Two “As Good as New”, Colour Contrasting Velazquezs ~ Thanks to the Fundación Iberdrola
Following the recent National Gallery restoration that launched a £1.5 billion Leonardo blockbuster, comes news of a brace of corporately funded restorations (- two pictures and a classical sculpture) at the Prado. The energy corporation Iberdrola is acting through its cultural off-shoot, “Fundación Iberdrola”, to “Raise awareness about the contribution of the IBERDROLA Group to society” by allocations of pre-tax profits dedicated “decisively to the promotion and dissemination of art and culture in the territories where IBERDROLA operates”. As part of its green image-building campaign of Good Works (which includes illuminating buildings at night and training young researchers in the energy field) the foundation has made itself “Protector Member” of the Prado’s “Restoration Programme” which encourages restoration research and trains restorers within the museum to the tune of 300,000 euros per annum.
Our prime fear with Art/Business relationships in the treatment of unique, historic and irreplaceable works of art has always been that the commercial tail might wag the custodial dog; might press for excitement and drama over minimalist judicious and restrained intervention; for more frequent rather than less frequent interventions – in effect, might expect big bangs for big bucks. A second concern is that corporate restorations receive over-hyped and propagandistic “Good News” promotion as instruments of miraculous “recoveries” and “discoveries”. This last practice compounds the problem of chronic unaccountability in art restoration. Restorers who work in-house at museums are, for obvious reasons, given full political protection for their actions however controversial or demonstrably harmful they might be. Museums rarely concede that even long-past restorations were harmful and almost never admit to recent – let alone current – injuries.
When reporting the Prado’s latest restorations, the online Artdaily.org, echoes Iberdrola’s own website account of the treatment of the monumental, paired paintings “Philip III on Horseback” and “Margaret of Austria on Horseback”. As the proselytising global energy giant puts it: “These paintings have been rehabilitated by the art gallery’s team of technicians with the backing of Fundación IBERDROLA as a supporting member of its restoration activity. The labour of specialists has allowed for recovering the original values of both portraits, which were significantly affected by the accumulation of dirt and the alteration of the varnish that had buffered the contrasts of colour”. Both accounts fail to appraise the Prado’s own before and after cleaning photographs which show changes that seem arbitrary and artistically injurious (see Figs. 1, 4 & 5). Such preparedness to accept on trust that the latest photographically recorded states are the best, most “advanced”, most reliably truthful – and even “original” – conditions of historic works of art reflects a wider and dangerous absence of properly critical appraisals of restorations. It would seem axiomatic that if works of art are to be altered (and then re-altered by the next generation) the processes concerned should be absolutely transparent and freely discussed. Artdaily trills that the paintings have been “fully restored to their original appearance” by the removal of a “veil” of dirt and “altered” varnish; and, that the restorers “allowed for the recuperation of [the pictures’] original values”. This is naive and illogical: if removing the “veil” had revealed the original paintwork, what would need to be recuperated?
The over-selling of restorations can distort scholarship itself. Where Artdaily describes the two pictures as having been painted by Velazquez with the help of assistants, Iberdrola speaks with possessive proprietary pride of “emblematic works of Diego Velazquez” now rightfully displayed in the same gallery as “Las Meninas” and “the other three renowned equestrian portraits of the artist”. This inflation traduces the labours of scholars. In her 1948 book “Velazquez”, Elizabeth du Gué Trapier (a member of the Hispanic Society of America) said of the Philip III that it is:
“by an unknown artist, or according to Beruete by Bartolomé González, retouched by Velázquez…Beruete wrote of Philip III’s portrait: ‘The greater part of the horse, the retouches of the armour, the horseman’s right arm, leg and foot; the stirrup, bit, the ornaments which hang from the horse’s croup, and the retouching of some parts of the sea-scape in the distance, are undoubtedly by his hand; one feels in them the lightness of his touch and his habitual precision and vigour. On the other hand, the forehead and the nostrils of the horse, as well as a great part of the background, were doubtless executed by the pupil Mazo.’ Beruete thought that Veláquez left the head of the King in its original state; others are of the opinion that he repainted it.”
More recently, in his posthumously republished Catalogue Raisonné (Taschen/Wildenstein, 1996), José Lopez-Rey describes a bewildering array of attributions and summarises that most scholars are agreed “on the strength of visual evidence that this equestrian portrait […had been] executed by a lesser hand and later reworked by Velázquez or under his direction”. Lopez-Rey adds that “Whoever the original painter of Philip III on Horseback, the painting has been visibly repainted, mainly the head, chest, forelegs and tail of the horse, possibly by Velázquez or an assistant in about 1634-35” and that by 1772 both Philip III and Queen Margaret had been extended from vertical to roughly square formats by additional vertical strips of canvas on both sides. Re Iberdrola’s hyperbole, Lopez-Rey draws distinctions between the entirely autograph Velazquezs “The Surrender of Breda” and the equestrian portraits of Philip IV and Prince Balthasar Carlos; the equestrian portrait of Queen Isabel, where Velazquez’s hand is “recognisable”, and the two recently restored works under consideration here, where that authorial hand is present only to a “lesser degree” in pictures “which were mostly executed by other painters”.
Given this consensus of uncertain authorial contributions, Iberdrola’s attempt to spin authentic Velazquez silk seems brazen when the Prado’s own before and after restoration photographs of the Philip III show so many artistically disturbing changes. During their latest restoration/recuperation, the sections of canvas that had been added to the sides of both paintings during the 18th century were cut off. Artdaily says that these additions had been made to make the paintings compositionally compatible with other works when installed in a new room in the Royal Palace in Madrid. The Fundación Iberdrola justifies stripping these historical extensions on the grounds that their removal has created a greater compositional contrast between the two pictures and the three great autograph Velazquez equestrian portraits of Philp IV, Isabel of Bourbon and Prince Baltasar Carlos. Artdaily describes the cleaning and the cropping together as having achieved the greatest possible recuperation of the “original perceptual conditions“. What is not acknowledged by either party is that this removal of historically resonant material has served to eliminate possibly discomfiting visual testimony to the original condition of the paintings (- at least insofar as it had survived into the 18th century) and made the task of gauging the effects of successive restorations almost impossible.
It can be assumed that when those strips were added, their values matched and seamlessly extended the then extant values of the two pictures (as with the repair to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes discussed in our April 1st 2011 post). What, therefore, might account for the mismatched values that had emerged and persisted (see right) until the recent twin restoration? The strips would likely have been painted by a single artist, in a single campaign and without need for making the numerous revisions and re-revisions by the assorted, variously attributed hands that are evident in the paintings themselves. It is unlikley that any paint layers in the extensions would have been made over already varnished paintwork and therefore be at risk of floating off during cleaning. Conspicuously, the most obviously exculpatory explanation for the mismatch of tones – that the additions had matched the values of the picture when under an old darkened varnish – has not been offered. The restorers reportedly attribute the mismatches solely to the technical fact that the bordering strips had been painted over darker ground colours than those in the paintings, and that this had somehow caused “the pigments in the two areas [to have] behaved differently over the course of the centuries”. This does not hold water: while darker grounds would certainly come to influence the values of the extensions as the overlying paint became translucent with age (as can most clearly be seen in the “see-through” of the first state of Philip III’s horse), it could not alone have done so to such striking (and varying) extents as have occurred in the two paintings. Whereas, the fact that darker grounds were used on the extensions would itself suggest an initial perceived need to match the then darker values of the paintings.
There is another reason for disregarding the current restorers’ explanation. If the dark ground theory were correct, the mismatch phenomenon would have arisen very slowly over time and not have – as the photographic record shows – lurched into being on successive restorations (see Figs. 2, 6 & 7). Artdaily has not shown before and after photographs of the Queen Margaret, which painting Lopez-Rey describes in the 1996 edition of his catalogue raisonné as having been restored in 1968. His post-1968 illustration is shown here in Fig. 2. However, in the 1978 edition of the book an apparently earlier (and presumably pre-1968 restoration) state is reproduced (see Figs. 6 & 7 for details of that state). At that date, the left-hand extension read only fractionally darker than the painting, and although the right-hand extension was appreciably darker it was less obtrusively so than was the case after the 1968 restoration. As described opposite, and as can clearly be seen in Fig. 7, the impact of the dark ground was neglible at the brightest part of the sky, on the horizon, where it might have been expected to be most evident. The original dramatically escalating darkness in the sky above those points should, therefore, properly be taken as part of the original tonal schema – and not as either accumulated filth or ground paint see-through. The similarity of the states in both paintings, as seen in Fig. 2, might suggest that the Philip too had been restored around the late 1960s. The differences between the pre and the post 1968 restoration states of the Margaret speak of massive changes of value being made during a single “treatment”. The horse, for example, was reduced from a deep rich chestnut to a tan colouring. That the earlier chestnut appearance had not been a by-product of some filthy misleading “veil” is demonstrable: the whites on the horse’s muzzle and upper left leg read as white not yellow or grey or brown. Whatever might account for the radical changes, it was not consistent with the removal of some overall disfiguring layer.
Characterising the surgical elimination of material that bears awkward testimony of an earlier, now irrecoverably lost state, as a recuperation of a painting’s “ original conditions” is naive and seriously misleading. With every restoration – however funded – the most urgent critical question must always be: “did it do any harm?” To answer it, we must begin by using our eyes and, perhaps, by heeding the advice of artists, one of whom reportedly asked “What’s that dirt called that the restorers clean off? Oh, that’s right – burnt umber.”
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