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13 March 2014

Mantegna’s Dead Christ : They Know Not What They Do

The first curators and directors of museums and galleries were titled “Keepers”. It was a nicely ungrand reminder that the curator did not own but was merely required to guarantee the safe-keeping of collections. Those modest days are past. Today’s museum is no longer the means by which interested members of the public are granted access to fine collections of art in circumstances conducive to tranquil contemplation and reflection. The Modern Museum is an instrument wielded simultaneously (and rarely coherently) on behalf of assorted vested interests. Governments can treat museums as tools of social engineering. Sponsors can use them as means of burnishing tarnished corporate personas. For many groups and interests they constitute both job-creation schemes and marketing or catering opportunities. Possession, notoriously, is nine parts of the law and today’s museum directors and curators often act as if, for the duration of their tenures of office, they themselves own the works. For some, art collections constitute harvestable assets, a kind of tradable currency that can project institutional and personal brands/egos onto the global stage. No one retains a career interest in leaving well alone. Even when they are not being shuttled around the world, pictures can be physically or virtually “restored” so as to generate newsworthy “discoveries” and dramatically upgraded attributions. Even when circumstances preclude the generation of physical transformations and excitements, curators can, as our colleague, Michel Favre-Felix, the president of ARIPA (Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique), here discloses, deploy purely “presentational” techniques to identically detrimental effects. [M. D.]

Michel Favre-Felix writes:

In her desire to give “more visibility” to Mantegna’s Dead Christ (see Fig. 1), the iconic masterpiece of the Brera’s magnificent collections, the museum’s director, Sandrina Bandera, could have given carte blanche to a trendy museum designer or to a provocative artist. Instead, she chose the movie-maker Ermanno Olmi as “a humanist concerned by the human tragedies and a humble artist who would not try to hold his own with the painting.” [See, bottom right: Endnote 1.]

The result, as seen since late December, is that the Dead Christ is now housed in a special crypt-like dark room, stripped of His historic frame and visually isolated by spot-lighting, as if now embedded into a monolithic black wall – and at a height of only 67 cm from the ground. (See Figs. 2, 3, 4 and 5.) This presentation is intended to be permanent and the film-maker, humility notwithstanding, declares “This will last: I will fight for it”. [1] (See Figs. 6 and 7.)

While not doubting the sincere empathy of the 83 years old film director with Mantegna’s tragic moving image, likely created in the mid-1480’s, after the loss of his two beloved sons, his declared ambition, after a “deep intellectual research” (“profonda ricerca intellettuale”) to “present the painting just as its creator wanted” [2] cannot be accepted. To begin with, Ermanno Olmi holds that “the frame was a nuisance. It is a painting that would have been hung upon Mantegna’s bed or on its side, not a decoration.” [1] This discarding of the frame (see Fig. 8) is a matter of no regret for the Brera, which states that it was documented “only” from the XVIth century. However, the idea that a religious painting rightly becomes a “decoration” as soon as it gets a frame is a post-modern conception that rests on an inability to comprehend how paintings were conceived and viewed in the religious climate of the 15th century.

Far from being an alien ornamental addition, the frame is a device that serves as a gateway marking a separation between the surrounding real/material world and the depicted ideal world. It marks the step away from our daily views into the world of artistic and spiritual contemplation – both a border and a bridge: the intermediary moment that permits the introduction of the “epiphany” of the image.

Decorum was, on the contrary, a native part of the religious display and sincere piety was expressed through the enriched appearance of images. Dismissing “decoration” with Mantegna, who gave unequalled expressive importance to decorative elements in his own art by elevating ornamentation to the highest degree of artistic and spiritually expressive means, is singularly regrettable. (See Figure 9, which shows the outstanding subtlety and complexity of Mantegna’s design and its interrelationships between the carved gilded architectural frame and rich depicted ornaments.)

Clearly, in his quest of the essence of the image, Olmi felt compelled to “liberate” the Dead Christ from any kind of “decorum”. Instead, by acting without any self-critical distance, he has merely wrapped the sacred image in the stereotypical “decorum” of our modern times: the non-framing of modern paintings and the omnipresent practice, in books and on computers screens, of reproducing old paintings without their frames. Such a reading might have been acceptable had the museum announced: “this is the creative movie-director’s own personal vision of the painting”. But M. Olmi claims to have “recovered” Mantegna’s original intentions by means of new historic-scientific deductions.

He does so with contradictory explanations. First, he asserts that, historically, “this painting has not been painted to be exhibited for all to see but was intended to remain hidden from any external sight”. [3] (Giovanni Agosti, the art historian and Mantegna specialist at Milan University, refutes this account.) Why, then, has Olmi gone to such lengths to give “more visibility” to the painting – which was the very aim of the Brera’s project?

Other inconsistencies stem from Olmi’s singular and highly specific conviction that the raison d’être of the Dead Christ was to be a private devotional image positioned on the side of the artist’s bed at 67 cm from the ground – at which height he claims to insure a “correct” prospect for a viewer not in the bed but in a standing position next to it. As Olmi argues: “If I have placed the painting at 67 cm from the ground it is because, when it is placed at the eyes level, the Christ looks deformed and stunted as if he was hanging by his arms. It is true that one could feel inclined to kneel, but the viewpoint that I impose is not religious. It is the most adequate with the view chosen by Mantegna.” [1]

The film-director’s attempts to “correct” the prospect with his disconcerting and precise 67 cm calculation fails to address the long established but puzzling fact that at least two, contradictory prospects were used in the construction of the scene. Actually, Mantegna’s representation is not bound to a formulaic appliance of mathematical prospect but, rather, used an expressive, sensitive one (in accordance with Alberti’s conceptions). Should the Brera’s visitors be instinctively inclined to kneel, M. Olmi might consider that they might instinctively be right, and that he is intellectually wrong.

Let us test Olmi’s calculations. The painting would have hung near Mantegna’s bed, at 67 cm from the floor, as a devotional image for his own kneeling prayers. Nevertheless, the artist would have set the “correct” prospect for the viewpoints of rare visitors to his bedroom. And thus, every day, Mantegna, while kneeling would have, on Olmi’s account, seen no more than a “deformed and stunted” Christ. That the Brera also asserts that this level is “the same that the artist wanted ” [4] only illustrates the well-known phenomenon of collective misleading.

In truth, Mantegna’s intentions are implicit within the painting. The key is the position of the three lamenting figures at the Christ’s side. These three mourners (the Virgin, St John and the Magdalena) are not standing but kneeling. A recently rediscovered ink drawing, dated to the 1460’s and which may be thought to be part of Mantegna’s own steps towards his final composition shows figures, standing and leaning around the Christ (see Fig. 10). As Mantegna eventually chose kneeling figures, he thereby rethought the prospect. The resulting unusual viewpoint in the Brera masterpiece makes sense when we realize that it represents the prospect drawn from a position similar to that of the three mourners: Mantegna places the spectator as a fourth mourner looking from a similar kneeling position and point of view (See Fig. 1).

Now, there are not so many plausible solutions. In the first, the painting is positioned near the ground, hypothetically as in the artist’s bedroom or – in another hypothesis – as it might have been placed on Mantegna’s grave. In both cases the spectators are rightly situated when kneeling. But a museum is not a church, nor a graveyard, nor an artist’s bedroom. In another reading, the painting hung at eye level and the standing spectators share the sight of the kneeling mourners. Although dashing the Brera’s hopes to revolutionize the traditional display, this solution works perfectly and is consistent with other sight level solutions by Mantegna, as can be seen in his “Wedding Chamber” of 1465-1474 in the Ducal palace of Mantua (See Figs. 11, 12 and 13).

The only wrong choice is that of M. Olmi. Andrea Carandini, the archaeologist president of the Italian equivalent of the British National Trust, put it trenchantly: “this means placing the body of Jesus at the level of the genitals that have everything except eyes” [5]. The Italian professor further slammed Olmi’s failure to understand what a painting is and is not, by confounding an artistic representation of the sepulchre with a mimicked reproduction of a sepulchre room.

Of Olmi’s overly theatrical design, Carandini stresses that the painting is now dematerialized and degraded to a projected image. This new projected slide effect of the Dead Christ offends art historian Philippe Daverio who complains of a present resemblance to the reddish glow of a Pizza furnace [1]. Personally, I am even more struck by the similarity with a movie screen. Could it be that M. Olmi does not realize that he is here replicating the very situation, so familiar to him, of a cinema showing in the dark? Should a row of cinema chairs be put in the present gallery, the seated spectators would be at the perfect height for looking at his Dead Christ film.

As for the Brera’s desire to increase the “visibility” and to recover the “true” (original) the viewing of the Dead Christ, such aims coincide with current (controversial) definitions of contemporary restoration, which pretend to increase the “legibility” of the artwork [6] and to reveal its “true” colours, by some supposed recovery of its original state.

As with the numerous controversial restorations that have been the subject of critical analysis by ArtWatch and others, hypotheses that are cast up as alleged discoveries are given the status of facts and misleading calculations are supplied for “scientific” proofs. Ambitious restorations and spectacular displays alike are – however awkward their results – made in the name of retrieving the artist’s original intentions.

In both cases, close analysis shows a contemporary aesthetic prevailing over the artist’s own original one. Professed humility in restorers and exhibition designers is unable to constrain the contamination of the past by our present artistic prejudices. By similar processes, through invasive restoration or intrusive display, the old masterpieces are modernized and thus, for ongoing decades or even irreversibly, falsified.

Michel Favre-Felix

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

Above, Fig. 1: The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, circa 1480, distemper on canvas, 68 x 81 cm, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano.
Above, Figs. 2, 3, 4 and 5.
Fig. 2: The Dead Christ (top) isolated in the dark – in the forefront, Bellini’s Pietà. (Source: arte.sky.it.)
Fig. 3, 4 and 5: Other views of the painting embedded into the black wall.

Source for Figs. 3 and 4: Milano.corriere.it

Above, Fig. 6: Ermanno Olmi in his new and, he hopes, permanent display in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano.
Above, Fig. 7: Ermanno Olmi during the presentation of his new display and debate held in the Sala della Passione of the Brera Palace on the 12th of December 2013.

Source: Milano.corriere.it

Above, Fig. 8 Mantegna’s masterpiece with its frame, before December 2013.

Source: lacittanuova.milano.corriere.it

Above, Fig. 9: a detail of the central panels of Mantegna’s The San Zeno Altarpiece of circa 1457-1460. This work of tempera on panel (the whole altarpiece being 480 x 450 cm) is housed in the San Zeno basilica, Verona.

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Above, Fig. 10: A study for a Lamentation of Christ, circa 1460, ink on paper, 15,1 x 10 cm, Private collection.

For further details : http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/27819

Source: thehistoryblog.com

Above, Figs. 11 and 12: A view of Mantegna’s the Bridal Chamber (Camera degli Sposi) 1465-1474, frescoes, Ducal Palace, Mantova, indicating (top) the elevated viewpoint of the frescoes.
Above, fig. 13: A detail of Mantegna’s the Bridal Chamber (Camera degli Sposi).
CODA:
Above, Fig. 14: Mantegna’s Ecce Homo, circa 1500, distemper and gilding on canvas, 54 x 42 cm, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris.
This distemper painting by Mantegna is one of the best preserved paintings in the world. It has never been lined. It has never been varnished and, so, has never been “dis-varnished”. It retains its original panel on which the original canvas is glued only by its edges [7]. Crucially, we can see that this miraculous survivor of Mantegna’s art displays the same subdued tones (albeit in even smoother and more delicate manner) as those found in the artist’s Dead Christ (Fig. 1). As works painted with pigments bound in distemper (glue) not oil or tempera or resin, both the Dead Christ and the Ecce Homo belong to a kind of painting that inevitably looks slightly muted and darkened and which cannot be enhanced or “brought out” by any restoration means. Disappointing as this might be to the curators of the Brera, no cleaning could ever uncover – as is otherwise invariably promised by restorers – any bright colours under its subdued looking tones. Those tones are the birthmarks, the intrinsic pictorial characteristic of the distemper painting technique.
However, it might seem that for the resourcefully modernising contemporary curator, the physical impossibility of brightening and colourising an historic work, need constitute no obstacle. As the above described (mis-)treatment of Mantegna’s Dead Christ demonstrates, other substitute technological subterfuges exist in the displaying of paintings. The increasingly frequent curatorial resort to historically and artistically falsifying theatrical/cinematic/virtual techniques might deserve further commentaries.
ENDNOTES:
[1] ”Le « coup » du Christ”, by Philippe Ridet, Le Monde, 15/02/2014

[2] The Brera’s website

[3] “Capolavori meditazione da”, Francesca Bonazzoli, Corriere della Sera, 3/12/2013

[4] “Brera, «processo» pubblico per il Cristo del Mantegna ”, Giacomo Valtolina, Corriere della Sera, 13/12/2013

[5] “Un Mantegna da vedere in ginocchio”, by Andrea Carandini, Corriere della Sera, 11/12/2013

[6] For critical studies of the use of this term in conservation, see: Salvador Muñoz Viñas, Contemporary Theory of Conservation, , Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann, 2005, and, Hiltrud Schinzel, “Visibility of Restoration – Legibility of Artworks : the Topicality of Compromise”, in Visibilité de la restauration, lisibilité de l’œuvre, 5th colloquium ARAAFU, 2003 – Debate in the Italian restoration review Kermes n°44, 2001 / n°47, 2002 / n°50, 2003, with Antonio Natali, Giorgio Bonsanti, James Beck, Anna Maria Maetzke, Walter Schudel et al)

[7] Andrea Rothe, “Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi”, Historical Painting Techniques, Materials and Studio Practice, The Getty Conservation Institute, 1995


12 July 2013

Review: Who Cleaned the Queen’s Windows and the Lady’s Pearls?

Restorers (aka conservationists) love conferences – and trade organisations. Today, as previously mentioned, a one day conference (“The Picture So Far…50 Years of Painting Conservation”) is being held at the Royal Institution in London. Sponsored by Christie’s, it has been ambitiously organised and presented by the British Association of Paintings Conservator-Restorers (BAPCR) as a major retrospective as well as a discussion of the future of painting conservation:

Fifty years ago as the nation was emerging from post-war depression, caring for the nation’s heritage became imbued with higher ideals, reflecting a new found optimism and confidence in organisation, technology and cultural harmony. This conference will examine and celebrate the aspirations of and achievements of the early conservation pioneers. Pre-eminent speakers will trace the trajectory of conservation practice, philosophy, teaching, technology and professional organisation over the last half century. Leading us to examine the fundamental principles of our profession today and appraise the challenges that will face the next generation of practitioners.”

Listening to restorers it might never be appreciated that art conservation is now a massive and controversial vested interest, a big business with a perpetually shifting ideology that doubles as self-promotion. Chemical and other manufacturers promote their wares through restoration trade advertisements and fairs. There are substantial educational interests. Conservation training (degrees and doctorates are now given) converts arts and science degrees alike into hard job opportunities, increasing numbers of which are in the secure, superannuated public sector. (On the content of conservation training, see Ruth Osborne and Einav Zamir below.) Every last little museum boasts or craves an in-house conservation department and all the technical paraphernalia that goes with it. Sponsorship is easily attained – who would not want to be associated with saving art? For petro-chemical giants sponsoring prestigious museum art conservation programmes makes particular image-improving sense. Development plans for museums are virtually guaranteed fund-raising success if an expansion of “conservation facilities” (along with “educational outreach”) is cited.

Listening to restorers it might never be gathered that regardless of good intentions, their “treatments” irrevocably alter both the material fabric and aesthetic appearance of works of art. The alterations that materialise are made on the back of promises to prolong life, prevent deteriorations and recover original conditions. The history of restoration repeatedly shows (see right) contrary outcomes and resulting controversies. Throughout the twentieth century restorers have sought to convert public opprobrium into professional approbation by mimicking other professional forms – in particular those of medicine. The International Institute for Conservation (IIC) gives a biennial prize (The Keck Award – see our post of 8 January 2011) specifically for those considered to have best increased public appreciation of “the accomplishments of the conservation profession”. Acting directly on the late Caroline Keck’s advice, every conservator/restorer nowadays is his or her own cheerleader.

One of the speakers at the “Picture so far…” conference tomorrow, is the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, who is to talk on changes of fashion in the “Presentation of Old Masters”. A case in point might be the National Gallery’s current “Vermeer and Music” exhibition where (paying) visitors are confronted on entry not with works of art – or even with instruments of music-making, but with a gallery full of conservation propaganda. At the entrance to the exhibition, the first wall panel of public indoctrination reads:

Vermeer and Changes over Time
The passage of more than three hundred years has inevitably left its mark on Vermeer’s paintings. Some of these changes are the result of external factors; some are due to the inherent properties of the materials used; and some are the result of imperfections in the artist’s own technique.”

Not a word is said about the consequences of the restorations that the pictures on show have undergone. Blaming that artist’s technique while not discussing the material actions of restorers is an evasion and a slur. Insofar as conservator-restorers ever allude to restoration injuries, they euphemise them as “abrasions”, “rubbing” or “wearing” – as if, once upon a time, pictures abraded themselves. Where once-alike works are rendered unlike by restorations, blame is not attached to the agents of change. Instead, restorers opt see colourful diversity in works that now express not so much themselves but their “different conservation histories”. We maintain that restorers, who alone are licensed to act upon picture surfaces, should be held properly and fully to account for the changes they make. Two Vermeers in the two National Gallery show might serve as cases in point (see right).

The National Gallery’s conservation dossiers (to which we enjoy full and helpful access) show that the gallery’s two Vermeer paintings have provided something of a playground for restorers. In the fifty years between 1945 and 1994, Vermeer’s poor “Lady Seated at the Virginal” received no fewer than nine bouts of “treatment” – including being lined twice within three years. The last item of treatment (in 1994) was entered tersely into the conservation dossier as “Retouching in face and neck corrected (Bomford). Surface cleaned, revarnished”. No photographic record of this intervention was to be found. When we asked the restorer, David Bomford (who speaks today on “Three Days That Changed Conservation”), he said that this omission was because “there were no real changes – it was simply a matter of glazing a few small sections of the previous retouching which had discoloured slightly.” Such lackadaisical visual record-keeping is surprisingly common in venerable institutions. When our colleague, Michel Favre Favre-Felix, of ARIPA, noticed two unwarranted and bungled attempts to repaint a Veronese mouth and asked to see the Louvre’s documentation on them, he was told that none existed because the repainting was merely a “localised intervention”. A Louvre spokeswoman later described it as a simple sprucing-up (“bichonnée”) and added triumphantly: “That’s why you cannot find it in the painting’s dossier”.

Restorers wield many swords. They repair and sometimes remove the backs of pictures. They apply “cradles” to the backs of panels and then remove them when they aggravate the conditions they were designed to prevent. They “line” extra, new canvas onto the backs of old paintings canvasses with glues, wax-resins, hot irons or heated vacuum tables. Where canvases are already lined, restorers strip off the earlier linings and then immediately replace them with new ones. They strip down the fronts of pictures with a variety of methods and materials that are controversial within the profession itself – Richard Wolbers, a speaker at today’s conference, will talk on one such: “Aqueous Cleaning Methods in Fine Art Conservation: 1984-2014”. When the fronts of pictures are completely stripped down, restorers attempt to put them back together with their own additional painting…which future restorers will piously remove as alien accretions. There has never been a make-work project like art restoration. Every aspect of it spawns multiple and international conferences. The artistically critical repainting stage of restoration is – for well-founded reasons – a source of intense anxiety not just to art lovers but to the practitioners themselves.

In 2010, Archetype Publications, in association with The British Association of Paintings Conservator-Restorers (BAPCR) and the Icon Paintings Group, published a manual on retouching damaged paintings – “Mixing and Matching ~ Approaches to Retouching Paintings”*. Icon is a (charitable) trade body that presents itself as:

[T]he UK’s leading voice for the conservation of our precious cultural heritage. We raise awareness of the cultural, social and economic value of caring for our heritage and champion high standards of conservation…It brings together over three thousand individuals and organisations. Its membership embraces the wider conservation community, incorporating not only professional conservators in all disciplines, but all others who share a commitment to improving understanding of and access to our cultural heritage.”

In their Foreword (which strikes an unfortunate “Blue Peter” tone), the book’s three editors, Rebecca Ellison, Patricia Smithen and Rachel Turnbull, explain how their publication follows the structure of three one-day events organised by the Icon paintings group and BAPCR in 2007. The series took place because of a “burning desire to expand knowledge, exchange ideas and gain more practice” on retouching. It was recognised that there was a pressing need for “a practical kind of conference dealing with the actual techniques”. This need exists in part because when it comes to retouching the earlier damage that cleanings deliberately lay bare (- and often themselves compound) – “every conservator-restorer tends to harbour preferences for materials and practices based on experience, types of artworks as well as what is available to hand.”

The ICON/BAPCR conference/workshop series was conceived as “showcase” for the expert, and as a means of providing a “welcoming and supportive” environment to those wishing to learn by “listening and looking (in the morning lecture series)” and by “doing (in the afternoon practice sessions”. By all accounts, the symposia exceeded expectations and very jolly times were had in the packed lecture theatres and demonstration galleries and workshops. This professionally successful format had precisely been devised for encouraging discussion and sharing experiences between those practitioners who are presently “locked in a retouching rut”.

Some years ago we were assured that while our criticisms of the National Gallery’s restoration practices were sound, we were being inadvertently unfair to the high standards of expertise then prevailing in the commercial sector that served the art trade. In support of this claim, we were taken to a top-end restorer’s studio to see a client’s work in the course of treatment. The painting concerned was an early portrait which had lost all colour in the flesh tones. Its high-born subject had just received a revivifying application of pink glaze to the cheeks. When we expressed concern about this palpably alien patch of glaze which had passed without modification from cheek to cheek across the bridge of the nose, the conservator-restorer was unfazed: “That’s no problem – it’s easily reversible. I can do it again”. In an ante-room a young restorer was retouching holes in a cleaned landscape by Laura Knight, RA, on the testimony of a black and white photograph of the painting taken before the restoration began with the removal of varnish.

In 1946, the Times published this letter from Knight:

Sir, -With the exception of direct painting, a comparatively modern method, a painter builds his pigment on to canvas or panel-always with the final effect in view. The actual surface of a picture is the picture as it leaves the artist’s hand. The varnish which finally covers the work for protection to a varying extent amalgamates with the paint underneath. Therefore drastic cleaning – removal of the covering varnish – is bound to remove also this surface painting and should never be undertaken.”

Retouching is made necessary whenever varnishes and earlier retouching are removed. Varnishes are removed for the “offence” of having discoloured – when that is their nature, they cannot, as artists recognise, do otherwise. New varnishes are then applied which will in turn discolour (and worse, if they are synthetic, not natural) and then be removed in turn. On this merry-go-round of undoing and redoing, a little bit (or more) paint is lost each time to the restorer’s solvents and abrasive swabs, and a little bit (or a lot) of new paint is then added. What is conspicuous about these supposed and claimed recoveries of “original” conditions is that no “restored” painting ever returns to its previous state, when last restored. Each restoration introduces a further, compounding change that falsifies the original work in a game of artistic Chinese Whispers. Rare works that have escaped repeated restorations are highly prized and at a commercial premium. Restorers, however, are unfazed by the falsifications that they introduce, and at the top end of the museum trade such idiosyncratic “interpretive” impositions on unique historical artefacts are positively celebrated.

In the National Gallery’s pocket guides “Conservation of Paintings”, its former senior restorer, David Bomford, acknowledges that pictures are now “changed primarily for aesthetic reasons” (p. 53) and that restorations are carried out on the “aesthetic objectives of those responsible for the cleaning” (p. 45). Moreover, although the “different aesthetic decisions” taken by individual restorers produce results that “may look very different”, all such different outcomes are “equally valid”, provided only that they have been carried out “safely” (p. 53).

These claims are alarming and might be thought intellectually naïve: in matters of aesthetic and artistic integrity, the “safety” or otherwise of the cleaning materials is a red herring. If pictures end up looking different it is because they have been made (irreversibly) different. Restorers should be given no blank professional cheques. No less than bona fide creative people like artists, writers and musicians, they should be subject to critical scrutiny at all times.

Michael Daley

*Mixing and Matching ~ Approaches to Retouching Paintings”, Eds. Rebecca Ellison, Patricia Smithen and Rachell Turnbull, Archetype Publications Ltd, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-904982-25-0.

The Education of Art Conservators – Examining the Field at its Foundations: Do university programs provide sufficient training?

About ten years ago, popular media outlets such as National Geographic News and the Boston Phoenix started reporting on what has come to be colloquially known as the “CSI Effect.” According to many American legal professionals, jurors in criminal trials increasingly favor forensic analysis over eye witnesses or circumstantial evidence, possibly as a result of popular television programs, such as CSI (Crime Scene Investigation), that inflate the role of forensics in the investigation and prosecution of major crimes.[1] In other words, the general public has come to trust digital scans over their own eyes, test strips over personal experience. A similar trend seems to be happening in the world of art conservation. More and more, historical knowledge and technical skill have been neglected in favor of scientific know-how. This development is perhaps best demonstrated within the training facilities for prospective conservators. In the past few weeks, the ArtWatch team has done its own crime scene investigation in order to determine what young and often impressionable individuals are being taught about the role of conservation in the study of art…”

Ruth C. Osborne and Einav Zamir

To read more of this report, click on:

http://artwatchinternational.org/articles/the-education-of-art-conservators

 

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

Changes made when repainting losses can be immense and perplexing. What accounts in the above “Mix and Match” face for changes to the already-cleaned state that preceded the “infilling”? What lightened the post-cleaning flesh tones and sharpened features like the nose, which acquired a highlight? What gave rise to the curious little groove that turned the downwards curving nostril apperture upwards? Do today’s restorers comprehend the anatomical genesis of the immensely elusive complexities of nose/mouth relationships that tax even graphic artists working from photographs of the subject (as in the author’s drawing below)?
Above Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, which has been loaned by the Queen to the current National Gallery show, as recorded in 1942 (top) and as today, above. Photographs and photographic reproductions can vary but what reproductive variations might account for the diverse changes in this painting? Formerly the glass on the windows was distinctly coloured – yellow throughout in the lower band, and yellow and blue in the upper window. One of the light tiles (adjacent to the viola da gamba) had a distinctly blue cast, as if from the window. After cleaning, as seen more clearly in the details below, all of the glass in the upper window now looks clear, and the ceiling beams and window sashes all look less substantial and structural through the solvent-induced debilitation of their former tone/colours. Bizarrely, the shadowed side of the rug has acquired intensely bright blues. If the picture is now as originally painted, by what magical powers had a discoloured varnish imparted passages of blue and yellow in precise accord with the window’s glazing bars and beefed up the room’s architectural elements?
The Vermeer scholar Arthur Wheelock says of the lighting in this room: “From the shadows of the leading in the glass on the window frames to the multiple shadows on the sunlit wall behind the mirror or virginal top, [Vermeer] convinces the viewer of the flow of light into the room. Upon examining these light effects, however, one realizes not only how carefully Vermeer observed its various characteristics, but also how he used them selectively and creatively…” (Vermeer and the Art of Painting”, 1995.) All perfectly true, but those values are no longer what they once were. Should we not notice? Should we not care?
The National Gallery’s Vermeer, A Young Woman standing at a Virginal, is shown below in the late 1930s (on the left) and (on the right) as today. As so often, we find the not-yet-restored work more vivacious in its tonal values, which values brilliantly create a lucid and coherent spatial arrangement in which primacy is given to the central figure. In today’s condition too many values are diminished and conflated. On the face, (absolutely typical) restoration losses of the modelling that formerly had properly set the eyes in the head, have given undue emphasis to the irises and pupils and resulted in a “piggy” apearance.
The losses seen above and in the close-up of the face below (available on a vintage poster of an earlier exhibition at the National Gallery that is now on sale – for £20) raise profound questions for Vermeer scholars who tend to take every state bequeathed by restorers at face value as a recovery and a revelation. Melanie Gifford (“Painting Light: Recent Observations on Vermeer’s Technique [faulty, as the National Gallery tells us]“, in the 1998 proceedings of the symposia “New Vermeer Studies”) says of the greatly distressed passage of drapery above: “In a work from the end of his career…Vermeer allowed the lace of the musician’s sleeve to dissolve in an evanescent cloud of dots…”
The late painter and founder member of ArtWatch, Frank Mason, said of the two states of this painting as recorded in black and white photographs:
…you can see that the restorers have considerably lightened the wall behind the figure. The wall is so light relative to the window, in fact, that it is now unclear which surface represents the source of light. They have lightened the cherub in the painting on the wall behind the figure, so weakening the shadows in the cherub figure that his right leg now merges with the background. They have rubbed the little landscapes in the scene, both on the wall and on the open cover of the virginal, obliterating the shadows in the forms of the clouds, rendering them flat. One can plainly see, even in black and white, that this painting has been astonishingly altered from the one in which the viewer’s eye was drawn to the brightest area, which had been the woman’s face, to one in which the viewer’s eye is drawn to look first at the big flat planes of the wall, then to the flat planes of the poor cherub, and so on, finally resting at last on the now dim and receding face… It should be noted that that this transformation needs to be seen in colour to be truly appreciated; her formerly rosy, glowing little face has lost its glazes and is now truly green.”
One consequence of the loss of glazes to which Mason referred is that the solid reflective lights of the pearls in the necklace are becoming ever more isolated from the paint which once conferred form to them. We have come to suspect, from the silence that greeted our complaints in the Autumn 2001 ArtWatch UK Journal against the butchery inflicted on the painting below, that scholars may have fallen too deeply into a dependency culture with the conservators – whose “findings” they routinely transmute – ever to complain about injuries to the modest stock of Vermeer paintings.
Of restorers, Mason observed:
[They] can be very disparaging about outsiders who question their technical judgement. I have been accused, for instance, of being ‘an artist, not a chemist’, as if that should be considered a scathing indictment. As artists we know that a fine oil painting does not possess a hard impermeable surface, but that is comprised of layers of ground pigments, suspended in elastic films of various oils and varnishes, which are superimposed, interwoven, and melting into each other in a way which not even the artist can accurately map. In spite of what conservators would have us believe, science cannot objectively scrutinise a painting and accurately enumerate all of its components in a meaningful way; a plain chemical analysis is too crude a tool to measure the ineffable.”
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10 January 2013

ArtWatch Stock-taking and the Sistine Chapel Conservation Debacle

ArtWatch is entering its twenty-first campaigning year with strengthening critical bite. The new ArtWatch UK website greatly extended the published reach of our Journal (see Figs. 1-4), attracting 22,000 visits in its first year and 52,000 visits last year, half coming from the UK and the USA and the rest from 139 other countries. With this post our archive comprises 59 articles by 8 authors. In New York the ArtWatch International site has been revivified under its new director, Einav Zamir. In France our colleagues in the Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique (ARIPA) have re-structured their website which now carries much of the contents of their excellent, rigorous journal, Nuances. Our efforts now attract fewer hostile and more respectful responses. We enjoy (sotto voce) support at high levels in many quarters – including among some conservators – and we sometimes earn outright vindication, as shown below. International and national press interest in our campaigns remains high. Unfortunately, in the art world itself many players remain in official denial on the subject of restoration injuries. They can see and admit that this is wrong and that that is wrong, but not that pictures are still being injured in restoration.

Our debut post on 12 December 2010, “The New Relativisms and the Death of ‘Authenticity’”, contrasted the consequences of musical and pictorial reconstructions. Last May, in a fascinating talk (“The Pursuit of Excellence: A Call to Arms”) at the 4th annual Lufthansa Lecture, at St John’s Smith Square, London, Andrew Manze, a former baroque violinist and Artistic Director of the English Concert and now Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, noted: “Musicians are lucky that they can do no permanent harm to their material compared to the irreversible damage inflicted on the plastic arts, as reported by the ArtWatch organization for example…

Our second post on the 13 December 2010 (“An Appeal from Poland”) drew an immediate response. Distinguished scholars, curators and conservators in Poland had asked ArtWatch UK to support their opposition to a proposed loan of Leonardo’s “Lady with an Ermine” to the National Gallery (see “The National Gallery’s £1.5bn Leonardo restoration”). We were then attacked in Poland – abusively – by Count Adam Zamoyski, chairman of the Princes Czartoryski Foundation which had agreed to loan the many-times borrowed Leonardo for a substantial fee. It was later reported from Poland that: “In order to improve the functioning of the Foundation of the Czartoryski Princes and to assure the correct collaboration with the National Museum in Krakow”, Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski of the Czartoryski Museum had dismissed the entire board and its chairman, his cousin, Count Adam Zamoyski. Although the contracted loan went ahead it was announced that the fragile panel painting would not travel again for at least a decade.

Our posts of 8 February and 14 March 2012 produced evidence of a mis-reconstructed sleeve of Christ in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. This was reported in the Independent of 14 March 2012. In the National Geographic special issue “Exploring History” it is said that: “Generally lauded by art historians and appreciators, the restored work has aroused controversy. Some say too little of Leonardo’s paint is left, or cavil about the mural’s altered forms…As the debate wears on, we at least – and at last – have a legible ‘Last Supper’ to savor.” “Legible-but-false” could stand as a motto in those museum conservation departments where restorers paint photographically manipulated “virtual realities” onto old master pictures.

Last week our November 12 post on a Black and White Michelangelo drew an artistically perceptive endorsement from the painter and art critic, Gerry Bell. ArtWatch’s genesis was rooted in the tumultuous battles over the 1980-1990s Sistine Chapel restoration battles. That controversy has recently re-combusted – and in precisely the manner we had anticipated two decades ago in the 1993 James Beck/Michael Daley book “Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”. It is now clear that having first engineered a needless artistic calamity, the Vatican authorities have additionally contrived a situation in which the already adulterated remains of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes are also presently in grave physical peril. On January 2nd 2012 Art Daily carried an Agence France-Presse report on the panic that has beset the Vatican authorities over the present and worsening environmental threat to the Chapel’s frescoes:

The Vatican Museums chief warned that dust and polluting agents brought into the Sistine Chapel by thousands of tourists every day risk one day endangering its priceless artworks. Antonio Paolucci told the newspaper La Repubblica in comments published Thursday that in order to preserve Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and the other treasures in the Sistine Chapel, new tools to control temperature and humidity must be studied and implemented. Between 15,000 and 20,000 people a day, or over 4 million a year, visit the chapel where popes get elected, to admire its frescoes, floor mosaics and paintings. ‘In this chapel people often invoke the Holy Spirit. But the people who fill this room every day aren’t pure spirits,’ Paolucci told the newspaper. ‘Such a crowd … emanates sweat, breath, carbon dioxide, all sorts of dust,’ he said. ‘This deadly combination is moved around by winds and ends up on the walls, meaning on the artwork.’ Paolucci said better tools were necessary to avoid ‘serious damage’ to the chapel. Visitors who want to see Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in Milan must go through a filtration system to help reduce the work’s exposure to dust and pollutants. This has made seeing da Vinci’s masterpiece more difficult: 25 visitors are admitted every 15 minutes. The Sistine Chapel, featuring works by Michelangelo, Botticelli and Perugino, underwent a massive restoration that ended in the late 1990s. The restoration was controversial because some critics said the refurbishing made the colors brighter than originally intended.

In our next post we examine the consequences of the last restoration and its contributory role in the present crisis – a crisis for which the blame is brazenly being shifted by the authorities from the authorities and on to the (paying) visitors.

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig 1: The front cover of ArtWatch UK Journal 27, showing (left) a draped figure in the National Gallery’s Entombment, which is attributed to Michelangelo, and (right) showing a figure (reversed) from the later Marriage of the Virgin by Rosso Fiorentino.
Above, Fig. 2: The back cover of ArtWatch UK Journal 27.
Above, Fig. 3: The front cover of the commemorative ArtWatch UK Journal 22.
Above, Fig. 4: The back cover of Journal 22, showing, top, Giotto’s Despair before (left) and after (right) restoration, and, bottom, the gilded altar from the Benedictine church of Sao Bento, Olinda, Brazil and, right, when moved (temporarily) to the Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2001, after restoration.
Above, Fig. 5: A detail of the anamorphic skull in the National Gallery’s Holbein The Ambassadors, when being cleaned during the Esso-sponsored, BBC-filmed, 1993-96 restoration.
Above, Fig. 6: The anamorphic skull in Holbein’s The Ambassadors before cleaning and reconstructive repainting at the National Gallery.
Above, Fig. 7: The anamorphic skull after it was repainted on the basis of a computer-generated distortion of a photograph of an actual skull. (This was because because it had been thought that modern imaging techniques offered “the greatest scope for exploring possible reconstructions” – “Holbein’s Ambassadors”, National Gallery Publications,1997, p. 96.)
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8th February 2011

The European Commission’s way of moving works of art around

In our February 2nd account of the European Commission’s desire to speed the “trafficking” (as it were) of art objects between European museums, through its project “Collections Mobility 2.0”, we addressed the current forms of this politically orchestrated campaign but neglected a rationale for it that had recently been offered by Androulla Vassiliou, the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, in her introduction to Culture in Motion’s brochure The Culture Programme – 2007-2013:

I am especially happy to highlight the importance of culture to the European Union’s objective of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. At a time when many of our industries are facing difficulties, the cultural and creative industries have experienced unprecedented growth and offer the prospect of sustainable, future-oriented and fulfilling jobs.

Michel Favre-Felix, President of ARIPA (Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique), has drawn our attention to his own study of the earlier and underlying stages of this policy. An account of those researches was published in his article of Nuances 40-41 (2009). We are deeply indebted to Mr Favre-Felix not only for conducting those initial studies so thoroughly and for demonstrating their unsatisfactory – if not sinister – character, but also for presenting them here in summary form.

Michel Favre-Felix writes:

Since 2003, the declared ambition of the European Commission has been to “facilitate”, “encourage”, “promote” and make “easy” the “mobility of art collections” within Europe. To this end, five conferences were held in Naples (2003), The Hague (2004), Manchester (2005), Helsinki (2006) and, Bremen (2007).

The initial premise rested on an arithmetical calculation: exhibitions of international character are presented by only 300 institutions out of 30,000 European museums. Recommendations were issued to stimulate exchanges and loans of works of art within Europe, in addition to existing international travelling exhibitions.

Apart from administrative simplifications, it was seen that the best means of encouraging loans lay in a reduction of costs. With insurance charges comprising on average 15% -20% of travelling exhibition budgets, savings in this area could be achieved by four means: by museums’ extended use of the non-insurance of cultural objects; by waiving certain risks; by waiving costs of depreciation; and by expanding the use of State guarantees.

In the latter, a State takes the responsibility of an insurer, at almost no cost to museums, for the largest part of the values engaged in the exhibition, loan, etc. The minimal part not guaranteed by states, or the “excess” part, is insured by private companies that remain responsible for covering “the first losses”. These are the more frequent and the most tangible (and not having covered these liabilities is the reason why States have had little to pay for damages up to now – which does not mean that accidents had not happened).

It should, however, be recognised that even commercial insurance does not cover all injuries: damages that are not discovered and declared within 48 hours are excluded: the universal rule of “nail to nail” further excludes any deteriorations that manifest themselves sometime after the return of a work. Nor does insurance always cover damages linked to the fragility of an art work in the environment of travel and exhibition as with regard to humidity, temperature, etc. The reasoning is that so-vulnerable art should not have been given permission to travel in the first place, and that the lender erred in permitting it. “Pre-existing fragilities” are specifically a possible exclusion argument. However, these companies do maintain in the process their strong concern with security risks.

A first-step European study, in 2004 specifically acknowledged that:

Insurance costs serve as obstacles for projects that are doubtful in terms of conservation, for the reason that insurers are not willing to cover particularly high risks. From this point of view, insurance costs are a guarantee against ill-considered exhibition projects. […] Insurance companies have an influence on security measures taken in museums, thus helping prevent damage” [See endnote1].

Nevertheless, the same study and the later EU reports advocate the reduction of insurance and recommend that:

Museum professionals agree to:
-waive certain risks.
-consider lending on a non-insurance basis,
-cover only restoration of material damage and waive depreciation
” [2]

On the possibility of “Non-insurance” the report contends that:

Essentially, the question is: why take out insurance on objects lent abroad if the object is not insured when it remains on home ground?

The purpose of the question is baffling: in 1991 the art insurer Hiscox stated that the risks involved were ten times higher for work on loan than when left at home. Sixteen years later, in 2007, in answer to our questions, Axa Art in France estimated the risks in loan venues to be about six times higher than in permanent residences.

Specific European suggestions that lenders should: “not insure works while they [are] at the exhibition venue” ignore the fact that most injuries occur during the time of the exhibition – and especially at moments of handling: mounting/dismounting, unpacking/repacking. In addition to which, environmental stress and risks have sometimes proved higher during exhibitions than during the travelling time.

The admonition to “waive depreciation” means that lenders should relinquish the loss of value after damage. This is a rationale from a mere financial strategy: mathematically, costs of depreciation comprise 80% of the money paid back by art insurance companies. But for ethical and cultural commitments, this strategy is most shocking. Apart from “money value”, waiving depreciation means to ignore, to deny the irreversible loss to the artistic integrity of the work of art when damaged.

Artistic integrity is totally written out of consideration when EU experts specifically advocate that:

depreciation should not be insured because the value of an object is not important in collection mobility.

According to this risks/damage management, depreciation should not be a concern, and neither should restoration be a problem, as we see in this incredible statement:

in many cases, after the exhibits have been restored, only experts can assess the alteration resulting from the damage. The restored artworks can therefore be exhibited as they are.

This rationale that an injured and then restored work has returned to its non-injured condition – or has returned “enough” to be “re-used”– is not only clearly fallacious, but represents a major fault in museum and conservation ethics. Because restorations may (temporarily) deceive the eyes of the uninformed, restoration is presented as a miraculous mean for wiping off responsibility and liabilities. So, too, may “restorations” that are unnecessary for a work of art in its location, be imposed in order “to enable it to travel”, to endure the constraint of transport and the stress of alien environments. Such thinking might rightly be considered a source of abusive treatments of art objects: because of hasty intervention to meet deadlines or because of losses of their integrity (i.e. by relinings). But EU papers only address this question in terms of financial charges – which are to be kept “to a minimum”.

A most shocking aspect is that there is never any request that the money saved through the proposed facilities be re-invested to enhance security measures. In this strategy of “keeping costs at minimum”, Museums are further counselled to moderate even their demands for increasing safety:

Museums that are willing to waive insurance coverage of certain risks may want assurances that transport, display, security and climate control are of the highest standard. However, it would be counterproductive [sic] to impose additional demands that again increase costs, especially when the insurance waiver was intended to reduce such costs.

The “Museum collections on the move workshop” in Naples 2003 advised lenders to “limit as far as possible” extra expenses, and to think twice before asking for accompaniment by a courier [3], although this has proved to be the most effective procedure to secure the object during its whole travel.

All the opposite – increasing the security and safety measures – should have been a central preoccupation of this European project, because, wishing to have more loans and more exhibitions (than those already conducted by the 300 major museums) would, necessarily mean involving a lot of small museums – which are less equipped – and borrowing art works from non-museum sources (i.e. city-owned or various communities collections). It is well known that when the lender is not an informed professional and is not well advised by a professional conservation team, his work of art would not likely receive the safest (more expensive) forms of care and protection. The tragically recurrent abuses of Signac’s largest painting should serve as a reminder. (See illustration and comments, right.) It should therefore be a priority to promote a reinforced ethical responsibility of the borrower, to protect the “little” lenders.

The last point that deserves urgent consideration is the very motivation for such movements of collections. There is a clear interest to gather works of a given artist (though preferably not the most commonly represented ones) on the benefit of this artist first, and of the public and the experts alike. Common sense and museum ethics too, consider that loans of works of art

should only be granted to exhibitions abroad which are artistically or academically of high quality”. [4]

Specifically to be excluded should be loans assembled for the purpose of festivities, political celebrations, personal or group promotions, etc. European institutions might themselves be supposed to set a “best practice” example in this regard. How then, on what academic, artistic or scientific reasons, were the 27 nation members of the European Union asked to send “a treasure of their cultural heritage”, to be gathered in a single (over-crowded) room of the Palazzo Quirinal in Rome (from March 24th to May 20th 2007) in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome?

(1) Study No. 2003-4879 ordered by the European Commission to inventory national systems of public guarantees in 31 countries (June 2004) http://ec.europa.eu/culture/key-documents/doc915_en.htm

(2) Lending to Europe Recommendations on collection mobility for European museums (April 2005) http://www.nba.fi/mobility/background.htm

(3) The role of the courier is to act as representative of the lender in ensuring safe handling of the loan during transit, unpacking, packing and, if necessary, during installation and de-installation. Moreover, he would need the presence of an accredited supervisor (extra expense) to look after the loan all the way along to the plane holds on airport freight zones.

(4) General Principles on the Administration of Loans and Exchange of Works of Art between Institutions, Code of practice of the international group of organisers of large-scale exhibitions (Bizot Group).

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Above: This 14th century polychrome sculpture of Saint-Bernard could serve as a memento, mentioned in R.H.Marijnissen and L. Kockaert excellent book Dialogue avec l’oeuvre ravagée après 250 ans de restauration (Fonds Mercator, 1995). During the Benedictus Pater Europae exhibition (Gand 1981) the statue was knocked over, with the resulting loss of the major part of its face. Obviously it was not as safe as at home. Insurers argued for “pre-existing fragilities”. Anyway, no miraculous restoration could solve the problem.
By courtesy of © photo R.H.Marijnissen
In 2005 the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts – Fine Arts Group, of which R. H. Marijnissen is member, issued a collective statement – “Moving Art” – that expressed their growing concern over ethically dubious art shows and the associated risks involved for collections.
Flemish, French, English and German versions of this statement are to be found in Soigner les Chefs-d’œuvres au pays de Magritte, R.H.Marijnissen , Le Livre Timperman, Bruxelles 2006.
Above: Au temps de l’Harmonie is the largest picture (311 x 410 cm) ever painted by Signac (in 1894-95) and was offered by his widow to the City of Montreuil.
Kept in the Hall of the city-house, it remained for a century in a pristine condition and exceptional integrity, with no relining, no retouches, etc. In 1992, for the first time, it was borrowed for a Signac exhibition in Reims, where it arrived ripped “in many places […] the largest tear (70 cm) threatening to extend all along the border […] where other rips are in progress”.
The tears were consolidated wisely, in order to avoid the trauma of a total relining.

The Inspector of Historical Monuments urged “to keep the painting where it is and not to attempt to have it sent again in various exhibitions”.
This was a waste of advice: the painting, although extremely fragile and large, was sent in 1997 to an exhibition in Paris… where it again arrived ripped, without any understanding of “how and when a shock could have hurt the painting while all the precautions have been taken [sic]”.

Who is to blame? The too-confident small city of Montreuil? Or, the self-confident Paris exhibition organizers – who might have declined the loan in view of the painting’s well-known fragility?

Above: Masterpieces loaned by the 27 nation members of the European Union when asked to send “a treasure of their cultural heritage” to be (so poorly !) disposed in a room of the Palazzo Quirinal in Rome (from March 23rd to May 20th 2007) in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. Among them, The Thinker by Rodin seems rather puzzled.
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