Artwatch UK

Why is the Metropolitan Museum of Art afraid of public disclosures on its picture restorers’ cleaning materials?

March 9th 2011

Many museums have mastered the art of presenting their picture restorations as miraculous recoveries that preclude any need for examination or criticism. A few days after our post on secrecy and unaccountability at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a Public Relations officer at the museum, in the presence of Artwatch International’s executive director, James Keul, asked television crew members who had just interviewed Michael Gallagher, the Met’s head of picture conservation, not to broadcast his comments on cleaning solvents, any mention of which would “open the doors for critics”.

There are strong – but not good – reasons why a museum might wish to avoid discussions on the materials that restorers use. In hope of prising the Met’s doors, we re-visit the museum’s secret 1971 cleaning of Velazquez’s great portrait Juan de Pareja at Wildenstein and Company. We do so in the light of four documents: an untitled, undated Met booklet; a special conservation issue of the Met’s Bulletin (winter 1993/94); and two accounts given by the Met’s then director, Thomas Hoving, in his books of 1993 (Making the Mummies Dance) and 1996 (False Impressions). None of these identifies the solvents and varnishes used on what had been one of the world’s best preserved Velazquezes.

Restorations take place within general cultures and within local/institutional cultures. Healthy cultures require debate and transparency. Unfortunately the richly-funded, impregnably protected Met sometimes seems to take itself as the summation of Culture. When, in 1971, the museum snatched Juan de Pareja from the impoverished and enfeebled British (who had owned it for centuries), institutional pride was fit to burst. The Met booklet carried entries from the President of the Board, Douglas Dillon; the Director, Thomas Hoving; the Vice-Director and Curator in Chief, Theodore Rousseau; the Curator in Charge, European Paintings, Everett Fahy; and the “Conservator”, Hubert von Sonnenburg. Before the sale, Hoving, Rousseau, Sonnenburg and Fahy had flown to London, Madrid, and Rome – a sort of “boy-gang” playing at spreading rumours like “the disinformation section of the KGB”, as Hoving, (who later claimed to have discussed with Wildenstein’s how to “manipulate the art press and crank up the rumor mill” in a general strategy of “dissimulation and misleading rumors”), put it.

When bought, the picture was not paraded to the Met but “sneaked” into Wildenstein and Company “for secrecy”, partly because funds had been committed without the Board’s knowledge but also because, as Hoving put it, the Board had to remain longer in the dark as “total secrecy” would still be needed to “prepare our public relations stance” and “have the time to clean it.” The deceiving of the public was absolute: for a short period before the restoration, the picture was exhibited to New Yorkers as Wildenstein’s own property. Ignoring back-room machinations, the crucial question is: Why should a miraculously well-preserved, three and a quarter century old unlined canvas, have immediately been subjected to the traumas of a rushed restoration before the Board and the city might learn of the acquisition?

Hoving deferred to Sonnenburg on matters of connoisseurship and artistic technique, and had abnegated all responsibility for deciding whether or not to buy the picture: “back in New York with Chairman Dillon, Rousseau and I were on pins and needles awaiting Sonnenburg’s word. Would it be yes, or forget it? ” When Hoving, Sonnenburg, Rousseau and Fahy assembled before the painting in London, the Met’s conservation oracle suavely predicted a new and different picture that would be liberated dramatically from within a yellowed varnish tomb. Hoving sold those predictions of an even greater artistic glory to the Met’s big-wigs, some of whom had personally pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars. Velazquez’s mixed-race assistant with “dark-brown flesh” would emerge with “rosy” flesh tones and a nice clean “grey” doublet. Thus were the museum’s key players guaranteed a dramatic restoration result that would “present” as a further triumph of their collective perspicacity – and also, by eliminating any trace of Radnor family restorations (restorations that had been posited but nowhere established by Sonnenburg), expunge all historical and aesthetic continuities and make the picture entirely their own.

In such possessive and chauvinistic contexts, admitting the possibility of errors, aesthetic losses, or regrets, becomes unthinkable. This restoration would be – must be – beyond appraisal, reflection, debate or criticism. But given that no artist, writer or musician is above evaluation and criticism, why should a technician, acting on what was by common agreement the finest creative work of one of the world’s greatest artists, have been so indulged? And for that matter, why should every Met restorer be allowed to “touch base” on whatever he takes to be a picture’s bedrock “original” surface? How original can a repeatedly solvent-invaded, swab-abraded surface be?

Sonnenburg, working under intense pressure to complete before any political or journalistic exposure of the secrecy, on a script of his own writing, proved himself right to Hoving’s satisfaction: “the most astounding feature of the work was that there was hardly any color in the picture.” Purging the picture of extraneous “varnishes,” or what Hoving called “gunk” transformed the picture, but at what cost? Looking at the booklet’s now historically precious fold-out spread of three identically sized and printed full colour plates that recorded the restoration in progress (see previous post), it would seem that the original “varnished” state was indeed more, and more variously, colourful.

Sonnenburg’s high reputation as a moderate, risk-avoiding restorer stood on his having spent several years as an apprentice to the most famously cautious, slow-working and aesthetically alert restorer, Johan Hell. In Britain, Hell’s restorations were greatly preferred by artists to those of his fellow German émigré Helmut Ruhemann, who established the National Gallery’s highly controversial in-house restoration department after the Second World War. The President of the Royal Academy, Sir Gerald Kelly, entrusted his own grandest works to Hell’s varnishing technique.

By hiring Sonnenburg in the 1960s, the Met put cultural distance between its earlier troubled restorations and those then raging at the National Gallery, but it did so without anyone fully comprehending Hell’s philosophy or method. For a time, Sonneburg was succeeded at the Met by the British restorer John Brealey who had also studied with Hell. Brealey’s disastrous restoration of Velazquez’s Las Meninas at the Prado (see right) shows him to have been no proper student of Hell’s (– a judgement endorsed to us by Dr Hell’s late widow, Kate). The Met booklet sequence makes clear that, on the great Juan de Pareja, Sonneburg proceeded in outright violation of his declared master’s precepts and practices. By swiftly stripping the picture from one side to the other, instead of first establishing the antiquity of the “varnish” and only then, perhaps, proceeding to clean gradually and equally overall, Sonneburg embraced the practices of Ruhemann and repudiated those of his master (- to whose work we shall return in future posts).

The cover photograph of the Met booklet shows the face in detail. A close-up reveals a system of open and exposed cracking that is more visually disruptive than was ever recorded before or after the restoration (see above right). We do not know how – or with what solvents – the painting had been cleaned before that point. There is no indication of when the photograph was taken. We do not know what steps were taken to minimise the visual disruption of those cracks afterwards. We do know – as Sonnenburg must have – that Hell would never have arrived at that point in a restoration; would never have stripped a picture of all varnish, even into its cracks, for fear of letting his solvents invade the paintwork and attack the exposed paint/ground interface.

There may be irony in the fact that the heavy restoration doors now being slammed at the Met have, for five years past, been generously and most helpfully opened to us at the National Gallery in London.

Michael Daley

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Above: a detail of the Metropolitan Museum’s undated and untitled booklet on the acquisition of Velazquez’s Juan de Pareja and Hubert von Sonneburg’s secret restoration of it at Wildenstein and Company in 1971. Below: the front cover of the booklet, and a further detail below.
Above: a detail of the Infanta Margarita’s costume in Velazquez’s Las Meninas before the restoration of 1984; below, the same detail after restoration.
Above: a detail of the Infanta Margarita before restoration by John Brealey. Below, the same detail after Brealey’s restoration.
An editorial in the January 1985 issue of The Burlington Magazine, then edited by Neil MacGregor, observed that “Cleaning controversies are probably the livliest, and they are certainly the hardiest, of the art world’s topics of discussion.” The editorial acknowledged that the cleaning of Las Meninas had “provoked months of violent debate in the Spanish press”. One press commentator had complained “‘Las Meninas’ son sagradas” and there was not even an anniversary or an exhibition to to authorise tampering with the taboo. The editorial seemed to see no connection between the fact that the painting “had not had serious conservation this century” and that it was found to be in “excellent condition”, which state allowed Brealey’s campaign to “proceed so fast and, relatively speaking, so easily”. The American painter, Peter Arguimbau, had access to the restoration through the good offices of a friend who was a curator at the Prado at the time. He retains vivid and painful memories of the shock on seeing the great work in “restoration”: “He did it in two weeks with fist-full swabs of cotton, acetone and rubber gloves that so destroyed the illusion of the painting that articles were written in Spain on how the country had been brought to tears in mourning the devastation”. Neil MacGregor, when director of the National Gallery was a steadfast defender of restorers and restorations throughout his reign (1987-2002). His resolve seemed to suffer a momentary lapse in 1990. In his foreword to the re-publication of Kenneth Clark’s book One Hundred Details from Pictures in the National Gallery, London Mr MacGregor acknowledged that Kenneth Clark (who had provoked violent controversy with his own cleaning in 1936 of Velazquez’s Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver), had been “fearful of what might be found if the golden veils of dirt and varnish were ever to be removed”. Moreover, he added, “The reader who can compare the earlier edition with this one will decide how much is gain, how much loss.”

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