25th February 2011
Discovered Predictions: Secrecy and Unaccountability at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Impeccable condition in a painting is more of a goad than a deterrent to restorers. When the youthful Thomas Hoving was appointed director of the Metropolitan Museum in 1967, he formed a respectful – even deferential – alliance with the (then) head of picture conservation, Hubert von Sonnenburg. Two decades earlier in London, the National Gallery’s director, Philip Hendy, forged a similarly dependent relationship with the German émigré restorer Helmut Ruhemann. Ironically, von Sonnenburg had presented as the heir-apparent to Johannes Hell, another German émigré to Britain who’s mild and gradual cleanings were widely preferred to Ruhemann’s controversially swift “total cleanings”.
Hoving and von Sonnenburg together stalked one of Velazquez’s finest portraits, his Juan de Pareja, which the Met acquired in 1970 for a world record $4.5m. Although, on their own testimony, that picture was in superb condition and had never even been lined, on acquisition it was whisked to Wildenstein and Company, “for secrecy”, as Hoving later admitted. There, Von Sonnenburg secretly “proceeded to discover”, as Hoving put it, “everything he had predicted he’d find”.
It was not unprecedented for a museum director to have a major acquisition secretly restored. Sir Charles Eastlake, scorched by National Gallery cleaning controversies in 19th century Britain, had his acquisitions cleaned in Italy before bringing them to the gallery. Secrecy in conservation can seem systemic: in 1960, when the National Gallery constructed “modern” purpose-built conservation studios, part of one was partitioned by a wall, behind which the chief restorer could work on projects of “particular difficulty or confidentiality”, as a then National Gallery restorer, David Bomford, put it in 1978.
Eastlake made no photographic record of the pre-restoration condition of his acquisitions – even though he happily used photographs for attributing paintings, and must, as president of the Royal Photographic Society, have appreciated photography’s unprecedented testimonial capacities. Fortunately, photographic records of the Sonnenburg/Hoving Velazquez restoration were kept and published by the Metropolitan Museum (in an undated booklet – see right). While these photographs may not be of the highest, digital age, standards, they are nevertheless “of a piece” and permit comparisons between recorded states to be drawn.
Much as von Sonnenburg thrilled over an impeccably preserved, never-lined canvas, he could not resist tampering with it. Two of its edges had been folded over on the stretcher. This fact was presented to Hoving as a “discovery”, even though it had been reported by the Velazquez specialist José Lopez-Rey seven years earlier. The folded canvas strips were opened, flattened and reinforced with new canvas to extend the picture’s format and diminish its subject, shifting him leftwards and downwards (see right). The justification for this compositional “recovery” was that original paint had been applied to the folded strips, but the pictorial testimony of that paint, when first revealed, was not photographically disclosed – see account on the right.
Von Sonnenburg, it seemed, could not resist the urge to “liberate” the painting’s supposed “pure flesh tones” and thereby leave the dark-skinned servant’s face lighter and pinker. By stripping off “varnish” von Sonnenburg also caused previously unified components to detach themselves from each other:
“the rounded shape of Pareja’s forehead, for example, is defined only by a large spot of impasto-crisp in the center, bordered by dragged spurs – applied directly on the thin underpainting. When seen close up, the highlight seems to be floating over the paint in an almost measurable distance…”
This was a classic restoration apologia. Even the emergence of a formerly hidden streak of flesh-coloured paint on the background was presented as an act of liberation and recovery:
“Attention should be drawn to the single dragged brushstroke of light skin colour in the center of the background at the right…Unquestionably, this randomly applied paint is original, and shows how Velazquez chose to try out his loaded brush on the background…Such spontaneity, combined with the greatest subtlety of color and technique make the Juan de Pareja one of Velazquez’s most painterly works.”
Convinced that Velazquez had happily left his own brush-wipings visible on one of his two finest portraits (the second being his Pope Innocent X), and that he had used glazes less than Titian, von Sonnenburg was not dismayed when his cleaned painting betrayed markedly less colouring and reduced to a “predominantly gray color scheme”. His rationale for losses of colour and of spatial and plastic coherence; for the flattening of a formerly prodigiously well-modelled and sympathetically lit head; and for the spatial inverting of a background that formerly receded, was audaciously lame: in 1938 an English restorer, Horace Buttery, had described the doublet as “dark gray”. Despite recognising that the painting had – miraculously – shown “no signs of ever having been abused by solvent action during the past”, von Sonnenburg nonetheless contended that it must have been cleaned and varnished “at times”. On that basis, he speculated that it could therefore safely be assumed to have been so restored by Buttery, and, therefore, to have enabled him, on that occasion, correctly to have read the doublet’s true colour. This hypothetical daisy-chain was presented as a proof, despite the fact that before and after Mr Buttery, the garment had always been described as a “green doublet” – not least by Velazquez’s biographer, Antonio Palomino who in 1724 precisely reported “a muted green for Juan’s doublet”.
After their stripping and repainting of pictures, restorers invariably apply fresh varnishes… which in turn discolour and thereby serve as a pretext for another “restoration”. With successive varnish removals, solvents deplete, embrittle and optically alter paint films. When penetrated by solvents, paint films heat, swell and soften so that even the friction of cotton wool abrades them – as the restorer Caroline Keck admitted. Soluble plastic components of the paint itself are carried off by evaporating solvents. Restorers sometimes claim that because old paintings have so frequently been abused in the past, there is nothing left to extract today – but with the Juan de Pareja, no such claim could be made. At the same time, they sometimes admit that cleaning pictures with thick paint is easier than cleaning ones with thin paint. (If cleaning methods really were as safe as is claimed, it would not matter whether the paint being treated was thick or thin.) When stripped to a restorer’s conception of “clean”, the remaining paint is left parched, absorbent, matt and in need of “nourishment” by varnishes.
When new varnishes (i.e. resins dissolved in solvents) are applied, they penetrate and amalgamate with the parched paint thereby making the next cleaning the more hazardous, and so on ad infinitum. If we are lucky, von Sonnenburg will have used a natural resin varnish. If not, if he subscribed to the Met’s then hi-tech enthusiasms, he will have used a synthetic resin in the confident but erroneous expectation that it would not discolour and that it would remain easily soluble.
In 1966 a restorer at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts deplored the use of untested synthetic materials, judging them “all right for space ships” but not for old master paintings. By 1995 a conservation scientist, Tom Learner, reported that synthetic resins which had “appeared to offer” advantages over natural ones “are now known to be inherently unstable”. In 1998 the Met’s (present) Chairman of European Painting, Keith Christiansen, admitted that synthetic varnishes used at the Metropolitan Museum had turned not yellow but grey and had “cross-linked with the pigments below, meaning that removal is, if not impossible, extremely difficult”.
Dr Christiansen has yet to reply to the question ArtWatch and ARIPA put to him on February 6th, concerning the Met’s intentions towards its new, miraculously well-preserved Perino del Vaga painting.
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