Artwatch UK

Vandalism and restoration ethics: The case of the Dutch “Thinker”

13th April 2011

Art restoration is increasingly becoming a culture within a culture. After a century of modernism, the possession of personal artistic skills and of technical proficiency are considered disqualifications in much contemporary art teaching and practice. Today, the preference is for “ideas” and “attitudes” and, in this milieu, even a brazen appropriation of the artefacts and ideas of others is taken as proof of creative potency. Restorers, who have long pig-a-backed professionally on the bona fide creations of past artists and are now hailed as technical wizards vis-à-vis today’s artists, claim a “right” to determine personally how the art of the past should be “presented” to modern audiences. With the art world incapable of producing another Michelangelo or Rodin, restorers lay claim to powers of artistic transformation and resurrection. A “New Michelangelo” has been offered, the acceptance of which would require the rewriting of art history itself. Catastrophic art injuries provide restorers with further opportunities to deploy their embalmers’ “black arts” and theoretical premises – and, with a self-regard that verges on narcissism, celebrate/immortalise their own interventions in portentous television documentaries. An instance of such may have arisen in the Netherlands.

Maaike Dirkx writes:

The American industrialists William and Anna Singer (see Fig. 3) used their wealth to collect art. Their collection is located in four museums, two in Norway, one in the United States, and the Singer Museum in The Netherlands. The Singer Museum in Laren was founded in 1956 by Anna as a small private museum and concert hall. Its sculpture garden housed a fine collection of statues, with as its most prized exhibit a bronze cast of Rodin’s “Penseur” or “Thinker” and Anna Singer always considered this statue the crown jewel of her collection.

In January 2007 thieves broke into the museum grounds and stole “The Thinker” and six other bronze statues with the intent to melt them down for their bronze value. The bronze would have yielded 350 euros when the “Thinker” alone was valued at over one million euros. After a few anxious days the “Thinker” was recovered but it had been tragically mutilated (see Figs. 1, 7, 8 & 9). The six other statues had already been melted down. What had saved “The Thinker” was public exposure: its theft had been widely reported in the Dutch media and the thieves, who later stated they had never heard of Rodin, had panicked and had buried what was left of the statue.

Although all concerned agreed that the statue had become a wreck and that Rodin’s original intent and artistic achievement could never be recovered, the insurers were not convinced. They claimed that, after restoration, the statue could still fetch a few tons on the art market. Rob Scholten, Head of Sculpture of the Rijksmuseum, resigned from Singer’s management committee because he was opposed to restoration which, he said, could only be cosmetic.

Another option was to exhibit the ruined statue as “a forceful symbol of art vandalism” as was done at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where a cast of “The Thinker” was damaged by a bomb in 1970 (see Fig. 6). But the Singer case bore no relationship to a “tradition of iconoclasm” and the idea was dismissed. For a small museum such as the Singer there were insufficient funds to buy another cast should one appear on the art market and casting another statue from one of the surviving plaster models was a legal impossibility since the French government, owner of Rodin’s estate, had implemented laws specifying that only 12 casts could be made from each surviving plaster model to ensure the quality of the casts and to prevent the appearance of forgeries (in the form of cast copies taken either from present bronze casts or from plaster models) on the art market.

After twenty months of wrangling a decision was reached: the statue was to be restored. An advisory committee of independent experts* concluded that “by restoring the external shape of the statue, its symbolic function for the Singer Museum can be retained”. Invoking “general principles of restoration ethics”, the committee recommended a restoration method that could be largely reversible and which would restrict the number of interventions as much as it was possible.

A major problem in the restoration was the missing right lower leg (see Fig. 7). Rodin’s bronzes were sand cast, an exacting method whereby a plaster model is pressed into sand which then retains the shape of the model. In complicated designs, a plaster model is cut into different parts that are cast separately and later joined together. The melted bronze is poured into the sand impression and after the bronze has cooled down, the sand casing is removed and the rough bronze figure is then chiseled, polished and treated to produce a specific patina. The plaster models could be re-used but they would deteriorate over time and through sand casting usage, reducing the quality of the casts.

The Musée Rodin possesses four original plasters for the studio-type “Thinker”. A team of Dutch digitalisation experts with their equipment travelled to Paris where the most likely plaster model used (identified by an abnormality on the big toe of the left foot and a “wart” on the back) was scanned in 3D images. The damaged Singer “Thinker” had also been scanned and by superimposing the two images, the details of the damages (such as the displacement of the left arm and skull) could be charted. The Musée Rodin gave permission to construct a plaster model of the Parisian right lower leg based on the scans, which was then cast by a Dutch casting firm and affixed to the statue.

The dislodged upper part of the head and left upper arm were manipulated back into shape at the Rijksmuseum Restoration Studio, a delicate operation (see Fig. 8). To determine how best to fill in the deep gashes made by the grinder, metallurgic analysis was conducted. The proposed epoxy resin saturated with bronze powder was approved by the consulting committee and Musée Rodin, as guardians of Rodin’s legacy.

It proved impossible to determine the exact composition of the patina: years of outdoor exposure meant that the patina on Singer’s “Thinker” had acquired different light and dark green copper sulphates. To retouch the original patina where this had disappeared as a result of aggressive grinding, a removable acrylic paint mixture was applied.

The question is a tantalizing one. For one thing, the statue was cast posthumously. Some 50 cast bronzes of this studio-size Thinker still exist in the world: are they mere copies or does each contain an intrinsic uniqueness?

Rodin worked with casters whom he trusted implicitly, such as father and son Rudier. It is believed that the latter, who cast at least five Rodin sculptures in the sculptor’s lifetime and was therefore fully aware of the sculptor’s intent and artistic demands, cast Singer’s impression of the “Thinker” around 1930. Anna Singer purchased the statue, with two other Rodin bronzes, possibly in 1937 when she visited the Musée Rodin.

Not only are plaster models different from each other (as we have seen, it was possible to identify with near certainty the plaster model used for Singer’s “Thinker” from the abnormalities in one particular model), but the casting process, too, yields a slightly different result each time and the applied patina will also be different in each case. It can therefore be argued that each of the fifty “Thinker” bronzes is itself unique in certain aspects or details. They are not uniquely original as works of art, but they are distinguishable and not mere identical copies.

Rodin himself modified the design during his lifetime: “The Thinker” in Melbourne, which is considered the first individual cast of the statue made by Rodin for the art collector Ionides in 1884, still wears the cap of the original “Thinker” on the Gates of Hell who represented Dante. Over the years, “The Thinker” became a synthesis of Dante, Victor Hugo and Baudelaire, representing the “artiste-poète” and later a man who, as Rilke writes in his biography of Rodin (1903) “… sits deep in thought, dumb, heavy with images and thoughts, and his entire strength (which is the strength of a man of action) thinks. His entire body has turned into skull and all the blood in his veins to brain.

The cultural uniqueness of the Singer “Thinker” lies in the fact that it was bought by Anna Singer: that gave it its added emotional value for the museum she founded. Although the statue was severely damaged, it was still recognizable as the historical version that she had acquired. That it could, therefore, be reconstructed seemed obvious. But what are we left with? Is the sculpture, to all intents and purposes, still a Rodin or is it today more a patched up product of a restoration studio? The symbolic value for the museum and the memory of its founder have been retained and honoured, respectively, but the “restoration” itself convinces only on a superficial level.

*The “advisory committee” (Adviescommissie) consisted of: Drs. Annemarie Vels Hein, Chairman (Chairman of the Museum Committee of the Singer Museum in Laren and former director of the Presentation Department of the Rijksmuseum); Drs. Ineke Middag, Secretary (former director of “museum affairs” of the Singer Museum); Ysbrand Hummelen, senior researcher of the ICN (the Institute Collections of the Netherlands); Robert van Langh, Head of Conservation and Restoration of the Rijksmuseum (field of expertise restoration of metals); and, Dr Louk Tilanus, art historian, Art History Department of the University of Leiden (field of expertise Rodin).

When the restoration proper started, the advisory committee made way for an “accompanying committee” in which two of the above (Tilanus and van Langh) also participated.

Maaike Dirkx is a Dutch art historian and researcher.

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Above, Fig. 1: sledgehammer and grinder damages to the Singer Museum’s “Thinker” by Rodin.
Above, Fig. 2: Edward Steichen: photograph (1902) of Rodin with “Le Penseur” (designed 1881) and the marble sculpture of Victor Hugo (1901).
Above, Fig. 3: William and Anna Singer. Anna Singer founded the Singer Museum, in Laren, in 1956.
Above, Fig. 4: Rodin’s the “Gates of Hell” inspired by Dante’s “Inferno” and commissioned in 1880 for the (never realised) Decorative Arts Museum (Musee Rodin).
Above, Fig. 5: The “Thinker”, c. 1884, thought to be the first independently cast studio-size “Thinker” (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne).
Above, Fig. 6: Enlarged cast, one of the last supervised by Rodin (1917), showing damages inflicted by a bomb in 1970 (Cleveland Museum of Art).
Above, Fig. 7: 2007 damages to the Singer Museum’s the “Thinker”.
Above, Fig. 8: The realigning of the upper and lower heads of the Singer Museum “Thinker” in a (televised) operation that was said to have taken “hours” and was followed by the pressing together of the now mismatched parts – an operation which resulted in the emergence of a crack on the neck.
Above, Fig. 9: Following chemical analysis (performed by Corus) and x-ray defraction examinations, the restorer/scientists could deduce no means of replicating the pre-injury patina on the bronze sculpture which had spent fifty years in the sculpture garden of the Singer Museum. In the absence of such information, the restorers opted to coat the sculpture with an acrylic paint.
Below, Fig. 10: the “Thinker” after its (insurance company prompted) “restoration” with epoxy resins and “re-patination” with acrylic paints. Fearing – for good reasons – that their epoxy resin “in-fills” might well need replacement at some future date, the restorers made casts of them in tin. Those casts and a cd containing all the data, were placed/immortalised, time-capsule fashion…inside the patched-up and painted remains of Rodin’s sculpture.
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