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24 February 2014

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.

Michael Daley

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Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

Fig. 1: Above, top, Marc Chagall’s “Reclining Nude 1911″ which is said to have been the source for the fake Chagall, “Nude 1909-1910″ (above), as reproduced together in the Sunday Telegraph (2 February 2014).
An entire programme in the BBC’s Fake or Fortune series was spent examining the technical composition and the provenance of the fake version (which, incredibly, was dispatched to the Chagall Committee in Paris which not only declared the work a dud but threatens to have it destroyed) when a single glance at the two works should have been sufficient to establish that both cannot be by the same artist. Where that of 1911 displays a boldly deconstructing and reconstructing treatment of forms and spaces that is expansive and pictorially dynamic (as well as being massively indebted to Picasso’s then recent and revolutionary cubist works), the other is manifestly derivative and feebly handled, leaving the picture’s subject looking not so much set in a specially re-ordered non-Euclidian space, as pasted onto a monotonously and repetitively drawn and coloured theatrical back-cloth.
Above, Fig. 2: a detail of a Turner water-colour in the British Museum which had been protected from light damage at the left edge by the frame. (See plate 5 in the “Museum Environment”, 1986, Butterworth-Heinemann.)
Above, Fig. 3: a detail of Frans Hals’ “Banquet of the Officers the St. George militia company”, showing a strip of original green glazing that had been protected from restorers solvents by the frame.
Above, Fig. 4: the much reproduced Renoir, “Madame Léon Clapisson” (here as on the BBC) showing the painting in its present condition at the Chicago Art Institute on the left, and in an attempted digital reconstruction of its original (1883) condition on the right.
Above, Figs. 5, 6 and 7: details, top and centre, of “Madame Léon Clapisson” as found today, showing along the picture’s top edge a surving strip of an originally pink background achieved with a glaze of carmine lake, or cochineal, pigment. Scientists have used the investigative method known as “Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS)” in an attempt (above, at Fig. 7) to recreate the picture’s original appearance.
There has been no mention in any reports on this attempted reconstitution of some consideration having been given to changes in the painting that had occurred not as a result of exposure to light but as a result of exposure to restorers’ solvents, swabs and scalpels.
The painting itself and the virtual reconstruction is presently on exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute. The exhibition was supported by research funding provided by the Getty Foundation, the Grainger Foundation, the David and Mary Winton Green Research Fund, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It is said that with “this new knowledge and new technologies such as nanotechnology, laser light, and advanced image processing software, the conservation department has been able to reconstruct the work’s original colors in a full-scale digital reproduction.”
A PIONEERING DIGITAL ATTEMPT TO RECOVER A PICTURE’S ORIGINAL CONDITION AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY (LONDON)
Above, Fig. 8: The National Gallery’s “The Conversion of the Magdalen” attributed to Pedro Campaña.
Above, Fig. 9: The near contemporary copy of the National Gallery’s “The Conversion of the Magdalen” that was made by Luca Longhi and is presently in the Villa Borghese Collection, Rome.
The National Gallery claims credit for pioneering the new collective discipline known as Technical Art History. A key weapon in its long, proselytizing campaign has been the publication since 1977 of an annual report dedicated to conservation activities – its Technical Bulletin. The issue of 2001 (Vol 22) carried an article “Colour change in The Conversion of the Magdalen attributed to Pedro Campaña” that was jointly authored by Marika Spring, Nicholas Penny, Raymond White and Martin Wyld. Spring and White were members the science department, Penny was a curator, and Wyld was the head of conservation. It was thus a textbook collaborative effort made under the rules of Technical Art History.
The combined expertises were brought to bear on a striking problem with the painting’s physical and optical conditions: there had been severe deteriorations in the colours of many of the draperies, not least in those of Christ. Many draperies were now brown or yellow-brown, where once they had been blue, green or red.
Microscopic samples were taken from some of the figures and analysed in an attempt to identify their pigments and to “investigate whether there was any peculiarity in the technique and the materials that could have caused such serious degradation.”
Highly detailed examinations established that the blue pigment – smalt – had deteriorated; that a red lake pigment (likely containing dyestuff from the cochineal insect) had faded; and that green glazes containing copper had turned brown. None of these changes were remarkable in themselves, except, perhaps, in their extent.
What was remarkable was that an attempt was made to reconstruct the “altered colours by digital imaging”. It was explained that the changes which had destroyed the picture’s balance of colours had to be accepted as irreversible. Nonetheless, the attempt was made to gain some impression of the original appearance by manipulating a digital image of the painting – specifically, “by applying image-processing techniques”. Clearly, in such an exercise, the nature and type of image-processing software used would be of crucial methodological significance – how and in what manner was the base digital reproduction of the picture to be manipulated?
Explanation seemed to be to hand in a footnote [27]. Alas, it read flatly as follows: “The technical details of the process of reconstruction of the colours by image processing on the digital image will be described elsewhere.” No less disturbing than having to take the means and manner of the manipulations on trust, the account that followed of the factors of consideration suggested a Technical Art Historical methodology more Heath Robinson Contraption than Hi-Tech Sophistication.
Because the original colours no longer exist on the painting, some simulacrum of each had to be produced to feed into the image-manipulating software. Thus, “colourimetric measurements on painted-out samples matching the pigment mixtures and the layer structures were used as a reference.” Clearly, achieving a reliable point of colour reference was vital to the integrity of the exercise. But how reliable were the painted-out samples? Not very, it seemed on the authors’ own account:
“For the smalt and red lake pigments this posed some problems. Smalt manufactured to a nineteenth-century recipe is available today, but contains a higher percentage of cobalt than than smalt in sixteenth-century paintings and none of the impurities that are commonly found in the glass.” Notwithstanding these departures from the original materials used on the painting, this smalt was used for the base references. Because the modern smalt is much stronger in colour than that of the sixteenth-century, an attempt was made to correct (lessen) its force by adulterating it with “finely ground alumina” in attempt to “to try to simulate the colour of the sixteenth century smalt”. Confidence in this adjustment was not high because “this is a difficult judgement to make, since in paintings of the period smalt has always degraded.” Had the painting been a seventeenth-century work the exercise would have been easier because by then the smalt was commonly mixed with lead white pigment, which afforded some protection. Even though this work was not of the seventeenth-century, samples from that period were used a guide reference in the digital manipulations.
Establishing a reference point for the original lake pigments was no less problematic: “Comparison with the deep shadows on Christ’s red robe, which retain their red colour, made it clear that the hue of the test plate was more purple than the red lake in the painting…” And what of the outcome of this, at best, approximate method?
Above, left, Fig. 10a: the computer-manipulated attempt to recover the original colours of Christ’s draperies.
Above, right, Fig. 10b: a detail of the Borghese Villa copy shown above at Fig. 9.
It probably goes without saying that the figure of Christ seen at Fig. 10a seems a most implausible reconstruction. It is claimed by the authors, however, that: “The deeply saturated colours which replace the deteriorated brown, although rather flat because of the loss of the modelling which cannot be reconstructed, balance well with the well-preserved draperies painted with vermilion and ultramarine.” Given that, on the authors’ own admission, the simulated blues and reds are significantly different and more intense pigments, how credible can this claimed correspondence of colours seem?
The article concludes on an assertive note of self-satisfaction: “The detailed technical examination of the ‘Conversion of the Magdalen’, and the process of reconstruction of the colours in the digital image, has produced some deeper insight into how the deterioration of pigments has affected the colours in the painting.”
This was followed by a claim that is quite remarkably at odds with the visual evidence presented (see Figs. 10a and 10b): “Although the strong and deep colours of the reconstruction initially seemed rather startling, they receive strong support from comparison with the Borghese version of the painting [shown here at Figs. 9 and 10b] – which is especially gratifying since the reconstruction was made before the transparency of the Borghese version was available to us.” Given that the Borghese version is on all accounts markedly better preserved that the London picture, what might explain the former’s richer, warmer red drapery and darker, more sombre blue drapery?
Although the authors express themselves as being satisfied with the accuracy of the reconstructed colours, they do concede other problems: “The reconstruction is not, of course, an accurate portrayal of the original appearance of the painting – the lost modelling in some of the draperies cannot be recreated…”
Thus, we see that this exercise has been directed at a single component part of the painting – its self-contained areas of local colours – and that, in the execution, that part has been wrenched from any relationship with the picture’s tones, shading and modelling. This severance is painfully evident in the comparison at Figs. 10a and 10b. It would beggar belief that the National Gallery’s experts could see any sort of vindication for their efforts in the Borghese version were it not for that institution’s by now too-deeply ingrained to be recognised tradition of pursuing autonomously bright colours during restorations at the expense of form and pictorial coherence. Not only are the colours of the Borghese drapery more sombre and chromatically integrated – and jointly more skilfully integrated with the plastic values – but we see also in the National Gallery picture a characteristic debilitating weakness of modelling in the too-brightly scrubbed surfaces of the flesh areas. (It is depressing beyond belief that our national pictorial vice should recently have crossed the English Channel and now be menacing Leonardos at the Louvre.)
It might be contended that we are not comparing like with like. As the authors point out, the one work is a not an altogether strict copy of the other. Moreover, the Borghese version is acknowledged to be in superior condition: “the better condition of areas painted in red lake in the Borghese painting is strong evidence that it has not been subjected to such harsh environmental conditions as the National Gallery painting…The Borghese picture has spent almost all its life in two collections in the same city, whereas, the National Gallery’s picture has belonged to at least half a dozen collections and has passed on at least three occasions through the art trade, but too little is known about the conservation history of these paintings, and the conditions in which they have been kept, to explain the difference in preservation.” The euphemistic use of the term “environmental” in lieu of “restorational” and the sly allusion to possible bad restoration experiences at the hands of the “art trade” cannot gainsay the fact that there is abundant evidence of works held at and restored within the National Gallery suffering catastrophic losses in the course of a single in-house restoration – as the before restoration (left) and after restoration (right) comparative details of Rubens’ portrait of Susannah Lunden (shown below at Figs. 11a and 11b) testify.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.

7 February 2014

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?

Michael Daley

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Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

Above, Figs. 1 and 2: Details of the mouth of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” showing the badly fractured “topography” of the paint and varnish layers. In view of the results shown below of the recent cleaning of Leonardo’s “The Virgin and St. Anne”, it is impossible to consider the prospect of a restoration of this painting with anything other than absolute dread. By what means might an attempt be made to separate the infinitely subtle brown modelling of the mouth from the ancient varnishes in which they are presently incorporated?
Fig 3: The cover of the Artwatch UK members’ journal which discussed recent botched restorations at the Prado and the Louvre
Above, Figs. 4, 5, 6 and 7: Comparative details of St Anne in Leonardo’s “The Virgin and St Anne” showing the head before and after its recent “cleaning” and “restoration”. In each pairing, we see more substance, more shading, more modelling before the “technically advanced treatment”.
Above, Fig. 8: Above: an advertisement in Studies in Conservation, the journal of The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, Volume 42, Number 4, 1997.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.

4 February 2014

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.

Michael Daley

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Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

Above, Figs. 1 and 2: Details of the mouth of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” showing the badly fractured “topography” of the paint and varnish layers. In view of the results shown below of the recent cleaning of Leonardo’s “The Virgin and St. Anne”, it is impossible to consider the prospect of a restoration of this painting with anything other than absolute dread. By what means might an attempt be made to separate the infinitely subtle brown modelling of the mouth from the ancient varnishes in which they are presently incorporated?
Above, Figs. 3a and 3b; Figs. 4a and 4b; Figs. 5, 6, 7, and 8: Comparative details of St Anne in Leonardo’s “The Virgin and St Anne” showing the head before and after its recent “cleaning” and “restoration”. In each pairing, the before cleaning state is either to the left or above the post-restoration image.
Above, Figs. 9a and 9b: The head of Leonardo’s Virgin shown before (left) and after (right) treatment.
Above, Figs. 10, 11, 12 and 13.
Fig 10: The cover of the Artwatch UK members’ journal which discussed recent botched restorations at the Prado and the Louvre.
Fig. 11: Coverage in The Week of Dalya Alberge’s 13 June 2010 Observer article “Louvre masterpiece by Veronese ‘mutilated’ by botched nose jobs”.
Figs. 12 and 13: The Louvre’s mutilated Veronese head before (top) and after (above) its covert and unrecorded double restorations.
Below, Figs. 14a and 14b: The mutilated Louvre Veronese head (left), and the homage to the “Mona Lisa” by Botero (right) to which the several-times adulterated Veronese head now bears a strong resembance in its puffed-out forms.
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20 January 2014

THE FATE OF SCULPTURES AT:
1) The Metropolitan Museum of Art;
2) The British Museum;
3) The National Museum of Kolkata;
4) The Academy of Art in Perugia;
And, the Burrell Collection next?

STOP PRESS: On Tuesday January 21st the Burrell Collection (Lending and Borrowing) (Scotland) was passed in the Scottish Parliament without a vote. Barely half a dozen MSPs attended. They unanimously supported the Bill (although one called for some published account of the proposed £45m development plan). There is no minimum number of votes necessary for a bill to gain approval.

Neil MacGregor and Thomas Campbell, the directors respectively of the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will now be able to make arrangements for the first two stops in the planned international tour of plum Burrell works to help raise £45m to repair and refurbish the Burrell Collection building, the roof of which has been left leaking for decades. The desultory non-debate took place during an international spate of damaged sculptures.

Accident at Perugia

As we reported on 14 October 2013, when Canova’s sculpture The Killing of Priam was being detached from the wall of the Academy of Art in Perugia to be shipped to an exhibition at Assisi, just 24 kilometres away, it was dropped and smashed beyond repair (as Tomaso Montanari had recently disclosed). The removal operation was headed by the shipping company Alessandro Maggi di Pietrasanta.

Accident at Kolkata

On 14 January this year, the Art Newspaper reported another catastrophic accident, this time at the National Museum of Kolkata where a rare 2,000 years old carved lion was dropped and smashed when being moved within the museum during renovation (see Figs. 1 and 2). The Art Newspaper was quick to claim that the accident “highlighted a shocking lack of professional procedures for handling antiquities at Indian museums” but many major well-resourced and staffed western museums have proved accident-prone in their treatment of sculptures in recent years – and in one respect, as discussed below, the Kolkata museum procedures would seem superior.

Accidents at the British Museum

Consider first the record of the British Museum. In the 2007 book “The Museum: Behind the scenes at the British Museum” (written to accompany a fawning ten-part BBC television series), it is said that:

“Sending precious ancient objects around the world is all very well in theory, but in reality it’s a massive operation fraught with practical and official difficulties. Before any loan is considered, the British Museum has to be certain that the destination museum can provide the right conditions and security. ‘We can only lend responsibly’, says Neil MacGregor. ‘The museums we’re sending to have to be able to ensure their safety. Beijing now has a museum that can accept international loans: it’s new, and it reaches international standards, and it’s very pleasing that they chose to open it with an exhibition of British Museum treasures. Shanghai, being a more cosmopolitan city, has had a good museum for a long time – and there are places opening up in the Chinese provinces that we’ll be happy to work with. It’s easier and safer to transport these big, valuable objects now but it’s just as important to be certain that they’ll be safe at the other end.’”

With regard to safety, as we reported on 6-8 September, when, in 2006, the British Museum packed the peerless and desperately fragile Nimrud Palace alabaster relief carvings (see Figs. 8 and 9) and sent them all by lorry to Luxembourg from where they were flown to Shanghai in two cargo Jets (which broke their 11 hours flights with a stopover in Azerbaijan), it was discovered on arrival that the recipient museum’s doorways were too low. No one, it seems, had thought to measure either the doors or the packing cases.

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”. This meant “that we had to get a mobile crane to get them up the stairs. Even then we had to unpack three of the modules to get a bit more clearance”, said the British Museum’s senior heavy-objects handler, Darrel Day, in one of the museum’s self-promotional television programmes (see “The Museum”, BBC2, 2007).

When the collection was finally unpacked it was found that “a few little conservation things had to be done.” The injuries have not been identified and no photographs of them have been published. When crated Chinese terra cotta warriors arrived on loan at the British Museum, they in turn would not pass through the door of the reading room – even when the door’s frame was removed.

Accidents at the Metropolitan Museum

As for the Metropolitan Museum, New York, the Burrell Trustees will have further grounds for qualms when considering authorisation of loan requests to that venue. In 2008 an Andrea della Robbia terra cotta, St. Michael the Archangel, fell from the walls and smashed (see Fig. 4). So far as we know, it has not yet been repaired and returned to view.

Six years earlier, in 2002, a much larger and art historically more important sculpture, Tullio Lombardo’s life-sized carved marble Adam (Fig. 6) – the first monumental, classically inspired nude of the Renaissance – also fell to the ground and smashed into many pieces (see Fig. 7). It did so when its stand collapsed. We must assume that like the Andrea della Robbia, this work, too, has still not been repaired and returned to the gallery. On 28 January 2010, Randy Kennedy reported in the New York Times that neither of the Met’s smashed Renaissance sculptures were back on view (“Despite Assurances, Met Finds Artworks Aren’t restored Overnight”). The Museum’s press office has not responded to either of our inquiries last week on the present condition and whereabouts of the two Renaissance sculptures. At the time of its collapse in 2002, the Met said that the Lombardo would be back on display in two years time. Fortunately, both of these accidents occurred after hours and when no visitors were present. In both cases no museum staff witnessed the accidents.

Unlike the Kolkata Museum (and the National Gallery in London, which supplied ArtWatch with photographs of the painted panel by Beccafumi which was dropped and smashed when being dismounted from a temporary exhibition within the gallery), the Met permitted no photographs to be taken of the Tullio Lombardo sculpture, which witnesses reported to have been smashed into hundreds of pieces.

The Met defends both that original suppression of evidence and the continuing secrecy surrounding the two restorations. In January 2010, Randy Kennedy reported that the unusual seclusion in which the Lombardo restoration was being carried out had generated suspicions that the sculpture is beyond repair. This lack of institutional transparency was defended by the chairman of the museum’s department of European sculpture and decorative arts, Ian Wardropper, on the grounds that seeing images of broken sculptures would be “detrimental to museumgoers’ ability to appreciate such pieces once repaired”. Mr Wardropper suggested on that occasion that the work was probably three years from re-emerging and he attributed the increasing length of time to an original decision to restore the statue “in the most meticulous and durable way possible.”

The Met believes itself to have been hampered in its goal, Mr Kennedy reported, because “few pristine life-size museum marbles like the Adam have ever shattered, so reliable technical information about restoring one is limited.” Nonetheless, Mr Wardropper was bullish about the significance of the protracted restoration. A large insurance pay-out had been made (the size of which the Met also declines to disclose), and it was decided to use this money for a monumental restoration research project on the best means of repairing smashed carvings.

It has been promised that at the restoration’s end, the repaired and cleaned work will be unveiled as the centrepiece of a special exhibition to be housed in a new gallery dedicated to the Venetian Renaissance. That the work itself is of great art historical and artistic significance is not in dispute (see comments at Fig. 6). At the same time, consideration might be given to the artful propagandistic means by which museums can contrive to present the eventual recovery of needlessly or carelessly lost or damaged works as Public Relations Triumphs – see “Questions and Grey Answers on the Tate Gallery’s recovered Turners”.

In January 2010 the Met’s then new director, Thomas P. Campbell, said that after initial doubts he fully supported the lengthy restoration: “The sculpture is 500 years old. Whether it’s off display for eight years rather than five is insignificant.” The sculpture is now at least 521 years old and has been off display for twelve years. We are told that research carried out on the safest means of pinning fragments of marble together has established that the most commonly used material – stainless steel – has the great disadvantage of having greatly more tensile strength than the marble itself. It is not clear why this “discovery” required such lengthy and expensive research: it has long been recognised that the iron pins used to re-assemble the Parthenon during its 1930s restoration had resulted in fractures of the marble, either as a result of earth tremors or the expansion of the iron through rusting (the restorers had not followed the ancient Greek practice of encasing the iron in lead to prevent corrosion). The consequence of using steel (or titanium, as is now being used on the Parthenon) for pinning today, is that when sculptures are next dropped or severely shaken, the pins can shatter the marble from within, introducing many more and greatly more serious injuries. It should, therefore, go without saying that moving stone works that have been repaired with metal pins inescapably compounds the risks.

Even if the vote in the Scottish Parliament should go in favour of Glasgow Life’s attempt to overturn Burrell’s wishes and binding instructions against foreign travels, the trustees of his collection might nonetheless, when considering authorising a loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reflect on the fact that the Lombardo sculpture was smashed only because (as we had reported in the ArtWatch UK Journal 17 in 2002) it had been removed in 2000 from the cherry-wood pedestal on which it had (presumably) stood since its 1936 acquisition by the Met, and placed on a modern conservation-standard base and shallow plinth constructed with MDO (Medium Density Overlay Plywood). At that time, the then director, Philippe de Montebello, promised that, after an anticipated two years restoration, “The figure will stand again on a solid pedestal and, frankly, only the cognoscenti will know.” A dozen years on, that claim has yet to be tested. What can be said, is that the sculptures at the Burrell Collection presently stand securely on wonderfully stable stone bases (see Figs. 11 and 12) and, as ArtWatch pointed out to the Scottish Parliamentary hearing on September 19th, they would remain safely so if “as we most strongly urge, the Parliament rejects the request to overturn Burrell’s still perfectly well-founded prohibition on foreign travels for works in collection.”

Michael Daley

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Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

Smashed at the National Museum of Kolkata
Above, Figs. 1 and 2: A 2,000 years old carved Rampurva Lion Capital that was smashed when being moved during renovations at the Kolkata (“Calcutta”) museum. Photos by courtesy of http://www.ndtv.com
Smashed at the Academy of Art in Perugia
Above, Fig. 3: a detail of Canova’s plaster maquette of The Killing of Priam, a Homeric episode which together with other famous scenes of classic literature inspired Canova in one of his most famous series of bas-reliefs.
Smashed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Above, Fig. 4: Andrea della Robbia’s glazed terra-cotta relief, Saint Michael the Archangel, which fell from the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and smashed (fortunately, overnight when the museum was free of visitors). As Randy Kennedy reported in the New York Times of 2 July 2008, the work appeared to have flipped and landed on its back sparing absolutely catastrophic damage and leaving what a museum spokesman described as “eminently restorable” fragments.
The museum issued a statement claiming that:
“while the Metropolitan routinely and thoroughly inspects its pedestals and wall mounts to reconfirm their structural integrity, it will initiate a reinvigorated museumwide examination as expeditiously as possible in the days that follow this unfortunate accident.” (The Met has not answered our inquiry as to the present condition and whereabouts of the sculpture.)
Above, Fig. 5: A detail of the dust-wrapper on Patricia Fortini Brown’s 1996 and 1999 book Venice & Antiquity – which work, the author writes, was a response to a challenge posed by “the issues raised in David Lowenthal’s stimulating and unabashedly eclectic book The Past is a Foreign Country (1985)…”
Smashed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Above, Fig. 6: Tullio Lombardo’s carved Adam from the tomb of Doge Andrea Vendramin which was built in 1488-93. Professor Brown says of this figure:
“Tullio’s work represents a new level of engagement with the Latin past. Not only is he the most classical of any Venetian artist to date, but he directs his archaeological tendencies towards highly original solutions…”
Still in “restoration” after twelve years
Above, Figs. 7 and 8: From left, Tullio Lombardo’s “Adam” before it was damaged in the Metropolitan Museum, and virtual images (Ron Street/Metropolitan Museum of Art) of restoration and of degrees of stress.
Requiring that “a few little conservation things” be done at the British Museum
Above, Figs. 9 and 10: Top, the Assyrian Nimrud Palace wall reliefs gallery at the British Museum which was stripped down and sent to Shanghai; above, a Nimrud Palace carving of a winged genius.
It is hard to see the removal of those reliefs from that gallery as constituting any other than a trauma. As the museum’s senior heavy-objects handler, Darrel Day describes it:
“The Nimrud Palace wall reliefs are mounted on brackets that are fixed to the wall, then the brackets are covered over with plaster for display purposes. So first of all we have to cut away the plaster, then extract the reliefs from the wall, remove the brackets and get the objects on to a forklift truck. They go straight on to what we call a module – an L-shape stand made of MDF and pine – that holds and supports them , so you can forklift them without actually touching them. The reliefs are made of alabaster which scratches very easily, so you need to minimize the amount of handling…”
Above: Figs. 11 and 12, classical antiquities (presently) safe and secure at the Burrell Collection Museum.
TURNERS STOLEN FROM THE TATE WHEN ON LOAN TO A PROVINCIAL MUSEUM IN GERMANY
A “Genuine” Tate Good News Story
Above, Figs. 13 and 14: Top, Nicholas Serota (centre) and his two (now departed) lieutenants, Sandy Nairne (left) and Stephen Deuchar (right) at a press conference in December 2002 celebrating the recovery of two stolen Tate Turners after the payment of a ransom of over £3m; above, a report in the Daily Telegraph of the role played by the Tate’s chairman of trustees, Lord Myners, in the recovery of the two Turners that had been stolen when loaned in 1994.
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6 January 2014

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.”

Parliamentary Concerns

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.

Michael Daley

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Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

Above, Fig. 1: The now notoriously “restored” wall painting of Christ (Ecce Homo), seen here before (left and centre) and after (right) treatment. (See The “World’s worst restoration” and the Death of Authenticity, and The Battle of Borja: Cecilia Giménez, Restoration Monkeys, Paediatricians, Titian and Great Women Conservators.)
The fame of the incident led to a great increase of visitors to the parish church in Borja, Spain. The church imposed an entrance charge. At the end of December the parish priest was arrested for what the Daily Telegraph reports as “suspicion of misappropriating funds [£174,000], of money laundering and sexual abuse”.
Above, Fig. 2: The Daily Telegraph’s report of 23 October 2013 on the Chinese Government-approved, £100,000 restoration during which a Qing dynasty temple fresco was entirely obliterated by luridly colourised repainting.
This crime against art and heritage came to light when a student posted comparative photographs online. In the resulting furore, a government official from the city responsible for the temple described the restoration as “an unauthorised project”.
Above, Figs. 3 and 4: The Telegraph reported that Wang Jinyu, an expert on fresco restoration from the Dunhuang Academy, had said the intervention could not be called “restoration, or [even] destructive restoration” because “[It is] the destruction of cultural relics since the original relics no longer exist”. It was noted that the case had echoes of a headline-grabbing incident last year when an elderly parishioner performed “a disastrous restoration” on a 19th century fresco of Christ in the Spanish town of Borja. One Chinese website user wrote. “They have turned a classic painting into graffiti. It looks like something out of Disneyland, doesn’t it?”
Above, Fig. 5: Above: Michelangelo’s prophet Daniel from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, before (left) and after (right) cleaning. The great brightening of colours, simplifications and flattening of design, and destruction of shading and modelling that occurred during restoration led many to complain of the “Disneyfication” of Michelangelo’s work. Note particularly here the loss of folds on the drapery over the shoulder to the left, and the loss of the previous dark shadow to the right of that drapery. Supporters of the restoration defended such alterations on the grounds that Michelangelo had originally painted over-brightly and without chiaroscuro in order that his images would “read” through the gloom of a smokey, candle-lit chapel. Today, despite the creation of a hugely increased chromaticism during the restoration, the Vatican authorites are contending that there needs to be a ten-fold increase in the (artificial) lighting of the ceiling because the present lighting creates a “low-contrast twilight that fails to bring out the colours in Michelangelo’s masterpiece”. Have the colours faded to a tenth of their previous intensity over the last twenty years?
Above, Fig. 6: A greyscale version of Fig. 5. The contention that Michelangelo’s work needs ever-more artificial illumination is ironic – and, in truth, confessional. When his painting was originally unveiled in 1512, observers were stunned not by any brilliance of colouring (no one mentioned his colouring) but by the fact that the artist had given such great emphasis to light and shade, and to “sculptural” modelling in between his great tonal contrasts, that his figures appeared real, not painted, and that they seemed to be occupying real space and not merely decorating surfaces. Experts marvelled that such were Michelangelo’s powers of design that surfaces on the ceiling that were actually advancing towards the viewer, appeared to recede because his his brilliantly conjured illusion of perspective. This novel and revolutionary development was recognised for nearly five centuries…until the last restoration. There are no historical or artistic grounds for accepting claims that the unexpected restoration changes constitute miraculous “revelations” of original values.
Above, Fig. 7: Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses from the tomb of Pope Julius II. In this reproduction we see how light and shadows are trapped/made by the architectural projections. In painting his monumental figures on the Sistine ceiling Michelangelo mimicked the kind of lights and shades that are seen on sculpture placed in architectural contexts, according to the (given) light source. We know that Michelangelo had done so on the ceiling because his effects were described and copied by his contemporaries and then by copyists in following centuries. Defenders of the restoration have claimed that scientific (i. e. chemical) tests, or “diagnostic analysis”, proved that, contrary to previous understanding, Michelangelo had not “modelled” his forms on the ceiling with tonal gradations but that he had modelled principally with colour. This is easily disproved: had Michelangelo constructed his forms with shifting colour values, then all black and white photographs and all black and white engraved copies of the ceiling would look less sculptural. Demonstrably, that is not the case. Similarly, if Michelangelo had constructed his forms by colour, removing the material described by restorers as dirt or varnish, would have produced images more sculptural than before the “cleaning”. That this was not the case is seen in the before and after photographs in colour first at Fig. 5, and then in greyscale at Fig. 6.
Above, Fig. 8: This engraving (of c. 1790) of Michelangelo’s Prophet Daniel shows intense, almost “cinematic” contrasts of light and shade and of very strong shadows that appear to have been cast by the depicted forms and draperies. As such, this image accords perfectly with the responses of Michelangelo’s contemporaries when the ceiling was first painted. It accords with accounts of Michelangelo producing model sculptures of figures that he was painting, in order to study the shadows that would be cast onto the ground or onto adjacent walls. Those who had studied the frescoes’ surfaces at close quarters (before the the last restoration) concluded that Michelangelo had reinforced the shadows on the ceiling with glue-paints carrying black pigment.
Above, left, Fig. 9: This section of the Prophet Daniel seen before cleaning (left) and after cleaning (right) shows stronger shadows and modelling before the restoration. Moreover, it shows that Michelangelo used the black glue-paints to revise the drawing and the modelling in the section of drapery on our left that hangs from Daniel’s right shoulder. When restorers remove material that changes the design of paintings, they usually claim that what was removed was not original but had been applied by previous restorers. That argument can easily be shown to be spurious in this case: where complete records of copies exist, it can be shown that shadows which were lost in the last cleaning had been recorded in all previous copies, including, sometimes, ones made during Michelangelo’s own lifetime. (See, for example, How to Take a Michelangelo Sibyl Apart, from Top to Toes, Frankenweenie – A Black and White Michelangelo for Our Times, and, Cutting Michelangelo Down to Size and Figs. 12-14 here.)
Above, Figs. 10 and 11: Here, we see a detail of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl before cleaning (top) and after cleaning (above). Once again, we see (in microcosm) the losses of shading and modelling that occurred throughout the ceiling. If we make careful comparative appraisals we can see the loss or break-up of actual brush-strokes. We can see that before restoration, the forms of the ear were more decisively drawn (note the black line that picked out the bottom of the ear lobe) and more sculpturally modelled. A straightforward cleaning of a dirty painting would enhance, not diminish, the values that had previously been visible even under dirt.
Above, top, Fig. 12; Above, centre, Fig. 13; Above, Fig. 14.
The above sequence of images of Michelangelo’s Jonah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling shows the continuity of features – note especially the shadow cast by Jonah’s left foot – that were recorded in an unbroken sequence from within Michelangelo’s lifetime until the last restoration.
Thus, in Fig. 12 we see a wash drawing by Giulio Clovio which records in its bottom corners parts of two lunettes that Michelangelo had painted before 1512 but then had destroyed by 1534 to prepare the altar wall for his Last Judgement. It is therefore a record of how the figure appeared before the frescoes had become dirty and before any restorer had approached the ceiling. This single image refutes the testimony of the Vatican laboratory’s chemical analysis which was said to have established that Michelangelo had not painted the shadows.
The shadows not only survived for centuries they were recorded in all copies and photographs of the figure up to the time of the last restoration. In Fig. 13 we see two engravings made in the early 19th century.
In fig. 14 we see a photograph (on the left) showing the extent to which the shadows had survived until the last restoration, and one (on the right) taken after the restoration during which the shadows were removed.
WAYS OF CLEANING
Above, Fig. 15: Turner’s 1810 painting “Lowther Castle – Evening” which was given to the nation and presented to the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle. As the Northern Echo has reported, on acquisition, the Bowes Museum decided to restore the painting. The museum’s conservation manager, John Old, carried out some “background work” and “a chemical analysis” and began the restoration which is visible to the public every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Like Philip Mould’s restorers (see Figs. 17 and 18), Mr Old began by cutting a rectangular “window” directly through the old varnish until paint was reached. This method of cleaning is widely encountered but is controversial within the field. It was strongly opposed, for example, by the influential and famously moderate or “minimalist” restorer Johannes Hell, for reasons that will be given in a future post.
In today’s picture restoration there is constant methodological churn. There are no agreed methods of cleaning – some restorers favour solvents; some favour soaps; some favour abrasives; others, lasers. Some advocate total and swift cleanings; some commend slow and partial ones. Some favour selective cleaning. There are no universally accepted codes of ethics, no strict rules of professional behaviour, there is no striking-off from professional registers. Despite frequently assumed quasi-medical airs and talk of diagnostics, patients and such, there is, as the painter Thomas Torak has regretted, no Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm”.
Above, Fig. 16: John Old at work, as shown in the The Journal of 26 December by which time many overlapping windows had been cut through the varnish. The Journal reports that “Although a chemical analysis was carried out” before work began, “it still turned out to be a bigger challenge than he expected as he discovered areas of paint loss probably caused by damp”. It is disturbing that neither chemical analysis nor close visual scrutiny – or background researches – identified the problem before work began: “Although we did a lot of scientific analysis you can never really tell what you’ll find until you start work”, Mr Old said. It is not reassuring that Old “retouched” the damaged area even before the cleaning was finished. Today, with varnish still to be removed when part of the picture has already been repainted, Old is taking a break from work “while further chemical analysis is undertaken to trace the different techniques used by Turner across the painting”. Given that the preliminary analysis failed to detect the surprise passages of damaged (and presumably repainted) work, how confident can we be at this point that further analysis will succeed in identifying all of Turner’s notoriously quixotic techniques on this painting?
With an artist like Turner, can it ever be sensible to begin by cutting windows quickly through sections of varnish, rather than by proceeding in a gradual and overall campaign to thin the varnish and, thereby, approach what is suspected to be the underlying paint surface with circumspection and retaining the option of holding back where necessary or desirable?
Above, Figs. 17 and 18: The dust wrappers of Philip Mould’s books of 1995 (left) and 2009 (right), both of which show rectangular windows cut sharply through discoloured varnish.
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12 December 2013

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?

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: The announcement of the new Sistine Chapel lighting system, in the Times’ Business section of 7 November 2013. (Photo: Gonzalo Azumendi/Getty.)
Above, Fig. 2: The section of ceiling illustrating the Financial Times Magazine’s coverage of the Sistine Chapel’s new lighting.
Above, Fig. 3 and below, Fig. 4: the splendid photograph by Victor R. Boswell, Jr. of the last moments of the Sistine Chapel ceiling as finished by Michelangelo, as published in the December 1989 National Geographic and, as discussed here in our post of 4 March 2013. (See “How to Take a Michelangelo Sibyl Apart, from Top to Toes”.)
Below, Fig. 5: Tourists in the Chapel, as shown in the 21 December 2012 Guardian. Photograph: Oote Boe Ph/Alamy. (See our post of 21 January 2013, “Setting the Scene, Packing Them In“.)
ON THE RESTORATION INJURIES TO MICHELANGELO’S SISTINE CHAPEL FRESCOES, SEE:
“Art Restoration, The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, by James Beck and Michael Daley, London, 1993, Chapters III and IV, and the following posts on this site:.
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25 November 2013

Bubbles burst.

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.

Michael Daley

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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Above, Fig. 1: An empty Louvre plinth – one of very many shown in The Art Tribune: “Poitou, second half of the 12th c. Two Torsos of Bearded Men, one is being restored, the other is in Lens (but we don’t know until when)”. Photograph, by courtesy of Didier Rykner.
Above, Fig. 2: Matisse’s The Snail, by courtesy of the Tate. The paper collage is undergoing conservation so that it might be better secured to its linen canvas support, which is lined with brown paper. For the relationship between paper and support in another Matisse cut-out, see at Fig. 5, the raking photograph of his Large Composition with Masks at The National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Above, Fig. 3: Matisse’s Memory of Oceania, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: © 2013 Succession H. Matisse, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Above, Fig. 4: Matisse’s Large Composition with Masks, The National Gallery of Art, Washington. Photograph by courtesy of the BBC.
Above, Fig. 5: Matisse’s Large Composition with Masks, The National Gallery of Art, Washington. Note the imperfect adhesion of the paper to its support. Photograph: by courtesy of A Curious Gardner
Above, Fig. 6: A large painting being prepared for transport from the Musée d’Orsay.
Above, Fig. 7: A large painting from the Musée d’Orsay being loaded into a lorry.
Above, Fig. 8: Matisse’s three panels mural La Danse arriving at the Washington National Gallery of Art from the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, for the first stop on its controversial world tour in 1993-95. Note that, contrary to reassurances given by the National Gallery of Art to the court that granted “once in a lifetime” permission to tour, the mural was carried on an open truck. Photograph by courtesy of Danni Malitski.
Above, Fig. 9 and below, Fig. 10: the right hand panel of Matisse’s La Danse, when on exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the end of the world tour. Note the corrugations on the formerly taught and “in-plane” canvas. Photographs by Nicholas Tinari.
TRAVEL INJURIES OF THE BARNES COLLECTION PICTURES:
For Nicholas Tinari’s submission to the Scottish Parliament’s scrutinisng committee on the Lending and Borrowing Scotland Bill, in which he testified to injuries witnessed when following the Barnes’ paintings on five legs of the 1993-95 world tour; and to wide swings in relative humidity witnessed when the works were in transit and on exhibition, click here.
THE DEGRADED CONDITION OF TURNER’S ‘ROCKETS’.
Top, a detail of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights, as recorded in Robert Carrick’s chomolithographic copy of 1852.
Above, the same detail of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights, as reproduced in the Guardian of 21 November 2013.
Above, top: A detail of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights, as copied in Carrick’s 1852 chromolithograph.
Above, middle: A detail of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights, as recorded in 1896. Photograph by courtesy of Christie’s.
Above: A detail of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights, as reproduced in the Guardian of 21 November 2013.
Above, top: The left-hand side of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights, as recorded in Robert Carrick’s chomolithographic copy of 1852 (and as published in the ArtWatch UK Journal No 20).
Above: The left-hand side of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights, after its last restoration at the Clark Arts Institute (and as published in the ArtWatch UK Journal No 20).
Above, the Boston Museum of Art’s Turner Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying – Typhoon coming on; below, detail of the Slavers.
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