How the Metropolitan Museum of Art gets hold of the world’s most precious and vulnerable treasures
An exhibition of stained glass that has been removed from “England’s historic Canterbury Cathedral” has arrived at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, after being shown at the Getty Museum in California. The show (“Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral at the Cloisters”) is comprised of six whole windows from the clerestory of the cathedral’s choir, east transepts, and Trinity Chapel. These single monumental seated figures anticipate in their grandeur and gravity the prophets depicted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. They are the only surviving parts of an original cycle of eighty-six ancestors of Christ, once one of the most comprehensive stained-glass cycles known in art history. (See Figs. 1 – 5.)
The Met boasts that this exhibition of “Masterpieces of Romanesque art…represents the first time they have left the cathedral precincts since their creation in 1178-80”. Who, then, gave permission for the loan of such fragile, precious and architecturally integral material?
The New York Times says of the exhibition that it “Seemed to have been beamed down from on high”, when it undoubtedly had been flown and vibrated down from on high in an aeroplane. The museum world repeatedly offers assurances that modern air transport is perfectly safe for moving treasures around, even though, as the world now well appreciates, aeroplanes do sometimes crash or disappear. Aside from in-flight hazards, works of art get taken by roads to and from airports where they disappear from curatorial view and supervision into high-security cargo depots, sometimes being injured by forklift trucks, and the like, in the process.
The bureaucrats of “Glasgow Life” who administer Glasgow’s museums recently argued (successfully) in Scotland’s Parliament that, as Sir William Burrell had permitted loans from his bequeathed collection within Britain, and as the most dangerous part of lending works is dismantling them in one place and reassembling them in another, overturning his prohibition on foreign travels would be no more dangerous than moving works within Britain. The bureaucrats were similarly successful in overturning Burrell’s prohibition on lending certain categories of fragile works at all, within or outside Britain, such as glass, tapestries and pastels, by arguing that advances in modern packaging skills meant that even the most fragile work could now safely be moved subject to prior conservation examinations.
With the Burrell Collection we know precisely who will carry responsibility for any future travel injuries or losses but with the Canterbury treasures, who at the Cathedral (or in the Church) would take responsibility were these windows to be harmed or lost during their trans-Atlantic travels?
Were these windows insured for their travels, and, if so, what price was put on them?
Has the Church received any payment for this loan, and, if so, how much?
Were the six windows which travelled from London to California and from California to New York flown in separate aeroplanes – as were the three (of ten) gilded panels from Ghiberti’s Florence Baptistery doors (dubbed “The Gates of Paradise” by Michelangelo) when they were sent from Florence to Atlanta; from Atlanta to Chicago; from Chicago to the Metropolitan Museum, New York; from New York to Seattle; and, finally, from Seattle back to Florence? (See Figs. 6 and 7.)
The Metropolitan Museum seems to be a common destination point on many of the most ambitious and hazardous inter-continental tours of art (it will receive the current Tate show of Matisse’s monumental, previously too-fragile to loan, cut-out paper works). In the case of the Burrell Collection even before the Scottish Parliament had heard all the evidence arrangements for an international tour of works were in motion. On 10 September 2013, Joan McAlpine, SNP, the Chair (“Convener”) of the scrutinising Parliamentary committee, disclosed in The Scotsman that “Sir Angus Grossart was giving some hints [the day before, during evidence to the committee’s first session] of the kind of people he’s been speaking to in terms of a world tour…I know they’re talking to the Met in New York, and from the point of view of the people at Glasgow Life, that’s an opportunity to enhance the reputation of the collection, the city and Scotland.”
Crucially, Grossart’s moves were not being made under the aegis of the Burrell Trustees, who are charged with protecting the collection according to the terms of Burrell’s fabulously generous bequest (the 8,000 bequeathed works still constitute the largest gift ever made to a city), but by “Glasgow Renaissance”, an interceding body set up by Glasgow Life expressly to “oversee the Burrell Collection’s immediate future”, advise on the refurbishment of the leaking building which has suffered decades of neglect, and to facilitate the fund-raising, profile-heightening international tour of key works. Sir Angus Grossart, a member of Glasgow Life’s board of directors is the appointed chair of Burrell Renaissance.
In January 2013 it was reported (Herald Scotland) that the first, six months-long stop of the tour would be at the British Museum, whose director, Neil MacGregor, had been co-opted by Glasgow Life to serve on Burrell Renaissance (– as had been his fellow Glaswegian, Lord Kerr, the deputy chairman of Scottish Power). Grossart claimed in evidence given to the Scottish Parliament’s Burrell committee that no conflict of interest existed because no other venue in London had been thought appropriate to receive Burrell works – which is to say, not the Victoria and Albert Museum; not the Royal Academy; nor even the Hayward Gallery where an exhibition “Treasures from the Burrell Collection” was mounted in 1975.
When we appeared for ArtWatch UK as one of only two opposing witnesses before the Scottish Parliamentary committee (the other being Jeremy Warren of the Wallace Collection), we pointed out that the Metropolitan Museum’s present director, Thomas Campbell, had said of a major exhibition he had organised, “No one but the Met could have pulled off the exhibition of Renaissance tapestries we had a few years ago…We bribed and cajoled and twisted the arms of institutions around the world – well, we didn’t bribe of course – but politically it was very complicated negotiating the loan of these objects, which came from the British Royal Collection, the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Vatican and were just all absolute masterpieces.” (“Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art”, Danny Danziger, 2007, p.40.)
It will now be greatly less complicated for Burrell’s fragile glass, tapestries, lace and pastels to be sent to the Metropolitan Museum – or anywhere else. Where Jeremy Warren of the Wallace Collection had testified “It is disingenuous to suggest that when one moves a 500-year-old tapestry from one country to another – perhaps taking it across the Atlantic – one is not shortening its life”, Councillor Archie Graham, Glasgow Council’s deputy Leader and the chairperson of Glasgow Life, thrilled at the prospect of “unlock[ing] the potential of this outstanding collection” and of being able thereby to “realise the full benefits of his gift.”
We were not surprised to read Jackie Wullschlager’s report in the Financial Times (“Scottish independence”, 5/6 April 2014) that within months of overturning Burrell’s terms of bequest, a themed exhibition of works from within the collection (“Bellini to Boudin: Five Centuries of Painting in the Burrell Collection”) should open with all of Degas’s “glorious, delicate, light-sensitive” pastels shown in their entirety for the first time in a gallery in which water was dripping from the still unfixed roof “the day before” the show opened – that is to say, opened while on the watch of co-opted art world big-wig guarantors, the likes of Sir Angus Grossart and Mr Neil MacGregor.
We did not, however, expect, when opposing the attempt to harvest the benefits of a collection bequeathed to the city of Glasgow, so soon to see the Church of England recklessly playing the same value-harvesting game with an irreplaceable part of the fabric of a cathedral and of our national heritage.
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Mantegna’s Dead Christ : They Know Not What They Do
The first curators and directors of museums and galleries were titled “Keepers”. It was a nicely ungrand reminder that the curator did not own but was merely required to guarantee the safe-keeping of collections. Those modest days are past. Today’s museum is no longer the means by which interested members of the public are granted access to fine collections of art in circumstances conducive to tranquil contemplation and reflection. The Modern Museum is an instrument wielded simultaneously (and rarely coherently) on behalf of assorted vested interests. Governments can treat museums as tools of social engineering. Sponsors can use them as means of burnishing tarnished corporate personas. For many groups and interests they constitute both job-creation schemes and marketing or catering opportunities. Possession, notoriously, is nine parts of the law and today’s museum directors and curators often act as if, for the duration of their tenures of office, they themselves own the works. For some, art collections constitute harvestable assets, a kind of tradable currency that can project institutional and personal brands/egos onto the global stage. No one retains a career interest in leaving well alone. Even when they are not being shuttled around the world, pictures can be physically or virtually “restored” so as to generate newsworthy “discoveries” and dramatically upgraded attributions. Even when circumstances preclude the generation of physical transformations and excitements, curators can, as our colleague, Michel Favre-Felix, the president of ARIPA (Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique), here discloses, deploy purely “presentational” techniques to identically detrimental effects. [M. D.]
Michel Favre-Felix writes:
In her desire to give “more visibility” to Mantegna’s Dead Christ (see Fig. 1), the iconic masterpiece of the Brera’s magnificent collections, the museum’s director, Sandrina Bandera, could have given carte blanche to a trendy museum designer or to a provocative artist. Instead, she chose the movie-maker Ermanno Olmi as “a humanist concerned by the human tragedies and a humble artist who would not try to hold his own with the painting.” [See, bottom right: Endnote 1.]
The result, as seen since late December, is that the Dead Christ is now housed in a special crypt-like dark room, stripped of His historic frame and visually isolated by spot-lighting, as if now embedded into a monolithic black wall – and at a height of only 67 cm from the ground. (See Figs. 2, 3, 4 and 5.) This presentation is intended to be permanent and the film-maker, humility notwithstanding, declares “This will last: I will fight for it”.  (See Figs. 6 and 7.)
While not doubting the sincere empathy of the 83 years old film director with Mantegna’s tragic moving image, likely created in the mid-1480’s, after the loss of his two beloved sons, his declared ambition, after a “deep intellectual research” (“profonda ricerca intellettuale”) to “present the painting just as its creator wanted”  cannot be accepted. To begin with, Ermanno Olmi holds that “the frame was a nuisance. It is a painting that would have been hung upon Mantegna’s bed or on its side, not a decoration.”  This discarding of the frame (see Fig. 8) is a matter of no regret for the Brera, which states that it was documented “only” from the XVIth century. However, the idea that a religious painting rightly becomes a “decoration” as soon as it gets a frame is a post-modern conception that rests on an inability to comprehend how paintings were conceived and viewed in the religious climate of the 15th century.
Far from being an alien ornamental addition, the frame is a device that serves as a gateway marking a separation between the surrounding real/material world and the depicted ideal world. It marks the step away from our daily views into the world of artistic and spiritual contemplation – both a border and a bridge: the intermediary moment that permits the introduction of the “epiphany” of the image.
Decorum was, on the contrary, a native part of the religious display and sincere piety was expressed through the enriched appearance of images. Dismissing “decoration” with Mantegna, who gave unequalled expressive importance to decorative elements in his own art by elevating ornamentation to the highest degree of artistic and spiritually expressive means, is singularly regrettable. (See Figure 9, which shows the outstanding subtlety and complexity of Mantegna’s design and its interrelationships between the carved gilded architectural frame and rich depicted ornaments.)
Clearly, in his quest of the essence of the image, Olmi felt compelled to “liberate” the Dead Christ from any kind of “decorum”. Instead, by acting without any self-critical distance, he has merely wrapped the sacred image in the stereotypical “decorum” of our modern times: the non-framing of modern paintings and the omnipresent practice, in books and on computers screens, of reproducing old paintings without their frames. Such a reading might have been acceptable had the museum announced: “this is the creative movie-director’s own personal vision of the painting”. But M. Olmi claims to have “recovered” Mantegna’s original intentions by means of new historic-scientific deductions.
He does so with contradictory explanations. First, he asserts that, historically, “this painting has not been painted to be exhibited for all to see but was intended to remain hidden from any external sight”.  (Giovanni Agosti, the art historian and Mantegna specialist at Milan University, refutes this account.) Why, then, has Olmi gone to such lengths to give “more visibility” to the painting – which was the very aim of the Brera’s project?
Other inconsistencies stem from Olmi’s singular and highly specific conviction that the raison d’être of the Dead Christ was to be a private devotional image positioned on the side of the artist’s bed at 67 cm from the ground – at which height he claims to insure a “correct” prospect for a viewer not in the bed but in a standing position next to it. As Olmi argues: “If I have placed the painting at 67 cm from the ground it is because, when it is placed at the eyes level, the Christ looks deformed and stunted as if he was hanging by his arms. It is true that one could feel inclined to kneel, but the viewpoint that I impose is not religious. It is the most adequate with the view chosen by Mantegna.” 
The film-director’s attempts to “correct” the prospect with his disconcerting and precise 67 cm calculation fails to address the long established but puzzling fact that at least two, contradictory prospects were used in the construction of the scene. Actually, Mantegna’s representation is not bound to a formulaic appliance of mathematical prospect but, rather, used an expressive, sensitive one (in accordance with Alberti’s conceptions). Should the Brera’s visitors be instinctively inclined to kneel, M. Olmi might consider that they might instinctively be right, and that he is intellectually wrong.
Let us test Olmi’s calculations. The painting would have hung near Mantegna’s bed, at 67 cm from the floor, as a devotional image for his own kneeling prayers. Nevertheless, the artist would have set the “correct” prospect for the viewpoints of rare visitors to his bedroom. And thus, every day, Mantegna, while kneeling would have, on Olmi’s account, seen no more than a “deformed and stunted” Christ. That the Brera also asserts that this level is “the same that the artist wanted ”  only illustrates the well-known phenomenon of collective misleading.
In truth, Mantegna’s intentions are implicit within the painting. The key is the position of the three lamenting figures at the Christ’s side. These three mourners (the Virgin, St John and the Magdalena) are not standing but kneeling. A recently rediscovered ink drawing, dated to the 1460’s and which may be thought to be part of Mantegna’s own steps towards his final composition shows figures, standing and leaning around the Christ (see Fig. 10). As Mantegna eventually chose kneeling figures, he thereby rethought the prospect. The resulting unusual viewpoint in the Brera masterpiece makes sense when we realize that it represents the prospect drawn from a position similar to that of the three mourners: Mantegna places the spectator as a fourth mourner looking from a similar kneeling position and point of view (See Fig. 1).
Now, there are not so many plausible solutions. In the first, the painting is positioned near the ground, hypothetically as in the artist’s bedroom or – in another hypothesis – as it might have been placed on Mantegna’s grave. In both cases the spectators are rightly situated when kneeling. But a museum is not a church, nor a graveyard, nor an artist’s bedroom. In another reading, the painting hung at eye level and the standing spectators share the sight of the kneeling mourners. Although dashing the Brera’s hopes to revolutionize the traditional display, this solution works perfectly and is consistent with other sight level solutions by Mantegna, as can be seen in his “Wedding Chamber” of 1465-1474 in the Ducal palace of Mantua (See Figs. 11, 12 and 13).
The only wrong choice is that of M. Olmi. Andrea Carandini, the archaeologist president of the Italian equivalent of the British National Trust, put it trenchantly: “this means placing the body of Jesus at the level of the genitals that have everything except eyes” . The Italian professor further slammed Olmi’s failure to understand what a painting is and is not, by confounding an artistic representation of the sepulchre with a mimicked reproduction of a sepulchre room.
Of Olmi’s overly theatrical design, Carandini stresses that the painting is now dematerialized and degraded to a projected image. This new projected slide effect of the Dead Christ offends art historian Philippe Daverio who complains of a present resemblance to the reddish glow of a Pizza furnace . Personally, I am even more struck by the similarity with a movie screen. Could it be that M. Olmi does not realize that he is here replicating the very situation, so familiar to him, of a cinema showing in the dark? Should a row of cinema chairs be put in the present gallery, the seated spectators would be at the perfect height for looking at his Dead Christ film.
As for the Brera’s desire to increase the “visibility” and to recover the “true” (original) the viewing of the Dead Christ, such aims coincide with current (controversial) definitions of contemporary restoration, which pretend to increase the “legibility” of the artwork  and to reveal its “true” colours, by some supposed recovery of its original state.
As with the numerous controversial restorations that have been the subject of critical analysis by ArtWatch and others, hypotheses that are cast up as alleged discoveries are given the status of facts and misleading calculations are supplied for “scientific” proofs. Ambitious restorations and spectacular displays alike are – however awkward their results – made in the name of retrieving the artist’s original intentions.
In both cases, close analysis shows a contemporary aesthetic prevailing over the artist’s own original one. Professed humility in restorers and exhibition designers is unable to constrain the contamination of the past by our present artistic prejudices. By similar processes, through invasive restoration or intrusive display, the old masterpieces are modernized and thus, for ongoing decades or even irreversibly, falsified.
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Good Science; Over-Reaching Science; Over-Promoted Science.
On February 10th the Daily Telegraph published a letter from a professor of chemistry at University College London (Robin J. H. Clark) questioning the relationship between art and science in general terms and with regard to a supposed Chagall painting featured on a recent BBC Fake or Fortune television programme. Prof. Clark expressed particular concern over art world failures to heed the testimony of available scientific techniques.
In the late 1980s the UCL chemistry department had developed a non-invasive technique (“Raman microscopy”) for identifying both natural and synthetic pigments within paintings. Because the latter have known dates of invention, their presence in a picture can establish the earliest date at which it could have been produced. This technique is said by Prof. Clark to have been known to Sotheby’s by 1992. The Chagall painting, he pointed out, could have been exposed as a fake at any point in the last 20 years. He further reported that the painting was exposed as a forgery in his UCL laboratory in July last year in the presence of its owners and the presenters of Fake or Fortune:
“I am disappointed that neither of the presenters of Fake or Fortune made this clear. The conclusion that the painting is a forgery is based on our spectroscopic results, which showed that at least two of the key pigments had not been synthesized until the late Thirties, putting the earliest date for the painting at 1938, long after the supposed date of 1909-10.”
Because of the unequivocal nature of those technical findings, Prof. Clark (rightly) observed that the Chagall Committee in Paris, to which the painting was sent, had no option but to confirm the forgery. He also asked how art historians might be encouraged to read science journals so as be informed about “significant developments in science as applied to arts”. In part, his question is fair and urgent. The art market’s notorious governing trade dictum is caveat emptor (buyer beware) – while auctioneers and dealers may take every pain to verify their claims, it is ultimately for buyers to satisfy themselves that attributions and conditions are as described. Auctioneers can only submit works to (possibly disqualifying) technical analysis with owners’ permission. Dealers who buy at auctions almost invariably have works restored but are not required, when selling works on, to disclose which if any tests may have been run.
Support on the extent to which scientific (and also historical and visual) evidence is ignored or manipulated in the interests of “boosting financial rewards in attributing paintings to particular masters” was given in an Observer interview on February 23rd (“Revelealed: the art experts who pass fakes as authentic”) by Professor Martin Kemp, a Leonardo specialist. In the same report by Dalya Alberge, Nicholas Eastaugh, a leading independent scientist (of Art Access and Research), described the present climate as being both without standards and “totally unregulated. It’s a Wild West.”
However, much as we sympathised with Prof. Clark’s impatience with some art world practices, we could not endorse his call for a blanket acceptance of all scientific methods presently being applied to works of art. As we put it in a letter to the Daily Telegraph (published 12 February):
“Professor Robin Clark (letters February 10) calls for developments in science to be applied to art. If sound science is underused by the art trade, more questionable ‘scientific studies’ have been used for many years to offer assurances that picture-cleaners’ solvents have been a safe method of stripping varnishes and repaint from old pictures.
As the current issue of the journal of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works makes clear, the understanding in the art and museum world since the Sixties of how solvents work has been seriously flawed scientifically. Because important intermolecular interactions have been ignored, the theoretical model used cannot predict, as assumed, the actions of solvents on the underlying paints.”
History teaches that the many cumulative “scientific” defences of restorations have best been treated with scepticism. In 1977 Kenneth Clark admitted founding the National Gallery’s conservation science department precisely to bamboozle critics and dupe the public. In later years the Gallery pioneered a new mongrel discipline known as Technical Art History in which curators, conservators and conservation scientists pool expertises so as to arrive at some seemingly “scientifically underpinned” consensus on aesthetic decisions. In reality curators were glossing authority already-ceded to restorers. As the National Gallery restorer Helmut Ruhemann wrote in 1968: “Although the art historians in charge of pictures are officially responsible for the policies regarding cleaning, they naturally form their ideas in the first place from what they are told by their restorers.”
In its guides to conservation the National Gallery presently claims that while its restorations are carried out for aesthetic rather than conservation purposes, and while each restorer imposes a personal aesthetic taste on pictures, it considers all aesthetically various outcomes to be equally valid so long as they have been carried out “safely”. The contention that the (claimed) safety of cleaning methods can underwrite conflicting aesthetic outcomes is a non sequitur. Besides which, no claims have proved more unreliable than those of cleaning solvents’ safety.
The crucial and sometimes wilfully over-looked cultural truth is that there are no properly scientific means of comprehending art’s variously created aesthetic values and relationships. When reiterating this point in our post of 7 February 2014 (“From the Horse’s Mouth ~ Seventy years of worthless ‘science’ and reassurances on the safety of picture cleaning solvents”) we were able to disclose the most recent and most damning evidence of the un-soundness of past scientific endorsements of picture-cleaning solvents.
Notwithstanding these spectacular technical reverses, this month the press has been chocked with uncritical “Good News” accounts of scientific advances in the arts. Most newspapers and the BBC carried claims that scientists had “digitally reconstructed” the original appearance of a Renoir painting in which a former pink background had faded. By coincidence, this claimed miraculous virtual recovery had also been made by “a technique known as Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS)” carried out at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The BBC reported that “Northwestern University chemist Prof Richard Van Duyne pioneered SERS. He said the Renoir demonstrated why the Raman technique was fast becoming an invaluable tool for studying artworks: ‘You get tremendous information about the origins of the painting, the techniques of the artist, an understanding of the fading mechanism, and the ability to restore the painting.’” Note that speculative hypotheses are now being presented as sound platforms for restorations. In the art world it is frequently the dogs that don’t bark that matter most. Note that this wonder technique which addresses changes resulting from natural causes would seem to have no powers or potential with regard to the more common and much more seriously deleterious man-made changes made by restorers. Given that both types of injury are easily evident by eye to anyone lifing a picture out of its frame (see Figs. 2 and 3), the silence of “science” on the latter injuries can only seem self-compromising .
In a letter to the Times (February 17) we protested:
“The claim that scientists have recreated the original appearance of a Renoir painting (‘Laser technique shows masterpiece as Renoir intended’, Feb 14) is unfounded. All elements of a picture undergo natural changes over time. To these, further unnatural changes are added by restorers and their invasive paint-penetrating solvents. Compensating for a single faded pigment does not constitute a recovery of a picture’s original appearance. Rather, it offers a further falsification: a single artificially simulated ingredient within a remaining, generally altered and debilitated surviving whole.”
Our letter was accompanied by one from a Professor of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at Imperial College London, making a far-fetched claim that the fact that a synthetic red dye used in paintings had also helped in the discovery of an important white blood cell constituted an unusual “bridging [of] fine art and science”.
While Raman microscopy could certainly disprove the claimed date of the fake Chagall, it seriously misleads the public to present speculative and hypothetical digitally manipulated reconstructions as if literal recoveries of original conditions. On February 22nd the Economist reported an account of another digital re-mastering of real paintings delivered at this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Economist too saw a bridging of the divide between art and science, which it likens to a resolution of the science/art schism of which the chemist and novelist C. P. Snow complained in his famous 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures”. The report also reveals, however, that what was presented as a recovery of the murals’ original conditions was in fact a double hypothetical reconstruction. Not only had Rothko’s colours faded, so too had those of the contemporary photographs of his murals that were to serve as the basis for a digital re-mastering of the actual paintings. Despite the methodologically dubious procedure of digitally re-mastering actual paintings on the back of digitally re-mastered photographs, there was customary breathless admiration for this latest claimed technical miracle:
“In the case of the Holyoke Centre’s Rothkos […e]ach had faded differently, depending on its original colours and how much sunlight it had seen. And various parts of individual paintings had faded at different rates, too. But modern technology allows optical illusions to be finely crafted indeed. The paintings are continuously observed by a high-resolution camera. Its images are compared, pixel by pixel, with the idealised versions provided by the restored photographs. A computer then works out, moment by moment, what mixture of light to shine back to make the faded originals match the vibrant reconstructions—with no messy repainting necessary. For now, the paintings remain under wraps while the museum at which they are stored is renovated. One day soon, though, they will be on display in all their illusory glory.”
There was no discussion of the consequences of viewers’ bodies blocking the projected “correcting” coloured lights. What we are witnessing in this heavily promoted technical bonanza is not a genuinely increased understanding of art by courtesy of scientific advances. If the attempt to increase public understanding of the degree to which even quite modern paintings have suffered alterations since their executions was a real ambition of museum staffs and conservation scientists, it would be imperative for them to discuss (and demonstrate) the largest single source of alterations and adulterations: “restoration” treatments. In the absence of such an agenda, what we see unfolding is a cultually diversionary Big Push by certain professional groups into new and uncontroversial employment pastures where the potential pickings and funding opportunities are immense – there is scarcely an old picture in existence where some pigments have not faded. This virtual remastering show is one that could run and run. But who might fund and who might execute research into all those paintings that suffered far more grievously from the chemical coshes of restorers?
The real problem in the arts is not an insufficiency of technical or scientific assistance. It is deeper and more fundamental. Its root lies within institutional withdrawals from exercising properly critical considerations. The non-appliance of due critical practices is long-standing. There were uncritical responses in the late 1990s when (as we reported in our first post) the National Gallery used a computer-manipulated photograph of an actual skull as the basis for a hypothetical virtual reconstruction of missing parts in Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” which led to the redrawing of Holbein’s skull in defiance (or ignorance) of the perspectival systems of the artist’s times. More recently, the Tate repainted large lost parts of a flood-damaged work on the basis of early colour photographs in the course of a “restoration”. In our uncritical, increasingly “virtual” cultural universe it is more urgent than ever that museum curators should return to acting primarily on sound scholarly appraisals and aesthetically informed insights, and that they should not further devolve their responsibilities to technicians who may or may not be properly alert to matters aesthetic and artistic.
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From the Horse’s Mouth:
Seventy years of worthless “science” and reassurances on the safety of picture cleaning solvents
In our post of 4 February 2014, we challenged the “conservation science” said to have delivered absolute physical safety and absolutely aesthetically and historically correct recoveries of the original condition of pictures during restorations at the Louvre. How could this be so, we countered, when directly comparative photographs recording the pre and post-restoration states of Leonardo’s “The Virgin with Child and St. Anne” showed such clear evidence of injuries? At the time of that controversial 2011 restoration (which prompted resignations by two leading authorities from the restoration’s own advisory committee) we were assured that the Louvre’s varnish removal techniques were so advanced and precise that an imperceptible microns-thin film of original varnish had been left in place. How, therefore, it was asked, could the restorers possibly have damaged the painting? This is a common ploy and we were no more persuaded by it than we had been twenty-five years earlier when restorers of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling claimed to have left a thin protective layer of “original patina” on the ceiling.
To the contrary, we held that when claimed “science” conflicts with the evidence of our eyes, the eyes should have it:
“The currency with which artists work is values and the relationships between values. Through these they work by eye to produce artefacts which fix and carry their intentions, so that they might subsequently be optically apprehended by others. In the production of a painting, every last feature is a product of thought. But every judgement, evaluation and adjustment is transmitted exclusively through human sight, and not, as techno-conservationists might prefer, through sub-atomic particles of matter, complex chemical formulations or other mystifying hi-tech red herrings.”
We reminded viewers of the butchery – no other word suffices – witnessed during the cleaning and repainting of a Veronese head at the Louvre. When that “restoration” was challenged, the Louvre’s restorers made a second (this time secret and unrecorded) attempt to put matters right. They failed and grossly compounded the original blunder (see the lower sequence of photographs at Fig. 3). On such a track record, we suggested, it was surely provocative of the museum to announce not only another Leonardo restoration (his “La Belle Ferronnière”), but even a desire to restore the desperately fragile “Mona Lisa” (details of the mouth of which we show at Figs. 1 and 2).
Yesterday evidence came in that suggests that some restorers may now be doubting their own earlier propaganda. The new (January 2014) issue of the IIC’s journal Studies in Conservation – which describes itself as “the premier international peer-reviewed journal for the conservation of historic and artistic works” – is devoted to “paintings…a subject that has been discussed in publications over many years and frequently”. Indeed it has – and this issue contains a bombshell for much of that earlier research and its implicit reassurances.
It is contained in an article titled “Parametrization of the solvent action on modern artists’ paint systems”. For long-term students of such “Technical Art History” studies, the article begins with what can only be considered a professional confession:
“Effective and responsible use of solvents is an essential skill of a conservator or restorer. The complexity of the solvent processes in the field of conservation/restoration arises from the intent to selectively remove surficial components of a paint build-up without affecting underlying strata. High demands are thus set on the restorer/conservator with respect to specific knowledge on the dissolving properties of a wide range of materials. Owing to the complexity of the solvation and dissolving processes several approaches have been made to simplify solvent action and deliver some selection criteria to the restorer. The ternary ‘Teas chart’ (Teas, 1968) is the most widely applied solvent classification scheme in conservation…even though the system does not permit the prediction of material solubility. With the ternary Teas chart it is not possible to map the solvent action quantitatively…This is due to the fact that the system ignores important intermolecular intereactions. With this simplification, the relation of the individual paramaters to the total strength of interaction is lost.
In addition, while this system describes the solvents’ properties, it does not deliver information on material solubility.” (Emphases added.)
Well, so much for that Great White Hope of restorers over the last forty-odd years. In conservation’s technical literature, confessions are delivered only when fresh technical hopes and promises are to hand (as in Fig. 8). And, thus, here we find: “It is a first step towards the development of a systematic tool aimed at the responsible and reliable use of solvents in the field of conservation/restoration.” A bit late in the day for a “first step” towards responsible and safe practice?
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The Futurist Louvre and Leonardo’s Fate: nothing ventured, nothing lost
The more indefensible their restorations, the more museum regimes dig in and shut their ears to criticisms. (With bad restorations the eyes, too, often seem to have been shut.) Given the controversial outcome of the Louvre’s 2011 restoration of Leonardo’s “The Virgin and Child With St. Anne”, it might seem a provocative defiance that the museum should so soon announce that it is not only about to restore another Leonardo (his “La Belle Ferronnière”), as was reported in the Wall Street Journal on 1 February 2014 (Da Vinci Code Red: Restorations Spur Debate), but also the desperately vulnerable “Mona Lisa”.
Vincent Delieuvin, the curator driving (or heading) the restorations, makes a number of claims that lack foundation in the Wall Street Journal article. We had not dared to touch this Leonardo previously, he reportedly says, but now restoration techniques have improved to the point where the museum thinks them safe – even for the Mona Lisa which has become “yellowish and very dark”. The history of modern restoration is peppered with facile claims of technical “advances” that were rushed untested on to great works of art, soon to become the acknowledged follies of yesteryear. (We have often wondered whether the credulous techno-enthusiasts of Futurism, which movement died a swift death, had not migrated into art conservation.) Of what do these latest claimed advances consist? Have they arisen since the 2011 restoration of the “Virgin and St. Anne”, the controversial treatment of which provoked resignations from the restoration’s own advisory committee (as we reported on 28 April 2012 – “Rocking the Louvre: the Bergeon Langle Disclosures on a Leonardo da Vinci restoration”).
On the “La Belle Ferronnière” Mr Delieuvin holds that “The many layers of darkened varnish added over the centuries are getting old and make the painting dark and yellowish”. Such phobic/alarmist language is a constant feature of the would-be restorer’s rationale. After restoration, Mr Delieuvin predicts, the “contrasts and colours will come out again; so will the feeling of movement”. A long-standing (French) charge against intrusive restorers was that in their haste to “liberate” colours and dispel all signs of age in what are old paintings, they remove original material and impart a falsifying, historically inappropriate modernity. Restorers of every generation have insisted that their “advanced science” can prove that no original material was lost. In so saying, they demonstrate cultural naivety and failures to comprehend the nature of that of which art consists and the artistic and art historical, not “techno/scientific”, terrain on which all restoration evaluations should properly be conducted.
Restoration disputes stem from losses of perceived artistic values. Although artists certainly work with and through materials, the materials are not ends in themselves, or even vehicles of intrinisic value. Rather, they are the means by which the “stuff of art” is given fixed material expression. The currency with which artists work is values and the relationships between values. Through these they work by eye to produce artefacts which fix and carry their intentions, so that they might subsequently be optically apprehended by others. In the production of a painting every last feature is a product of thought. But every judgement, evaluation and adjustment is transmitted exclusively through human sight, and not, as techno-conservationists might prefer, through sub-atomic particles of matter, complex chemical formulations or other mystificatory hi-tech red herrings.
Thus, to take Mr Delieuvin’s promised delivery of increases of “contrasts and colours” in the pending Leonardo restoration, we can anticipate the outcome to some considerable degree by applying those very criteria to the last restored Louvre Leonardo, the “Virgin and St. Anne”. On that work it is clear that while an increase in the brightness of colours occurred, it was at the expense of a catastrophic reduction of contrast and strength in the tones by which the heads had been modelled and given corporeal form, as the Poussin scholar, David Packwood, very generously acknowleded on his (excellent) website Art History Today (“Aesthetic Appraisal and the Restoration Process”):
“I’m looking with growing horror at images of pre and post restoration images of the Leonardo Virgin and St Anne in the Louvre. They can be found here, in an article by the head of ArtWatch, Michael Daley. In a balanced and thoughtful post on restoration culture, Michael Daley highlights its real dangers, clearly evident in this latest example…”
When appraising restorations it is essential to do what museum curators and restorers are so clearly reluctant to do in their own catalogues and publications: place directly comparable photographs of before and after cleaning states in the closest possible proximity. This facilitates direct optical appraisal – which is the only methodologically sound and appropriate means of evaluating a work whose appearance has been transformed by a technician’s swabs, solvents, scalpels. It is never possible to compare a restored painting with its own pre-restoration condition because that is irreversibly effaced in the process. Photographs must therefore stand in lieu.
In every photo-comparison shown here of details from the “Virgin and St. Anne”, it is clear to any educated eye that the tonal range that was formerly visible has been massively reduced. This, ipso facto, is a proof of artistic injury: “dirty varnishes” could not have disported themselves in such a manner as to enhance the effects of Leonardo’s own handiwork. Moreover, the values and relationships of values that were perceivable through the varnishes before restoration would, on Mr Delieuvin’s own optical schema, be expected to emerge from a “cleaning” with greatly enhanced, not reduced, power and vivacity – in short, while the lights would certainly be expected to emerge lighter, the half tones and darks should also be strengthened and not diminished – as seen right.
Consider the comparison of the Virgin’s eyes at Figs. 5 and 6. Such has been the loss of modelling-by-shading that the face is reduced to a mask-like reminiscence of its former self. The now obtrusively dark slits of the down-cast eyes are no longer subsumed within the previous anatomically descriptive overall shading of eye sockets. Had Leonardo really painted the face as is presented today as “recovery”, it would be for the restorers, curators and trustees of the Louvre to explain how it was that dirty varnish had formerly imparted superior, Leonardesque traits to the master’s own handiwork. It would also need to be explained why Leonardo might have been content to leave two versions of the pupil of the Virgin’s right eye simultaneously visible on his finished picture.
If we consider the comparison shown at Figs. 7 and 8 of the Virgin’s lower face, another aspect of injury is apparent. That is, as the half-tones have receded under the force of swabs and solvent, the resulting increased zones of brightness leave the face looking looks both fatter and flatter. It is hardly heresy to suggest that Leonardo used shading to turn the surfaces of his heads away from light and into shadow. What kind of benefit, then, has been gained by delivering a lighter, brighter, flatter Leonardo? For what reason and on whose authority was the expression of the Virgin’s mouth altered?
As our colleague at ARIPA, Michel Favre-Felix, disclosed a few years ago, in the Veronese head shown in Figs. 10 to 13, we find evidence of a Louvre house-style of cleaning and repainting that imposes crass puffed-up modernist forms and redrawn and re-modelled features on Renaissance heads. This bizarrely unwarranted policy is accompanied by a cavalier disregard for the norms of museum-world conservation record keeping (as is evident in the Louvre spokeswoman’s reported comments at Fig. 11). The Louvre, as today constituted, is doing indefensible things to the art it holds and feels no obligation even to record or report them. The tragedy is that until quite recently this museum was a model of restoration restraint and a reproach to other institutions. Today, along with with its bonanza of destructive restorations, increasingly we find intrusive and vulgar commercial exploitation by Big Sponsors: “Another Restored Leonardo, Another Sponsored Celebration – Ferragamo at the Louvre”. To think that such a great institution could sink so swiftly into meretricious stewardship and displays of bling.
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NEW YEAR REPORT
Assaults on History:
Dishing Donors; a Vatican Wobble; and, Reigniting an Old Battle of Hearts, Minds, Interests and Evidence
We had a good and eventful campaigning year in 2013. At home, ArtWatch was invited to speak in the Scottish Parliament for the interests of art and against a municipal arts bureaucracy seeking to overturn a prodigiously generous benefactor’s wishes and instructions in order, effectively, to reward its own negligence with an extension of powers and a major capital project (without clear costing). Our views on this proposal were carried in the October Museums Journal, the December Apollo (see Burrell pdf) and in the Sunday Times (Scotland). We found ourselves in the midst of a high-level museum world schism.
MacGregor versus Penny
Speaking for the overturning of Sir William Burrell’s terms of bequest was the Glaswegian director of the British Museum and former director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor. Mr MacGregor had agreed (presumably with the blessing of his trustees) to be co-opted as an adviser and declared partisan onto a Glasgow Life body – “Burrell Renaissance”. In support of Glasgow Life’s ambitions, MacGregor expressed with characteristic (lawerish) eloquence impatience with the length of time in which The Living might find themselves governed by the Wishes of the Dead. The present director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny (a scholar, rather than a populariser of others’ scholarship) spoke no less eloquently in opposition: “What is very often forgotten in discussions of this kind is the moral advantage and tangible benefit of a declared preference for honouring the wishes of the donor. Real concern for the future is always more persuasive in those who have a genuine feeling for the past.”
The matter will come before the Scottish Parliament this month. Intriguingly, one of the members of the parliamentary committee that scrutinised the Burrell Lending request from Glasgow Life, Gordon MacDonald, SNP MSP, told yesterday’s Sunday Times (Scotland) that: “I too was concerned at the cost of £45m bearing in mind that Kelvingrove refurbishment cost £29m and they raised £2.5m from sponsorship and donations. The major work at the Burrell is a complete new roof and removal of lecture theatre to create new gallery space. Both of which will be costly, but £45m?”
Fresh Crimes Against Art and History
Internationally, two recent horrifically destructive mural restorations (the first in Spain and another in China, see Figs. 1 to 4) had reminded many of the great Sistine Chapel cleaning controversies of the 1980s and early 1990s (see “Restoration tragedies”). In January 2013 we were drawn back into that monumental Sistine Chapel restoration controversy (which had triggered ArtWatch’s founding in 1992) by an official acknowledgement that Michelangelo’s stripped-down ceiling frescoes were prey to failures of environmental regulation that were being exacerbated by swelling visitor numbers. We had warned against such failures twenty years earlier: “Artificially induced changes in moisture, heat and patterns of air convection can themselves do gross damage…The most obvious risk is that external air-borne pollutants will be pulled in.” (“The Physical Condition of the Sistine Ceiling”, Chapter IV, p.122, Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal, London, 1993.)
An Old Crime Implodes
At the beginning of last year, Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums, insisted that whatever the problems, visitor numbers could not be restricted: “We have entered the era of large-scale tourism, and millions want to enjoy our historical culture. Limiting numbers is unthinkable.” Today, the unthinkable may be on the cards. Paolucci acknowledges in this month’s Art Newspaper that the huge increases in visitor numbers (5,459,000 last year from 4m the year before) constitute his biggest practical problem:
“…The sheer numbers can be damaging, especially in the Sistine Chapel, which everyone wants to see. At the height of the season it gets 20,000 to 25,000 people a day, all breathing out carbon dioxide and vapour and bringing in dust. We are employing Carrier, a top US firm [who donated and installed the presently failing system] to work out a method of dealing with humidity; otherwise we will have to limit numbers…” (Emphasis added.)
On January 2nd Paolucci expressed further concerns in a Vatican museums press release: “I’m asking myself what will happen during the coming Easter holidays and the great canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. This will bring to Rome an immense mass of Catholics from every part of the world. Such extraordinary numbers oblige one to make some fundamental and priority considerations. The objective must be from now on to observe constant maintenance and preventive conservation of the Heritage. To do so we must provide ever more important resources.” At the same time, Paolucci promised that, after 3 years of work, all will be ready in May for the “improved air conditioning, reduction of pollutants and humidity control of the temperature.”
Antonio Paolucci, a distinguished Renaissance art scholar (and student of Roberto Longhi), might be thought to be in an impossible position as director of the Vatican’s museums. Presently, Michelangelo’s frescoes are being devoured by pollution and condensation that are the inescapable by-products of permitting the Sistine Chapel to serve as a tourism cash cow. At the time of the last restoration of the ceiling, the Vatican’s finances were a source of scandal (one of its bankers had been found hanged on a bridge in London). On December 7/8 last year the Financial Times reported “The Vatican bank was established to serve the work of the Catholic Church around the world. It has now become synonymous with financial scandal. An 11-month FT investigation reveals the extent of mismanagement at the Euros 5bn-asset bank and the murkiness of its operations that finally led regulators, international agencies, big banks and even Pope Francis himself to take action.” (Rachel Sanderson, “The Scandal at God’s Bank”.) In this climate, is cutting back visitors really an option? For that matter, is the new air-conditioning system promised for May capable of coping with yet further increases of visitors of the kind indicated by Paolucci?
In the absence of dramatic reductions of visitor numbers (which must presently be netting in excess of £75m p.a.) it is hard to see how any amount of conservation tinkering might resolve the present crisis. It would never be logistically possible to seal every visitor inside a “moon-suit” that would prevent the destructive cycles of evaporation and condensation that were already known in 1993 to be creating continuous migrations of salts and vapour within the frescoes. (At that date it was established that some 425 kilos of water were being pumped into the chapel’s microclimate by the daily total of 17,000 visitors. On today’s visits that volume of water must reach 600 kilos per day.)
No increase of expenditure could reverse the initial un-wisdom of stripping Michelangelo’s frescoes down to the bare plaster, thereby both bowdlerising his art and exposing its remains to environmental degradation. No expenditure could put back the glue painting with which Michelangelo had modified and intensified the sculptural presence of his figures and the unprecedented dramatically illuminated theatre which they occupied. Those characteristics had startled and awed his contemporaries. They were repeatedly recorded in copies made in Michelangelo’s own lifetime and for centuries afterwards (see, in particular the late 18th century copy opposite at Fig. 8).
The Vatican is presently attempting to rebuild the relationship between the Church and contemporary art that was sundered 200 years ago. It is a noble aim but it will remain a vain one until the corruption of art history that followed the restoration of Michelangelo’s ceiling is acknowledged and addessed. What Michelangelo achieved on the ceiling was unprecedented and precious: a profoundly spiritual fusion of the human and the divine that was rendered corporeal and situated in a palpable space contiguous with our own. Scholar supporters of the restoration claimed in defence of the emasculation of that original stupendous and unique achievement that we could now make “more sense” of Michelangelo; that we could now see a clearer link between his art and that of the inferiors who preceded and followed him. As long as the Church continues to endorse so unfounded, untenable an account, it will be in no moral position to forge any constructive relationship between itself and today’s artists.
If the cash flow is to be maintained and if Michelangelo is to be preserved, there would seem to be only one conceivable solution: as with other environmentally vulnerable archaeological/artistic sites, a full-size, absolutely faithful facsimile of the chapel will have to be built as a destination for the ever-swelling press of tourists. Creating an alternative “virtual” chapel might seem a shocking prospect and a colossal admission of failure but would it be more unpalatable than proceeding with the proposed plan described in our previous post to turn the remains of Michelangelo’s own frescoes into a “virtual” colourised caricature of themselves with 7,000 individually attuned colour-enhancing LED lights that would flood the ceiling with an artifical and chromatically falsifying light ten times more powerful than today’s? Building a facsimile to draw the tourists would mean that what survives of Michelangelo’s original work might then be left in peace, as it is, and once again in a congenial, stable climate.
Further and Fresh Doubts
On November 30th Peter Aspden, the Financial Times’s culture correspondent, declared that the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes (“the most important such project in recent history”) had been a “crushing disappointment”. Recalling that before restoration the frescoes had been “more real, more subtle, more moving”, Aspden noted that arguments in defence of the restoration “have been rebutted, with no little ferocity.”
If Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes remain the worst case of injuries suffered in the great post-war restoration bonanza, they are not alone. Fortunately there are increasing signs of doubts about modern restoration procedures elsewhere. Consider this further critique of picture restorers that emerged from a most surprising quarter on December 17th:
“…The problem is, each generation of conservators has always thought that they, uniquely, had the definitive solution to fixing works of art. In the world of pictures, today’s conservators spend much of their time undoing the earlier, bad restoration of their predecessors. For example, the dreadful wax re-lining technique all the rage only a generation or so ago is now routinely removed, as over time the wax creates a dull, thick layer which affects the paint surface. Before that, there was a fashion for planing down pictures on panel, and laying them onto canvas, with all the attendant holes and large losses that entailed (see for example the poor Bridgewater Raphaels in the National Gallery of Scotland). More recently, conservators thought they had invented a synthetic varnish that didn’t go yellow with age. But now we are discovering that it just goes grey instead. So the pictures have to be cleaned all over again. It’s a fact that over the course of art history more damage has been done to pictures by those claiming to be ‘conserving’ them than anything else. We can only wonder which of today’s foolproof conservation techniques will have to be rectified by tomorrow’s restorers. Sometimes I think it’s all a giant, inter-generational job creation scheme by some shadowy, global conservator’s union.”
We had noted on 12 July last year that “There has never been a make-work project like art restoration”, and earlier, on 17 March 2011, that “Art conservation is now a substantial vested interest, a business with a shifting ideology that serves as self-promotion… Regardless of conservators’ good intentions, the fact remains that their treatments alter the material fabric and aesthetic appearance of works of art. Alterations are made on promises to prolong life, prevent deteriorations and recover original conditions, when history repeatedly shows contrary outcomes”. Although we greatly welcome the recent tacit endorsement, its source is perplexing. The author, Bendor Grosvenor, made these remarks on his (lively and informative) blog, Art History News.
Art Market restorations
Mr Grosvenor, a modern historian by training, has for a number of years worked as a researcher and, latterly, as a second pair of eyes for the Mayfair art dealer, Philip Mould, who happens to be a highly active “stripper-downer” of paintings in search of something better and more valuable underneath. In countless BBC television programmes, in his 1995 book Sleepers and in his 2009 book Sleuth, Mr Mould has been a most effective propagandist for today’s professional restorers, of whom Grosvenor evidently now entertains doubts. Mould himself has conceded with increasing frequency that great risks attend the stripping down of paintings. When asked recently on the best method of cleaning pictures, he replied somewhat flippantly “With spit and polish” and made no mention of the solvents – principally acetone – and scalpels used by his own restorers. (We have been haunted for some years by advice given on how to remove nail varnish when no acetone nail varnish remover is to hand: brush on fresh nail varnish, leave for a few moments and then wipe off. The acetone in the new liquid varnish swiftly dissolves the old hard varnish enabling both to be removed with the same cloth.)
Concealment and Disclosure
With the public museum sector we feel compelled to examine the bizarre and perverse phenomenon of promoting demonstrably wrecked paintings in special loan exhibitions. One such is the Clark Institute’s Turner “Rockets and Blue Lights”, which work is once again being promoted in Britain as the Belle of Turner’s Ball, this time at the Greenwich Maritime Museum’s “Turner and the Sea” exhibition. As our colleague in New York, Ruth Osborne, has established, another such restoration-wrecked picture hangs in the Frick Collection as an autograph Vermeer (“Vermeer Interrupted: A Study of Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl Interrupted at Her Music’ at The Frick Collection”). The Frick has refused to release to ArtWatch an archive photograph that shows the frequently undone and redone picture at its most pictorially deranged and incoherent “in-restoration” state. A copy of that photograph is held by the Getty Institute but it cannot be released because of the Frick’s enforcement of copyright ownership. All but the most informed visitors to the Frick will likely have no inkling of what lies beneath the present surface. Where Philip Mould seeks to identify and uncover works of quality that have been distorted by later accretions (- the art trade’s “sleepers”), the Frick presently conspires to pass off tricked-up underlying pictorial carnage as Vermeer’s own handiwork.
The Frick is not alone. The Phillips Collection in Washington has repeatedly spurned our requests to examine the conservation and filmed records of the Kecks’ ruination of Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party”. Museums have grown bolder in promoting their own conservation efforts, sometimes placing restorers behind glass walls to permit public scrutiny. This seeming increase of public accessibility can have an ulterior motive: one leading international conservator disclosed that the practice serves to prevent embarrassing public outbreaks of shock and indignation when familiar works are unveiled after long incarceration in conservation studios. A Turner painting currently undergoing such public exposure is running at the Bowes Museum where the restorer is presently taking a break after encountering difficulties not identified by preliminary “scientific investigations” – the very type of investigation in which Philip Mould has expressed great confidence.
As we have seen in a number of televised Mould restorations, carrying out preliminary scientific tests does not eliminate surprises in the course of restoration once restorers start swiftly cutting through varnishes with their swabs and solvents to get to the paint underneath. We remain sceptical of the value of preliminary scientific or chemical analyses, not least because, as in the case of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, the analysis said to “prove” the artist had not completed his frescoes with glue-based painting conflicts with other more relevant – and, in fact, irrefutable – proofs of the kind often demonstrated on this site, as here today at Figs.13, 14 and 15.
ArtWatch has another full and ideologically challenging year ahead but a first priority will be to demonstrate the extent to which naïve and misplaced faith in today’s restorers can make professional monkeys of scholars, curators and trustees.
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The Twilight of a God: Virtual Reality in the Vatican
It seems that there is to be yet another make-over at the Sistine Chapel. It seems that, for the Vatican, you can never have too much colour, or too bright a supply of lights – or too many paying visitors – in the Pope’s private chapel. It seems that aesthetics are now under the control of technicians and bean-counters. Michelangelo is to suffer further indignities. The recent falsification of his work by “restoration” is now to be artfully compounded by bespoke hi-tech boutique lighting.
On 7 November, the Times’ business section broke the news that the Sistine Chapel is about to be illuminated by no fewer than 7,000 new LED lights (by courtesy of technical wizards at Osram and EU Research funding). Their purpose is to “enhance” the experience for visitors (see Fig. 1, “Judgement day for a bright idea”). In the FT Weekend Magazine it is claimed that the 5m tourists who now pack into the chapel each year will “have a far better view” (Mind/Science: “Illumination: New Light on Michelangelo”, 30 November 2013). This is on the grounds that, while the present lighting creates a “low-contrast twilight that fails to bring out the colours in Michelangelo’s masterpiece”, the replacement will facilitate “a completely new diversity of colour”. This diversity is to be the product of artificially selective sources of lighting, quite unlike anything found in nature and unlike previous systems of artificial light used in churches and chapels.
There are two things wrong here. The first is that Michelangelo’s colours have already been forced chemically into a false chromatic intensity by the misconceived and radically intrusive restorations of the 1980s and early 1990s. As we have repeatedly demonstrated (see bottom right), the homogenised applications of solvents-saturated cleaning gels stripped away the artist’s own tonal modifications of colour and intensification of shadows, even though there was abundant evidence that this part of the frescoes was original work that had been recorded during the artist’s own lifetime and throughout the frescoes’ history. (On the aesthetically destructive impact of the cleaning method, see Figs. 3 and 4.) Second, this proposed attempt to flood the Chapel with artificial light constitutes a bizarre “own-goal” act of revisionism on the part of the Vatican.
That is, the defence offered at the time of the controversial restoration was that the new and startling colour effects (which many critics likened to Disney animation stills) had been calculated by Michelangelo himself so that his images would cut through the gloom of a smokey chapel. On that initial rationale there can be no aesthetic or historical justification today for flooding the Chapel with artificial stage-lighting that is to be ten times more powerful than the existing artificial lights.
In the December 1987 Apollo, the Vatican’s official spokesman/consultant on art historical matters, Prof. Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, conceded that the “transformation of Michelangelo’s mysterious dark frescoes, half visible but so familiar (at least from reproductions), into blazing, colouristic pyrotechnics… is attracting the most public attention and controversy.” Nonetheless, she insisted that Michelangelo had “modelled his forms by means of colour” – this, despite the fact that his contemporaries had been united in the contrary conviction that he had done so by his unprecedented powers of light and shade. One apologist declared in December 1987 that all previous Michelangelo scholarship had been prey to what he dubbed “the Darkness Fallacy and the Sculptural Fallacy”. It was further claimed that the revolutionary chemical excavation of the “New Michelangelo” was “one of the great revelations of our time” and that it required nothing less than the rewriting of art history.
Given this recent history, might Prof. Brandt – or any of the restoration’s supporters at that time – ever have imagined that within a couple of decades the Vatican would conclude that the chromatically brilliant “New Michelangelo” would require artificial lighting ten times more powerful than that installed at the time of the restoration? If that seems inconceivable, let us turn the question round. Has there been in recent years any loss of chromatic intensity in the bare, stripped-down fresco surfaces that were left exposed for the first time in their history to the air-borne pollution of Rome? If not, why, as the FT reports, was it thought necessary to analyse Michelangelo’s surviving pigments so that each one of the 7,000 new lights might be individually attuned to a spectrum that suits the said, specific pigments precisely as and where they are encountered on the present ceiling – and in the present “twilight that fails to bring out the colours in Michelangelo’s masterpiece”?
This proposed adjustment of lights for the purpose of chromatic enhancement rather creepily resembles the use of projected light to simulate the original condition of colours that had faded in Rothko’s Harvard murals. The authors of a paper delivered at the 2011 Lisbon ICOM conference on this particular usage on modern paintings, concluded that theirs is: “A novel restoration technique that uses colored light from a digital projector to compensate for color alteration… To the authors’ knowledge, this approach has not been used previously for the restoration of paintings.” So we ask again: Has the Vatican been monitoring the colours of Michelangelo’s frescoes since the last restoration? If it has, have any changes and deteriorations been detected – and is this lighting system designed to compensate for them? Could the Vatican be attempting to launch by stealth what will be the world’s first non-secular virtual restoration?
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A few years ago a director at the Victoria and Albert Museum, was chided for producing blockbusters that bust no blocks. Today, aside from its catering and retailing outlets, that museum – which once advertised itself as “An ace caff, with quite a nice museum attached” – has a department exclusively dedicated to the production of special exhibitions. It generates eight exhibitions a year with a further fifteen travelling around the world at any one time (see “The world is her oyster”, in the Autumn/Winter 2013, V&A Magazine). As more and more of Art’s Flying Dutchmen encircle the globe, an awful lot of holes are appearing in the collections of great museums – as at the Louvre, as Didier Rykner has eloquently demonstrated (“The Louvre Invents the Gruyère Museum” ). This development is perverse as well as regrettable: a chief defence that museums make when seeking funding for expensive acquisitions is that they are needed to fill crucial gaps in a collection.
At the British Museum the number of loans (and therefore holes) doubled between 1985 and 2000, in which year 214 objects or groups of objects were loaned. That was for starters. In 2008, under its present globe-trotting director, Neil Macgregor, the museum got 2,500 objects “on the road” in Britain alone. In a submission this year to the Scottish Parliament, Mr MacGregor boasted that between 2003 and 2013 the museum had loaned over “over 30,000 (many very fragile)” objects, with only eight injuries. In 2006 the BM packed 160,000 visitors in three months into a (physically) small exhibition of Michelangelo’s drawings, at £10 a head (plus takings from the catering and retailing outlets). Mr MacGregor ruefully claimed that three times as many tickets could have been sold had space permitted. The following year he announced plans for a £100m expansion of the British Museum that was reportedly triggered because it had had to turn down a unique chance “to show off” the largest collection of Tutankhamun treasures ever seen in the west (Evening Standard, 6 July 2007), works which went instead to the former Millennium Dome, now re-branded as “02”.
It would seem that nothing in museums is now safe from this international exhibitions jamboree – no work plays too important a role within a collection, or is too fragile, or too unwieldy, to prevent curators from taking a gamble with its welfare (in hope of reciprocal loans and a curatorial buzz). The Metropolitan Museum in New York is one of the most voracious recipient/organisers of exhibitions. It needs to be. Its special exhibitions, which are free, are the biggest justification for the museum’s whopping “recommended” $25 entrance charge (- the legality of which is under challenge). As we have seen, the present director of the Metropolitan, Thomas Campbell, once boasted that only his museum could have shaken-down (“Item: The Met’s Strong-arming of Reluctant Lenders”) other great art institutions to get them to part with the fabulous Renaissance tapestries that were sent to a special show in New York.
The Metropolitan Museum will likely be the first international stop (after a six months stay-over at the British Museum) for a long-planned show of plum works from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow that will take place should the Scottish Parliament oblige the Glasgow City Council by over-turning the prohibitions in Sir William Burrell’s bequest on all foreign loans and vulnerable works within Britain.
Next October in New York, the Museum of Modern Art will host a show of some of the most fragile and difficult-to-transport works of modernism. As Martin Bailey reports in the current Art Newspaper, (“Journey at Snail’s pace”) Henri Matisse’s monumental 1953 paper collage, The Snail, is to leave the Tate for the first time since the gallery bought it more than 50 years ago. It will be a star exhibit in “Henri Matisse: the Cut-Outs”, at Tate Modern next April, that will include its sister works, Memory of Oceania, 1953, and Large Composition with Masks, before travelling to MOMA in New York. Although the itinerary is set, what is not yet clear, Bailey discloses, is how the Tate’s giant and fragile work will travel or even how it will be be packed:
“The problem of how to transport the huge work, which measures nearly three square metres, has plagued conservators for years. Paris’s Grand Palais asked to borrow the work for a major retrospective on the artist in 1970, but was refused because of the risks associated with transporting it. Its original late-1960s glazing is being replaced with laminated glass, which will reduce the risk of damage during transportation. However, laminated glass is heavy: with its frame, the work will weigh around 300kg. If the collage is set at a 45° angle within a crate, it will fit more easily through doorways, but if the work is transported flat, it will need a case measuring around four square metres.”
Those keenest to lend and borrow lean heavily on the relative safety of international aviation, but with these particular monumentally large but flimsily constructed works, Bailey discloses that a spokeswoman for the Tate was unwilling to discuss transport arrangements. He has discovered, however, that they might travel by sea because there are almost no cargo planes large enough to carry them, and because the exhibition’s sponsor is… South Korea’s largest shipping company, Hanjin Shipping. Either way, as Nick Tinari of Barnes Watch has repeatedly testified, when Matisse’s mural La Danse was detached from its permanent home at the Barnes Foundation, Merion, and sent off at a 45° angle on an open flatbed truck to the first stop (the National Gallery of Art, Washington) of a world tour, it was to return home badly damaged.
Not only are museums gutting themselves to feed international loan exhibitions, they are, as our colleague in New York, Ruth Osborne, discusses (“The Dismemberment of the Louvre: Travels to Louvre Abu Dhabi promise damages and leave Parisian Museum-goers in the Lurch”), beginning to do so on an even greater scale as part of international “rebranding exercises” in which museum annexes are created in improbable but rich centres so that museums may present themselves as pan-national or global brands (- along with Gucci now read Guggenheim). A lot of money is being made and a lot of careers advanced. Some journalists effectively double as cheerleaders for the tourism-fuelled cultural arts economies of centres like London and New York. However, along with these booming arts economies, risks are rising – and not just with the works of art: those who blithely authorise streams of loans risk putting their own reputations on a block.
NEWS UPDATE 26-11-13
The Guardian today carries this letter from ArtWatch UK:
“You illustrate the new exhibition of Turner seascapes at the National Maritime Museum with a giant reproduction of the artist’s now badly wrecked, many-times restored ‘Rockets and Blue Lights’ without issuing any kind of art conservation health warning (Eyewitness, 21.11.13). A clue to the extent to which this picture is no longer a remotely fair representation of Turner’s work is found in the picture’s full title, ‘Rockets and Blue lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water’ – for this was once a painting of two steamboats in distress, not of one. The now lost boat was recorded in a large chromolithographic copy of the painting that was commissioned in 1852, and in a photograph of 1896. Viewers who compare your present image with the recorded earlier states of the picture will likely marvel at the transformation by twentieth century restorers of the sky, and at the losses of storm-driven smoke from the funnels of the original pair of steamboats, one of which vessels has now disappeared under the waves along with its originally depicted crew members.”
In the ArtWatch UK Journal No 19 (Winter 2003), we carried an article by the artist Edmund Rucinski (“Ship lost at Clark. Many records feared missing. Establishment unfazed.”)
Unfazed the establishment was then – and, evidently, so remains today. Despite the disappearance of the second boat (and its smoke) in a recent cleaning, the owners of the Turner, The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute of Williamstown, USA, had included the work in a travelling exhibition (“Turner – The Late Seascapes”) that ran at the Clark from June to November in 2003, before transferring across the Atlantic to the Manchester Art Gallery in January 2004 and then on to Glasgow in March 2004.
At a public lecture at the Clark Institute, on 2 August 2003, Edmund Rucinski (who knew of the 1852 chromolithographic copy shown right) had been astonished to hear the restorer, David Bull, claim that the picture had originally depicted a single boat and that the second, now-removed, boat had not been painted by Turner but was a restorer’s addition made, possibly for Lord Duveen around 1910. That claim slowly sank. When Rucinski spoke to David Bull and asked on what authority the second boat had been removed, he replied that it was on a photograph of a single-boated copy of the painting that had been supplied by the Clark Institute’s senior curator, Richard Rand.
On 15 October 2003, the Times’ arts correspondent, Dalya Alberge, reported that when asked how it had been established that the second boat could not have been painted by Turner, Mr Bull had said: “The answer is we don’t know. It was a general consensus.” Thus, what had been presented publicly as a historically verified certainty was downgraded within a couple of months to a best guess, collective assumption. That position was maintained for several months and was reiterated in the Manchester Evening News of 14 January 2004, which reported: “The American owners of the painting and the restorer…say a second boat may have been added by an early 20th century restorer”.
On 28 March 2004 the show moved to Glasgow and the Glasgow Herald reported that the Clark’s senior curator had said “We have always maintained that the original Turner had two boats”. The importance of heavy promotion for travelling exhibitions was demonstrated in October 2003 when the Tate, which had not taken part in the travelling exhibition, nonetheless issued a press release that ended with the following claim:
“One of the stars of the show is Turner’s dramatic “Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water”, 1840 which has recently undergone major conservation and is a loan from the Sterling Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA”.
In additions to newspaper reports of critisms of the restoration, many interventions were made by scholars, as below:
“Since ‘Slavers’ and ‘Rockets’…have ended up in collections geographically so close to each other, it struck Hamilton [James Hamilton, the show's curator] as a good idea to show them together, arguing that Turner had intended them as a pair. The first snag was that Boston decided that ‘Slavers’ was too unstable to travel, even to Williamstown, so it was not in the show at all…But there is a danger that Turner has become a guaranteed crowd-puller, to be had recourse to at the expense of equally interesting but less certainly popular subjects. This is not a development to be welcomed, if only because Turner’s works are exceptionally vulnerable: the paintings, to the stresses of travel on their experimental construction; the watercolours to the exposure of light. He is not a resource that can be exploited indefinitely…”
~ The Turner scholar, Andrew Wilton, in a review for the Burlington Magazine, March 2004.
The ‘Slavers’ of which Wilton spoke, is Turner’s oil painting Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying – Typhoon coming on. In 2000 the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston which owns the painting found it to be damaged and “extremely unstable” on return from a loan to the Tate Gallery. Despite having been “glazed and sealed against changes in relative humidity, the picture [had] reacted significantly to the voyage” and lost flakes of paint. An unfazed (and institutionally unrepentant) Tate spokeswoman said in response to disclosure of the damage:
“It arrived here safely where it was examined thoroughly. Its condition was stable…However, Turner’s paintings are notorious for becoming unstable.”
Indeed they are. So why the incessant demands from temporary exhibition organisers to keep borrowing them? And why the systematic attempts to deceive the public into believing that the most restoration-wrecked pictures are the “stars” of the shows?
For our part, we have repeatedly drawn attention to these travel-induced injuries. On 24 October 2007 the Daily Telegraph carried this letter from ArtWatch UK:
“Sir – The Mellon Center’s decision (report, October 17) to break its own rule never to lend Turner’s fragile ‘Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed’ seems perverse: only seven years ago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston lent its Turner ‘Slavers throwing overboard the dead and the dying, Typhoon coming on’ to the Tate. On its return to Boston, that painting was found to have suffered losses of paint and to be in an ‘extremely unstable’ condition.
A Tate spokeswoman said: ‘It arrived here safely…Its condition was stable…However, Turner’s paintings are notorious for becoming unstable.’
This being so, why are trustees and curators prepared to take such risks with priceless works of art?”
Clearly, the question still stands.
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Art and Photography
Returning from an ArtWatch trip to New York and Philadelphia (refreshed and invigorated, as always), a first task was to take clippings from the previous week’s newspapers. On facing pages of the Times of 26 October, two startling and memorable images shouted in hilarious unison – and surely not in accidental juxtaposition? The first (here Fig. 2) was of a squirrel that had dropped a nut. The second was of one politician (Hillary Clinton, Fig. 1) endorsing another at a rally. The pendant pair of images testified to photography’s special, most distinguishing technical trait: its unique power to make/capture instantaneous-but-enduring mechanical records of particular scenes at singular moments. Photography (in its chemical and digital forms) has been a profoundly revolutionary addition to the world’s image making and recording capacities. That it is so at this point is beyond any dispute, but, then, it has never constituted, as some still hold, a replacement for those hand-crafted (painted, drawn or engraved) images made by people who are sometimes called artists. (See Gareth Hawker’s “A Photograph is a Copy, not a Creation“.)
On 25 October, at New York’s famous art school, The Art Students League, we were privileged to watch a kind of master class given by the painter Thomas Torak, who for thirty or so minutes, worked over a student’s oil painting of a model – a heretical procedure in many educationalists’ eyes. Using the student’s own palette, paints and brushes, he explained the artistic purpose of every change and adjustment as he went along. Starting at the passage depicting the model’s forehead, Torak suggested that the tones were too uniform. Lightening the student’s own flesh tint on the palette, he placed a firm highlight against the darkest tone on the shaded side of the head. Instantly – at a proverbial stroke – the form of the brow sprang forward from the canvas and turned convincingly in (evoked) space. With a stronger forehead, Torak moved down to the eyes in their sockets, darkening the shadowed hollows and placing strategic lights on the lids and the bulging eyes themselves. And so on and so forth down the head and into the body. Every adjustment was made on the authority of values seen to be present on the model herself, at that time and in that light. Seemingly, nothing was being invented: piece by piece, step by step, observable relationships between adjoining values were first carefully appraised and then artfully replicated in hue and tone on the palette, before being judiciously laid onto the painting.
However, as facet related to facet and form to form, the mosaic whole began to assume a compelling and designed narrative form from a brush that drew and revised as it coloured. Finally, Torak introduced consideration of the model’s entire body and clothing to the values of the background wall within the then-present natural top-down light. Here, again, the student had made too-equal an appraisal of the relative figure/ground values: the background was markedly too dark and too warm. Lightening and cooling its tone and hue caused the untouched figure to jump forward on the canvas in a startling “before-the-eyes” pictorial magic. Watching the demonstration and the entire group of students, it was apparent that without seeing Torak’s painting but simply by heeding his words of analysis and explanation, other painters in the studio were modifying their own work on similar rationales and to considerable benefits.
As a mild-mannered, softly-spoken man, Thomas Torak may be one of the art world’s most insufficently appreciated figures. Fortunately, the deftness of his speech and the acuity of his eye find other outlets at the Art Students League. Writing in that art school’s magazine LINEA (- and how very fortunate New York is that such an institution should have survived waves of modernist iconoclasm), Torak quietly, gently shredded a recent noisy attributional upgrade, rashly made on the back of a pictorially disruptive restoration at the now curatorially hyper-ventilating Metropolitan Museum of Art: see “The Rediscovered Velázquez” of 25 December last year.
Returning to our hotel at 11 p.m. on the last night of the trip, we witnessed another kind of artistic tour de force. On the corner of Times Square and West 48th Street, a “street artist” was working on a triple portrait, made in conté crayon on the basis of a photograph taken on a mobile phone (see Fig. 7), as his three subjects sat on the sidewalk behind him. The image of each head on the photograph could have been no more than half an inch high, and yet, from this miniscule photographic record, the artist was producing at speed perfectly credible heads with very fair likenesses. Like David Hockney – as we discovered once when drawing by the side of Lake Como – artists never pass one another without making an involuntary detour to take a peek. “Where did you learn to draw like this?” I asked the street artist. “In China” he replied. Ah yes, and alas, it could hardly have been recently at the Royal Academy Schools in London where Tracey Emin has been appointed Professor of Drawing. (See Harry Mount’s “Where will the Queen hang her rubbish portrait by Tracey Emin?”)
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Barnes, Burrell and a Beck Memorial Lecture: “Philippe Mercier Watteau’s English Follower” ~ by Martin Eidelberg
In 1991 a restorer brought Professor James Beck of Columbia University to trial in four Italian cities on charges of aggravated criminal slander. (Beck’s comments to one journalist had been carried in four regional newspapers.) Facing a possible three years jail sentence and ruinous, punitive damages – the restorer demanded 60 million lire for “material and moral damages” – Beck was exposed, vulnerable, alone. The restorer had sued Beck but not the four newspapers that had carried the allegedly damaging comments by the world’s leading authority on Jacopo della Quercia, whose famous marble carving in Lucca Cathedral, The Ilaria del Carretto, had been stripped of its ancient patina in a “conservation treatment” that included being blasted with particles to remove abrasions and scratches and saturated with penetrating oil to produce a homogeneously shiny surface (see Figs. 2 and 3). Despite the awfulness of the restoration everyone expected Beck to lose. One person who knew that he was going to lose – the trial judge in Florence – told the prosecuting lawyer as they left the court building together for lunch on the first day of the trial that he would find the scholar guilty: “Eh, but I shall convict him”.
Fortunately, that declared intention was overhead by an intern-lawyer and former policeman who happened to be working for Beck’s own lawyer. The judge and the lawyer disputed the attributed words but not the fact that they had left the court talking to each other about the case. Despite their joint denial, eventually, the judge was replaced and Beck was acquitted. (The story of that trial is told in the book “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” by James Beck and Michael Daley.) By then, Beck had resolved to set up an international organisation dedicated to speak and act on behalf of art against harmful practices and abusive or exploitative treatments. ArtWatch International was founded in 1992 to be that organisation.
When Beck died in 2007 we knew that the best way to honour his courageous stance was by continuing to campaign through ArtWatch. At the same time, to commemorate his achievements as a rigorous (Rudolph Wittkower-trained) scholar and highly popular teacher, we instigated an annual memorial lecture, alternating between London and New York, to be given by scholars of high esteem. We have been honoured by talks from Professors Hellmut Wohl and Charles Hope in London in 2009 and 2011, and by Professors Mark Zucker and David Freedberg in New York in 2010 and 2012.
The fifth lecture was given in London this year on September 30th by Professor Martin Eidelberg at the Society of Antiquaries of London in Burlington House. It was a sparkling and instructive occasion as Professor Eidelberg showed (through more than fifty PowerPoint slides) a succession of visual comparisons which deftly separated the subject of his talk, Watteau’s English follower, Philippe Mercier, from the many inferior works that had been attached to the artist as a kind of attributional flag of convenience, thereby exposing the intriguing conundrum of a painter of considerable quality who had remained a faithful pastichist of his chosen master, borrowing motifs at every step of his own career. An account of this elusive artistic entity will be carried in the next ArtWatch UK journal – just as the fourth lecture by Charles Hope (“The National Gallery Cleaning Controversy”) is carried in the current journal. Professor Eidelberg cites on his (excellent, as Selby Whittingham describes below) website, Watteau and His Circle, an anecdote about the friend of a colleague who responded to a general archaeology exam question with:
“an incredibly detailed answer about a minor type of Roman provincial pottery. The examiners were bowled over by this man’s extraordinary knowledge on such a minuscule topic, but then asked him why he had expended so much energy on a subject that only three or four people in the world knew anything about. His reply was ‘I realize that, but with them I have such interesting conversations.’”
Martin Eidelberg expresses the hope that his own essays will find a readership, encourage others’ research, lead to stimulating conversations on the art of Watteau and his circle. Certainly, his lecture on the 30th left the (distinguished) audience delighted and flattered to have been party to so discriminating and illuminating a conversation. Given the talk’s rarified subject it seemed appropriate to ask a specialist in the field, Selby Whittingham, who is Secretary of the Watteau Society, Donor Watch and The Independent Turner Society to offer a note on the speaker and his researches.
Dr Whittingham recalls:
“It is 29 years since I first met Martin Eidelberg at the colloquium at Paris to celebrate the tercentenary of Watteau’s birth, to which we both contributed, Martin on Watteau and his early master, Gillot. The speaker immediately preceding myself, Brian Allen, spoke about early imitators of Watteau in England, of whom “easily the most important” was Philip Mercier. Fifteen years earlier John Ingamells and the late Robert Raines, a founder member of the Watteau Society in 1984, held an exhibition on Mercier at York Art Gallery, followed by a catalogue of his works published fittingly by the Walpole Society (Horace Walpole having owned an actual Watteau, now at St Petersburg).
“As Martin’s conclusions will appear in his excellent Watteau blog, suffice it to say that he has once again challenged accepted views and causes us to revise our ideas about Watteau and his satellites. It was a rare privilege for a London audience to hear such an erudite talk, as the subject of Watteau long bypassed London, the blame for this being laid on the embargo put by Lady Wallace on the Wallace Collection from lending any of its pictures! However the accession of Christoph Vogtherr as its Director (successor but one to Ingamells) has now shown that need not be so, and that scholarly publications are not dependent on blockbuster loan exhibitions. On the other hand it is regrettable that an exhibition, mainly of photographs, on Watteau’s techniques held just after the tercentenary at Brussels never transferred, as its organisers had wished, to England, as the matter would have been of great interest to supporters of ArtWatch, some of whom will remember how a conservation mistake was shown by Martin Eidelberg at a previous meeting to have obliterated additions to a painting made by Watteau himself.”
The earlier ArtWatch talk to which Selby Whittingham refers was much appreciated by James Beck. As well as providing a platform for good talks, Artwatch soon discovered that people feel freer to approach and pass on intelligence to a dedicated organisation than to individuals. One of the first to do so was Nick Tinari, a young electrical engineer and devoted student at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. He brought news of an attempt to overturn a prohibition on loans of art works from the Barnes Foundation’s fabulous collection of modern paintings. This, indeed, was alarming: tours not only constitute greatly increased risks (six-fold in the judgement of one insurer) but too often serve also as pretexts for “conservation treatments”. With the Barnes collection (as with that of the Sterling and Francine Clark collection – see “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners”), the now-at-risk paintings were in the best, which is to say, least-restored conditions.
The justification for the proposed breach of a fabulously generous donor’s wishes and conditions was that money could be raised through a foreign tour of key works in the collection to make “conservation” improvements to the building in which the collection was housed. Alleged conservation needs provide morally-coercive cover for many professional expansions and building projects. Tinari saw the proposal as a ruse contemptuous of Barnes’ intentions and philosophy. Events proved him right – the assets of an institution were effectively hi-jacked and its educational purpose greatly subverted. The story of that heist has been well told (and see Tinari’s own comments below). Less sufficiently appreciated is Tinari’s own remarkable and tenacious defence of Barnes’ wishes and instructions against the hot-shot lawyers of the would-be institutional transformers. Those encounters so sharpened his awareness of and appetite for the law that he turned to law school himself and now works as a patents attorney.
Artwatch has always seen itself as something of a standard bearer and supporter of other worthy autonomous campaigns on Art’s behalf. James Beck had great fondness for courageous campaigning individuals and created a small prize which he named after the New York painter Frank Mason. Mason, a longstanding and popular traditionalist teacher at New York’s famous Art Students League (among his student/devotees was the great American satirist and author of “The Painted Word”, Tom Wolfe), was a pioneering anti-restoration figure in the US, leading marches of artists and students at the Art Students League to the Metropolitan Museum in protest at its picture restorations. In opposition to the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling he enlisted the engagement of the writer and former art critic of Time Magazine, Alexander Eliot. With the philosopher Thomas Molnar and the cultural historian Arcadi Nebolsine, Mason had founded The International Society for the Preservation of Art, which organisation was incorporated within ArtWatch International at its 1992 foundation.
At this year’s James Beck Memorial Lecture we awarded the 2013 Frank Mason Prize to Nick Tinari. He, like Selby Whittingham (the recipient of the 2011 Frank Mason Prize), has joined our campaign against Glasgow City Council’s attempt to have conditions of Sir William Burrell’s bequest overturned by the Scottish Parliament so as to permit foreign tours of works from the collection. The submissions to the Scottish Parliament made by Donor Watch, Nick Tinari, and ourselves, can be read at this site. Evidence given to the Parliamentary Committee by ArtWatch UK and others can be seen here.
Nick Tinari’s submission begins:
“I am a practicing attorney and an electrical engineer. I am also an alumnus of the education program of the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. Like Mr. Burrell, the founder of the Barnes Foundation, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, made his gift of an extensive art collection including the stipulation in an Indenture of Trust that none of the works should be loaned. This stipulation was temporarily breached in the 1990s based on the argument that the foundation was lacking funds to maintain theMerion gallery and that a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity had opened for a tour of the artwork to Washington D.C., Paris and Tokyo, with the French and Japanese venues paying a total of $7 million for the loan. This was one of the earliest instances of outright rental of artwork for exhibition and at the time the largest sum ever paid for such a transaction. Since then, the practice has become commonplace…”
In view of this great familarity with the Barnes case and its clear relevance to present considerations of the private bill presently before the Scottish Parliament, we asked Nick Tinari if he might address that relationship when making his response to receiving the Frank Mason Prize.
Nick Tinari’s response:
“I want to thank everyone at ArtWatch for awarding me the Frank Mason prize this year. I’ve worked alongside ArtWatch for many years and they are doing important work that no one else is addressing, namely, protecting our artistic heritage for the long haul, not just for the next exhibition or next year, but for as long as we will continue to recognize artistic genius, which hopefully is a very, very long way out.
“In addition to being a remarkable artist and teacher, Frank Mason was an early voice against imprudent “restoration” of artwork. We are in the small club of those who organized protests at museums, his in the 1970s at the Metropolitan Museum and mine in the 1990s at the Washington National Gallery and Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“I met Jim Beck many years ago when I was trying to stop the dismantling of the Barnes Foundation in Merion Pennsylvania. One aspect of the plan to break the founder’s will was an international tour of 80 works from the collection. It was a story that is very similar to the current plans for the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. The trustees no longer had connections to the donor or his intent and they wanted to elevate their own agendas and “put the Barnes on the map,” which was, of course, ridiculous because the Barnes Foundation was world-renowned long before the arrival of new trustees.
“I asked Jim for help because the tour organizer, the Washington National Gallery of Art, wanted to remove varnish from many of the works, many of which came into the collection directly from the artists’ studios and thus were in pristine condition, even if not bright enough for the kinds of shows the National Gallery puts on.
“This was in the infancy of ArtWatch and Jim wrote some letters and we did press releases together and got some attention to the matter. In the end, the works were not touched for the tour, the rumor being that the French organizers objected to altering the paintings, although some of the same institutions have certainly made their own mistakes since then.
“Between 1993 and 1995, roughly 80 Barnes paintings did travel to Washington, Paris, Tokyo, Fort Worth, Toronto, Philadelphia and Munich. Because I did not believe the National Gallery’s officials’ promises about the supposedly careful transit conditions—they actually claimed the works would be safer on tour than in Merion—I examined the works myself in Washington, Paris, Fort Worth, Toronto and Philadelphia. Aided by the condition reports for the paintings prepared before the tour by the National Gallery and which I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, I documented damage to several works as they were moved from city to city.
“The most dramatic damage that I saw was in the form of stretcher creases extending the width of one of the four-meter-wide canvas sections of Matisse’s la Danse [see Figs. 24 and 25], which Barnes commissioned for three lunettes in the central gallery at Merion [see Fig. 17]. Contrary to National Gallery testimony that climate-controlled trucks would be used, the large panels were shipped from Merion to Washington in open-air flat bed trucks in 40 degree Fahrenheit weather and then laid flat and rolled up to a special opening in a large window at the National Gallery [see Fig. 19]. I did not witness it, but presumably, a similar procedure was used to move the panels to the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris. We have photos of the arrival of the panels at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, again on open trucks and again laid flat before being moved into the building.
“These photos [Figs. 24 and 25] show the damage as I recorded it at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the painting was on display while the remaining works traveled to other cities. The National Gallery’s incredible response was that they simply had not noted the stretcher creases on the original condition reports. This is belied by an earlier report prepared by chief conservator, Ross Merrill, prior to removal of the work from the Barnes’ walls. In the report, Merrill states that the panels were in “remarkably good condition . . . taught and in plane.” An independent conservator, Paul Himmelstein, testified that the stretcher creases were typical of damage caused by laying a work horizontal against its stretchers, especially during a period of change in relative humidity. That is exactly what one would expect in bringing the work from the heated gallery in Merion to an unheated ride down I95 to Washington and then to be laid flat on the ground there. Prior to this, the work had not been off the wall or out of vertical position since Matisse saw it installed in 1934.
“A second instance of National Gallery mendacity involved the large Seurat les Poseuses, which a previous conservator at the Barnes Foundation stated should not travel [see Fig. 23]. The National Gallery approved the Seurat’s travel but, remarkably, changed its mind after the work had been to Washington, Paris and Tokyo. The claim was that the painting was not damaged but just should not travel any further. Of course this makes no sense. Either the painting was in the exact physical condition that it was in when it left Merion and thus fit for continued travel or it had been degraded since Merion, which was why it was no longer fit for travel. I suppose the third option is that, as the earlier conservator observed, the work was never in condition to travel and the National Gallery, having now exhibited the rare work, was willing to reverse itself, while not admitting that the decision to allow travel was wrong from the start. At least for now, the painting has this helpful footnote in its record should the urge to tour it arise again, although, as in the case of the Matisse, it is pretty clear that Alice in Wonderland rules apply to statements from the National Gallery.
“The final affront to the Matisse occurred only recently when it was moved from Merion to a new gallery in Philadelphia. As it played out, the agenda to put the Barnes Foundation “on the map” did not mean on a map of Merion, Pennsylvania but five miles away in center city Philadelphia. Anyone interested in the full saga of the complete reversal of Barnes’ wishes that the collection remain in Merion as primarily a teaching collection should view the 2009 documentary The Art of the Steal or consult John Anderson’s recently-updated book Art Held Hostage. As for the Matisse, the architects and the Barnes trustees responsible for dismantling Barnes’ express mandate for the collection’s use and display did not recreate in Philadelphia the same building details that Matisse worked to. Rather, in keeping with the Modernist design of the new Philadelphia gallery, they eliminated oak moldings above three windows that Matisse clearly used as visual pediments supporting the figures in the mural [see Figs. 17 and 18]. In place of these visual anchors, there is now a wide strip of bare wall with the figures in the work now adrift. This stripping of the Merion details is so obvious a disturbance of Matisse’s harmonization of the mural to the Merion building that it displays the complete and utter ignorance of both the architects and the Barnes trustees, some of whom fancy themselves as “important” collectors, whose mediocre accretions are regularly exhibited with the connivance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on whose board they also sit.
“The Barnes matter is unfortunately being replayed nearly verbatim in Glasgow at the Burrell Collection. The present stewards of the collection want to remove Burrell’s restriction against the works travelling outside of the UK. The premise is the same as it was in Merion, namely, there are insufficient funds to repair the gallery and touring the collection would raise funds, while the real motive, as with Barnes, is to use a tour of the artwork to put Glasgow “on the map.” ArtWatch has joined this present battle, and rightly so, because, collections like Barnes and Burrell are special islands of calm in a noisy field where art is now seen as a commercial enticement for tourist dollars. The conditions that Barnes and Burrell attached to their generous gifts should be observed not only because of the moral imperative, but because I think it is important to have at least some small part of the cultural heritage that is not subject to commercial pressures and dangers of endless tour schedules and inevitable damage and repair, not to mention the desire to brighten up works to suit viewers jaded by digital, LCD-lit images. Because Barnes had such restrictions on his collection, the works were not hastily cleaned when most museums were doing so. I fear that the rare condition of these works is now in jeopardy as they have now become part of Philadelphia’s self-declared “museum mile.”
“Jim Beck used to say that the experience between the artwork, and by extension the artist, and the viewer is a fragile one, an experience that cannot bear the weight of other agendas like blockbuster tours and “civic boosterism”. ArtWatch was founded to “speak for the art.” As the Barnes Foundation and Burrell Collection demonstrate, there will always be a need for that voice to be heard and I am glad to be a part of that effort.”
In his closing remarks Nick Tinari evoked one of James Beck’s greatest fears: that Art’s welfare is increasingly considered secondary to that of certain vested interests and professional groups. A key and modish contention employed by those who would overturn Burrell’s prohibition on foreign loans is that they wish to increase “access” to art – when art can only ever be in one place at a time and shuttling it around necessarily means that, in addition to being exposed to greatly increased risks, it becomes inaccessible to anyone except professional art handlers for long periods of time between venues, and entirely inaccessible in its home for what can be exremely long periods. A second contention (which we examine in a forthcoming post) is that shuffling art around facilitates scholarship. Many have complained that the scholarship connected with blockbuster exhibitions is often poor and meretricious. James Beck further held in the Art Review (“Facts and Fictions of Restoration”, January 1999), that the scholarly spin-off of such exhibitions constitutes a professional inducement to take risks:
“The ‘new’ interpretations of one artist or another which result from the blockbuster offer the art historian the opportunity to participate in the resulting symposia and international congresses. The same is true of following the restorations of well-known or important works. These too require a whole new apparatus. What art specialist would be willing to forego a role in these activities? This would mean being left out of the massive catalogues that usually accompany art spectaculars. For those who enjoy it, there also opportunities to participate in television interviews or appear on any CD-ROM merchandise. Each of these can involve substantial compensation.”
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Betraying Burrell – Shame on Glasgow
It would seem that the arts (along with sport) have been “nationalised”, or more precisely, municipalised, in Glasgow. Both spheres have been brought under the control of a hybrid entity known as “Glasgow Life” which is both a company and a charity with the formal title “Culture and Sport Glasgow”. The directors and trustees of Glasgow Life are appointed by the Council. Glasgow City Council manages the Burrell Collection and the City’s other museums through this body. In the case of the Burrell Collection, Glasgow Life has established an intermediary overseeing body known as “Burrell Renaissance”, the chair of which is a member of Glasgow Life’s own, Council-appointed board of directors. Glasgow City Council is promoting a private bill in the Scottish Parliament to remove the prohibition on foreign loans that was stipulated by Sir William Burrell when he gifted his entire collection (of some 8,000 works) to the city of Glasgow in a will of 1944 and in a later Memorandum of Agreement.
When we were invited to give evidence to a hearing on the bill in the Scottish Parliament on 19 September we attempted to speak to the curators of the Burrell Collection at the museum itself on 18 September. Contact had to be made through Glasgow Life. After inquiries by that body on the nature of our interest, arrangement was made to meet two Glasgow Life officers (in the event three) at the Burrell Collection with no museum curators present. We had hoped to establish the logic of the development whereby a chronically leaking roof – which requires urgent, immediate action (see right) – had grown into a proposed redevelopment of the museum that would cost £45m and that would require not only that the museum be closed to the public for four years between 2016 and 2020 but that works from the collection would go on foreign tours in hope of raising the profile of the collection and generating “revenue-raising opportunities”.
The private Bill presently before the Scottish Parliament seeks expressly to “remove these restrictions [imposed by Sir William] permanently so that items can be lent and borrowed more freely”. It was explained to us that the purpose of increasing borrowing into the Burrell was to enable curators to put on special exhibitions that would set the Collection’s works into a wider and more scholarly context. However, this proposed move towards what is by now a near universal museum practice is itself problematic because it threatens to disrupt the present unique and very special character of the Collection as bequeathed and as has survived since the museum was opened in 1983 (see below).
The hearings on 19 September were filmed and have been placed in full on YouTube. In the first hearing, the Chair of the Burrell Trustees, Sir Peter Hutchison, and the legal agent of the Trustees, Mr Robert Taylor, presented a case for overturning Burrell’s overseas loans prohibition on a variety of grounds that taken together would cede to Glasgow Life permission to conduct the borrowing and lending policies of the Burrell Collection without hindrance. Both witnesses expressed confidence that a proposed new lending code that has been agreed between Glasgow Life and the Burrell trustees offers sufficient safeguards to “mitigate” (but note, not eliminate) the enduring risks of foreign travel. It was alarming when Sir Peter indicated that while, presently and in compliance with Burrell’s repeatedly asserted wishes and conditions, it is the case that entire categories of vulnerable objects (such as tapestries and pastels) are specifically excluded from permission to travel even within the UK, let alone abroad, in the future (were the Bill to be approved), consideration of what might be loaned both in the UK and abroad would be made not by categories of artefacts but on a “case by case”, object by object basis. This would be done under the provisions of the new lending code which is designed to “harmonise” the collection and to “treat [it] as a single entity”. The justification offered for this radical overturning of previously respected conditions is that within what are recognised as highly vulnerable categories a range of conditions exists in which individual works can vary from great fragility to robust good health. We challenged that notion strongly during the second session and note that in the first session, the Committee’s Convener, Joan McAlpine, pointed out that when the Committee’s members visited the Burrell they had been advised by a textiles conservator how and why textiles are so peculiarly unsuited to the risks of travel.
To our fears that the bill effectively seeks to give carte blanche to those in Glasgow Life who will administer the collection, it can be added that it is not altogether clear where accountability might lie. The relationship between the curators at the Burrell museum and the administrators of Glasgow Life is ambiguous and seems unhealthily lop-sided. Sir Peter offers assurances that, on a successful passage of the Bill, he would expect all parties to work harmoniously together and that if displeased the trustees “could make our views quite clear”. Expectations and expressions of displeasure comprise no guarantees. What became clear under close interrogation by the Committee’s members is that Glasgow Life (which as mentioned is the cultural arm of Glasgow City Council – which body is directly promoting the private bill to overturn Burrell’s prohibition on foreign loans) will have the final say and even the right if challenged to have issues determined on the judgement of such “experts” as it might commission. It seemed unfortunate and not reassuring when Sir Peter likened the future role of the Trustees to that of a long-stop cricket fielder rather than a wicket-keeper. (An awful lot of runs can be conceded without balls crossing the boundary – and besides, in modern cricketing practice, the long-stop position is almost obsolete because wicket keepers are expected to stop all balls that comes along.) Sir Peter accepted that Glasgow and not his trustees should have the final say on the fatalistic grounds that “they already perform that function”. It was not made clear why a Parliamentary bill had been thought necessary at all when, as Selby Whittingham of Donor Watch has subsequently submitted to the inquiry:
“There is no need to enact bills to allow for loosening of conditions. This can be done through the courts, as in the case of the Barnes Collection and by application to the principle of cy-pres. If it can’t be done in the Burrell case, one may ask if the case for changing the restrictions is really a good one.”
Certainly the essential claim that Burrell’s restrictions on foreign loans can now be dropped because of increased safety has not been substantiated. Even Sir Peter, a former insurance man himself, recognised that risks remain and are inescapable. Under these circumstances, as he put it, the Trustees have a duty to assess and “mitigate risks as far as possible”. This seems a defeatist position. As we have pointed out, in a world where technical improvements in aircraft safety are offset by great increases of volume and velocities in museum world art swaps, a need to mitigate risks would arise only if Burrell’s many times expressed prohibition were to be overturned. That need not happen. It should not happen. The Trustees’ lawyer, Mr Taylor launched a technical sophistry in the Committee hearings by suggesting that lending to the Louvre today was little different from lending within Britain. This was presumably on a belief that travelling under the English Channel by rail is no riskier than travelling by road within the UK. He had perhaps failed to recall that the tunnel has already suffered a number of very serious fires – including one in 1996 when many heavy goods vehicles were destroyed.
The record of accidents, as the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, has offered to demonstrate to the Committee, hardly indicates a new, risk-free universe. In 1987 a cross channel ferry, The Herald of Free Enterprise, collapsed and sank in shallow waters, under calm conditions, with a loss of 191 lives and 47 heavy goods vehicles. Three years earlier the Herald’s sister ship, The Spirit of Free Enterprise, had carried two lorries bearing 267 Turners for an exhibition at the Louvre. In 2000, as Dr Whittingham discovered, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston found its Turner oil painting “Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying” to be damaged and extremely unstable on return from a loan to the Tate Gallery. Despite the picture having been glazed and sealed according to modern “best practices” against changes in relative humidity, it had “reacted significantly” to the voyage and had lost flakes of paint. It was established that the injury had occurred on the homebound journey. As a Tate spokeswoman acknowledged:
“It arrived here safely where it was examined thoroughly. Its condition was stable”. Incredibly, she added, as if in some exculpation, “Turner’s paintings are notorious for becoming unstable”. Indeed they are – and no gallery knows this better than the Tate. In 1980 the Observer reported that many Turner paintings were too fragile to travel – that barely 100 out of the 279 paintings were fit to “risk being shaken, bumped or dropped in travelling”. As the Tate’s head of conservation, Viscount Dunluce, put it: “Paintings are not designed to travel but to go on a wall. If you send them about in lorries, trains, ships or planes it is bound to have a deleterious effect on them”.
Against Sir Peter Hutchison’s belief that were Burrell alive today he might be happy to “trust his own trustees” to overturn his prohibition on foreign loans, must be set the fact that when two Burrell pictures were sent against his wishes and without his knowledge to Switzerland in 1953, Burrell himself reminded Glasgow Corporation that:
“The Memorandum of Agreement with the Corporation only gives permission to lend items from the collection to any public gallery in Great Britain. That stipulation was made to safeguard the items from damage. Had I known in time it would not have been allowed. It mustn’t occur again.”
That accidents still occur in the air as well as on sea, was the principal force of our own testimony. But all questions of risks aside, the proposed changes do not constitute a well-considered appraisal or culturally desirable end. The impact of the already planned increases of borrowing and lending on the character and the aesthetic appeal of the collection as presently constituted and displayed would likely prove detrimental. That is to say, as Glasgow life explained matters to us, the intention of increased borrowing within the museum (for which borrowing must follow the inevitable quid pro quo of increased lending) is to enable curators to make “more sense” of the works that are held in the collection. This seems an aesthetically and culturally unfortunate form of professional special-pleading. The desire of curators to engage in practices that are becoming near universal within the museum world (but with consequently diminishing results in an international scramble to lay hands on the finite number of plum works) misses or ignores the very traits of the Burrell Collection that are uniquely distinctive and attractive.
What is so remarkable and special about the Burrell collection is that although very large as a private collection, at over 8,000 objects, by its catholic nature it comprises in miniature an easily accessible and digestible cultural “over-view” that is otherwise only available in the grandest “encyclopedic museums”. It should be more widely appreciated (and acknowledged) that nowhere else is it possible to move so effortlessly and rewardingly between great and beautiful artefacts drawn from so many of the world’s great cultures without risking the physical and mental fatigue that so easily sets in when moving through the vast halls and din of traipsing tourist parties of a British Museum, Louvre or Metropolitan Museum. At the Burrell museum, for all its current technical deficiencies and its aesthetically over-asserted means of construction, the building nonetheless has a kind of grace and ease of navigation that is immensely conducive to aesthetic contemplation and enjoyment. The contents of the beautiful classically housed Freer Gallery in Washington afford a similarly high aesthetic payload, but do so on a much narrower palette of art and cultures. The Burrell offers the chance to enjoy, compare and evaluate disparate cultures through a collection of works of remarkably high quality (as is here indicated right without any captions – and without reference to whole treasuries of works in the collection such as tapestries, stained glass, silver and furniture) that is uniquely accessible. This collection should properly and attentively be cherished for what it is and for what it offers and facilitates. It should not be exposed to disruption, adulteration and very greatly increased risks to the works themselves for the sake of turning it, at inordinate costs, into something more common place and altogether less enchanting and special.
At the James Beck Memorial Lecture in London on September 30th (see details opposite), the Frank Mason Prize is to be awarded to Nicholas Tinari for his role in opposing the changes made at the Barnes Foundation. (To see his submission to the Scottish Parliament, and those of Donor Watch, ArtWatch UK and others, click here.) In response, Mr Tinari will discuss in brief the lessons for those presently seeking a comparably radical overturning of the terms of governance of the Burrell Collection. Under sharp questioning from the Committee members, led by the Convenor, Joan McAlpine, at the Scottish Parliament on 19 September, Sir Peter Hutchison showed signs of anxiety that money raised by a world tour of works from the Burrell Collection could fall short of that being committed to fund not just repairs to the roof but a greatly more ambitious development of the Burrell’s building. If that were to be the case, could Glasgow City Council be relied upon to pick up a likely deficit of some £40m?
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Protecting the Burrell Collection ~ A Blast against Risk-Deniers
In a remarkable development the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, has served notice to the trustees of the Burrell Collection of the grave risks they would be undertaking if they were to loan the collection abroad against the terms of Sir William Burrell’s magnificent 1944 bequest to the city of Glasgow.
As the Herald Scotland reports (6 September), Dr Penny has attacked the “deplorable tendency” for museum staffs to deny the grave risks that are run when works of art are transported around the world. In his submission to the Scottish Parliament committee now considering the bill to overturn the terms of Burrell’s bequest and his specific prohibition on overseas loans (to which committee we will be appearing as a witness this month), Penny, who has had knowledge of 10 major accidents during his career in museums and galleries in Britain and the US, offered to give details of the cases, in confidence to a trustworthy individual to be nominated by the Scottish Government. News of this offer and of Penny’s views broke when Herald Scotland spotted an accidental posting of his submission on the Scottish Parliament’s website.
Unsurprisingly, Penny’s bombshell has caused consternation among those wishing to send the collection on tour during a refurbishment of the building in Pollok Park which is expected to take four years and cost £40m. (We have have expressed bemusement in the past at the nicely rounded figures of building restoration costs which so often come in at sums like… £40m.)
The body “Glasgow Life” which runs Glasgow’s museums is reported to have been “flabbergasted by this”. If it is surprising that a museum director should be outspoken on this sensitive subject which involves a number of art world vested interests, there can be no surprise to readers of this site about the reality of the risks and the adverse material consequences of which Penny complains. In honour of Artwatch International’s founder, the late Professor James Beck, the Autumn 2007 ArtWatch UK Journal (No 22) carried a thirteen pages long report on the dangers of art loans – “Blockbuster Exhibitions: the Hidden Costs and Perils”, by Michael Daley and Michael Savage. For the full text of the report, click on this PDF. (Michael Savage has posted a response to Penny’s intervention on his Grumpy Art Historian blog.) On 13 December 2010, in response to an appeal from Polish curators and conservators to help halt a further loan of Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine (“An Appeal from Poland”), we disclosed the extent of an injury to a panel painting by Beccafumi that was dropped and smashed when being dismantled from a temporary exhibition at the National Gallery (see top, right). That photograph (and an internal report on the incident) had been given to Artwatch by Dr Penny when we commented in our Journal on news of the incident carried on the National Gallery’s website.
On 11 July 2011 we reported (“Questions and Grey Answers on the Tate Gallery’s recovered Turners”) on how the Tate had paid a £3.5m ransom to Serbian gangsters in order to recover two Turner paintings that had been stolen when sent (without a Tate courier) to a small, badly protected German gallery.
The Herald Scotland reports that Glasgow Life is proud to have “formed a partnership with the British Museum, one of the leading authorities on loaning items, to benefit from its expertise”.
It is true that under its present director, Neil MacGregor, the British Museum is a hyper-active dispatcher of art around the globe (- over 4,000 objects in 2006 alone). It should be appreciated, however, that practice does not make perfect in this hazardous arena. As described in our Journal 22 report, when the British Museum packed the peerless, desperately fragile Nimrud Palace alabaster relief carvings and sent them all to Shanghai in two cargo Jets (which broke their 16 hours flights with a stopover in Azerbaijan), it was discovered on arrival that the recipient museum’s low doorways were too low. No one, presumably, had thought to measure them first. It was further discovered that the host museum’s lifts were inadequate. In consequence, the crated carvings had to be “rolled in through the front door – which meant that we had to get a mobile crane to get them up the stairs”, the British Museum’s senior heavy-objects handler, Darren Day, explained in one of the museum’s self-promotional television programmes. When the collection was finally unpacked it was found that “a few little conservation things had to be done.” When crated Chinese terra cotta warriors arrived on loan at the British Museum, they, too, would not pass through the door of the reading room, even when the door’s frame was removed – some expertise?
A restorer in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, has claimed that there is a professional concept of “acceptable potential loss” with regard to loans. As described in our 8 February 2011 post (“The European Commission’s way of moving works of art around”), since 2003 it has been a declared ambition of the European Commission to “facilitate”, “encourage”, “promote” and make “easy” the “mobility of art collections” within Europe. To this end, the EU urges that loaned works of art not be insured, on the extraordinary conviction that accidents can always be remedied: “in many cases, after the exhibits have been restored, only experts can assess the alteration resulting from the damage. The restored artworks can therefore be exhibited as they are.”
The simpliste Eurocratic view of restoration is the more alarming because, travel accidents aside, with increased volumes and velocities of loans come an explosion of needless, often themselves destructive, conservation and restoration “treatments” that are undertaken prior to loan exhibitions as lenders seek to protect themselves by having their works “put in condition” for travel. This is done in order to be able to identify and establish (for insurance or blame-allocation purposes) the origin of subsequent injuries. Unfortunately, putting works into restorers hands in such bids to attain supposedly optimally secure condition for travelling itself presents hazards. We discussed one of the most spectacular examples of needless injury in our post of 8 January 2011. On that occasion an owner put his prized and beloved Renoir into the hands of a pair of leading restorers simply to lay a couple of small blisters and then to dispatch the picture from Washington to Paris. The restorers, without any authorisation, presumed to clean, reline (and wreck) the painting, Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, as the distraught owner, Duncan Phillips, later confessed. On arrival in Paris, the newly restored Renoir was at first rejected as a Renoir. Having long enjoyed pride of place in the home of the great collector, Phillips moved it on its return from Paris into an anteroom. Today it enjoys pride of a place in a hideous over-scaled modern extension to the delightful period house that Phillips bequeathed, along with his collection. The present administrators of the museum have refused all requests to inspect the records of treatment on that painting, and, generally seem rather more animated by mounting their own special exhibitions than in ministering to the original and perfectly self-sufficient collection:
“Intersections is a series of contemporary art projects that explores —as the title suggests— the intriguing intersections between old and new traditions, modern and contemporary art practices, and museum spaces and artistic interventions. Whether engaging with the permanent collection or diverse spaces in the museum, the projects suggest new relationships with their own surprises.
“Many of the projects also riff on the nontraditional nature of the museum’s galleries, sometimes activating spaces that are not typical exhibition areas with art produced specifically for those locations.”
Burrell be warned. Awful as recent “developments” at the Phillips have been, the United States has witnessed an even greater betrayal of a bequest: the wresting of the entire contents of the Barnes Collection from its, also bequested, delightful purpose-built original home and grounds, in order to place it in a worse than awful modernist pile a few miles away, hard by a noisy polluting freeway in the centre of Philadelphia. The denouement of the Barnes Bequest hike began (as is proposed at the Burrell) with a vast international travelling exhibition. At the Barnes, as now at the Burrell, the jaunt was premised on the morally-coercive “conservation” justification of putting the building itself “into condition” on behalf of the great collection of works. Humbug has rarely appeared so rank. The specially commissioned “site specific” Matisse mural was detached from the walls of the museum, packed on a flat-bed, open truck – against all reassuring conservation-compatible promises – and carried at an angle (see photographs, right) to Washington. Nick Tinari, who is to submit testimony to the Burrell Inquiry, has informed ArtWatch “I can state unequivocally that damage was done on the tour to the Matisse mural, the Seurat Models and a Picasso. I have documentation for all three.” Tinari further points out that, as with the intended Burrell tour, the Barnes tour – which netted $7m – breached the benefactor’s express prohibition on foreign loans. Far from serving to make the collection safe, that earlier exercise paved the way to a full takeover. More generally, it served as a template for trustees everywhere who might wish to harvest cash value that is otherwise locked into permanently housed works of art.
Clearly, Dr Penny’s intervention addresses much more than the welfare of the Burrell Collection, precious and vulnerable though it is. It is greatly to Penny’s credit that he should have spoken in such frank (and brave) terms. It is also greatly to the credit of the Scottish Parliament that it should be engaging in such an open exercise before another art world horse may be induced to bolt.
On 7 September, Herald Scotland reported the submission of written evidence made by Dr Selby Whittingham of Donor Watch:
“Dr Selby Whittingham, of Donor Watch, says in his submission: ‘There can be a case for departing from the terms of a bequest when those are incapable of being carried out wholly or safely … but that does not apply in the Burrell case in this instance.
‘This bill is a consequence of the current vogue for loan exhibitions and for using outward loans as barter for inward loans. This vogue is not wholly benign. It deprives visitors to a museum of works which they may expect to see. And we are not convinced that the transport of works of art is as free from hazard as the advocates of this measure optimistically maintain…’”
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Technological advances are often over-sold and deployed in haste. As Nicholson Baker famously showed in his book Double Fold ~ Libraries and the Assault on Paper, countless books, magazines and newspapers were destroyed when microfilm seemed (falsely) to be a better, more durable, more economical means of storing their “information”. The BBC discarded much irreplaceable historic material which, having been shot in black and white, was held technically obsolete on the arrival of colour productions. As we reported on February 28, 2012 (“Shedding archival records at the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum”), the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art had recently received a phone call from a Tate employee who said “you might like the curatorial photo archive because we’re about to throw it on to a skip”. We subsequently learnt that the threat to archival material was more widespread and that it was being strongly resisted. Technical advances and their attendant risks are not abating. Here, the painter and ArtWatch UK Journal’s picture/photography analyst, Gareth Hawker (- see his post of 10 January 2011 on photography in museums), discusses some of the dangers posed to archives by breath-taking but commercially driven and insufficiently examined technical developments in digital photography.
Gareth Hawker writes:
The benefits of digitising archives can seem immense: the archives become easier to index and retrieve than the original documents, and copies may be sent anywhere in the world almost instantly. These advantages can appear so dazzling that the risks of digitising may be disregarded, especially by institutions which lack the funding and the expertise which the major museums can call upon. For those with low budgets and little experience in digitising their archives, several groups have issued guidelines – the “Western States Digital Imaging Best Practices” [Endnote 1] being among the best known. These practices have been taken as the basis for a number of instruction manuals, notably one written by Jim Kennedy . He provides plenty of useful advice but, while he does mention the risks involved, the bulk of his manual describes ways in which an image may be manipulated. An inexperienced archivist may get immersed in this part of the book and, in his enthusiasm for manipulation, throw away the original file.
It is true that the original archive file may not be suitable for all uses, for example a publisher may wish to enhance the image – perhaps by increasing contrast and removing blemishes – so that it would look better in a book or on the Internet. The resulting picture can look quite different from the archive image, but a researcher should always be able to track back to the unaltered original and check through any changes that may have been made. Ensuring that this is possible is known as maintaining image integrity. Digital images are intrinsically more proof against tampering than analogue images, but only if they are stored with the audit trail which records the changes, if any, which have been made to the original digital file. The construction of an audit trail is described in the Adobe document, “Digital Image Integrity” . However, among the procedures which the “Western States Digital Imaging Best Practices” document lists as ‘best practice’ it includes deleting the original file, and keeping only the manipulated version as a ‘master-file’. This invalidates the file as an archive, especially if the original photographic print or transparency has also been thrown away.
Jim Kennedy writes:
“Best practice is:
(a) to make a master image that has tone and color carefully adjusted to correct fading and exposure, or
(b) to make a master image that represents the tone and color for the physical condition of the item at the time of digitization without correction of fading or exposure. The choice depends upon the goals and resources for the project, with the second option requiring more extensive resources to create and maintain large files that may never be used and include reference targets when possible.
Both types of master images could be included in an archive. …”
Clearly choosing option (b) is vital for a serious image archive. Relative to the cost of time spent in scanning and filing, the cost of storage on a disc or drive is tiny; but throwing out the original file can cause confusion for ever after. The archivist who is pressed for time need not make any of the manipulations which the guidelines suggest. These could be postponed until someone wanted to adjust a copy of the archive file for a specific purpose, leaving the original untouched.
The task of preserving the new digital records presents new problems. Hard drives and discs become corrupt with the passage of time, so the data on them needs to be transferred to a new set of drives or discs before it is lost. The entire archive needs to be transferred frequently – every two to four years according to some authorities. There is a danger that someone may forget to transfer the data and that it will all be lost. This is a good argument for keeping the original, non-digital documents, but one which is sometimes overlooked. For anyone thinking of digitising a collection, David Saunders’ chapter on the subject of preserving records, “Image Documentation for Paintings Conservation” in Conservation of Easel Paintings (Eds. Stoner and Rushfield), provides a summary of this and other considerations which would be worth bearing in mind.
One consideration is the quality of the digital files themselves. The resolution of a digital photograph or scan is likely to be far lower than that of an old-fashioned photographic print – even one of poor quality. The amount of data lost if the original print or transparency is thrown away is incalculable. In addition, new techniques may be able to retrieve even more data from the originals than was ever imagined. Destroying the original documents will close off this possibility forever. Keeping the print-out of a digital document (‘hard copy’) may be advisable, but is an inadequate substitute for keeping the original, pre-digital document.
As an indication of the types of falsification that the writers of the ‘Western States Digital Imaging Best Practices’ consider acceptable, see the examples at right. A researcher looking at a ‘master image’ would have no way of distinguishing between what was a true record, and what had been doctored.
These doctoring procedures would invalidate photography as a means by which to examine how paintings had changed over time. This would represent a disaster for historians, and a blessed relief to any restorer who wanted his blunders to be forgotten. Restorers themselves rarely seem to look critically at ‘before’ and ‘after ‘photographs of the paintings that they work on, while museums often keep only haphazard photographic records of the works in their collections. The Rembrandt  and Raphael  databases give some idea of how incomplete these records may be. Perhaps this directionless attitude to record-keeping derives partly from the restorers themselves, who do not often attach much importance to comparing ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs. Most restorers prefer to monitor their own work according to what they see through the microscope, informed by their own experience and training – but without any objective standard against which to measure the result of their actions. Few restorers outside the major museums take high-resolution ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs of the paintings they work on, though they may take snapshots which are low in resolution, unevenly lit, and inaccurate in colour. Not having accurate ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs available – and, when they are available, not being practised at examining them – most restorers have little opportunity to assess the extent to which their work has damaged a painting.
Thus the importance of photographs may be underestimated, and the contribution of the archivist undervalued. It is essential that the best possible photographic records be made and maintained if any objective assessment of changes to a painting’s appearance is to be undertaken. An archivist may do well to consider keeping original, pre-digital documents, and resisting the temptation to become completely dependant on the computer.
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Farewell, then, Fine Old Sindie Arts Coverage
Our old journalistic alma mater, the Independent on Sunday, is to chop its arts coverage, the Guardian Media reveals. How very sad. The treatment of the arts in the Independent and its younger sister, the Independent on Sunday earned instant credibility when the papers were launched. If we may say so, in a ground-breaking article of 25 March 1990, (see our post of May 27, Fig. 12, “Funny Business at the Sistine Chapel: Has Michelangelo Been Found or Lost?”), the Independent on Sunday, under its arts editor, Michael Church, carried our first of many exposes on the destructive restorations of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and at the National Gallery. From the start, under its founding art editor, Michael Crozier, the two newspapers’ uses of photography and illustration were bold and invigorating. The Independent’s first but now-departing arts editor, Tom Sutcliffe, assembled a crack array of stylish contributors – Mark Steyn, Sebastian Faulks, Bayan Northcott, Fiona Maddocks, Mark Lawson and Andrew Graham-Dixon, among many. It’s all desperately sad. This latest cull of critics of art, film, music and theatre shows a costs-cutting newspaper devouring its own soul. For a few decades the arts had come to matter there more than anywhere in Fleet Street.
There is little consolation to be had in these developments but the reported plaint from arts publicist Alison Wright suggests one possible chink of gratification in the gloom:
“Publicly funded arts organisations rely on intelligent arts criticism and critical appraisals of their exhibitions and events not only to attract audiences, but also for their funding applications and to attract sponsors and donors.”
Indeed they do – and how they do – but as tears are shed, led them be shed for all sectors of the arts, for private galleries as well as public, for all art lovers and players, and not just for, or especially for, the special-pleaders of the feather-bedded public sector that has too often seen its raison d’être to be the undermining of traditional disciplines and anything that might be taken for a conservative and un-edgy taste.
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Review: Ways of Showing – or not
The Conservation of Easel Paintings, Eds. Joyce Hill Stoner and Rebecca Rushfield, Routledge (in the Routledge Series in Conservation and Museology), 2012, Hardback, 928 pp, £220, ISBN: 978-0-7506-8199-5 (hbk) and 978-0-08-094169-I (ebk)
This monumental compilation is said by the publishers to be: “the first comprehensive text on the history, philosophy, and methods of treatment of easel paintings that combines both theory with practice”. Hopes are further expressed that the book, which contains a large bibliography and essays by over seventy-five experts, will provide “a crucial resource in the training of conservation students” and furnish “generations of practicing paintings conservators and interested art historians, curators, directors, collectors, dealers, artists, and students of art and art history with invaluable information and guidance.”
Whether these long-term ambitions might be realised in such a perpetually fluxing and schismatic field, for critical outsiders, this collective account constitutes an invaluable guide to “the professional now” - to the material practices, theoretical rationales and ideological ambitions of those who presently are acting upon pictures and advocating further interventions. (It so happens that one of this book’s editors and three of its contributors will be speaking in London on July 12th at a Christie’s-sponsored conference on conservation practices. For details, see NOTICE below.)
We begin our consideration of this milestone work with an examination of its fourteenth chapter.
Gareth Hawker writes:
In his admirably brief contribution entitled “Image documentation for paintings conservation”, David Saunders [Endnote 1] shows a certain amount of reserve when it comes to describing the significance of his subject. He writes only that, “…photographs or images … can offer a point of reference against which to make future comparisons.” In the context of a book about conservation, perhaps he is too courteous to point out that images provided by a photographic department can show where conservators have damaged paintings. His topic is of central relevance to the whole subject of conservation.
Images which show a painting before and after treatment are vital if cleanings and restorations are to be reviewed impartially. Over the last 70 years or so, the paintings in public collections have changed a great deal, far more than most members of the public suspect. When a photograph of a painting, as it was many years ago, is compared with a photograph of the same painting, as it is today, significant differences may be observed. Most paintings have not simply been cleaned; they appear to have been stripped of paint. There may be a number of reasons for this change in appearance, but there can be no dispute about the fact that areas of paint really have been concealed or obliterated – often passages of the utmost delicacy of detail, complexity of form and subtlety of gradation.
When paint has been removed, the change to a painting is irreversible. No restorer has enough skill to reproduce a master’s brushstroke: if he did, he would be a master himself, and able to repaint a complete picture on a fresh canvas. It is understandable that a restorer would be reluctant to admit to having removed original paint, yet the photographic evidence suggests that, in many cases, this is exactly what has happened (see right). Even so, the National Gallery has not confessed to having ever removed a single atom of original paint .
The public might suppose that there was an independent committee which reviewed these restorations – some equivalent to the Financial Conduct Authority in financial matters – but no such regulator exists. This is why public opinion is so important: there is no higher authority. However, for the public to be able to make a meaningful comparison of the pictures before and after treatment, like should be compared with like. For example, a photograph ‘before’ in black and white should be set against a photograph ‘after’ which is the same size, and also in black and white. But frequently, in its publications and exhibitions, a gallery will side-step a direct comparison. The viewer may find that a small black and white photograph ‘before’ has been placed next to a large colour photograph ‘after’, or next to the newly restored painting itself. It is then impossible to compare like with like.
This sort of unbalanced juxtaposition characterised the National Gallery’s exhibition, “Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes & Discoveries” (2010). This was out of keeping with the policy of openness to public scrutiny which the gallery has pursued under its current director and his predecessor, who have both been outstanding in making photographic records freely available for examination.
Given this free access, the public might assume that critics and historians would be able to act as a viable substitute for a regulator – that they would notice any ruinous effects of a restoration and report on them – but very few critics and historians can rise to the task. As Michael Daley described in earlier posts, historians were almost unanimous in their support for the cleaning of the Sistine ceiling even though, as the cleaning progressed, ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs were being published which showed that detailed brushwork was being wiped off. Historians failed to see the damage. They failed to see it even when artists were pointing it out to them.
Perhaps art historians are taught to look for subject matter, rather than for lines and patterns. Whatever the explanation, if critics and historians were unable to see the injury to the Sistine ceiling, arguably the most obvious in the history of Western Art, then they are unlikely to be able to see other injuries to other masterpieces. When critics and historians cannot be relied upon, public opinion becomes the closest thing there is to an independent regulator, and the evidence provided by photographs and images becomes of crucial importance.
Gareth Hawker is a portrait painter and ArtWatch UK Journal’s Picture/Photography Analyst. For his views on the quality of the National Gallery’s photography, see his 10 January 2011 post “The National Gallery, London: The World-Leader in museums’ online provision of photographic reproductions of paintings”.
1 David Saunders is described in The Conservation of Easel Paintings’ notes on contributors as: “Keeper of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum. Here and in his former position at the National Gallery, London, his research interests were mainly in preventive conservation and the application of imaging technologies to the examination of museum objects.”
2 For example, in a letter to The Independent (“New life for the Old masters: careful restoration or careless destruction?” 14 April 1993), the National Gallery’s then head of conservation, Martin Wyld, wrote:
“…Mr Appleyard says: ‘I asked Martin Wyld, chief restorer, to identify any mistakes in [the National Gallery’s] huge post-war restoration programme. He could think of none.’ This is not true. Mr Appleyard’s question was on the narrow but important point of whether original paint had been removed during cleaning from pictures at the National Gallery. I replied that it had not.”
In a letter of reply (“Reasonable caution in the restoration of paintings”, 16 April 1993), Appleyard responded:
“I asked Mr Wyld very specifically if he could think of any mistakes the gallery had made in its post-war restoration programme. He replied equally specifically that he could think of none. Now he appears to be implying that he does now have some. He should supply a list. It would be of immense value…”
“The Picture So Far…50 Years of Painting Conservation” is a conference organised by The Picture Restorer (the journal of the British Association of Paintings Conservator-Restorers).
The conference will be held at the Royal Institution, London, on 12 July and is described as constituting a major retrospective and discussion of the future of painting conservation.
The lecture programme is as follows:
“Three Days That Changed Conservation”
By David Bomford – Director of Conservation, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
“The View From The Edge: Reflections on Conservation from a Traveller Among Other Disciplines”
By Prof. Alan Cummings – Emeritus Professor, Royal College of Art, London / Visiting Professor, Faculty of Engineering, Imperial College, London
“The Heritage of Powerful Personalities and Pioneers of Painting Conservation”
By Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner – Professor and Paintings Conservator, University of Delaware/Winterthur
“Sense and Sensibility and Patina”
By Dr. Salvador Muñoz-Viñas – Professor of the Conservation Department, Universidad Politecnica de Valencia
“A Changing Fashion in the Presentation of Old Masters”
By Dr. Nicholas Penny – Director of the National Gallery, London
“Aqueous Cleaning Methods in Fine Art Conservation: 1984-2014″
By Prof. Richard Wolbers – Associate Professor, Art Conservation, University of Delaware
“The Picture So Far…And Beyond”, A discussion chaired by Prof. Alan Cummings.
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Review: The Unobservant Eye
Mr. Collier’s Letter Racks: A Tale of Art & Illusion at the Threshold of the Modern Information Age, Dror Wahrman, Oxford University Press, 2012, HB, 275pp, over 70 col. illus., $34.95/£22.95, ISBN 978 0 19 973886 1
During the past few months we have disclosed horrendous restoration injuries on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes*. Restoration damage is not always so spectacular. Sometimes it is discernable only to the most knowledgeable and alert scholars – and one such is here discussed by the (alert, Berlin based) writer and artist Alexander Adams**.
Alexander Adams writes:
In a recent book investigating the work of Edward Collier (1641/42-c. 1708), historian Dror Wahrman has sought to uncover the methods and meanings of this neglected painter’s art. Collier was a Dutch still-life painter who was active in Leiden before moving to London in 1693. It is supposed that he died in London around 1708. Collier’s signature work was a form of trompe l’oeil painting. He painted letter racks depicting boards crossed by leather straps with items tucked into the straps. The items often included newspapers, sealed letters, pamphlets, combs, quills and bars of sealing wax.
Wahrman started noticing inconsistencies and seeming errors which had been ascribed – by the few writers who had noticed Collier – to a foreigner’s linguistic slips. Yet, as Wahrman has newly discovered, Collier was born into a Scottish-Dutch family and was likely familiar with English from a young age. It seems Collier delighted in playing with inconsistent spellings that he found in printed material of the time. He painted “Monday” and “Munday” and “December” and “Desember”, sometimes combining two versions in the same painting. That these were deliberate decisions not mistakes is confirmed by the identification of the original copies of the documents which show that Collier chose to alter spellings. Collier seems to have been acutely aware of the way that printing was gradually regularising English spelling.
A playful and tricky painter, Collier often included his initials and name in extremely indirect ways. An informed eye is required to locate and decipher these initials, often embedded in flourishes. He also took to secreting his initials in slight alterations of text and numbers, delicately changing the size and font of text. Collier’s most indirect allusions depend on complete legibility and the integrity of picture surface.
Wahrman was searching for Collier’s name in Trompe l’Oeil Letter Rack with Letter to the Dean of Durham (1700, see Figs. 2 to 6), private collection. He noticed that “1690” was written in a slightly eccentric way and suspected this was a hidden signature. Upon consulting an archive photograph taken by Christie’s in 1984, Wahrman discovered that during the course of restoration a point had been removed from “1.690”. When viewed inverted (see Figs. 5 and 6), the flourish and original script read “Colÿe”, a Dutch variant of the artist’s surname. What had evidently happened is that in the course of restoration after the 1984 photograph was taken, the restorer had spotted what seemed to be a mistake (or at least a distracting eccentricity) in the painting and had taken it upon himself/herself (or had been instructed) to remove it. In so doing, the restorer erased a hidden message left by the artist and instead of “improving” the painting, diminished its carefully woven complexity.
Thus we come across an example of a restorer “knowing better” than an artist and tidying up his charge for the sake of neatness. The minimalist principle of preservation in restoration is to repair obvious damage, remove and replace discoloured varnish and – in some cases – remove intervention by later hands and is not to tidy, straighten, sharpen or in other ways “enhance” a picture to conform to the aesthetic expectations of the day. Meddling is especially egregious when owner and restorer do not fully comprehend the intentions and technique of the original artist, as is the case with Collier, a long-neglected artist whose work was (prior to Wahrman’s discoveries) not understood at all. If the restorers were to work on the minimalist principle, this problem need never arise.
** Alexander Adams is a regular contributor to The Art Newspaper, The Burlington Magazine, Jackdaw, and, Printing Today. His work was included in “New Acquisitions”, which ran at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery, from January to June this year. For Adams’ discussion of injuries to the integrity of the picture surfaces of modernist, abstract works, see “Malevich Restorations Questioned”, ArtWatch UK Journal 28.
*As shown on our 28 March post, responses to our presentation of evidence on the injuries to Michelangelo’s frescoes have been positive and free of any challenge. Particularly generous support for our post of 27 May and its criticisms of scholars’ endorsements has come from Michael Savage, in his Grumpy Art Historian blog of 16 June (“Taken to the cleaners”): “The reputations of some great scholars, like John Shearman, will forever be tarnished by their foolish support for this destructive restoration…”
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The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part III: Cutting Michelangelo Down to Size
“Judging by Past Experience, it is Perilous to Suggest Restoration…”
~ Charles Heath Wilson, 1881, “The Life and Works of Michelangelo Buonarroti”. Publisher: John Murray, London.
“I once barged into a correspondence in The Times when the National Gallery was under fire from the ‘anti-cleaners’. I was ticked off very severely by Lord Crawford, the Chairman of the Trustees. I had, mildly I thought, criticised the authorities for ignoring the sincerely held views of the opposition…I was later restored to favour in high places when I made it clear in an article in The Studio that I was convinced that our National Treasures were in the keeping of qualified responsible people.”
T. J. Honeyman, 1971, “Art and Audacity”. Publisher: Collins, London.
It is not widely appreciated how inherently dangerous art restoration practices remain, or how culturally deranging restoration changes can be. At the bottom end of the trade, restorers often advertise their services on a promise to leave pictures “as good as new – or better”. The restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was – on the accounts of its own restorers and initiators – the biggest, the best, the most scientifically advanced and “radically transforming” top-end restoration ever undertaken. This “Restoration of the Century” left one of the world’s greatest artistic accomplishments so profoundly unlike its former self that enthusiasts could announce the discovery of a “New Michelangelo” who was “very different from the one art experts thought they knew”. At the same time, the chief restorer thrilled in 1982 that the frescoes looked as good as new: “as though they were executed yesterday”. In the midst of this commonplace restorers’ confusion between “recoveries” and “discoveries” (or sometimes, “revelations”), some surprising expressions of support materialised. In 1987, a top-end art historian writing in the magazine Apollo [Endnote 1] announced the demolition of the “Darkness Fallacy and the Sculptural Fallacy” within Michelangelo scholarship, and predicted that the then concurrent restorations of the Sistine and Brancacci chapels would leave both Michelangelo and Masaccio as “less isolated geniuses” who would be “returned to their respective periods” (i.e. confined within designated art historical boxes). In 1991, a newspaper art critic exulted in the displacement of “doomy outpourings of religious angst” by colours as “bright as Opal Fruits” – which colours reflected the workings of a “much more rational mind” . Unsurprisingly, such professional pleasure-taking in chemical transformations that could cut artistic Titans down to size alarmed those who had been happy with the surviving Michelangelo, and an enormous controversy arose. Unsurprisingly, the criticised characterised the criticisers as instances of “the magnitude of the shock to entrenched opinion” that had been unleashed by a triumphant restoration. (As will be seen, the expression of sincerely held citicisms can be harshly punished when substantial vested conservation interests are challenged.)
Behind this interpretive culture war, the effects of the restoration on Michelangelo’s art were material and aesthetic. Those changes are forever. Although bad scholarship can be remedied by good scholarship, the latter cannot undo damage to unique, historic works. What remains to be done, a third of a century after the restoration’s 1980 launch, is a proper, disinterested aesthetically informed analysis of the restoration-induced changes, item by item, figure by figure, photograph by photograph; and, a frank evaluation and acknowledgement of their cultural and art historical consequences. Had this restoration’s profound transformation been accepted without challenge, we would be in a world today where technicians enjoyed unfettered licence to rewrite (or as they sometimes prefer, “to re-present”) history itself. Even tacit endorsements of injurious restorations can damage scholarship and falsify history.
The restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was well and publicly defended from 1980 until the mid 1990s. At that period, a seismic shift occurred. What follows is an examination from a British perspective of the restoration’s defences up to 1995 (in which year implicit art historical support for the restoration resulted in a seriously misleading exhibition at the National Gallery); and, a further presentation of visual proofs of the restoration’s injurious consequences. We note here how many supporters have admitted entertaining doubts about the restoration’s probity.
A new cleaning method, and the selling of a “New Michelangelo”
In the 1980s, at the height of an international restoration mania, a supposedly “advanced” “scientific” cleaning material was used on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. It was ferocious in its effects and mechanistic in its application which was expressly designed to thwart personal and allegedly “subjective” and “unscientific”, aesthetic appraisals. The most sophisticated imagery on an immensely important historic work of art was thus subjected to a “treatment” that derived not from the complexities of picture restoration and its necessary acts of discrimination and constant evaluation but, rather, from architectural stone cleaning techniques. This cleaning method altered the ceiling’s centuries old artistic/historic continuity to such a degree that the restorers and their supporters ventured that history would need to be rewritten. The changes, for sure, were dramatic: depictions of figures that had been archetypally and transcendentally alive were brightened, flattened, rendered more abstract, more “on the picture surface” and left with an altogether more modernist and imaginatively impoverished aspect. Contrary to official claims this (demonstrably) was not a liberation or recovery of the ceiling’s original condition and appearance – see, particularly, Figs. 1 and 60.
When Michelangelo’s ceiling was unveiled in 1512 the world was stunned by the grandeur, pictorial audacity and, above all, by figural inventions that had rendered the divine corporeal and vividly alive within our own space and time. Michelangelo had not so much made depictions-on-surfaces as conjured perceived spaces adjacent to the ceiling’s imperfect forms. His optically “sculpted” spaces – which opened vistas beyond the ceiling’s surfaces while simultaneously projecting figures in front of them – had been realised through powers of draughtsmanship and modelling with utter disregard for the “integrity” of the architectural surfaces. Seemingly palpable space was necessary to situate Michelangelo’s monumental programme of over three hundred figures – figures that ran from depicted carved stone sculptures (his architecture-adorning putti), through living, space-occupying young sculptural Adonis’s (his contorted, anxious ignudi) and, more prosaically, through the historical ancestors of Christ, to the divinely gifted Prophets and Sibyls, and finally to God Himself and his celestial supporters. This was immediately acclaimed as a dazzling artistic and illusionistic advance. Its eventual influence was to carry mural painting into the Baroque and beyond. Although artistic fashions and modes of description change constantly, for nearly five centuries this “stupendous” work’s vital relationships endured, as the many copies made throughout its existence testify (see Fig. 1b).
How Doubts became Denials
With the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, while some art world players were galvanized into opposition, many others were excited and swept along by the presumptuous magnitude of the transformation. As mentioned, many of the supporters of the restoration have disclosed moments of doubt. We cited in our post of March 4th that the co-director and chief restorer of the ceiling, Gianluigi Colalucci, had said in 1990: “I must confess I harbour a lingering almost subconscious fear that someday someone will come, unexpectedly, with a really intelligent observation that will show all of us to have been blind.” The following year the Sunday Times art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, produced a celebratory book (“Sayonara Michelangelo”) in which he asked in the face of the transition:
“Who among us looking up for the first time at this new, bright, clear Sistine ceiling, perfectly rational, a light-filled work, was not tempted by the doubt: it can’t be so.”
This temptation was throttled by the sheer spectacle of the restoration as an art-changing performance:
“The thin and neat scaffolding bridge moved elegantly along the ceiling like a very slow windscreen wiper. In front of it lay the old Michelangelo, the great tragedian, all basso profundo and crescendo. Behind it the colourful new one, a lighter touch, a more inventive mind, a higher pitch, alto and diminuendo. It was being able to see both of them at once – Beethoven turning into Mozart before your eyes – that made this restoration such a memorable piece of theatre.”
Even the National Gallery’s thoughtful and scholarly (then) curator of Renaissance painting, Nicholas Penny, who recognised (“White Coats v. Bow Ties”, London Review of Books, 11 February 1993) that “The most terrifying thing about the restoration of old paintings and sculpture, as distinct from the editing of texts, is that something might be lost altogether”, swallowed his own moment of anxiety:
“But perhaps one should admit that something is lost however much is gained by any intervention – some possibility of interpretation if not some actual pigment or glaze or polish.” [Emphasis added.] With a seeming acceptance of such material and interpretive losses, the greater gains in the Sistine Chapel were said by Penny to have emerged as follows:
“Study of the ceiling now that it has been cleaned tends to distance Michelangelo from the art of recent centuries – and from the work of artists who were inspired by the ceiling – and reveals a far closer connection with the dazzling colours favoured by artists in his immediate following and also evident in some of the better-preserved 15-century Florentine panel paintings.”
Note the cultural role being served by “restoration” changes: even when their legitimacy is vehemently challenged, restorations facilitate through “study”, new interpretations and a certain re-shuffling of scholarly furniture. Scholars and restorers invariably say that they have duly considered and rejected the criticisms as ill-informed, but the fact remains that eventually all restorations themselves come to be rejected and undone by later restorers. Indeed the alleged need to undo previous restorations is one of the commonest justifications for a restoration. The net consequence of repeated restorations is not a return to an original condition each time, but a daisy chain of altered alterations, with each successive restoration leaving the given work looking unlike its previously “restored” state. With accumulating alterations, works get thinner and thinner. Insofar as such abraded appearances are acknowledged, they are attributed to previous “rubbing”, or other euphemisms. Losses of original material during restorations (as Penny conceded) are to some degree inevitable. This is because while painters work from supporting canvases or panels upwards, restorers work downwards with their solvents and abrasives towards or beyond pictures’ finished surfaces. Collisions are inevitable.
The “New Michelangelo”
The art historical revisionism that advanced with this restoration might have been plausible had changes of colouring been the only changes, and had any of Michelangelo’s contemporaries noted dazzling colours. By any properly visually alert appraisal, however, the changes were less ones of enhanced chromatic power than of debilitating losses to the ceiling’s initially celebrated dramatic modelling and lighting (see Fig. 60). Although Nicholas Penny acknowledged such objections to the received critical consensus, he nonetheless caricatured them:
“Polemics against the restoration appeal repeatedly to the ideas of chiaroscuro and harmony as artistic absolutes.” The implication that critics were in the grip of a fetishized false artistic consciousness was underscored: “It is painful but important to acknowledge that the inspiration one artist draws from another, earlier one is often inseparable from misunderstanding.” It is a common defence against critics to allege some “misunderstanding” of the “facts” because of ingrained or entrenched prejudices but with this restoration the objections stemmed not from misapprehensions or misplaced adherence to ahistorical idée fixes, but from the fact of the concrete, demonstrable and historically verifiable injuries to the painting.
Further Material Evidence of Injury
Having shown many directly comparative pairs of “before” and “after” restoration photographs as proofs of injury – we further present seven single photographs (Figs. 1 to 6 and 48b), each of which alone testifies to the destruction of the final stages of Michelangelo’s painting. To pinpoint the unsoundness of the restoration’s theoretical underpinning, we also show two other works, one drawn (Fig. 41), one painted (Fig. 47) that seem emblematic of serious critical neglect. It will be argued that insufficient respect for the artistic and documentary records (particularly in the form of graphic copies and related paintings) facilitated an initial misdiagnosis of Michelangelo’s painting methods. In addition, we examine the “macro” consequences in terms of changes to the previous relationships between the broad and differentiated zones of the Sistine Chapel’s consecutively decorated surfaces.
Selling the Restoration and Blocking the Critics
In December 1987 two articles that acknowledged the intensity of the controversy were published in Britain. One was a work of journalism by a leading cultural writer with strong interests in science, Brian Appleyard. The other was a full-blown and frankly declared Public Relations Apologia by Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, a professor of art history at New York University, a consultant member of the Vatican’s Scientific Advisory Committee on the restoration, and the Vatican’s spokesman on “scholarly and general information” for the public relations firm Arts and Communications Counsellors, which had been retained to handle the crisis.
To take the former first: on 20 December 1987 the Sunday Times magazine carried an article on the restoration – “Lost or Found?”. Its author, Brian Appleyard, acknowledged that he had been “carefully and elaborately briefed” by the co-directors of the restoration, Fabrizio Mancinelli, the curator of the Vatican Museums’ modern paintings, and Gianluigi Colalucci, the head restorer, and by Professor Carlo Pietrangeli, the director of the Vatican Museums, and that the next day he had been “scientifically persuaded” by the Vatican’s chemist, Nazzareno Gabrielli. Nonetheless, Appleyard gave a fair and balanced account, citing the arguments of James Beck, a professor of art history at Columbia University, New York. Even while recognising that “the vast majority of art historians are on the side of the Vatican”, Appleyard concluded “So far the Vatican have been troubled by Beck but have been secure behind the battery of art historians prepared to stand up and oppose him. But his fury and energy are beginning to pay off. More and more awkward questions are beginning to be asked and he warns of more home-grown opposition in Italy.”
An Artist Thwarted
The article itself prompted controversy in Britain by including directly comparative before and after restoration photographs of sections of the frescoes. To this artist’s eyes, those photo-comparisons showed instantly that the “cleaning” was damaging and that the protests were well founded (see Figs. 9 to 11b). Working then as the principal illustrator of the Independent, a new and fashionable newspaper with excellent arts coverage, I asked the arts editor if I might write a short article demonstrating the ways in which the ceiling was being damaged. He declined on grounds that the newspaper’s art critic, Andrew Graham Dixon, had (like Beck) visited the scaffolding, and had been persuaded (like many art historians and critics) that all was fine.
Thus, the first lesson in this controversy was that an artist who had trained for four years in a junior art school, for five years in a fine art college and for three post-graduate years at the Royal Academy Schools – and who afterwards had taught and practised drawing and sculpture for fifteen years – could be unvoiced in a debate about the treatment of a work of art in deference to the views of someone sixteen years younger who had read English at university and art history at the Courtauld Institute (- on which institution’s restorations see “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners”).
An Artist Heeded
When the Independent launched a Sunday edition in 1990, its arts editor invited an article on the Sistine Chapel restoration. In preparation, I contacted James Beck who put me in touch with many key critics. These included, in Italy, Professor Alessandro Conti, Venanzo Crocetti, the sculptor who had worked on the previous restoration of the Sistine ceiling in the 1930s, the restorer Mirella Simonetti; and, in the US, the critic and writer Alexander Eliot and the painter Frank Mason. From the Independent on Sunday I spoke directly to Professor Brandt, Dr Fabrizio Mancinelli, Professor John Shearman, (an advisor to the restoration who viciously attacked Beck on the record and then threatened to sue if I published his grossly defamatory comments), and wrote to Gianluigi Colalucci. The second lesson had thus been that critics of restorations, however prestigious, could find themselves victims of scurrilous attacks from professional peers.
Shooting the Messengers
When surveying the restoration’s then decade long literature, Brandt’s 1987 Apollo article emerged as a seminal document. Its declared purpose had precisely been to defend the “transformation of Michelangelo’s mysterious dark frescoes…into [the] blazing colouristic pyrotechnics that is attracting the most public attention and controversy” (this was despite the fact that Michelangelo had been praised at his own funeral for “the fleeting and sombre colours with which he had formed such rare and lofty shapes”). Most striking of all was Brandt’s assaults on the restoration’s critics, whether they were scholars, restorers, traditionalist artists or fashionably modish artists:
“But, a tiny, heterogeneous and vociferous cadre emerged with the dramatic charge that Vatican conservators are ruining one of the great icons of western civilisation.
“Convinced of the urgency of their mission, the critics conducted their campaign in the international press and television and achieved a remarkable degree of public visibility. A letter by a well-meaning group of American master painters of the Pop generation, calling for a halt to the cleaning of the Sistina (as well as the Last Supper) was one index of their success. An interview with one of the American Sistina critics in People Magazine was, however, another…
“To the ears of most art historians and conservation experts, however, the critics claims sounded more and more like the wild cries of some ferocious mutant of Chicken Little. Many believe that the critics, like that benighted bird, were misunderstanding insufficient evidence to draw mistaken conclusions to the alarm of the neighbours. Still the issue is a serious one. Are the critics merely opportunists, body-surfing on a wave of publicity they would never otherwise have enjoyed? Or should we be hearing in their polemics a warning that the cleaning of major works of art is another of those matters too important to be left to the experts?”
“If the critics’ questions have such detailed answers, what is the continuing public fuss about? Why has the criticism been so remarkably vague, shifting and misinformed? Why have the critics been so reluctant to make the frequent visits to the Sistine Chapel scaffolding…Why does criticism remain invulnerable to the abundant available information. How could such a small group of people, none of whom is – in a professional sense – an expert on Michelangelo and conservation, attract so much publicity and even some well-intentioned adherents? (The original nucleus of nay-sayers consists of only five persons: two painters, one former art critic and two art historians, distributed in Italy and the USA; connexions between them exist but are hard to define.)”
In addition to an insinuation of some underlying conspiracy, Brandt appended an imputation of political motivations that served as platforms for personal opportunism:
“It is easy to see how any hint that the Vatican might be hurting Michelangelo could fuel political fires while providing a chance for professional power play among factions of the intellectual establishment.”
If political motivations combined with personal power play might exist among critics in Italy, Brandt maintained, the situation was different in the United States where:
“The continuing publicity has, of course, also become a phenomenon in itself with a life and fascination of its own. All the more significant that only one American scholar has been tempted to join the public furore.
“None of this grandstanding matters much – although one doesn’t like to see an important issue distorted and people misled. I do not believe that a tenacious campaign of ill-informed criticism and personal attacks on the conservators will stop the careful cleaning of the Ceiling.”
At this historical point Brandt’s past abuse of the critics might best be taken to have been self-answering. Her assurance that “the cleaning chemicals do not actually come into contact with the fresco surface” has not worn well and, besides, was at odds with the chief restorer’s earlier admission that if left on a minute too long the chemicals began devouring the fresco surface and Michelangelo’s shading with it. Similarly, her claim that the restoration had been “spurred by the alarming discovery that the glue layers were contracting as they aged , and were pulling flakes of plaster and pigment away from the surface of Michelangelo’s frescoes” proved an impermanent position. As was later reported in “Art Restoration, The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” (James Beck and Michael Daley, 1993), it had been claimed in 1986 (six years into the restoration) that “various checks [had] ascertained that in several places minute flecks of colour were lifting” and that this had “necessitated an immediate restoration.” In 1987 it was said that extensive areas of flaking were progressively worsening and threatening an imminently “uncontrollable situation”. By 1988 Vatican spokesmen were claiming that the weight of encrustations upon the paint surface was causing it to break away from its ground. By 1989 it was said that the glues had “shrunk and puckered” causing “scabs” to fall away “pulling pigment with them”. It was said that this “slow destruction by glue-pox” was “the Vatican’s principle motivation for cleaning the ceiling”. When we asked Brandt in 1990 how big the puckerings were, she replied “Oh! Some are as big as your hand.” Soon after, in 1991, the problem de-escalated: initial investigations were acknowledged, once more, to have encountered “minute desquamations and loss of pigment.”
Brandt’s patronising claim that “the so-called ‘controversy’ is not actually about facts and issues but is a reflection of culture shock” lamely echoed charges made in earlier restoration controversies. During the National Gallery cleaning controversy in London in the late 1940s the critics were said by the art critic, Eric Newton of the Daily Telegraph, to be suffering from the “shocked eye”, a condition which afflicted “the connoisseur and the artist – the visually sensitive man with a quick eye and profound reverence for what he had seen”. Just as at the Sistine Chapel, Newton’s dismissal of the expertise of creative players was made on the claimed authority of restoration “science”. Such generalised appeals to the authority of science often prove to be empty incantation and Newton volunteered no more than “The purely scientific and technical aspects of the process, however are too complex to describe here.”
In 1857 picture cleanings at the Louvre were defended on the grounds that “It is understandable that the romantic amateur loves the rust and the haze of the varnish, for it has become a veil behind which he can see whatever he desires” (Horsin Déon). One critic of the Louvre’s restorations, Edgar Degas, threatened to produce a pamphlet that would be “a bomb”. When Brandt dismissed the Sistine Chapel critics on the grounds that the controversy was “rather unreal since the arguments against cleaning are mainly nostalgically emotional [while] those on the other side are chemical and scientific” she presented her role as being to “dissolve some of the murky argument and preserve a few facts”. As will be seen, artists and art historians can have distinctly differing views as to what constitutes a “fact” and what a blind prejudice.
The Evidence of Restoration Injuries – and the Surprising Reactions To It
When the Independent on Sunday’s picture desk obtained high-quality colour transparencies from the Vatican in 1990 we examined the image of the Erythraean Sybil, part of which had been shown in Appleyard’s Sunday Times article, and encountered among many losses the restoration-mangled foot seen at Figs. 2 and 3. Those losses and losses to a figure on one of the lunettes were first published in the Independent on Sunday of 25 March 1990 (see Figs. 12, 13 and 14) and then later in the Independent of 20 March 1991, where the arguments against the restoration were put by Daley, Beck, Conti, Eliot and the art historian Bruce Boucher, and balanced by three counter arguments.
Of the latter, Ernst Gombrich was harshest on the critics: “No one is infallible, but I have not the slightest doubt that the overall impression and operation is right, and the critics talk absolute nonsense.” The Courtauld Institute-trained editor of The Art Newspaper, Anna Somers Cocks, condescended that some people liked things to look “romantic and old, and can’t cope with the clarity and brilliance of what the Sistine Chapel looks like now it has been cleaned”. The Courtauld Institute-trained Nicholas Penny said “It’s one of the great revelations of our time but the transformation is so absolutely amazing that it is bound to give some people a shock and I am sympathetic to them being shocked”.
Brandt’s 1987 Apollo account had fallen on well-worked ground in Britain where even art world players with strong track records of being critical of restorations had become supportive of this restoration. The Courtauld Institute-trained restorer Sarah Walden, who had implicitly criticised many of her peers and predecessors in her 1985 book “The Ravished Image ~ Or How to Ruin Masterpieces by Restoration”, was one such and she offered this (simplistic) technical distinction in defence of the restoration’s results:
“Unlike easel paintings, frescos are not a film of paint on a surface but impregnate their own support and need no varnish. Given an intact, dry wall, they are spared many of the rigours of restoration, except for the removal of dust and dirt. As the recent cleaning of Raphael’s Galatea in the Farnesina in Rome has shown, and as the present work on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel seems to confirm, this is one area where impressive results can be had with far less risk.”
As shown on 28 April 2012, the restorer Leonetto Tintori had discovered on examining the ceiling that it had been covered by what he termed “Michelangelo’s auxilliary techniques” which included not just glue or size painting but also oils. Walden, whose principle critical complaints had been against the “Anglo-Saxon” schools of restoration in Germany, Britain and the US, as opposed to the “Latin” restorations of France and Italy , had evidently accepted the restorers’ claims that Michelangelo had simply coloured successive patches of wet and drying plaster at great speed and thereafter accepted whatever disparities and inequalities of value emerged on drying without making any unifying or enriching interventions with glue-based painting a secco on his fresco surfaces when dry, as was customary and as had been noted by his contemporaries. She had further accepted the restorers’ (revisionist and unsupported) claims that the large amounts of glue-based material on Michelangelo’s frescoes had been applied by restorers as a “varnish” to a work which, on her own account, would have required no varnish, and despite the fact that previous Vatican restorers had attributed that very material to Michelangelo. Gombrich, who had played a prominent role in the post-war cleaning controversies at the National Gallery in London – and who had written the Foreword to Walden’s book – was similarly persuaded by the present Vatican restorers’ well disseminated technical account.
Gombrich’s Startling Lapse of Scholarship and Visual Acuity
In 1995 Gombrich presented an exhibition, “Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art”, at the National Gallery (London) on the thesis that an avoidance of cast shadows had been “widespread among painters of the High Renaissance”. He did so without reference to the paintings of Michelangelo or Raphael. (When pressed on these omissions he replied “I never meant [the catalogue] to be an encyclopaedia of all cast shadows, though some of my readers seem to assume so.” – Letter to Michael Daley, 10 June 1995.) As will be shown, in a curious fashion, Gombrich’s pictorial amnesia constituted the logical terminus of a more general denial by art historians of the distinctive artistic relationships that had survived on the pre-restoration ceiling, and of the connections between those relationships and the art forms of the period and immediately afterwards. Defending this restoration became an exercise in not-seeing what was and what had been. Gombrich’s position on this restoration was a great disappointment to us given his outstanding earlier contributions.
Gombrich on the Sanctity of Scholarship
In 1978 as the Vatican Museums’ curators, restorers and scientists were moving towards restoring the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Gombrich had discussed one of Michelangelo’s prophets – his Ezekiel – in the context of problems of art connoisseurship and medical practices (and with no reference to colour) . He pointed out that just as with placebos “suggestibility plays a part in our response to works of art”. Demonstrating by a comparison between Jeremiah and Ezekiel that the latter was uncharacteristic of Michelangelo but characteristic of Raphael, he firmly attributed its execution to Raphael (see Fig. 25). Of all the prophets on the ceiling, he contended, this one alone lacked Michelangelo’s profound stylistic traits: “he always negates the picture plane. Jonah being the most famous example of this space-creating and surface-denying imagination, which so aroused the admiration of Renaissance writers.” How could it have been overlooked, Gombrich continued, that the Ezekiel, far from denying the picture plane, asserted it: “Instead of being self-enclosed it impetuously moves to the right, addressing an unseen partner in what looks like a violent argument. It is this implied movement which tears the cohesion to pieces and introduces a shrill note of drama entirely absent from the other creations. The composition is only superficially Michelangelesque…” Further, what the Ezekiel betrayed in its agitated gestures was Raphael’s own great indebtedness to Leonardo: “Indeed it is hardly too much to say that Ezekiel would fit comfortably into the groups of the apostles in the Last Supper of S. Maria delle Grazie.”
This was vintage Gombrich, learned, conceptually adroit, visually acute and boldly re-attributing a Michelangleo to Raphael through Leonardo. Except that here his elegant arguments and persuasive stylistic “evidence” amounted to no more than a plausible contrivance – a conceit that was, he confessed, an art connoisseur’s equivalent of the medical practitioner’s placebo. He hoped that connoisseurs “will not take offence and that the spirits of Michelangelo and Raphael will forgive me this harmless fabrication.” (Was that jest to become a maquette for a far greater and undisclosed prank on those two great artists seventeen years later?)
Gombrich and the Guardians of Memory
Two decades earlier, in a moving 1957 essay “Art and Scholarship”, Gombrich had championed the scholar as “the guardian of memories”. It seemed that he had been stung to do so by the painter Wyndham Lewis who had recently written:
“When I see a writer, a word man, among a number of painters, I shake my head. For I know he would not be there unless he was up to something. And I know that he will do them no good…”
Gombrich’s retort was: “Why should the artist bother about that spoilsport the scholar and his past? The brief answer to this question, I fear, may sound moralistic. Because truth is better than lies.”
Indeed it is – but this leaves his own later omissions in the National Gallery exhibition the more perplexing: How could so great a scholar make so seriously misleading and unfounded a claim in (seeming) defence of such an unsupportable restoration? Spicing this mystery is the fact, as shown below, that Gombrich’s faith in the Sistine ceiling restoration was not absolute and that he, too, like Colalucci, Januszczak and Penny, had once acknowledged a moment of doubt.
Gombrich’s Moment of Doubt
As mentioned, Gombrich was as one with the views of the restorer Sarah Walden on this restoration. Walden was to persist with her endorsement of the restoration until at least 2004 when, in a revised edition of her book (now titled “The Ravished Image ~ An Introduction to the Art of Picture Restoration & Its Risks”), she pressed Gombrich into a swipe at critics of the Sistine ceiling restoration:
“The subject of restoration tends to attract cranks and fanatics, but to suggest that the world’s foremost art historian was one of those would be absurd. He approved for example of the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, and wrote to me about an Italian who opposed it and was seeking his support: ‘Of course he wants to use [my writings] as ammunition against the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, but I do think the problems of cleaning are different…I have been up the scaffold…I have no doubt that the team are aware of the many problems…I am even fairly happy about the work on the Sistine ceiling.’” [Walden’s ellipses.]
While Walden tactfully refrained from identifying the Italian critic, by publishing a letter she received from Gombrich in 1987 in the revised book, she revealed an intriguingly confessional remark:
“Last week I was sent a book from Italy violently attacking the ‘cleaning’ of the Sistine ceiling. It may contain some exaggerations but it is still disquieting. Michelangelo e la Pittoria a Fresco, by Alessandro Conti (La Casa Usher, Florence 1986). If you read Italian and have a little time during the next few weeks I’ll gladly lend it to you to look at.”
That unsettling book was later described by Penny in the LRB as “the most sustained polemic against the restoration”. Charles Hope, an authority on Titian and then the Senior Lecturer in Renaissance Studies at the Warburg Institute, London, wrote (in a letter of 1994 to the restorer Helen Glanville – see below) that “The scholar who has done most to draw attention to the relevant texts is of course Conti; and whatever you think of his book (he is not a restorer, by the way), I am sure we can agree that it is obligatory reading for anyone interested in the controversy surrounding the ceiling. Yet [...] and so on not only pass over his arguments in silence instead of addressing them, they seem never to cite his book at all…” Gombrich, too, would seem to have suppressed his own disquiet and passed over Conti’s arguments even though he must have appreciated that Conti was a very considerable authority on restoration having taught the History and Techniques of Restoration at the University of Bologna; the History of Modern Art at the state university in Milan; and, the History of Art Criticism at the University of Siena. In his 1988 “History of the Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art” (republished by Butterworth in a 2007 English translation by Helen Glanville) Conti spoke of the alien “material and chromatic robe” with which the Sistine ceiling paintings had been invested “during the present restoration” and identified “the various media” Michelangelo had used on the ceiling as “fresco, lime and secco”. (For Conti’s further comments in that book on Domenico Carnevale’s repairs to Michelangelo’s ceiling, see the caption at Figs. 48a and 48b. That his now very scarce Michelangelo e la Pittoria a Fresco has yet to be published in English might itself be thought something of a scandal.)
The Context of Gombrich’s National Gallery Exhibition
Gombrich’s 1995 exhibition came not just towards the end of his long and distinguished career but at the end of a brief period of intense discussions in Britain on the restorations at the Sistine Chapel and the National Gallery. We had been at pains to show that extreme as the Sistine Chapel restoration was, it was part of a wider radically transforming international assault by restorers acting on historic works of art in the name of their “conservation”. (Between 1990 and 1995, this author alone had published twenty-three times on those subjects – see Fig. 12.) Such discussions greatly accelerated with the publication of the 1993 Beck/Daley book “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” which, in addition to two chapters on the Sistine Chapel carried a chapter on the National Gallery’s restorations. Responses to the book were various and sometimes startling. They prompted an additional chapter, “The Establishment Counterattacks”, in the revised 1996 American paperback edition. We should acknowledge here that the National Gallery, under its present director, Nicholas Penny, as initially under its previous director, Charles Saumarez Smith, has given ArtWatch UK full and most generously helpful access to all conservation and archival records, and that we have drawn heavily on the compendious material on the Gallery’s conservation practices that is provided in the annual Technical Bulletins. Moreover, since 2012 the Gallery has placed much archival material online.
Responses to “Art Restoration, the Culture, the Business and the Scandal”
After his initially even-handed coverage, Brian Appleyard now characterised Beck in the Independent as being “litigious” – even though he had brought no legal actions but had been sued (unsuccessfully) for criminal slander by an Italian sculpture restorer and had faced a possible prison sentence of three years. Appleyard compared the Beck/Daley book unfavourably before its publication – and before he had read it – with Walden’s book of 1985, specifically dismissing its unseen chapters on the Sistine ceiling on a Waldenesque insistence that “The fact that it was largely pure fresco made the cleaning process straightforward.”
On 18 November 1993 the New York Review of Books carried an essay by Charles Hope, on “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”. Hope (who was later to become, as Gombrich had been, the director of the Warburg Institute), recalled that “like many other art historians” his initial response to the cleaning had been “entirely favourable”, but which confidence, he now confessed, had been “entirely misplaced”. Viewed in their entirety, the cleaned frescoes create “a decidedly disagreeable impression: the colours are gaudy…the figures look crude and often flat and the architecture seems insubstantial and pedantic.” In short, “Restrained grandeur has been replaced by garish confusion” and it was “difficult to believe that the right procedure was adopted.” Worse followed for the restoration establishment. “Restorers are not always particularly well-informed about the history of art nor especially interested in it”, while, for their part, art historians “seldom have the scientific training to judge the full implication of the courses of action proposed to them.”
Perhaps most disturbing to the Sistine Chapel restoration supporters was Hope’s acknowledgement that when “Talking to friends I find that my unease is widely shared; and it is certainly noticeable that the completion of the restoration has not attracted the kind of acclaim that greeted the unveiling of the lunettes.” After the publication of his review, Hope told Beck in a letter (20 November 1993) “You’ll be cheered to know that several art historians have told me, by letter or in person, how glad they were that I had said what I did.” This greatly amplified a note of caution that had already been present in Nicholas Penny’s observations in the LRB nine months earlier:
“I have met few art historians, even among those who are nervous about the cleaning of paintings, who believe that a mistake was made in cleaning the ceiling. Nevertheless, many art lovers were shaken by what has been published on the subject and some have been no less alarmed by what they have seen in the chapel itself.”
A Restorer’s Response
Temperatures rose after Hope’s review. The Art Newspaper allotted four pages in its May 1994 issue for the counter arguments of Helen Glanville, a Courtauld Institute-trained picture restorer who had read Modern Languages at Oxford. Like Brandt seven years earlier in Apollo, Glanville struck a combative tone and a tendentious note by producing accounts of our “Accusations” against which she provided lawyerish “Defences” written in consultation with the authorities. In 1963 Gombrich had complained “Nobody who criticizes the policy of a great institution expects such criticism to be accepted without further argument. What one has the right to expect, however, is that the answer should concern itself with the substance of the criticism.” In language eerily reminiscent of that used against Beck by Shearman, Glanville challenged not only our character but the judgement of those who had supported us: “The most disturbing aspect is that reviews of the book (including that by Charles Hope in the New York Review of Books of 18 November 1993) appear to indicate that even respected members of the art world accept Daley’s presentation of ‘facts’ at face value”.
Hope sent a letter to Glanville explaining that he had been “particularly careful not to take Daley at his word”, that he had checked what I had written on Sebastiano was in accordance with the monograph on the artist by Professor Michael Hirst (of the Courtauld Institute, and a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling), and also with “the account of the [Sebastiano] restoration in the National Gallery’s Annual Report”. In further reproach, he added “I would have thought it was fairly obvious to anyone familiar with the recent literature that I had done my homework, not least because there are various arguments and texts used in the review which do not figure in the Beck-Daley book at all.  In my review I have tried very hard to be fair to both sides…Having read your article I see nothing that ought to be changed; indeed it would be difficult to see what you actually found objectionable in it…Before I began working on the review my scholarly sympathies were entirely on side of the defenders of the recent restoration, and I was hoping indeed expecting, to be persuaded that my unease at the present appearance of the ceiling was unjustified. But the reverse has happened, and not just because Beck and Daley produced such compelling arguments…” Hope then set out with great clarity the scholarly import of the material evidence we had supplied and which he had found persuasive:
“I was disappointed that you did not discuss directly what seemed to me the most important single type of evidence in the whole controversy, the drawing by Clovio of Jonah [see Fig. 1] and the one at Windsor showing the whole ceiling. Both of these, as you will remember, can be securely dated to no later than 1534, and they both show very specific, well-defined areas of shadow also recorded in the engravings of the sixteenth century and later, which have now disappeared. The important thing is that the drawings predate the engravings, that they were manifestly produced independently of one another, yet they are consistent. If they are misleading in the same way, we need to have some explanation of why this is so, because if Michelangelo did paint shadows of the kind they show, and in the places they show, then Beck and Daley would seem to be vindicated.”
Gombrich’s Denial of Historical Realities
Coming so soon after Hope’s generous and substantial support, Gombrich’s claim, as a scholar with an impeccable record as a critic of restorations, that cast shadows had popped out of existence for the duration of the High Renaissance might have seemed like manna to the National Gallery and the Vatican. Did his historical account not implicitly constitute a most authoritative rebuttal of the Beck-Daley, Hope-supported, central claim that the destruction of Michelangelo’s cast shadows had given historically corroborated proof of injury to the Sistine Chapel ceiling? In so doing, did he not also provide express relief to the restorers themselves? If the shadows had never existed during the High Renaissance, as he was claiming, how could they possibly have been harmed in restoration?
In May 1994 The Art Newspaper published my letter of reply to Glanville’s article. It concluded: “this concern [over restorations] is shared by others. The current director of the Prado, Calvo Serrraller, has condemned the Sistine Chapel restoration as a misguided ‘face-lift’. A restorer in St Petersburg complains of the ‘perniciousness of radical British restoration techniques’. A curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum condemns the ‘strident tones’ produced by ‘the exuberant cleaning of paint surfaces, for which the National Gallery has unfortunately become famous’. It is a pity that the National Gallery staff are not prepared to debate these matters directly. It is a pity that discussion should be necessary at all when, to educated eyes, the evidence of injury contained in before and after cleaning photographs is so unmissable.” It would seem, (on Gombrich’s recollection – “In the shadow of the masters”, interview, The Art Newspaper, May 1995) that that very month, the National Gallery’s director, Neil MacGregor, approached Gombrich to ask whether he would do an exhibition in the “The Artist’s Eye” series (in which artists assembled and discussed selections of paintings made from within the Gallery’s collection).
Mr MacGregor’s Choice
Gombrich submitted five or six proposals from which, he said, MacGregor “selected shadows”. Thus the National Gallery had obtained an exhibition that purported to explain why the masters of the High Renaissance had opted to “show us a shadowless world”. If the content was helpful to the Gallery, the fact of Gombrich’s participation might have been a greater boon still. As a critic of the Gallery’s restorations during the 1950s and 1960s he had been a dangerous foe. Before becoming the National Gallery’s director, MacGregor, as editor of the Burlington Magazine, had himself been a partisan of restorations and was well aware of Gombrich’s standing in these disputes. In a Burlington editorial in January 1985, MacGregor had written:
“Cleaning controversies are probably the liveliest, and they are certainly the hardiest, of the art world’s perennial topics of discussion. Of course, thefts and exports make bigger headlines, but they lack conversational staying power, just as new record prices slip faster and faster from the memory. But debates on cleaning run and run, this Magazine having been the forum for one of the most celebrated jousts in the early 1960s.”
MacGregor then drew a distinction that marked a crucial advance that picture restorers had made by the 1980s: “Then the key question was how, or even whether, to clean. Now it is more likely to focus on what can be learnt through cleaning about the picture itself.” This rebranding of art restoration, despite all of its inherent risks, as an aid to scholarship had seemed a spectacular professional coup. By the late 1980s museum restorers had forged a common professional alliance with curators in which “discoveries” made in the course of a restoration could be presented to the world through professional journals, museum press releases, and newspaper/television interviews. The National Gallery laid claim for having pioneered the new hybrid discipline known as Technical Art History, in which curators, restorers and scientists pool efforts so as to fly in tight professional formations. In reality, museums and galleries had set themselves a trap – and Gombrich had chosen the worst possible moment to flip sides in the Great Restoration Battles: to talk about what has been learned/discovered requires the production of material, visual evidence and such evidence becomes fair game for examination.
Gombrich’s Case Against the National Gallery’s Restoration Methods
In 1950 Gombrich had drawn attention in a letter to the Burlington Magazine, to a passage in Pliny which described wondrous effects achieved by the legendary painter Apelles when he finished off his pictures with a thinly spread dark coating or “varnish”. How could we be sure, Gombrich asked, that no Renaissance masters had ever emulated the great painter of antiquity by applying similarly toned varnishes to their own works? He received no reply from the National Gallery. Ten years later, he put the question again in his book “Art and Illusion”, this time provoking Helmut Ruhemann, the Gallery’s pioneering exponent of “Total Cleaning”, into a categorical insistence that “there is no evidence for anything so inherently improbable as that a great old master should cover his whole picture with a ‘toning down layer.’”
Gombrich returned to the fray in 1962 in a Burlington Magazine article (“Dark varnishes – Variations on a Theme from Pliny”) contending that even a single instance of tinted overall varnish would undermine the philosophy of the Gallery’s intrusive restorers who presumed to discern and recover originally “intended” effects among the complex, variously degraded, many times altered material layers of old paintings. Gombrich had cited Pliny’s remarkable technically eloquent account of Apelles’ method: “He used to give his pictures when finished a dark coating so thinly spread that, by reflecting, it enhanced the brilliance of the colour while, at the same time, it afforded protection from dust and dirt and was not itself visible except at close quarters. One main purpose was to prevent the brilliance of the colours from offending the eye, since it gave the impression as if the beholder were seeing them through a window of talc, so that he gave from a distance an imperceptible touch of severity to excessively rich colours.” To the National Gallery the suggestion that colour might be suppressed in any degree by an artist was an affronting heresy, and the idea that a dark toning layer might simultaneously render colours individually more brilliant while collectively more unified was an oxymoron.
The Gallery’s then head of conservation science, Joyce Plesters, responded with a long, witheringly dismissive rebuttal in the Burlington (“Dark Varnishes – Some Further Comments”). Professor Gombrich, she insisted, lacked “technical knowledge” and his scholarship was incomplete and misinterpreted. The entire documented history technical history of art – much of which she appeared to quote – showed that “no convincing case” could be made for a single artist ever having emulated Apelles’ tinted varnish. The passage from Pliny, she sniffed, was but a matter of “academic rather than practical importance” – a charge that was echoed by the director, Philip Hendy, in the Gallery’s Annual Report where he disparaged technically ignorant “university art historians”. Plesters grandly offered to “sift” and “throw light” upon any further historical material that Gombrich or others might care to present in future directly to the National Gallery. Once again, a moment of high political danger for the Gallery’s restorers and curators passed: if no evidence existed of artists having used glazes and varnishes in the manner alleged by critics, how could restorers possibly be damaging them?
The controversy slowly subsided into isolated protests such as that of the painter Pietro Annigoni who painted “MURDERERS” onto the doors of the National Gallery, one night in 1970, in protest against what he had described in a 1956 letter to the Times as “atrocious results [that] reveal an incredible absence of sensibility”. But by 1977 it was “game-over”, so to speak. That year the National Gallery felt confident enough to launch its Technical Bulletin in which restoration methods would be described and illustrated. In it, Plesters mused complacently that “one or two readers may recall the furore when the cleaning of discoloured varnishes from paintings…began to find critics”. (On Plesters’ own technical incompetence, see our post of 27 January 2011.) In the same year a former director of the Gallery, Kenneth Clark, pronounced picture cleaning “a battle won” and claimed responsibility for the victory by having installed a “scientific department with all the latest apparatus” at the National Gallery. He had done so, he said, not because he believed in the “application of science to picture cleaning”, but rather because “until quite recently the cleaning of pictures used to arouse extraordinary public indignation, and it was therefore advisable to have in the background what purported to be scientific evidence to ‘prove’ that every precaution had been taken.”
Joyce Plesters died in October 1996. Earlier that year the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin carried reports of the cleaning of two paintings by Leonardo’s follower Giampietrino. One, his Salome, had suffered the usual weakening of modelling and shading. The other, his Christ carrying his Cross (Fig. 45) had not. Intriguingly, the latter was said to enjoy both “intensity of colour” and a “restrained overall effect” – the very paradoxical effect the Gallery had dismissed as inherently improbable. Even more remarkably, Giampietrino had first built up an “illusion of relief” with “dark translucent glazes”, and then – just like Apelles – had deliberately “restricted his own range of values” with “a final extremely thin overall toning layer consisting of warm dark pigments and black [!] in a medium essentially of walnut oil with a little resin”. The “varnish” was thus virtually identical as a material to the painting itself – which may explain why it had survived for so long. Many, more soluble, resin varnishes with warm dark pigments had been judged to be earlier restorers’ attempt to impart a deceiving “old masters’ glow” after a harsh cleaning…and removed as alien disfigurements.
Conspicuously, the Technical Bulletin reports made no reference to the Burlington Magazine’s celebrated joust of the early 1960s. Had the Gallery privately informed its recently honoured guest exhibitor of his belated vindication, we wondered? It had not. When we informed Gombrich of this technical corroboration, he replied:
“Many thanks for your letter. I happen to have a birthday these days (87, alas!) and I could hardly have a nicer present than the information you sent me. I don’t ever see the N. G. Technical Bulletin and would have missed their final conversion to an obvious truth! Better late, than never. There is more joy in heaven (or Briardale gardens)…”
We published an account of the National Gallery’s remarkable discovery, and of Gombrich’s response to it, in the November 1998 Art Review (“The Unvarnished Truth”). Three years later in a prefatory remark for the revised 2004 edition of Walden’s book “The Ravished Image”, Gombrich announced: “It is now clear that the position I took forty nine years ago in this matter has been vindicated”. As, indeed, it had been, but curiously, Gombrich declined to mention the fact that an exact analogue of Apelles’ reported practice had been discovered on the work of an associate of Leonardo’s within the conservation studios of the Gallery which had originally dismissed his claims but recently honoured him with an “autograph” exhibition. Instead, he attributed his vindication to research reported five years later in a Burlington Magazine article of January 2001 on work conducted in the conservation studios of the Getty Museum. The article, “‘Amber Varnish’ and Orazio Gentileschi’s ‘Lot and His Daughters’”, by Mark Leonard, Narayan Khandekar and Dawson W. Carr, was certainly an important document. It reported that underneath a thick recent, disfiguring but easily soluble varnish, an older thinner much tougher (but still soluble) varnish “remained directly on the paint surface in many areas.” Examinations of paint samples established that “in some areas at least”, this varnish layer had been applied “very early in the life of the painting”, if not originally.
It had been found that in areas where sections of this early, possibly original varnish had been removed in earlier cleanings, the artistic consequences had been devastating:
“One particularly prominent loss was in the neck of the daughter at the left. The older varnish remained intact throughout the face, yet at the line of the chin it had been broken through, and removed throughout the rest of the neck. To the naked eye, it looked as if the final layer of modelling in the neck had been ripped from the surface. Although the preparatory flesh tones were still intact, the carefully nuanced sculptural solidity found throughout the rest of the face was missing.”
Although no one noticed it, this last remark echoed and corroborated Annigoni’s Times complaint of 1956 that restorers at the National Gallery pronounce “miracles” when “brilliant colours begin to appear“. Unfortunately, he continued, “what they have found are nothing but the preparative tones, sometimes even of the first sketch, on which the artist has worked carefully, giving the best that is in him, in preparation for the execution of the finished work.”
Welcome as such recent confirmations of longstanding claims by artist and art historian critics of restorations are, it should be noted to how great an extent they are arising after the horse had bolted. The National Gallery has yet to disown any of its post-war restorations – in which period it has restored and often re-restored almost its entire collection and often to seriously deleterious effects (see Figs. 55 to 59b by way of example). As the unwisdom of stripping off old varnishes finally begins to gain acceptance in restoration and curatorial circles, the fact remains that had artists’ testimony been heeded, not only would the ponderous and hugely expensive particle accelerators and other “diagnostic” apparatuses of modern museum conservation departments not have been needed, but that much of our visual cultural patrimony could far sooner have been spared mistreatment. Even before Gombrich’s first 1950 letter to the Burlington, in 1946, a painter, Laura Knight, had explained the intrinsic dangers of picture cleaning with perfectly calm “hands-on” knowledge and clarity in a letter to the Times (27 November):
“With the exception of direct painting, a comparatively modern method, a painter builds his pigment onto canvas or panel – always with the final effect in view. The actual surface of a picture is the picture as it leaves the artist’s hand. The varnish which finally covers the work for protection to a varying extent amalgamates with the paint underneath. Therefore drastic cleaning – the removal of the covering varnish – is bound to remove also this surface painting and should never be undertaken.”
Although Gombrich might well once again have been feeling that “There is more joy in heaven…” this early or original Getty Museum Varnish had not corroborated his Apelles’ thesis to the same degree as the National Gallery’s research on the Giampietrino. There, the surviving original “varnish” layer was not simply naturally discoloured but had been deliberately loaded with “warm dark pigments and black”.
Had Gombrich learned of his own vindication on this point a decade sooner, he might perhaps have been less censorious of those who claimed that Michelangelo, too, had toned down his own colours with black pigment on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He might even have been less easily persuaded that Michelangelo had confined himself to painting into wet plaster with waterbound pigments. For that matter, even as late as 1993, had Gombrich heeded (as had done his successor at the Warburg Institute, Charles Hope), the hard evidence we presented in “Art Restoration” that the most massively extensive applications of original dark toning layers had occurred on the greatest masterpiece of the High Renaissance – Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling – he might have enjoyed his sense of vindication sooner . He might also then have appreciated that the very technical proof of the antiquity of the discoloured layer on the Orazio Gentileschi painting (the fact that this layer had not run into pre-existing age cracks) had been observed more than a century earlier on the surface of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling; that the ceiling’s controversially removed a secco passages had, in fact, precisely passed the Getty Cracks Test. As Charles Heath Wilson had discovered and reported when examining the ceiling within touching distance:
“There can be no doubt that nearly all of this work is contemporary, and in one part only was there evidence of a later and incapable hand. The size colour has cracked as the plaster has cracked, but apart from this appearance of age, the retouchings have all the characteristics of original work.”
Where Brandt had reported in her influential Apollo article that while the restorers had been on the lookout for “the famous secchi”… “they were surprised not find a secco passages”, Wilson had found it without any difficulty (and without any hi-tech apparatus) because: “Retouches in size-colour are easily recognised. Pure fresco has a metallic lustre, but the retouches are opaque. They are also necessarily painted differently from the fresco, have a sketchy appearance, with hard edges, or are hatched [see Fig. 34] where an attempt is made to graduate them.”
Perhaps, even after twenty further years of campaigning, we might need to re-emphasize that earlier testimony of Wilson’s: the size colour had cracked as the plaster had cracked. The glue/size had not run into any pre-existing cracks. That is to say, the size colour had been applied before the plaster had cracked. The plaster is known to have cracked before any restorers went near the ceiling. Ergo, the size colour could only have been applied when the ceiling was new – and therefore Michelangelo alone could have been the author of the secco painting that lay so clearly to view on the dry surface of his frescoes. This hard technical proof cross-links with the even earlier artistic corroboration of Michelangelo’s authorship of the shading and the cast shadows that was found in Clovio’s beautiful hand-drawn sketch of the Jonah shown at Fig. 1. Moreover, had Gombrich heeded our 1993 account, he would also have appreciated that Wilson had, a century earlier, precisely confirmed his Apelles’ dark toning thesis, insofar as Michelangelo’s extensive secco paintwork had been observed to have “consisted of a finely ground black, mixed with a size”.
By accepting Wilson’s firsthand testimony, Gombrich would further have appreciated, pace Mrs Walden, that Michelangelo had put this secco work to the following extensive artistic ends:
“The shadows of the draperies have been boldly and solidly retouched with this size colour, as well as the shadows on the backgrounds. This is the case not only in the groups of the Prophets and Sibyls, but also in the ancestors of Christ in the lunettes and the ornamental portions are retouched in the same way. The hair of the heads and the beards of many of the figures are finished in size colour, whilst the shadows are also thus strengthened, other parts are glazed with the same material, and even portions of the fresco are passed over with the size, without any admixture of colour, precisely as the force of watercolour drawings is increased with washes of gum…These retouchings, as usual with all the masters of the art at the time, constituted the finishing process or as Condivi expresses it, alluding to it in the history of these frescoes, ‘l’ultima mano’. They were evidently all done at the same time and therefore when the scaffold was in place.”
And not only! He would have seen an anticipation of the Getty Museum Optical Identification of Aesthetic Injuries Method. That is, Wilson had testified precisely that the faces of the Prophets Daniel and Jeremiah had “undoubtedly been injured by rude hands, suggesting that glazing has been partially or entirely swept away”. Specifically: “The face of Jeremiah seems colourless and painted in black and white only: that the face of Daniel is blotched with brown marks.”
Gombrich had thus been magnificently vindicated twice over on his Apelles Thesis: once on the testimony of a close follower of Leonardo, and once on the testimony of the mighty Michelangelo. He had very graciously accepted news from us of the (lesser) confirmation from within the National Gallery. How sad it is that he had left himself unable to lay rightful claim to the vastly more substantial example of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings. How sad, too, that in defending his error of judgement on Michelangelo, he should have obliged himself to unperson the artistic legacy of the twin giants Michelangelo and Raphael in order to mount an incoherent untenable shabby little exhibition at the National Gallery.
Sad as this all is, even now, it is not yet the end of the tragedy. Art historians and their (reversible) tribulations aside, how terrifying it remains that the consequence of the destruction of the precious historic/artistic material that comprised the finishing stages of Michelangelo’s own paintings (and which had protected the fresco surfaces for hundreds of years) is that the remaining now stripped-bare surfaces have been left prey to a persisting polluted atmospheric stew for which no solution has been found by the Vatican’s technical and scientific wizards after two decades of assurances – and twenty-six years after Prof. Brandt disclosed in Apollo that “I have urged repeatedly that problems of climate and pollution control in the Sistine Chapel be given higher priority.” In our post of 21 January, “Setting the Scene, Packing Them In” we cited reports that as many as 20,000 visitors a day were being run through the Chapel. Already, we are outdated. More recent reports put the daily total as high as 30,000 – and report a new pestilence: pickpockets operating within the Pope’s private chapel.
1. “The Sistine ceiling and the Critics”, David Ekserdjian, December 1987.
2. Wldemar Januszczak, “Sayonara Michelangelo”, 1991. Publisher: Bloomsbury, London.
3. The force of this distinction masked certain inconsistencies. For example, even in Britain during the early post-war period when national schools or tendencies were most pronounced, two highly successful German restorers represented polar opposites in picture restoration’s “ideological” wars. While Helmut Ruhemann lead the controversial school of “Total Cleaning” from within the National Gallery, Johannes Hell championed the philosophy of gradualist and minimalist restorations in which an overall appraisal of the aesthetic consequences of cleaning was maintained at all times. Hell, whose work was admired by members of the Royal Academy, including its painter-president, Gerald Kelly, did so from a successful career within the private sector but his disciples were to gain influential positions in the US museum world. Today, the linkage of competing restoration philosophies to national practices has lost almost all force. All museums – like the Louvre, like the Getty – now sport increasingly powerful science departments and engage nationally and internationally in the kind of professional collaborations between restorers, scientists and curators that operate under the new umbrella discipline know as Technical Art History – and there is scarcely a Technical Art Historian today who would subscribe to a “Total Cleaning” philosophy. Virtually to a person, restorers nowadays declare themselves to be minimalists.
4. Originally published under the title “Rhétorique de l’attribution (Reductio ad absurdum)” in Revue de l’Art, 42, October 1978. Republished as “The rhetoric of attribution – a cautionary tale” in Reflections on the history of art, 1987. (We are indebted to Charles Hope for locating the sources of this vividly recalled but utterly misplaced text.)
5. Charles Hope wrote to Helen Glanville: “The Fichard passage, for example, was not mentioned by them, but by Mancinelli, and I had to consult to Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft for 1891 to discover the full context; and it was Conti who drew attention to Michelangelo’s purchase of lake in 1508…” In the third James Beck Memorial Lecture, in London, June 2011, Hope discussed the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration in the context of the National Gallery’s post-war restoration policies. He warned how misunderstandings of key art historical terms such as sfumato and colorito had carried grave and irreversible consequences for much art “as it did in the case of the Sistine ceiling”. Hope’s lecture has been published in full in the ArtWatch UK members’ Journal No. 28. (For membership subscription details, contact Helen Hulson, Membership and Events Secretary, ArtWatch UK, at: firstname.lastname@example.org)
6. …or, even sooner still, had he read Alexander Eliot’s essay “The Sistine Cleanup: Agony or Ecstasy” in the March 1987 Harvard Magazine. In an interview with Einav Zamir on the Artwatch International website (“Evidence of the Eyes”), Eliot recalls: “Frank Mason said ‘We’ve got to protest and stop the cleaning’ to which I responded ‘You can’t buck city hall, let alone the Vatican.’ Then Frank said, ‘Yes, but think of how awful you’ll feel if you don’t try,’ and so he recruited me. I then wrote a piece for Harvard Magazine on the subject, which Jim Beck told me helped persuade him to join us. At that point, the Vatican became noticeably upset.”
For more of Eliot and Mason’s views on the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration, see A Light in the Dark: The Art & Life of Frank Mason and “Divine Light”.
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The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part II – CODA: The Remarkable Responses to Our Evidence of Injuries; and Thomas Hoving’s Rant of Denial
Before considering the third and concluding part of our examination of the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration, it might be helpful to note the responses made to the first two posts (“Setting the Scene, Packing Them In” and “How to Take a Michelangelo Sibyl Apart, from Top to Toes”). Without exception, these have comprised outright expressions of support and/or of indignation and distress at the fate of the frescoes. Such phases as “I had no idea”, “I was horrified to see” and “that things were so bad” abound. Serious and intelligent websites have reported our accounts in similar terms. As is discussed below, no one has challenged our evidence of injuries and everyone who has responded has been shocked and alarmed by it.
Bob Duggan on the Big Think site expressed this concern with precision: “When I learned that my very breath and perspiration could contribute to the slow destruction of the frescoes, I felt sad. However, when I read Art Watch UK’s accusation that the Vatican undertook a 20-year restoration project of the frescoes ‘in full knowledge that the stripped-down bare fresco surfaces would thereafter be attacked by atmospheric pollution unless given some other protective covering’ (which has not yet happened), I felt rage over the local mismanagement of a global cultural treasure…” Duggan added that he was “reminded of a similar, more recent restoration fiasco involving Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic. Years after the artist’s death, overzealous conservators stripped away darkening varnishes applied by Eakins to reveal the brighter colors beneath that were more in line with the Impressionism then en vogue.”
Ikono, an organisation dedicated to democratizing art through the production and broadcasting of short films that present art to the wider public sphere, reported that “ ‘The Vatican authorities are in conservation crisis today because they stripped the Sistine Chapel frescoes bare in the 1980s and 1990s. They did so against material and historical evidence that Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based a secco painting,’ writes Artwatch in an excellent two-part article on the Sistine Chapel Restorations…”
Our case was re-presented in the pithiest form imaginable on the Left Bank Blog: “OY! According to ArtWatchUK: ‘The Vatican authorities are in conservation crisis today because they stripped the Sistine Chapel frescoes bare in the 1980s and 1990s. They did so against material and historical evidence that Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based a secco painting. That original, autograph material was removed in full knowledge that the stripped-down bare fresco surfaces would thereafter be attacked by atmospheric pollution unless given some other protective covering. An attempt to coat the frescoes with synthetic resin (Paraloid B72) was abandoned leaving some surfaces clogged and the rest unprotected. The authorities then promised to install hi-tech paraphernalia that would somehow prevent the polluting atmosphere from making contact with the Chapel’s painted walls and ceiling. As was shown in our previous post, that cockamamie promise was not delivered. Today, in a chapel increasingly over-crowded with paying visitors, these stripped-down frescoes stand in greater peril than ever.’”
A number of questions arise. If the import of the evidence we have assembled over the past 23 years is so clear to so many, why does it have so little traction with the authorities who sanctioned the affronting restorations? Does the absence of any challenge to our evidence mean that everyone is now (privately if not openly) persuaded that – quite aside from the present and ongoing environmental assaults within the chapel – Michelangelo’s painting has indeed been gravely and irreversibly injured artistically, in terms both of its individual component parts and its general orchestration of effects? Or does it show that the authorities, in pursuit of their own interests, are now impervious to and politically insulated against any criticism?
When we first began making this case over two decades ago in the dark pre-digital era, the ink was scarcely ever dry on our criticisms before someone or other claimed that our comparative photographs were misleading; that old painted, drawn, or engraved copies of the ceiling were not to be trusted and had no force as testimony; that we were technically ignorant, or victims of “culture shock”, or agents of mischief – or worse. Could it really be, as it still sometimes seems, that no matter how grave and persuasive the evidence of injuries might be, there exists a wider disabling public resignation and conviction that nothing might today impede the lavishly funded, sponsorship-attracting, Conservation Juggernaut?
To be institutionally specific and somewhat blunt: could it be that the Vatican authorities today think it better to continue sheltering behind a fantastical fairy story of the transforming powers of Wicked Soot and Imperceptibly Darkening Varnishes, than to concede a professional misjudgement made by a small group of in-house experts over a third of a century ago?
Our colleague in France, the painter and the President of ARIPA (The Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique), Michel Favre-Felix, adds weight and urgency to these considerations with a two-fold reaction. In the first instance, he too was startled by our further evidence of “this incredible statement by the chemist: ‘Ammonium carbonate alone tends to tone down colours…sodium carbonate livens them up’”, and the little-noticed admission of the ferocity of the cleaning agent AB 57 by the chief restorer and co-director of the restoration, Gianluigi Colalucci: “Here’s a tiny patch where I left it on too long. In this little experimental patch you see completely solid violet paint, but around it you can see the gradations of dark and light, which are the shadings of Michelangelo’s own work”. As Favre-Felix notes, whenever a given chemical is known to have even the slightest effect on the original colours, it is rightly forbidden to use it.
His second and generous reaction was to offer further visual corroborations in the form of evidence produced for ARIPA’s journal Nuances of other damages made on the monumental figures of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The injuries to one of these, the Cumaean Sibyl, are of great strategic significance in our joint battles. That is, we have just shown in our two previous posts the gross damages inflicted on two of the greatest figures that came at the end of Michelangelo’s cycle when he was at the height of his conceptual, painterly and figurally inventive powers – his Libyan Sibyl and his Prophet Daniel (see Figs. 2 and 3). To that catalogue of injuries, the further evidence of this third case must surely now establish an indisputable and irresistible critical mass? Of the ceiling’s twelve alternating Prophets and Sibyls that constituted Michelangelo’s most heroic monumental and spiritually expressive achievement, we can now demonstrate how three in a row of these painted colossi suffered grievously. Statistically, a sample of a quarter might be considered sufficient to make a general case? We could, God willing, pursue the evidence further if necessary, but is it not now time sufficient for the Vatican to confront and address past heritage preservation errors and desist from what would otherwise constitute an effective falsification of scholarship and art history?
The Portuguese online newspaper Publico reported our criticisms of the Sistine Chapel’s restorations on the second of March. Professor Charles Hope, a former director of the Warburg Institute, was quoted in further criticism of the restoration. The present director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, conceded a pressing need for ameliorative environmental measures which he said would shortly be announced. Unfortunately, he nonetheless and bullishly defended the restoration itself as one which will last for centuries – even before any measures have been announced. (We understand that since those comments were made, the promised announcement has retreated from this April to “the end of the year”.)
If we might at least now be sure that the Vatican is aware of our criticisms and evidence, we recognise that for its part, the Vatican will also appreciate the potential material and political risks of abandoning defences of the restoration. Visitors to the chapel greatly swell attendances to the Vatican Museums. In 1976, about 1.3 million people visited the museums. By 2007 the number had reached nearly 4.3 million, netting some $65 million and providing the Vatican City with its most significant source of income. An admission of error would also embarrass the many major players within the international art world who proclaimed a Revolutionary Restoration in the 1980s. To what degree of embarrassment might be sensed in an ill-tempered and defensive outburst by (the late) Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in a filmed interview for a portrait of the late painter Frank Mason, an early critic of the restoration and a founding member of ArtWatch International.
Thomas Hoving and selected dialogue from an interview in the film A Light In The Dark:
00:53:02 – Thomas Hoving:
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about (Frank Mason). There’s a guy at Columbia, some professor who’s been screeching about this for years. (pause) Turns out that he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. (pause) Do you think Michelangelo was honestly going to deliver it to the Pope something that looked dirty?! (laughs) His marble was going to look gray, his marble was going to look blackened out?! You think that he really mixed his fresco to look like that?!”
01:07:01 – Alexander Eliot:
“I wouldn’t say that the Sistine ceiling had been destroyed myself. I wouldn’t use that word. I would say that it had been desecrated.”
01:07:24 – Thomas Hoving:
“I was part of the desecration personally, if this idiot is right. I am part of it so he ought to put my name on it. (pause) I was invited by the man who cleaned it, Paolucci – whoever, (pause) [Gianluigi Colalucci was the chief restorer and co-director of the restorations, which ran from 1980 to 1994. Antonio Paolucci became the Director of The Vatican Museums in December 2007. – Ed.] to come up in the rickety elevator (makes sound effect of elevator) all the way to the top, and he gave me a beautiful fresh sponge, dipped it in the solution and (he) said OK clean. And they were finally doing the Separation of Earth, (uh) Separation of Light and Darkness, the last one. They started with the Flood and worked backwards. I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Ya, try it.’ I went (reaches up) ‘shooo!’ (wiping motion) And this thin film of black just disappeared.
“It was just built up soot over hundreds of years from the stoves that they used to drag in there when the Cardinals all had to meet. That’s what they all did. They had little cubby holes, their servants had cubby holes, they had tents, they had bunks, full service catering, and stoves.
“And fresco is impervious to anything other than being blasted by (uh) laser beams you know (does sound effect) out of Star Wars. Not only did they not desecrate or ruin it, they didn’t do anything to it that wasn’t there. So the guy is full of shit (!) if he said that they damaged the Sistine ceiling in any way, they didn’t! I know it. I was there. I cleaned about eight inches of the Sistine ceiling – personally!”
01:10:11 – Thomas Hoving:
“It’s not a controversy, the guy is full of it (Alex Eliot) He’s never been there, he’s never seen it. Did he clean a part of it?”
Interviewer Sonny Quinn: – “He made a film…”
Thomas Hoving: “Big deal.”
SQ: “He was close enough so he…”
TH: “Close enough? It’s about 55 feet, give me a break!”
SQ: “…they built scaffolding for him and he was there for six weeks…”
TH: “During the cleaning?”
SQ: “No, before the cleaning…”
TH: “Ya, so?”
SQ: “Well, he wanted everybody to examine his film and…”
TH: “Ah the guy is just full of it…”
For the record (once again), in 1967 the art critic and writer Alexander Eliot and his wife Jane Winslow Eliot spent over 500 hours making a close-up documentary film of the ceiling, The Secret of Michelangelo, Every Man’s Dream. Eliot was up there on the scaffold, every bit as close to the ceiling as Hoving was to be – and for much longer. On 20 May 1985 Eliot had pleaded with the Vatican’s Secretary of State for him to view the Vatican’s own copy of the Eliots’ film and to “have it stopped at the images of the Ancestors [on the lunettes]. Compare what it proves was there against what’s left today”. That precious record of the unrestored ceiling awaits a re-showing. One can only wonder why the Vatican never pressed the testimony of that filmed footage of the pre-restoration ceiling in support of the later cleaning.
For footage of the cleaning itself in progress, see the Ikono site mentioned above which links to three short films. The narrations of all are unspeakably hagiographic and tendentious: critics of the restoration are said to have been “divided”, while the restorers displayed a “passion for their task that recalls that of Michelangelo himself”. The restoration’s outcome is said to “speak for itself” and to have answered “all but the most severe critic”. Most brazenly of all, an outing for that old canard: this restoration had provided “rich opportunities for study”.
We should perhaps resign ourselves to the possibilty that the Eliots’ film may never be aired again – but it will never be possible to expunge all the photographs of the unrestored frescoes that permit the kind of directly comparative visual analysis routinely conducted on this site. Such comparisons truly do “speak for themselves” because they permit like fairly to compare itself with like. For those with eyes to see, such photo-comparisons will forever tell the same heart-breaking story: a misconceived, technically aggressive restoration inflicted grievous injuries on Michelangelo’s art.
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The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part II:
How to Take a Michelangelo Sibyl Apart, from Top to Toes
“I must confess I harbour a lingering almost subconscious fear that someday someone will come, unexpectedly, with a really intelligent observation that will show all of us to have been blind.” ~ Gianluigi Colalucci, 1990
We were startled when the Vatican authorities admitted that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes are in greater peril than at any point in their history. Powerful art institutions rarely broadcast their own embarrassments. More often, they see off their critics by sitting tight, quietly briefing journalistic proxies and…continuing to be. Welcome as was the acknowledgement of the problem by Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, casting the Chapel’s paying visitors as the principal cause of the present crisis, masked greater institutional responsibilities.
The Vatican has yet to acknowledge that this environmental crisis arose as a direct consequence – and within just two decades – of permitting the Chapel’s ancient frescoes to be used as a test bed for the then new and highly controversial cleaning agent “Mixture AB 57″. And, despite the brouhaha over toxic visitors, there remains no hint of acknowledgement that the restorations of the 1980s and early 1990s proceeded on an art critical misreading which, in addition to stripping the fresco surfaces bare and leaving a chemical time-bomb within the Chapel, inflicted grave and irreversible artistic injuries on Michelangelo’s paintings – see right.
On the cleaning method’s toxic conservation legacy, we had precisely warned in 1993 that: “even if the Vatican team were to concede that the brilliance of Michelangelo’s new colours is a chemical deceit purchased at the cost of a physical and chemical weakening of the frescoes, the dispute would not be laid to rest. The need to avoid further deterioration would still be there.” (James Beck and Michael Daley, “Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, Chapters III and IV.) In similar vein we can now say that today’s promises of dramatic technical “improvements” are simply recycled 1980s assurances that, at best, remain of a palliative nature. Even when promised the first time around, the Vatican authorities had admitted to us (see below) that the measures could not fully solve the then already pressing environmental problems unleashed by the restoration’s experimental method.
The Experimental New Picture Cleaning Method
AB 57 was developed by Professor Paulo Mora and his wife Laura Mora, chief conservators at Rome’s Istituto Centrale del Restauro, for cleaning stone buildings. It comprised: “a mixed gelatinous solvent, consisting of a solution of ammonium bicarbonate, sodium bicarbonate, Desogen (a surf-actant and anti-fungal agent), carboxymethylcellulose (a thixotropic agent), dissolved in distilled water.” Toti Scialoja, a painter and a former professor at Rome’s Academy of Fine Arts, complained that its ingredients were “too powerful – ammonia and soda, the stuff you use to clean your bathtub”. Professor Christoph Frommel, director of the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome, described it as “a sharp and aggressive chemical”.
The Moras presented AB 57 as a means of removing insoluble salts and incrusted materials from wall paintings: “If the original surface of the painting is unaffected by water then this mixture will have no deleterious action on it”. Michelangelo’s frescoes did not suffer greatly from incrusted and insoluble salts but they were extensively covered with water sensitive glue/size painting which artists, conservation experts and scholars held to comprise Michelangelo’s own final painted adjustments. An early sign of the wrongness of the new cleaning method came when the restorers abandoned customary claims of a miraculous “recovery” of original and authentic conditions. The use of AB 57 had produced such a mismatch between the cleaned frescoes and the early copies that had been made of them, that the hype had to be bolder and of a different order. As seen in our previous post, the decision to clean with AB 57 had been taken quickly and in express excitement at the prospect of overturning art history itself. This dramatic technology-led change of conservation philosophy was reported in a 1983 Newsweek account: “As recently as 1976 while cleaning paintings by the other artists on the side walls of the Chapel, workers deliberately kept the colours muted so that Michelangelo’s wouldn’t look too faded by comparison. ‘Even then it entered nobody’s head to start on Michelangelo’, says master restorer Gianluigi Colalucci. But when a new cleaning solvent was developed, Colalucci tested it…”
Selling the Surprising AB 57-induced Changes to Michelangelo’s Painting
Having used it, the resulting rupture between the old Michelangelo and his restored self was trumpeted by Fabrizio Mancinelli, the Vatican Museums’ curator and co-director, with Gianluigi Colalucci, of the restoration. Mancinelli claimed in 1986 that the restoration “had brought to light (and will continue to bring to light) a totally new artist, a colourist quite different in character from the unnaturally sombre character who has in the past fascinated generations of historians, connoisseurs and fellow artists…The cleaning of the frescoes has led to the surprising conclusion that the kind of suggestive painting by shadows for which Michelangelo was admired until a few years ago was essentially the product of candle smoke and still more of glue varnishes applied possibly even before the 18th century.” (“The Sistine Chapel ~ Michelangelo Rediscovered”, p. 218.)
Even though no evidence was ever produced of extensive glue applications having been made by restorers, in the early years, art historians and credulous art critics queued to repudiate what one scholar dubbed the “Darkness Fallacy” and the “Sculptural Fallacy” of traditional Michelangelo studies. The proclaimed “New Michelangelo”, however, was an entirely modern chemically engineered artefact, not a scholarly construct. In fact, it flew in the face of the historical record: Michelangelo had been celebrated at his own funeral not for any colouristic brilliance – let alone for, as one critic recently held, the “sharp and acid palette used by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel” – but for his “fleeting, sombre colours”. The new art historical dispensation rested on a twentieth century purging of aged, sometimes distressed but nonetheless authentic material. Indeed, it was precisely because this was not a historically-informed recovery of an original state that drums had had to be rolled for “The New Michelangelo”.
It was claimed that this revisionist reading of historical and material evidence had been corroborated “scientifically”. But this was a New Science to sanction a New Michelangelo. Scientific examinations of the frescoes in the 1930s by X-ray and ultra-violet imaging techniques had led to altogether contrary conclusions. It was reported in 1938 that Michelangelo’s “overpaintings were lying quite brightly a secco on the fresco layer itself; these overpaintings proved themselves undoubtedly the painting of the Master himself.” (See “Art Restoration”, Chapter III.) It was further claimed that Colalucci and his colleagues had recovered the original fresco surfaces so deftly that they had preserved its “original” patina and even left a thin layer of dirt above them that would protect the new surface from airborne pollution. Well, we all now know from the present panic in the Vatican that that assurance was not worth a used solvent swab and that a couple of years ago “unimaginable amounts” of dirt were scrubbed off the frescoes by conservators working at night so as not to impede the daytime tourism stream.
The Over-Selling of Conservation Science
Conservation science has its uses but it can never analyse or appraise works of art because Art’s essential properties are aesthetic not material; perceptual not mechanical. Insofar as there might be a science of art, it is to be found in art itself and within artists’ own practices. This is because art consists not so much of materials as of values and the relationships between values that artists’ create and orchestrate, albeit, with materials. These values are aesthetically relative, not intrinsic to materials, and they are continuously appraised and adjusted by artists as they work. Self-criticism, self-analysis and continuous aesthetic appraisal are integral to the making of art. With art, critical and analytical faculties can never be replaced by apparatuses or be donned by technicians. Conservation science might sometimes tell us of what something is made but never by whom it was made.
The Mis-Appliance of Conservation Science
In terms of professional art restoration, conservation science can serve a useful diversionary purpose. The restoration-authorising authorities and art lovers alike can be invited to put aside critical responses on an implicit assurance that some inscrutable but infallible force has guaranteed the probity of whichever of the many conflicting restoration methodologies is being used at that moment. We ArtWatchers are not inclined to be so trusting nor so easily led. In the case of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, having examined evidence of the cleaning method and its consequences for two and a half decades, and being now armed with the officially published accounts, we are confident that not only can it be shown that Michelangelo’s tonal/plastic systems were recently injured, but that even his very designs, his drawing, his vaunted disegno were repeatedly violated and corrupted.
A Catastrophic Loss of Art Citical Nerve
These losses and violations were not so much unfortunate by-products of an inappropriately aggressive cleaning agent as the consequence of prior and catastrophic failures of art critical judgement and powers of aesthetic analysis. This failure was evident not only within the Vatican’s curatorial, scientific and conservation staffs, but throughout much of the wider international art historical establishment. By effectively agreeing to “de-attribute” what were – and had always been recognised to be – the last stages of Michelangelo’s own work, an overly deferential art historical establishment sanctioned their destruction. For all this (initial) pan-national consensus, the judgement was historically rogue. In 1986, when defending his own restoration, the chief restorer, Gianluigi Colalucci admitted that his professional predecessors’ judgements had been contrary to his own and “not encouraging” to the restoration. That was an understatement: restorers who had worked on the previous restoration (1935-36) had officially and flatly reported that Michelangelo had “finished off a secco”, that is, that he had painted on top of his frescoes when they had dried.
The Testimony of Charles Heath Wilson
Restorers who had worked on the restoration of 1904 had abandoned attempts to clean the frescoes for fear of damaging Michelangelo’s vulnerable work on the surface. Colalucci, greatly in thrall to contemporary “scientific” analysis, dismissed such official reports as “subjective impressions”. He also ignored the testimony of the British painter and fresco expert Charles Heath Wilson who had reported his own close-hand examination of the ceiling in an 1876 book “Life and Works of Michelangelo Buonarotti”. Wilson had found the frescoes “extensively retouched with size colour…evidently by the hand of Michelangelo”. He found that this secco painting “readily melted on being touched with a wet finger and consisted of a finely ground black, mixed with a size probably made according to the usage of the time from parchment shavings.” He further noted, “The shadows of the draperies have been boldly and solidly retouched with this size colour, as well as the shadows on the backgrounds…The hair of the heads and the beards of many of the figures are finished in size colour …These retouchings…constituted the finishing process or as Condivi [Michelangelo’s preferred biographer] expresses it, alluding to it in the history of these frescoes, ‘l’ultima mano’.”
For Wilson, there could “be no doubt that nearly all of this work is contemporary, and in only one part was there evidence of a later and incompetent hand.” Aside from its artistic force, certainty about the secco painting’s antiquity lay in an elegant technical proof: “The size colour has cracked as the plaster has cracked”. It is a matter of record that the ceiling cracked before any restorers touched it. If, as has been claimed, later restorers had repeatedly applied glues, those glues would inevitably have been brushed into the pre-existing cracks. Wilson, who tested the depth of the cracks with a penknife, saw that none had been. Artists like Wilson appreciate that it is impossible to paint over a cracked surface without working the material into the cracks. Wilson was left in no doubt: having been applied when the ceiling was new and not-yet-cracked, these surface glue paints could only have been Michelangelo’s own work, his finishing stages, his l’ultima mano. Normally, restorers recognise that when varnishes or paints can be shown to have run into age-cracked materials this can be taken as a proof of their more recent origins. On this occasion, the restorers failed to recognise the implications of the converse.
The Vulnerability of Michelangelo’s Glue Painting
Moreover, this original secco work, Wilson appreciated, was water-sensitive, having been damaged when “washed by labouring men with water in which a caustic has been mixed”. As to when the alleged restorers’ glue-varnishes might plausibly have been applied, no evidence was forthcoming. In 1996 Colalucci said that although “countless attempts at cleaning and restoration seem to have been made”, only “four are actually accounted for”. The four are of 1566, 1824-25, 1904 and 1935-36. As we showed in our post of 1 April 2011, that first restoration itself provided the clearest possible evidence of Michelangelo having painted shadows a secco. That evidence, taken together with the copies of the ceiling discussed opposite should have been an end to the matter. The last two restorations cited by Colalucci coincide with photographic records and these, too, offer no support for the claimed superimpositions of secco painting and glue-varnishes by restorers.
Perplexed by the Vatican’s unwavering but evidently unsupported insistence that the ceiling had repeatedly been coated with glue “varnishes”, I asked in May 1990: “Does any documentary evidence exist to support the claim that hot animal glue was repeatedly applied to the frescoes over the centuries in order to revive the colours?” Colalucci replied that there was none. In 1986 he had reported a note in a manuscript which described how the ceiling had once been cleaned with linen rags and bread “scrubbing hard, and sometimes when the dirt was more tenacious, the bread was moistened a little” but added “That is as much as it says. The note does not mention at all the use of substances to revive colours or of glue varnish.” (See “Art Restoration”, pp. 74-78.) If, as Wilson discovered, the secco painting dissolved at the touch of a wet finger, an earlier hard scrubbing with wet rags or bread would certainly have been sufficient to cause the injuries that Wilson and others had reported to parts of the ceiling.
A Filmed Corroboration of Wilson’s Testimony
Wilson’s appraisal was echoed from another scaffold a century later. In 1967 the art critic and writer Alexander Eliot and his wife Jane Winslow Eliot spent over 500 hours making a close-up documentary film of the ceiling, “The Secret of Michelangelo, Every Man’s Dream”. Alexander Eliot reported in the April 1987 Harvard Review how “with the exception of the previously restored Prophet Zachariah, almost everything we saw on the barrel vault clearly came from Michelangelo’s own inspired hand. There are passages of the finest, most delicately incisive draughtsmanship imaginable. Michelangelo’s loving depiction of fingernails, eyelids and tiny wrinkles stand in contrast to tremendous swirls of colour…” On 20 May 1985 Eliot had pleaded with the Vatican’s Secretary of State for him to view the Vatican’s own copy of the Eliots’ film and to “have it stopped at the images of the Ancestors [on the lunettes]. Compare what it proves was there against what’s left today”. That precious, now historical, record still awaits a re-showing.
Venanzo Crocetti’s Protests Against the Restoration – as a Sculptor and as a Former Restorer in the Sistine Chapel
In 1989 the sculptor Venanzo Crocetti, who had spent “four full years” working during the 1930s as an apprentice restorer on the scaffold, published three photo-comparisons of the cleaned lunettes in an article in the December Oggi e Domani (“Salviamo Almeno il Giudizio Universale”) – see Fig. 28. Crocetti’s account was detailed and technically informed. He began by explaining how he had appealed unavailingly in 1983 to the director general of the Vatican Museums, Prof. Carlo Pietrangeli, to desist from incurring the “rapid biological degradation caused by the cleaning power” of AB 57. Crocetti flatly dismissed claims that the glues had been applied by restorers. He also testified that as early as 1983 applications of AB 57 had been standardised at 3 minutes each, regardless of local conditions (see below). He complained of the folly of cleaning aggressively in small patches, zones that had originally been made with very broad applications. These glue-paint applications, he noted, had been made chiefly in the shaded parts of the figures and to such artistically selective purpose that Michelangelo’s authorship was beyond question. As a (formerly) supreme case in point, see Fig. 1.
The Effects of the Double Applications of AB 57
Crocetti’s testimony on the AB 57 cleaning method then being used on Michelangelo was particularly damning. He noted that while the first 3 minutes long application left the frescoes looking cleaner, the second on the following day, left them with altered and considerably degraded colours. He believed that the first applications effectively “degreased” the surfaces leaving them open to greater penetration by the second applications. He was convinced that the immediately apparent visual effects of these twin applications would not be their final outcome. He argued that their corrosive actions would continue because of the absorption of the solvents to a depth of half a centimetre. Some days after the second applications he noticed (from the scaffold itself) the appearance of “whitish oxidations of variable intensity” over large zones.
He considered the restorers’ claimed discovery of “stratifications of dirt gathered on the frescoes over the centuries” exaggerated and misleading, and he held that the early photographs of the lunettes by Anderson made the extent of this exaggeration clear – see Fig. 28. He believed that the ferocity of AB 57 made any finely tuned cleaning gradated to meet local conditions impossible. He believed that the greatest injury was to the chief feature of the frescoes – their disposition of lights and shades, and not their local colours. He believed that the restorers, in their pursuit of more intense colours, had penetrated the frescoes to their brighter, less modulated preparative layers. He felt confident that he had seen at first-hand how, with “cleaning”, the figures in the lunettes had been remade, becoming “false in form and colour” alike. He saw that many of the shadows from which the figures had formerly emerged had simply disappeared. He saw that corrections which Michelangelo had, with mastery, made invisible, had been exposed (in particular, see Figs. 11-16). Above all, he confirmed that the condition of the frescoes remained “excellent”, and that this was in part due to the absorption over the centuries of greasy substances of chapel smoke which had “strengthened the colour. Leaving upon it a glittering shift of the lightest varnish [thereby counterbalancing] the aridity and fragility” of old fresco. Having worked on the restoration in the 1930s, he found himself near to despair.
The Invasive Ferocity and Likely Legacy of AB 57
The AB 57 water-based paste used to remove Michelangelo’s size painting contained two “caustics”: sodium bicarbonate and ammonium bicarbonate. Professor Frommel had questioned the method of application: “Who knows if they succeed in cleaning this completely away? No one can prove whether or not it will affect the frescoes in the future. No one can say definitely if they get all of it off.” Consider Colalucci’s own account of the method of application:
“The times of application, rigorously measured, were:
First application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing with water. Left to dry for 24 hours. Second application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing and leaving to dry as before. If necessary, and locally only, small applications, followed by plentiful final washing.
In the case of salt efflorescences consisting of calcium carbonate, there was added to the solvent mixture a saturated solution of dimethylformamide…”
Chemically Adjusting Michelangelo’s Colours
AB 57, a calcium dissolving solvent, was thus used to remove organic materials with an oven-cleaner like ferocity and speed even though many experts held those very materials to comprise authentic Michelangelo work. Contrary to assurances otherwise, the aesthetic consequences of this stripping extended, as Crocetti had observed at first hand, into the very fabric of the exposed fresco surfaces. This was a serious matter. The Vatican’s research chemist, Nazzareno Gabrielli had explained that AB 57 contained two separate salts because while “Ammonium Carbonate alone tends to tone down colours…sodium carbonate livens them up”. The Moras’ combination, he judged, had “the proper chromatic effect”. So far as we know, it was never explained by what means the “proper” combination for Michelangelo might have been established.
Juggling with dangerous chemicals and processes constitutes professional chic in some restoration quarters. Restorers often claim that a dangerous chemical in “safe hands” is better than a mild one in “untrained hands”. When restorers speak among themselves, the professional conceits are more evident. The IIC Bulletin carried an obituary on Paolo Mora who died on 27 March 1998. He had studied under Mauro Pelliccioli, who restored Leonardo’s Last Supper, and, reportedly, was fond of claiming that he could clean a picture with a broom and drugstore chemicals. When he found himself too busy to clean a large Bellini altarpiece, Pelliccioli enlisted two students and showed them how to dissolve rods of caustic soda in water. He demonstrated his cleaning technique by sweeping a swab of soda over the picture with one hand followed immediately by a “neutralising” swipe with a turpentine swab with the other. Thus enlightened, the students were said to have “cleaned the large painting in a single day”.
The AB 57 Rinse-Water Menace
Aside from exposing the stripped fresco surfaces to the Chapel’s notoriously polluted atmosphere, yet other risks were taken in pursuit of brighter colours. Removing the water-based solvent gel with copious amounts of washing risked, as Frommel feared and Crocetti had observed, depositing corrosive ingredients within the frescoes. The “highly soluble” ingredients were said to have been selected because “they are easy to wash off”. It was certainly desirable that they should be so: carboxymethyl cellulose is known to encourage sodium retention; ‘Desogen’, being a detergent as well as fungicide, is non-volatile and does not evaporate. The Moras had conceded that these ingredients have “the disadvantage of remaining in the painting unless removed after treatment by rinsing with water”.
There are problems with washing, however. First, the rinse water was absorbed deeply into the porous fresco and with it, inevitably, particles of soluble and corrosive ingredients. Twenty four hours were needed for the water to evaporate before a second application of AB 57 could be applied. Second, tap water may contain solutions of sodium, iron, copper, and chloride, and unless it is packed with sufficient calcium bicarbonate, will itself attack the calcium carbonate of fresco. Even distilled water (which is free of impurities) slowly dissolves calcium carbonate and attacks the frescoes’ structure. When challenged in 1991 on having introduced dangerous materials into the frescoes, Colalucci replied: “AB 57…has been greatly tested and is very old. The actual solvent is held within a gel which does not allow the particles of the actual solvent to penetrate the plaster and the colour. However, the gel is removed and only a minimal (if any) percentage might remain which has no influence on the colours.” In 1986 Colalucci disclosed that, at that date “The work was concluded with abundant rinsing, repeated at intervals of up to several months” and that only “The last rinsing was done with distilled water”. Much copious washing was thus carried out with tap water.
Mirella Simonetti on Dangerous Deposits and their Air-Borne Allies
Far from having “no influence”, experts expressly feared that residues deposited within the frescoes by rinsing would react with airborne pollutants and moisture. The restorer Mirella Simonetti held one of AB57’s ingredients, bicarbonate of soda, to be an “extremely damaging” residue because, when combined with the sulphates of calcium and air-borne sulphuric anhydrites, it produces sodium sulphate – a whitish dust which corrodes the fresco and destroys its coloured surface. Simonetti also maintained that the use of EDTA (ethylene diamine tetra acetic acid) within the solvent gel had chemically altered the fresco by causing a “breakdown in the molecular structure [and] bringing about a disintegration [which] in turn causes the division of the components and the discohesion of the lime.” Once weakened in this fashion, the disintegration would continue – and “even water can favour such a process”. Simonetti’s alarm was later vindicated when, tests showed that the compound’s corrosive properties etched the surface of marble into irregular corrugations, scattering light and imparting a deceiving effect of brightness that provided more routes of ingress to airborne pollutants.
Fresco Painting and Its Known Enemies
It had long been recognised that air-borne sulphur attacks fresco. In 1884 the reverend J. A. Rivington explained in a paper delivered at the Society of Arts in London how air contaminated by coal and gas emissions destroys fresco: “The carbonate of lime is converted into the sulphate, breaking up the paint and becoming itself disintegrated in the process of change.” The notoriously contaminated air surrounding and invading the Sistine chapel contains sulphur dioxide from coal-burning, nitrous oxides from car exhausts and hydrogen chloride from incinerated plastics. When combined with rain or condensed water these substances produce sulphuric, nitric and hydrochloric acids respectively, all fiercely corrosive. Water is brought into the Chapel by tourists in the form of perspiration and breathing vapour while breathing itself gives off carbon dioxide.
On 12 December 2012, Corriere della Sera reported: “‘Dust, temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide are the great enemies of paintings’, Museum Director Antonio Paolucci told reporters in the Vatican, ‘so this threat is something we have to address. The five million tourists who visit the Sistine Chapel each year bring massive amounts of grime and humidity with them, and it is seriously damaging Michelangelo’s frescoes. So starting in the middle of 2013, every tourist will be thoroughly vacuumed, dusted, cleaned, and chilled before admission to reduce the amount of environmental pollution they cause.
‘On entering the chapel, each tourist will be required to pass through a hi-tech vacuum system to remove dust, fibres, skin flakes, hair and other tiny particles, before they are allowed to view the frescoes. At the same time, a special carpet will also clean their shoes, while side vacuums will cool their temperature, to reduce the heat and humidity that emanates from their bodies. The dirt and heat generated by the 20,000 bodies each day has caused grime to accumulate on the paintings, and a thick layer of dirt had to be scrubbed off of the Last Judgment two years ago. This cannot be allowed to happen again.’”
What Goes Round, Comes Round
We have been there before. In “Art Restoration” in 1993 we wrote: “A recent report commissioned by the Vatican on the Chapel’s microclimate noted that the very large numbers of tourists produce the following adverse effects: they carry in from the streets polluted dust and organic particles on their clothing and hair; their combined body heat raises the temperature by as much as 5°C; and they greatly increase the relative humidity of the air. The moisture and carbon dioxide given off by tourists combines to produce carbonic acid which dissolves the calcium carbonate of the fresco. Water vapours convert sulphur particles into sulphuric acid which also dissolves fresco. The body heat creates convective air currents which carry polluted particles up to the walls and ceilings. Water vapour can activate the traces of salt and detergent left behind after the cleaning with AB57.”
In 1981 Colalucci had equated the glue/size paints with “extraneous chemical substances” without which “and with the science we have today” he hoped “the frescoes will remain in good condition for a very long time”. As mentioned, he offered an assurance that he had left “a very thin film of dirt touching the paint surface with its varying ‘patina’. This fine layer of dirt acts as a form of protection to the paint.” As also mentioned, we now know that whatever Colalucci might have left behind performed no such service, and that dirt on frescoes is no protection from further accumulations of corrosive dirt.
There have been many unfounded assurances. In 1987 Kathleen Weil Garris Brandt, Professor of Fine Arts, at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and spokeswoman for the Vatican on the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, assured readers in Apollo that, “The substances used for the cleaning…have been used successfully for over twenty years… their chemical action is known and stops once the process is finished…the cleaning chemicals do not actually come into contact with the fresco surface”. Just months before in the Summer 1987 Art News, Summer 1987, the Moras themselves had claimed no more than that placing the solvents in a cellulose gel helped to “reduce penetration into the fresco”. In the summer 1987 Art News, the assurances were becoming more specific. M. Kirby Talley Jr., an independent consultant in fine art, interiors and art conservation, wrote:
“In order to prevent the condensation of moisture on the surface of the fresco, the Vatican has already embarked on an extensive programme to control the micro-climate of the Sistine Chapel. Professor Camuffo of the University of Padua spent a year making detailed measurements of relative humidity, temperature and air movement. A climate-control system based on his findings, which will prevent the movement of air above the windows as well as filter it, is now being developed by Carrier-Delchi. Electrical heating coils, ‘A sort of giant electrical blanket,’ as Persegati called it, will be placed under the roof above the ceiling, and will help to maintain a steady temperature during the winter. A dirt absorbing carpet has already been installed on the stairs down to the chapel and on part of the floor inside. Carrier-Delchi is considering a wind shower to remove dust particles from people’s clothing before they enter the chapel. Low heat lamps that can be adjusted to the amount of natural light entering through the windows will further reduce the temperature.”
Synthetic Resins – On or Off?
Talley Jr. reported that Colalucci had assured him that Michelangelo had used no secco paint on the lunettes, and that while the synthetic resin B 72 had been used to seal the walls of the lunettes it had not been used to that purpose on the ceiling. Even the official apologias for B 72 were more disturbing than reassuring: “Like all restoration materials it has its good and its bad points”, Talley said. Frommel was quoted as saying “According to the critics B 72 is something which may become opaque in the future. Are the critics right when they say we don’t know what it will do? They say tests should have been made and then a long period of time should have been allowed to elapse before proceeding. Paraloid can close the surface to respiration. It can close the pores, and if that were to happen it might change the interior life of the fresco.” To this Talley gave voice to B 72’s champions. According to the Moras “If you don’t use Paraloid, what do you use? Organic resins and inorganic fixatives such as lime water, ethysilicates and barium hydroxide all have serious drawbacks. Of the synthetic resins the acrylics are the best, and of the acrylics Paraloid is the least bad.” Was the least bad, good enough for Michelangelo – and better than his own secco painting which had for centuries protected the fresco surfaces from airborne pollutants?
On this question, the Vatican’s accounts prove unsatisfactory and shifting. All that can be said safely is that B 72 was abandoned and not replaced at some point between 1986 and 1991, at which latter date Colaucci claimed “There was no final application to protect or saturate the painting”. This change of mind was defended in 1991: “Our decision not to apply a protective material derived from the awareness that any new material which is not homogeneous with the original components of the fresco will undergo rapid degradation, causing, in the best of cases, aesthetic damage.” This being so, we must expect some parts of the frescoes to deteriorate more rapidly than others – but how many? In 1991 Colaucci put B 72 applications at “lunettes 50 per cent, ceiling 3 per cent”. In 1993 (“Art Restoration” p. 120) we had noted that while protection of the frescoes was to depend on the thin layer of original dirt that Colalucci claimed to have left in place and on the above described plans to stabilise and purify the chapel’s microclimate: “When Michael Daley asked if the air-conditioning system would eliminate the great fluctuations triggered by tourists, he [Mancinelli] replied ‘No. It will reduce the peaks and the troughs but will not eliminate the problem entirely.’” Of course, at that date, as today, the problems could have been halved by halving the numbers of tourists. Then, as perhaps still is the case, on days when the Chapel was closed to visitors, visitor numbers to the Vatican museums fell by 60 per cent.
The Breach of Methodological Good Practice that Menaced Michelangelo’s Shading
In the execution of the cleaning, certain procedural lapses compounded the risks and dangers. Early in the programme (in 1981 when working on the lunettes), Colalucci had said that AB 57: “was created mainly for marble but the Moras experimented with it on fresco. It is like paste. It can be on for a minute or ten minutes. The effect varies with the amount of time it spends in contact with a surface. The danger is that if you leave it on a minute or two too long it will go beyond the foreign substances and start removing the paint. You can see little areas where I’ve applied AB57 in two or three stages. Each time I take it off well before it’s too late. Then I look at it and gauge how much more time it will need…Here’s a tiny patch where I left it on too long. In this little experimental patch you see completely solid violet paint, but around it you can see the gradations of dark and light, which are the shadings of Michelangelo’s own work.”
Why, then, were the varying thicknesses of the (mis-designated) “foreign and extraneous substances” all given identical applications of two three minutes-long applications set twenty-four hours apart? Such an uniform treatment of so vast and varying a programme of painting seemed to breach conservation’s own ethics and “good practice”. As we had reported in “Art Restoration”:
“Within four years, Colalucci had abandoned this control of the solvent by constant observation and timing. In its place a standardized procedure was adopted, described in the 1986 ‘General Report on the Lunettes’: ‘First application, three minutes followed by removal and washing with water. Left to dry for 24 hours. Second application, three minutes followed by washing and leaving to dry as before’. These three-minute applications were said to have been ‘rigorously measured’. Colalucci explained the reason for the change of procedure: the size of the ceiling required that work be carried out by a team. Individual restorers, responding to the evidence of their own eyes, would draw different conclusions. Therefore, in order to obtain a ‘homogeneity of result’ – a ‘primary objective’ – they must be denied the opportunity to judge for themselves how long the solvent should remain in place. Solvent applications had to be predetermined, Colalucci felt, in order to avoid ‘either emotional involvement or complex mechanical manipulation on the part of the restorers’. When asked in 1985 at the Wethersfield Conference in New York why he did not adjust the timing to what his eyes were witnessing, he replied: ‘Because emotional or subjective conditions must not be permitted to intrude upon science.’ The scaffold, he added, did not permit stepping back to assess effects and the continuous bright lights of the Japanese film-makers ‘fatigued one’s eyes’. The activity of the film crews was itself a distraction as was also his having to entertain up to sixteen VIP visitors a day…” See Figs. 34 and 35.
Conservation Ethics and Showbiz Restorations
The inventors of AB57 held that cleaning should never be considered “entirely a technical matter…confined merely to the choice of solvent”. The restorer’s responsibility for the control of the solvent’s actions is absolute and should never be left to “depend on the natural uncontrolled action of the products” and must always depend on “the precise wish and aim of the restorer guided by his critical interpretation”. By failing to exercise control at all times, the restorer “deprives himself of the principal alarm signal when faced with new situations; he gives up looking ahead and allows the problem to resolve itself mechanically so that subsequently he can impose the result as an accomplished fact.”
By test-driving a new cleaning agent under television studio conditions in a constricted, over-crowded and art-politically febrile space, the Vatican restorers pioneered a new professional genre: conservation as both entertainment and professional swank. The combination of the Nippon Television Corporation sponsored showbiz and a provocatively radical restoration drew many protests. This spawned intensely propagandistic promotional razzmatazz, the unprecedented scale and character of which will be examined in Part III.
“The activity of restoration can be defined in terms of two overlapping headings, procedure and method. Procedure is fixed and invariable, and consists in the scientific planning and execution of the restoration project, regardless of the material involved. Method, however, is the department strictly of the action taken in the course of the restoration, and is therefore variable, subject to factors arising from the material, technique and state of conservation of the monument involved.
“The adoption of a procedure which governs the progress of the work is characteristic of modern restoration. Under the impetus of a marked development in technological expertise, modern restoration has extended its established and primary function of conservation for aesthetic ends to include a research capacity, directed towards the work of art considered as an inseparable duality, conceptual and material.
“In the past restoration practice aimed at cancelling out the effects of time and events upon the work of art, termed by Brandi comprehensively its historical aspect, absolute priority was given to its aesthetic aspect, conditioned of course by its contingent situation. The restoration of works of art was therefore entrusted to artists, who were free to introduce personal methods, often secret or private, consistent with the aim of returning the work to its pristine material state, but not necessarily to its original intended state.
“In the evolution of the ‘art’ of restoration, the laboratory for the Restoration of Pictures in the Vatican Museums has had a not insignificant role. Founded in 1992 by Biagio Biagetti according to the latest ideas, and subsequently provided with a Laboratory for Scientific Research, the institute is today directed by by Carlo Pietrangeli who in 1978 established its guidlines in Rules for the restoration of works of art.
“In June 1980 this laboratory, constitutionally responsible for the restoration of the pictorial patrimony of the Holy See, qualified and informed by its enormous experience, which goes back more than 50 years and has been constantly renewed both technically and in terms of personnel, undertook the most important task it had yet undertaken in its history, the restoration of the frescoes of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel…” ~ Gianluigi Colalucci, “Michelangelo’s Colours Rediscovered”, “The Sistine Chapel – Michelangelo Rediscovered”, London, 1986.
“The restoration of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel was a venture that shook the very foundations of the art world more than any other single event has managed to do in the last quarter of a century.
“Promoted and conducted with rigorously conservative objectives, over the course of its execution the restoration program assumed an ever-growing significance in historical and critical terms – an importance that was foretold when the first patches were cleaned and was fully confirmed by the restoration of the Eleazar-Mathan lunette.” ~ Gianluigi Colalucci, “Michelangelo The Vatican Frescoes”, by Pierluigi de Vecchi and Gianluigi Colalucci, 1996.
“…The intuition that the colours must have been quite different from those that could be seen can be found sporadically in the writings of the more perceptive scholars of Michelangelo, from [Charles Heath] Wilson to Biagetti and Wilde. But clear and conclusive evidence of the original colours was established for the first time in recent times by the extraordinary photographs of the Japanese photographer Takashi Okamura, taken just before the restoration and published in a book of 1980, unfortunately in a small limited edition and now not widely seen. The eye of the camera, in itself much more acute than the human eye, and aided by much stronger light than is usually available in the Chapel, revealed beneath the dirt and deteriorated glue-varnish the tangible existence of of what the restoration today is gradually retrieving.
“Although the book with Okamura’s photographs and the restoration that is now proceeding came about independently and for different reasons, the two are complementary, and Okamura’s book is today a valuable record of what for centuries had masked the true nature of Michelangelo’s painting; if the cleaning had not gone ahead, it would have been the sole means by which to achieve a proper or effective analysis of his work…” ~ Fabrizio Mancinelli, “Michelangelo at Work”, “The Sistine Chapel Michelangelo rediscovered”, London, 1986.
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