How the Metropolitan Museum of Art gets hold of the world’s most precious and vulnerable treasures
An exhibition of stained glass that has been removed from “England’s historic Canterbury Cathedral” has arrived at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, after being shown at the Getty Museum in California. The show (“Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral at the Cloisters”) is comprised of six whole windows from the clerestory of the cathedral’s choir, east transepts, and Trinity Chapel. These single monumental seated figures anticipate in their grandeur and gravity the prophets depicted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. They are the only surviving parts of an original cycle of eighty-six ancestors of Christ, once one of the most comprehensive stained-glass cycles known in art history. (See Figs. 1 – 5.)
The Met boasts that this exhibition of “Masterpieces of Romanesque art…represents the first time they have left the cathedral precincts since their creation in 1178-80”. Who, then, gave permission for the loan of such fragile, precious and architecturally integral material?
The New York Times says of the exhibition that it “Seemed to have been beamed down from on high”, when it undoubtedly had been flown and vibrated down from on high in an aeroplane. The museum world repeatedly offers assurances that modern air transport is perfectly safe for moving treasures around, even though, as the world now well appreciates, aeroplanes do sometimes crash or disappear. Aside from in-flight hazards, works of art get taken by roads to and from airports where they disappear from curatorial view and supervision into high-security cargo depots, sometimes being injured by forklift trucks, and the like, in the process.
The bureaucrats of “Glasgow Life” who administer Glasgow’s museums recently argued (successfully) in Scotland’s Parliament that, as Sir William Burrell had permitted loans from his bequeathed collection within Britain, and as the most dangerous part of lending works is dismantling them in one place and reassembling them in another, overturning his prohibition on foreign travels would be no more dangerous than moving works within Britain. The bureaucrats were similarly successful in overturning Burrell’s prohibition on lending certain categories of fragile works at all, within or outside Britain, such as glass, tapestries and pastels, by arguing that advances in modern packaging skills meant that even the most fragile work could now safely be moved subject to prior conservation examinations.
With the Burrell Collection we know precisely who will carry responsibility for any future travel injuries or losses but with the Canterbury treasures, who at the Cathedral (or in the Church) would take responsibility were these windows to be harmed or lost during their trans-Atlantic travels?
Were these windows insured for their travels, and, if so, what price was put on them?
Has the Church received any payment for this loan, and, if so, how much?
Were the six windows which travelled from London to California and from California to New York flown in separate aeroplanes – as were the three (of ten) gilded panels from Ghiberti’s Florence Baptistery doors (dubbed “The Gates of Paradise” by Michelangelo) when they were sent from Florence to Atlanta; from Atlanta to Chicago; from Chicago to the Metropolitan Museum, New York; from New York to Seattle; and, finally, from Seattle back to Florence? (See Figs. 6 and 7.)
The Metropolitan Museum seems to be a common destination point on many of the most ambitious and hazardous inter-continental tours of art (it will receive the current Tate show of Matisse’s monumental, previously too-fragile to loan, cut-out paper works). In the case of the Burrell Collection even before the Scottish Parliament had heard all the evidence arrangements for an international tour of works were in motion. On 10 September 2013, Joan McAlpine, SNP, the Chair (“Convener”) of the scrutinising Parliamentary committee, disclosed in The Scotsman that “Sir Angus Grossart was giving some hints [the day before, during evidence to the committee’s first session] of the kind of people he’s been speaking to in terms of a world tour…I know they’re talking to the Met in New York, and from the point of view of the people at Glasgow Life, that’s an opportunity to enhance the reputation of the collection, the city and Scotland.”
Crucially, Grossart’s moves were not being made under the aegis of the Burrell Trustees, who are charged with protecting the collection according to the terms of Burrell’s fabulously generous bequest (the 8,000 bequeathed works still constitute the largest gift ever made to a city), but by “Glasgow Renaissance”, an interceding body set up by Glasgow Life expressly to “oversee the Burrell Collection’s immediate future”, advise on the refurbishment of the leaking building which has suffered decades of neglect, and to facilitate the fund-raising, profile-heightening international tour of key works. Sir Angus Grossart, a member of Glasgow Life’s board of directors is the appointed chair of Burrell Renaissance.
In January 2013 it was reported (Herald Scotland) that the first, six months-long stop of the tour would be at the British Museum, whose director, Neil MacGregor, had been co-opted by Glasgow Life to serve on Burrell Renaissance (– as had been his fellow Glaswegian, Lord Kerr, the deputy chairman of Scottish Power). Grossart claimed in evidence given to the Scottish Parliament’s Burrell committee that no conflict of interest existed because no other venue in London had been thought appropriate to receive Burrell works – which is to say, not the Victoria and Albert Museum; not the Royal Academy; nor even the Hayward Gallery where an exhibition “Treasures from the Burrell Collection” was mounted in 1975.
When we appeared for ArtWatch UK as one of only two opposing witnesses before the Scottish Parliamentary committee (the other being Jeremy Warren of the Wallace Collection), we pointed out that the Metropolitan Museum’s present director, Thomas Campbell, had said of a major exhibition he had organised, “No one but the Met could have pulled off the exhibition of Renaissance tapestries we had a few years ago…We bribed and cajoled and twisted the arms of institutions around the world – well, we didn’t bribe of course – but politically it was very complicated negotiating the loan of these objects, which came from the British Royal Collection, the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Vatican and were just all absolute masterpieces.” (“Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art”, Danny Danziger, 2007, p.40.)
It will now be greatly less complicated for Burrell’s fragile glass, tapestries, lace and pastels to be sent to the Metropolitan Museum – or anywhere else. Where Jeremy Warren of the Wallace Collection had testified “It is disingenuous to suggest that when one moves a 500-year-old tapestry from one country to another – perhaps taking it across the Atlantic – one is not shortening its life”, Councillor Archie Graham, Glasgow Council’s deputy Leader and the chairperson of Glasgow Life, thrilled at the prospect of “unlock[ing] the potential of this outstanding collection” and of being able thereby to “realise the full benefits of his gift.”
We were not surprised to read Jackie Wullschlager’s report in the Financial Times (“Scottish independence”, 5/6 April 2014) that within months of overturning Burrell’s terms of bequest, a themed exhibition of works from within the collection (“Bellini to Boudin: Five Centuries of Painting in the Burrell Collection”) should open with all of Degas’s “glorious, delicate, light-sensitive” pastels shown in their entirety for the first time in a gallery in which water was dripping from the still unfixed roof “the day before” the show opened – that is to say, opened while on the watch of co-opted art world big-wig guarantors, the likes of Sir Angus Grossart and Mr Neil MacGregor.
We did not, however, expect, when opposing the attempt to harvest the benefits of a collection bequeathed to the city of Glasgow, so soon to see the Church of England recklessly playing the same value-harvesting game with an irreplaceable part of the fabric of a cathedral and of our national heritage.
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Betraying Burrell – Shame on Glasgow
It would seem that the arts (along with sport) have been “nationalised”, or more precisely, municipalised, in Glasgow. Both spheres have been brought under the control of a hybrid entity known as “Glasgow Life” which is both a company and a charity with the formal title “Culture and Sport Glasgow”. The directors and trustees of Glasgow Life are appointed by the Council. Glasgow City Council manages the Burrell Collection and the City’s other museums through this body. In the case of the Burrell Collection, Glasgow Life has established an intermediary overseeing body known as “Burrell Renaissance”, the chair of which is a member of Glasgow Life’s own, Council-appointed board of directors. Glasgow City Council is promoting a private bill in the Scottish Parliament to remove the prohibition on foreign loans that was stipulated by Sir William Burrell when he gifted his entire collection (of some 8,000 works) to the city of Glasgow in a will of 1944 and in a later Memorandum of Agreement.
When we were invited to give evidence to a hearing on the bill in the Scottish Parliament on 19 September we attempted to speak to the curators of the Burrell Collection at the museum itself on 18 September. Contact had to be made through Glasgow Life. After inquiries by that body on the nature of our interest, arrangement was made to meet two Glasgow Life officers (in the event three) at the Burrell Collection with no museum curators present. We had hoped to establish the logic of the development whereby a chronically leaking roof – which requires urgent, immediate action (see right) – had grown into a proposed redevelopment of the museum that would cost £45m and that would require not only that the museum be closed to the public for four years between 2016 and 2020 but that works from the collection would go on foreign tours in hope of raising the profile of the collection and generating “revenue-raising opportunities”.
The private Bill presently before the Scottish Parliament seeks expressly to “remove these restrictions [imposed by Sir William] permanently so that items can be lent and borrowed more freely”. It was explained to us that the purpose of increasing borrowing into the Burrell was to enable curators to put on special exhibitions that would set the Collection’s works into a wider and more scholarly context. However, this proposed move towards what is by now a near universal museum practice is itself problematic because it threatens to disrupt the present unique and very special character of the Collection as bequeathed and as has survived since the museum was opened in 1983 (see below).
The hearings on 19 September were filmed and have been placed in full on YouTube. In the first hearing, the Chair of the Burrell Trustees, Sir Peter Hutchison, and the legal agent of the Trustees, Mr Robert Taylor, presented a case for overturning Burrell’s overseas loans prohibition on a variety of grounds that taken together would cede to Glasgow Life permission to conduct the borrowing and lending policies of the Burrell Collection without hindrance. Both witnesses expressed confidence that a proposed new lending code that has been agreed between Glasgow Life and the Burrell trustees offers sufficient safeguards to “mitigate” (but note, not eliminate) the enduring risks of foreign travel. It was alarming when Sir Peter indicated that while, presently and in compliance with Burrell’s repeatedly asserted wishes and conditions, it is the case that entire categories of vulnerable objects (such as tapestries and pastels) are specifically excluded from permission to travel even within the UK, let alone abroad, in the future (were the Bill to be approved), consideration of what might be loaned both in the UK and abroad would be made not by categories of artefacts but on a “case by case”, object by object basis. This would be done under the provisions of the new lending code which is designed to “harmonise” the collection and to “treat [it] as a single entity”. The justification offered for this radical overturning of previously respected conditions is that within what are recognised as highly vulnerable categories a range of conditions exists in which individual works can vary from great fragility to robust good health. We challenged that notion strongly during the second session and note that in the first session, the Committee’s Convener, Joan McAlpine, pointed out that when the Committee’s members visited the Burrell they had been advised by a textiles conservator how and why textiles are so peculiarly unsuited to the risks of travel.
To our fears that the bill effectively seeks to give carte blanche to those in Glasgow Life who will administer the collection, it can be added that it is not altogether clear where accountability might lie. The relationship between the curators at the Burrell museum and the administrators of Glasgow Life is ambiguous and seems unhealthily lop-sided. Sir Peter offers assurances that, on a successful passage of the Bill, he would expect all parties to work harmoniously together and that if displeased the trustees “could make our views quite clear”. Expectations and expressions of displeasure comprise no guarantees. What became clear under close interrogation by the Committee’s members is that Glasgow Life (which as mentioned is the cultural arm of Glasgow City Council – which body is directly promoting the private bill to overturn Burrell’s prohibition on foreign loans) will have the final say and even the right if challenged to have issues determined on the judgement of such “experts” as it might commission. It seemed unfortunate and not reassuring when Sir Peter likened the future role of the Trustees to that of a long-stop cricket fielder rather than a wicket-keeper. (An awful lot of runs can be conceded without balls crossing the boundary – and besides, in modern cricketing practice, the long-stop position is almost obsolete because wicket keepers are expected to stop all balls that comes along.) Sir Peter accepted that Glasgow and not his trustees should have the final say on the fatalistic grounds that “they already perform that function”. It was not made clear why a Parliamentary bill had been thought necessary at all when, as Selby Whittingham of Donor Watch has subsequently submitted to the inquiry:
“There is no need to enact bills to allow for loosening of conditions. This can be done through the courts, as in the case of the Barnes Collection and by application to the principle of cy-pres. If it can’t be done in the Burrell case, one may ask if the case for changing the restrictions is really a good one.”
Certainly the essential claim that Burrell’s restrictions on foreign loans can now be dropped because of increased safety has not been substantiated. Even Sir Peter, a former insurance man himself, recognised that risks remain and are inescapable. Under these circumstances, as he put it, the Trustees have a duty to assess and “mitigate risks as far as possible”. This seems a defeatist position. As we have pointed out, in a world where technical improvements in aircraft safety are offset by great increases of volume and velocities in museum world art swaps, a need to mitigate risks would arise only if Burrell’s many times expressed prohibition were to be overturned. That need not happen. It should not happen. The Trustees’ lawyer, Mr Taylor launched a technical sophistry in the Committee hearings by suggesting that lending to the Louvre today was little different from lending within Britain. This was presumably on a belief that travelling under the English Channel by rail is no riskier than travelling by road within the UK. He had perhaps failed to recall that the tunnel has already suffered a number of very serious fires – including one in 1996 when many heavy goods vehicles were destroyed.
The record of accidents, as the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, has offered to demonstrate to the Committee, hardly indicates a new, risk-free universe. In 1987 a cross channel ferry, The Herald of Free Enterprise, collapsed and sank in shallow waters, under calm conditions, with a loss of 191 lives and 47 heavy goods vehicles. Three years earlier the Herald’s sister ship, The Spirit of Free Enterprise, had carried two lorries bearing 267 Turners for an exhibition at the Louvre. In 2000, as Dr Whittingham discovered, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston found its Turner oil painting “Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying” to be damaged and extremely unstable on return from a loan to the Tate Gallery. Despite the picture having been glazed and sealed according to modern “best practices” against changes in relative humidity, it had “reacted significantly” to the voyage and had lost flakes of paint. It was established that the injury had occurred on the homebound journey. As a Tate spokeswoman acknowledged:
“It arrived here safely where it was examined thoroughly. Its condition was stable”. Incredibly, she added, as if in some exculpation, “Turner’s paintings are notorious for becoming unstable”. Indeed they are – and no gallery knows this better than the Tate. In 1980 the Observer reported that many Turner paintings were too fragile to travel – that barely 100 out of the 279 paintings were fit to “risk being shaken, bumped or dropped in travelling”. As the Tate’s head of conservation, Viscount Dunluce, put it: “Paintings are not designed to travel but to go on a wall. If you send them about in lorries, trains, ships or planes it is bound to have a deleterious effect on them”.
Against Sir Peter Hutchison’s belief that were Burrell alive today he might be happy to “trust his own trustees” to overturn his prohibition on foreign loans, must be set the fact that when two Burrell pictures were sent against his wishes and without his knowledge to Switzerland in 1953, Burrell himself reminded Glasgow Corporation that:
“The Memorandum of Agreement with the Corporation only gives permission to lend items from the collection to any public gallery in Great Britain. That stipulation was made to safeguard the items from damage. Had I known in time it would not have been allowed. It mustn’t occur again.”
That accidents still occur in the air as well as on sea, was the principal force of our own testimony. But all questions of risks aside, the proposed changes do not constitute a well-considered appraisal or culturally desirable end. The impact of the already planned increases of borrowing and lending on the character and the aesthetic appeal of the collection as presently constituted and displayed would likely prove detrimental. That is to say, as Glasgow life explained matters to us, the intention of increased borrowing within the museum (for which borrowing must follow the inevitable quid pro quo of increased lending) is to enable curators to make “more sense” of the works that are held in the collection. This seems an aesthetically and culturally unfortunate form of professional special-pleading. The desire of curators to engage in practices that are becoming near universal within the museum world (but with consequently diminishing results in an international scramble to lay hands on the finite number of plum works) misses or ignores the very traits of the Burrell Collection that are uniquely distinctive and attractive.
What is so remarkable and special about the Burrell collection is that although very large as a private collection, at over 8,000 objects, by its catholic nature it comprises in miniature an easily accessible and digestible cultural “over-view” that is otherwise only available in the grandest “encyclopedic museums”. It should be more widely appreciated (and acknowledged) that nowhere else is it possible to move so effortlessly and rewardingly between great and beautiful artefacts drawn from so many of the world’s great cultures without risking the physical and mental fatigue that so easily sets in when moving through the vast halls and din of traipsing tourist parties of a British Museum, Louvre or Metropolitan Museum. At the Burrell museum, for all its current technical deficiencies and its aesthetically over-asserted means of construction, the building nonetheless has a kind of grace and ease of navigation that is immensely conducive to aesthetic contemplation and enjoyment. The contents of the beautiful classically housed Freer Gallery in Washington afford a similarly high aesthetic payload, but do so on a much narrower palette of art and cultures. The Burrell offers the chance to enjoy, compare and evaluate disparate cultures through a collection of works of remarkably high quality (as is here indicated right without any captions – and without reference to whole treasuries of works in the collection such as tapestries, stained glass, silver and furniture) that is uniquely accessible. This collection should properly and attentively be cherished for what it is and for what it offers and facilitates. It should not be exposed to disruption, adulteration and very greatly increased risks to the works themselves for the sake of turning it, at inordinate costs, into something more common place and altogether less enchanting and special.
At the James Beck Memorial Lecture in London on September 30th (see details opposite), the Frank Mason Prize is to be awarded to Nicholas Tinari for his role in opposing the changes made at the Barnes Foundation. (To see his submission to the Scottish Parliament, and those of Donor Watch, ArtWatch UK and others, click here.) In response, Mr Tinari will discuss in brief the lessons for those presently seeking a comparably radical overturning of the terms of governance of the Burrell Collection. Under sharp questioning from the Committee members, led by the Convenor, Joan McAlpine, at the Scottish Parliament on 19 September, Sir Peter Hutchison showed signs of anxiety that money raised by a world tour of works from the Burrell Collection could fall short of that being committed to fund not just repairs to the roof but a greatly more ambitious development of the Burrell’s building. If that were to be the case, could Glasgow City Council be relied upon to pick up a likely deficit of some £40m?
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Review: Stone-washed Renoirs and the Shock of the Undone
We knew at a glance that something was amiss. On June 16th, a newspaper photograph trailed an imminent auction sale of Renoir’s “Baigneuse” of 1888. Even on the evidence of that single de-saturated newsprint reproduction (right, Fig. 1) it seemed clear that the privately owned masterpiece had gone through the picture restoration wash cycle a time (or two) too often. A comparison of Christie’s pre-sale zoom-able online photograph with historic photographs of the painting further suggested that picture conservation’s would-be beauticians had been at work with swab and solvent: Renoir’s bather had been left (Fig. 2) a paler sugar-smooth pictorially and plastically enfeebled version of her original self. (For the picture’s appearance and condition in 1944, see Figs. 7 and 9.)
Just as museum curators who organise splashy temporary exhibitions rarely broadcast the “conservation” injuries borne by works loaned from sister institutions, so auction houses, which of necessity must act primarily as agents for owners, can seem no less reticent on this fraught subject. In practice, we find that in of both of these art spheres, the “now” is often implicitly presented as the “originally-was” and “always-has-been”, thereby thwarting what would be the greatest inducement to halt needless adulterations of unique historically-rooted artefacts: a full public disclosure of “conservation” treatments and frank art-critical discussion of their material and artistic consequences. By coincidence, recent museum and saleroom activities have brought to London a slew of little-seen examples of Renoir’s oeuvre. As cases in point of Renoir’s vulnerability, we examine here treatments of his “Baigneuse” of 1888 and the Washington National Gallery’s “The Dancer” of 1874.
Renoir’s “Baigneuse” was given star billing (on a £12/18m estimate) at Christie’s June 20th Impressionist/Modern sale, for the catalogue of which it provided the cover illustration (Fig. 2). While much was made in the eight pages long catalogue entry of an impeccable and unbroken provenance through ten successive owners, not a word was said about any restorations of the painting, and although many early photographs are identified in the picture’s literature, none is reproduced. It is disclosed that this Renoir is to be included in the forthcoming “catalogue critique” of the artist’s work being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute from the Archives of François Daulte, Durand-Ruel, Venturi, Vollard and Wildenstein. (Perhaps the present condition of the picture will be discussed in that publication?)
On the night of the sale, an announcement that the picture had been withdrawn drew gasps of surprise. Artinfo reported that the vendor had accepted a private offer from an unidentified buyer for an undisclosed sum somewhere within the estimate. Trade and press eyebrows have been raised at such secretive, pre-auction sales and the withdrawal was the more confounding because expectations of a big auction house “event” had been raised by extensive (and quite stunningly fetching) pre-sale press coverage with photographs of the painting enlivened by the seemingly routine inclusion of beautiful young female staff members.
With modern paintings, the starting point for any appraisal should be the earliest known photograph. Old photographs are historic records. Historic records should never be ignored. Old photographs of pictures assembled in homes or exhibition galleries are especially precious and instructive. The photograph of Renoir’s 1905 exhibition at the Grafton Gallery (Fig. 3) testifies not only to the then generally more vivacious relative values within individual works but to the striking variety of pictorial effects and painterly means deployed within Renoir’s oeuvre.
With regard to the photographic testimony of the original appearances of individual pictures, consider first the large, near-central painting in the 1905 Grafton Gallery photograph – Renoir’s “The Dancer”. This picture, now at the National Gallery, Washington, is 138 years old but was then only 31 years old and unrestored. Then, the background was disposed in distinct but linked quadrants (top-left; top-right; bottom right; bottom left). These were not so much naturalistic renderings of an actual space as subservient pictorial devices spotlighting the central bow-tight figure of a child trainee who, through balletic discipline and artistry, had assumed a commanding Velazquez-worthy sideways-on viewer-confronting presence.
To that expressive end Renoir had welded the dramatically contra-directional lower legs into unity by a pronounced dark shadow in the vertical triangular space they bounded. That shadow sprang also from the heel of the (right) weight-supporting foot backwards and upwards in space, thereby throwing the bottom edges of the trailed skirts into relief. This dark zone in the lower-right counterbalanced another in the upper-left, which had in turn emphasised and thrown into relief the front edge of the costume, withdrawing only to leave a lighter, again relieving, tone at the dancer’s dark hair. The progressive loss through restorations of those artful dispositions (as seen in Figs. 4 & 5) and the picture’s general descent towards an inchoate, arbitrary pictorial froth that increasingly resembles the underlying condition seen today in its own infra-red imaging (see Fig. 6), is heart-breaking. Renoir had here been a sculptor before he became a sculptor, playing off forms that asserted his picture plane with others that ran sharply away from or towards it (rather as Michelangelo had famously done in his crucifixion of Haman). Degas, who spoke of Renoir’s “sharpness of tones”, had chided himself for constructing his own drawings of standing dancers from the head down instead of from the feet up. Renoir had here given a masterclass in how to project a standing figure upwards from the floor. These things artists know and appreciate.
Compendious photographic evidence suggests that restorers (frequently working myopically through head-mounted magnifying eyepieces) have consistently confounded dirt or discoloured varnish with the shiftingly elusive dark grounds used by artists to set off light-toned figures. As seen in our post of June 1st, Klimt’s portrait of Serena Lederer (which was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1980) has suffered in just such a manner. In the same post we saw also how Renoir’s deployment of a dark background zone in the upper left quadrant of background and a secondary but counter-balancing dark zone in the lower right quadrant of his “Dance in the City” had also been undone by successive restorers.
By courtesy of the 1905 photograph of the dancer we can now see that by 1944 the picture’s decisive tonal orchestration had already been subverted (see Fig. 3 and caption at Fig. 6). By the time of the picture’s appearance at the 2012 Frick show of Renoir’s full-length portraits (which was reviewed in our post of June 1st), the original dark tones in the lower right quadrant had effectively disappeared, leaving two odd arbitrarily truncated dark attachments to the right heel (Fig. 5). Cumulatively, this painting has suffered needless artistic vandalism of which no one speaks. The fact that graphite underdrawing is now visible on the painting has been mentioned but without any hint of alarm or censure.
With Renoir’s “Baigneuse” of 1888, the earliest photograph in our own records (- donations to ArtWatch of old photographs or postcards are always most gratefully received) is that published in 1944 when the painting was 56 years old, as seen here in greyscale at Fig. 7 (left) and at Fig. 9. Six years later, by 1950, the painting had been radically transformed, as seen at Fig. 7 (right, in greyscale) and Fig. 8 (left, in colour). The differences that emerged between 1944 and 1950 were compounded by further changes between the picture’s 1950 state (seen in colour at Fig. 8, left) and its 2012 state (seen in colour at Fig. 8, right). However many times and by whomever this painting might have been “restored”, it is clear that the resulting interventions have profoundly altered its constructional and pictorial rationales. The total extent of the alterations that occurred between 1944 and 2012 are examined right in greyscale details in Figs. 11-18. The differences between the 1950 and 2012 states are examined in colour details at Figs. 19, 20 and 21.
By 1888 Renoir had visited Algiers and Italy, come to admire Cezanne as well as Delacroix, discovered Italian painting and read Cennino Cennini’s Treatise on Painting. He had just completed an intense series of classically inspired, Ingresque female nudes, culminating in that declared trial for decorative painting, the Philadelphia Museum’s great “Bathers” of 1887, by which date he held the nude to be one of the most “essential forms of art”.
Compared with Fantin-Latour’s palpable but fluidly allegorical figure at Fig. 10, Renoir’s “Baigneuse” has, in its 1944 state, a markedly more stolid, out-of-Courbet corporeality. For all its spirited brushwork and sparkling colour, plastically, it constitutes an essay in composure, stability and parallelism. The torso seemingly rests on its own base of compressed and spreading buttocks and thighs. The thighs, knees and lower legs are held together in a manner more primly archaic (Egyptian) than classical. Movement is confined to the bather’s right hand which dries the left side of the waist. This action has enlivening consequences. The upper torso is pulled round by the right arm and the head is turned leftwards and downwards as if to contemplate the drying action of the towel. The left arm is required to be held aloft to free the left side of the figure, and, flexing at the elbow as the left hand draws across the face, it first echoes the thighs but then curls gracefully, weightlessly away in space.
What, then, explains the differences between the picture’s previous and its present condition? In such cases it is always possible to play the “Sistine Chapel Ceiling Restoration Defence” and claim that in 1944 the then 56 years old picture was very dirty and that the removal of this dirt has liberated the forms and the colours of the painting to a hitherto unsuspected degree. But the pattern of relationships that is visible, even under dirt, should not change character during a cleaning. Rather, it should emerge enhanced, with the lights lighter and the darks darker – and all individual values holding their previous positions. This has not happened – the picture has got progressively lighter with successive cleanings instead of returning to its previously cleaned state. If it really had been left by Renoir in today’s state, how could the previous but now lost artistically constructive values ever have arisen? If left untouched for the next 56 years, would anyone expect the painting to return to its 1944 appearance with the stripes on the towel and the shading of the fingers regaining strength? Would a general shading and enhancement of forms once more helpfully tuck the left hand behind the head? How might dirt have drawn more clearly and repositioned the left shoulder? How might it have more emphatically shaded the right, distant side of the face?
If we consider the difference between the 1950 and 2012 colour plates (shown at Figs. 8, 19, 20 & 21), what might account for the loss of orange coloured modelling in the left cheek, and of individual brushstrokes depicting the hair? Is it possible to claim on the evidence of these photographs that there has been a build-up of dirt on the picture over the last 62 years?
When examining the bather’s face in close-up today, as shown at Fig. 21, can we have any confidence that the paint presently surviving in that section is just as it was when left by Renoir in 1888? What kind of brush or paint might he have used that would have resulted in the present fragmentary, seemingly abraded, scattering of orange paint that lies over the blue background between the hand, the face and the shoulder?
In the next post we examine the conservation fate of more than a score of Renoirs that have been loaned from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts to the Royal Academy. We shall see how Sterling Clark learned the hard way not to trust art experts on matters of condition in paintings when, having been assured that Domenico Ghirlandaio’s “Portrait of a Lady” had never been repainted, he bought it, only to discover, very shortly afterwards, a postcard of the painting showing it in an earlier and quite different state.
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