Artwatch UK

The museum world’s increasing acceptance of virtual-reality “resurrections”

16th January 2011

An enthusiastic New York Times report on the discovery of an American 19th century painted rolling theatre backcloth carried a photograph of a restorer using what appears to be a high pressure water hose (see right). This prompts recollection of classic graphic satires on museum picture cleaning methods. More ominously, it marks yet another insinuation of digitally manipulated photographic imagery into contemporary museum restoration and display practices.

The muslin backcloth – the “Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress” which bore the work of artists of the calibre of Frederick Edwin Church – first appeared in 1851 to rave reviews but by the 1860s the excitement had subsided and the backcloth had been rolled, crated and stored by a theatre owner. That material, inherited in 1896 by the Dyer Library and Saco Museum, has recently been uncovered.

Discoveries present rich restoration opportunities. This particular 800 feet of fabric prompted a restoration aided by a grant of $51,940 from “Save America’s Treasures”. It is being carried out by Williamstown Art Conservation Center.

As if in assurance of advanced restoration precautions, New York Times readers are informed that the restorers “sometimes wore socks to avoid leaving footprints while removing dust, creases and signs of water damage known in the trade as tide lines.” However, this work is not being “restored” to its former original function but to provide a means for making a photographic facsimile of itself:

“Digital photographs, taken from a camera on the ceiling, will be spliced together to create a panoramic reproduction that the museum will use in live performances.”

A synthetic fabric with a heft and texture similar to the original muslin has been identified and Jessica Swire Routhier, the director of the Saco Museum, thrills: “Things print well on it, and it’ll be incredibly durable”.
When Inigo Jones’ Queen’s House at Greenwich was restored in the decade before last, original ceiling canvases by Orazio Gentileschi that had been removed to another building were replaced by full-size photographic facsimiles’ printed on vinyl. Because the original canvases had been cut down in places to fit into their new home, the Gentileschi images were digitally extended by cutting and pasting bits of the surviving imagery on the computer screen before being printed and fixed to the ceiling of the historic building.

When, in the same decade, the National Gallery restored Holbein’s The Ambassadors on-camera for a BBC film, the famous anamorphic skull in the foreground was (as discussed here) repainted to a new design, not according to the contemporary laws of perspective, but after a computer-generated distortion of a photograph of an actual skull. That unprecedented imposition of “virtual reality” onto an old master painting was specifically justified on the grounds that “modern imaging techniques” offer more “scope for exploring possible reconstructions” than do the 16th century perspective-al conventions by which the artist’s image had been produced. Had the repainted additions been left identifiable as such, gallery goers might have appreciated that the painting now contains an a-historical hypothetical reconstruction. But instead, as those who viewed the BBC film of the Esso-sponsored restoration will appreciate, the newly added paint was tricked up to give a “deceiving” visual match to the neighbouring original paint by the imposition of painted black lines that mimicked age cracks.

A further development in the realm of virtual restorations emerges at Harvard where more old canvases have been recovered from storage. In 1964 a suite of five Mark Rothko murals were installed in a sunny dining room at Harvard University. The works swiftly faded and progressively suffered damages, graffiti and foods splatters. They were removed to storage in 1979. No means exists for restoring them physically. Undaunted, conservators at Harvard’s Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art and Strauss Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, in conjunction with “The Massachusetts Institute of technology’s Media Laboratory, and Switzerland’s University of Basel Imaging and Media Laboratory, propose to apply computer-controlled lighting that is intended to impose the original hues and appearances upon the now irrevocably degraded canvases.

The proposal constitutes a perfect ethical/aesthetic conundrum. On the one hand, this would be an ideal “restoration” in that there would be no physical or chemical or other intervention on the works themselves. On the other hand viewers would be led to believe – or asked to believe – that they were experiencing the work just as it was when new, as if they were themselves time-travellers, as if works of art – especially modern ones – never age, when they would in fact be witnessing wrecked works of art altered, as if by a theatre lighting designer’s skills, on an hypothesis extracted from a combined chemical analysis of the paintings’ degraded pigments and an optical analysis of old colour photographs. The chances of this project hitting the target on each of the variously placed canvases at every moment of the day’s changing lights must be estimated at zero. The public would be being deceived.

That so revered, serene and “spiritual” a modernist (Rothko’s Harvard canvases were based on his reflections on the Passion and the Resurrection of Christ) should be considered an appropriate candidate for conversion into some speculative virtual after-life, might itself suggest that nothing in art may now be considered an unsuitable candidate for virtual treatments. This proposed treatment itself runs in defiance of central museum world celebrations of the “authenticity” of museum objects. The recently retired director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello, argued in “Whose Muse – Art Museums and the Public Trust” (page 153), that “it remains vital that the objects visitors come to see be original… Reproductions, no matter how good, cannot and will not ever replace originals.”

There is irony in this situation: it has been known for years within the conservation community that the effects of aging yellowing natural varnishes can be “virtually” eliminated simply by compensating increases of colder, bluer gallery light. If such appearance-altering practices are now to be considered legitimate and acceptable, then it will be tacitly conceded that many of those traumatic, destructive and bitterly contested solvent-sodden assaults of yesteryear on the vulnerable fabrics of unique and irreplaceable historical objects might never have been necessary. Even if the most restoration pro-active museums today were to contend that it would never have been practical to tailor individual lighting to all works in a large collection, another awkward question would hang: Why is it that museums did not, at least, adjust the lighting on individual works that were about to be restored? Had that been done as routine, photographs that better recorded the undistorted values of a painting at a precise point in time would have been available for comparison with the material results of restorations. Such comparisons would swiftly have established benchmarks of performance for restorers. Are there good reasons why such a beneficial methodological check was never routinely pursued?

Michael Daley

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Above: a Williamstown Art Conservation Center restorer at work on the rolling theatre backdrop the “Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress”, owned by the Dyer Library and Saco Museum.
Above: John Leech, “Cleaning the Pictures in the National Gallery”, Punch, Almanac for 1847.
Above, Sir Philip Hendy, director of the National Gallery, London, exasperated that “More than once before, at least six of the signatories have expressed wholesale disapproval of the methods of cleaning used at the National Gallery”, personally demonstrates to the BBC the new scientific breakthrough in picture cleaning (the “Window Test”) that he had ushered in at the gallery. Photograph published in Private Eye, at the height of the great 1960s picture cleaning controversies.
Above, “But these pictures look very new”, from Private Eye, at the time of the great 1960s National Gallery picture cleaning controversies.
Above: “But the coming of the new cleaning techniques, such as the detergent and the vacuum cleaner, has changed call that. Many of the world’s most famous galleries, including of course, our own, have taken advantage of Science to make their pictures as bright as new”, from Private Eye, at the time of the great 1960s National Gallery picture cleaning controversies.
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