing lost
The more indefensible their restorations, the more museum regimes dig in and shut their ears to criticisms. (With bad restorations the eyes, too, often seem to have been shut.) Given the controversial outcome of the Louvre’s 2011 restoration of Leonardo’s “The Virgin and Child With St. Anne”, it might seem a provocative defiance that the museum should so soon announce that it is not only about to restore another Leonardo (his “La Belle Ferronnière”), as was reported in the Wall Street Journal on 1 February 2014 (Da Vinci Code Red: Restorations Spur Debate), but also the desperately vulnerable “Mona Lisa”.
Vincent Delieuvin, the curator driving (or heading) the restorations, makes a number of claims that lack foundation in the Wall Street Journal article. We had not dared to touch this Leonardo previously, he reportedly says, but now restoration techniques have improved to the point where the museum thinks them safe – even for the Mona Lisa which has become “yellowish and very dark”. The history of modern restoration is peppered with facile claims of technical “advances” that were rushed untested on to great works of art, soon to become the acknowledged follies of yesteryear. (We have often wondered whether the credulous techno-enthusiasts of Futurism, which movement died a swift death, had not migrated into art conservation.) Of what do these latest claimed advances consist? Have they arisen since the 2011 restoration of the “Virgin and St. Anne”, the controversial treatment of which provoked resignations from the restoration’s own advisory committee (as we reported on 28 April 2012 – “Rocking the Louvre: the Bergeon Langle Disclosures on a Leonardo da Vinci restoration”).
On the “La Belle Ferronnière” Mr Delieuvin holds that “The many layers of darkened varnish added over the centuries are getting old and make the painting dark and yellowish”. Such phobic/alarmist language is a constant feature of the would-be restorer’s rationale. After restoration, Mr Delieuvin predicts, the “contrasts and colours will come out again; so will the feeling of movement”. A long-standing (French) charge against intrusive restorers was that in their haste to “liberate” colours and dispel all signs of age in what are old paintings, they remove original material and impart a falsifying, historically inappropriate modernity. Restorers of every generation have insisted that their “advanced science” can prove that no original material was lost. In so saying, they demonstrate cultural naivety and failures to comprehend the nature of that of which art consists and the artistic and art historical, not “techno/scientific”, terrain on which all restoration evaluations should properly be conducted.
Restoration disputes stem from losses of perceived artistic values. Although artists certainly work with and through materials, the materials are not ends in themselves, or even vehicles of intrinisic value. Rather, they are the means by which the “stuff of art” is given fixed material expression. The currency with which artists work is values and the relationships between values. Through these they work by eye to produce artefacts which fix and carry their intentions, so that they might subsequently be optically apprehended by others. In the production of a painting every last feature is a product of thought. But every judgement, evaluation and adjustment is transmitted exclusively through human sight, and not, as techno-conservationists might prefer, through sub-atomic particles of matter, complex chemical formulations or other mystificatory hi-tech red herrings.
Thus, to take Mr Delieuvin’s promised delivery of increases of “contrasts and colours” in the pending Leonardo restoration, we can anticipate the outcome to some considerable degree by applying those very criteria to the last restored Louvre Leonardo, the “Virgin and St. Anne”. On that work it is clear that while an increase in the brightness of colours occurred, it was at the expense of a catastrophic reduction of contrast and strength in the tones by which the heads had been modelled and given corporeal form, as the Poussin scholar, David Packwood, very generously acknowleded on his (excellent) website Art History Today (“Aesthetic Appraisal and the Restoration Process”):
“I’m looking with growing horror at images of pre and post restoration images of the Leonardo Virgin and St Anne in the Louvre. They can be found here, in an article by the head of ArtWatch, Michael Daley. In a balanced and thoughtful post on restoration culture, Michael Daley highlights its real dangers, clearly evident in this latest example…”
When appraising restorations it is essential to do what museum curators and restorers are so clearly reluctant to do in their own catalogues and publications: place directly comparable photographs of before and after cleaning states in the closest possible proximity. This facilitates direct optical appraisal – which is the only methodologically sound and appropriate means of evaluating a work whose appearance has been transformed by a technician’s swabs, solvents, scalpels. It is never possible to compare a restored painting with its own pre-restoration condition because that is irreversibly effaced in the process. Photographs must therefore stand in lieu.
In every photo-comparison shown here of details from the “Virgin and St. Anne”, it is clear to any educated eye that the tonal range that was formerly visible has been massively reduced. This, ipso facto, is a proof of artistic injury: “dirty varnishes” could not have disported themselves in such a manner as to enhance the effects of Leonardo’s own handiwork. Moreover, the values and relationships of values that were perceivable through the varnishes before restoration would, on Mr Delieuvin’s own optical schema, be expected to emerge from a “cleaning” with greatly enhanced, not reduced, power and vivacity – in short, while the lights would certainly be expected to emerge lighter, the half tones and darks should also be strengthened and not diminished – as seen right.
Consider the comparison of the Virgin’s eyes at Figs. 5 and 6. Such has been the loss of modelling-by-shading that the face is reduced to a mask-like reminiscence of its former self. The now obtrusively dark slits of the down-cast eyes are no longer subsumed within the previous anatomically descriptive overall shading of eye sockets. Had Leonardo really painted the face as is presented today as “recovery”, it would be for the restorers, curators and trustees of the Louvre to explain how it was that dirty varnish had formerly imparted superior, Leonardesque traits to the master’s own handiwork. It would also need to be explained why Leonardo might have been content to leave two versions of the pupil of the Virgin’s right eye simultaneously visible on his finished picture.
If we consider the comparison shown at Figs. 7 and 8 of the Virgin’s lower face, another aspect of injury is apparent. That is, as the half-tones have receded under the force of swabs and solvent, the resulting increased zones of brightness leave the face looking looks both fatter and flatter. It is hardly heresy to suggest that Leonardo used shading to turn the surfaces of his heads away from light and into shadow. What kind of benefit, then, has been gained by delivering a lighter, brighter, flatter Leonardo? For what reason and on whose authority was the expression of the Virgin’s mouth altered?
As our colleague at ARIPA, Michel Favre-Felix, disclosed a few years ago, in the Veronese head shown in Figs. 10 to 13, we find evidence of a Louvre house-style of cleaning and repainting that imposes crass puffed-up modernist forms and redrawn and re-modelled features on Renaissance heads. This bizarrely unwarranted policy is accompanied by a cavalier disregard for the norms of museum-world conservation record keeping (as is evident in the Louvre spokeswoman’s reported comments at Fig. 11). The Louvre, as today constituted, is doing indefensible things to the art it holds and feels no obligation even to record or report them. The tragedy is that until quite recently this museum was a model of restoration restraint and a reproach to other institutions. Today, along with with its bonanza of destructive restorations, increasingly we find intrusive and vulgar commercial exploitation by Big Sponsors: “Another Restored Leonardo, Another Sponsored Celebration – Ferragamo at the Louvre”. To think that such a great institution could sink so swiftly into meretricious stewardship and displays of bling.
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