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4th October 2012

The Battle of Borja: Cecilia Giménez, Restoration Monkeys, Paediatricians, Titian and Great Women Conservators

The Cecilia Giménez affair has re-combusted. First off, the elderly would-be restorer had reduced the world to incapacitating laughter/disbelief at the bungled restoration of a painting of Christ in her local church, Santuario de Misericordia, in Borja, north-eastern Spain (Fig. 5). When Ms Giménez’s unauthorised restoration of “Ecce Homo – Behold the Man” caused the work to be dubbed “Ecce Mono – Behold the Monkey” the church threatened to sue. When restoration experts converged to advise on how or whether the damage might be undone, thousands of wags petitioned for the wreck to be left untouched for all to see for all time. It was all too much for the well-meaning amateur restorer who, greatly distressed, took to her bed.

Now the eighty-one years old is on the warpath. The church had become an overnight tourist attraction. Ryanair offered cut-price flights from the UK. An entrance charge was introduced that netted two thousand euros in the first four days…upon which the would-be restorer went to law seeking remuneration for having imbued the formerly disintegrating picture with talismanic, money-spinning powers. On September 21st the Times reported the explanation offered by one of her two lawyers: “She just wants [the church] to conform to the law. If this implies an economic compensation, she wants it to be for charitable purposes.” At this startling assertion of intellectual property rights, the church retained lawyers to defend its exclusive right to milk tourists. Giménez’s lawyers now reportedly say that while she demands no cut of the entrance charges, they are investigating possible copyright infringements of her creation with a view to pursuing payments from the many people now using the restored image to sell products. It already appears on T-shirts, cell phone covers, coffee mugs and wine labels.

With everyone in the world now aware that restorations really can damage art, attempts are underway to neutralise this professionally corrosive realisation. What seems to have caused most alarm is the recognition that although Giménez’s restoration was an extreme case it was not an aberration within the wider context of professional conservation practices. (See, for example, the grotesque repeated abuses of a Veronese face at the Louvre: “Restoration Tragedies” in the August 23 Sunday Telegraph and our August 30 post). Normally, publicity generated in connection with restorations is eagerly cultivated by the restorers and the supervising/funding authorities alike. The reputations of the former can be burnished and the revenue streams of the latter increased. However, the October issue of the Art Newspaper attempts to quarantine the Giménez affair by confining it within a discrete sphere of delinquent and destructive amateur restorations, which it then attacks on no supporting visual evidence – without even reproducing the offending Spanish restoration. By courtesy of the Art Newspaper, the incident is thus being pressed to serve as no more than a cautionary tale against failures to pay Proper Fees for Proper Professional Restorers (“Do-it-yourself? Just don’t…”):

Although the likelihood of a well-meaning member of the public walking into a prominent museum like London’s National Gallery, paintbrush in hand, ready to work on a Titian, is slim, what about works in small private collections that remain largely out of the public eye but may one day end up in a museum or national archive? Unfortunately, these pieces are all too often subjected to misguided interventions.”

Dragging the National Gallery into this imbroglio is not helpful to the institution. Has the Art Newspaper forgotten that someone recently walked into the gallery, aerosol paint-can in hand and set about not one but two Poussins? Or, for that matter, that this happened at a time when warder numbers had been halved, prompting subsequent strikes and greatly intensified anxieties about possible thefts and further vandalism? As for Titian, the example can only seem injudicious (or provocative) given the notorious damage done to the artist by the National Gallery’s own professionally qualified restorers (see right). Of two things, we should all be clear. First, in the adulteration of art, amateurs are the also-rans. It is the performance of the professionals that should concern us most. Second, in appraising restorers’ performance we should ignore the restoration chaff of hype and professional apologias and look harder at the material and aesthetic results.

The Art Newspaper gives voice to the leading American academic restorer Joyce Hill Stoner who, while advising the Spanish church on its restoration calamity, takes open professional comfort at this artistic ill-wind: “In some ways, we were heartbroken, but on the other hand, it has resulted in a tremendous boost in advocacy for our profession.” Like many restorers, Prof. Stoner often beats this advocacy drum – elsewhere she has said: “We think public education and advocacy about our profession is one key. Even the Antiques Roadshow people often say, ‘Ah, Madame, if you had not cleaned this piece of early American furniture it would have been worth $70,000, now it is worth no more than $700.’” In the Art Newspaper she elaborates: “Amateur restorers have always been a problem…a geology professor… scrubbed away trees…People say they are treating their paintings and I tell them that’s like telling a doctor that they’re in the middle of removing their own appendix…artists are the parents, we are the paediatricians”.

This reaction to the incident raises the question of why restorers can so clearly see and so forcefully repudiate amateur errors while remaining silent on far more serious professional blunders on vastly more important artists like Titian (see right). Dubbed “picture rats” in the 19th century, restorers defensively rebranded themselves “conservators” and “picture surgeons” in the 20th century. While Prof. Stoner’s invocation of medical authority might be expected from one who is the director of a programme that converts restorers into doctors at the University of Delaware’s Preservation Studies Doctoral Program, it is singularly ill-advised. If picture restorers bear any resemblance today to medical practitioners, it is to morticians who doll up artistic corpses or, fractionally more charitably, to the controversial branch of cosmetic surgery, where vain attempts to put back clocks and recover earlier states result in ghastly mishaps and the use of dangerously inappropriate materials. (For industrial-grade silicone breast implants, read synthetic resin picture varnishes. For “trout lips”, simply Google: “Veronese nose-jobs”.)

In 1999 Prof. Stoner, one of her profession’s more thoughtful exponents, gave an academic paper at Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, in celebration of Women’s History Month and asking “Are There Great Women Art Conservators?” She sought permission to “muse for a bit about the practical side of the conservation of paintings” and characterised modern conservation as a “three-legged stool” comprised of art history (reading); chemistry (part reading, part doing); and studio art (doing). This year she elaborated in an interview:

We call it ‘the three-legged stool’— you need a thorough grounding in art history or archaeology or library science (depending on your specialty); you need excellent hand skills—painting, drawing, sewing, sculpting, casting, etc. (depending on your specialty); and you need excellent training in organic and inorganic chemistry; you need to understand thoroughly the properties of materials making up the works of art AND the materials you might use in a treatment.”

At the time of the Great Women Conservators paper, Prof. Anatoly Alyoshin of the Repin Institute, St Petersburg (where restorers must spend many years training as artists), had recently criticised western practitioners for their inadequate “hands-on” artistic skills. Visiting Stoner’s alma mater, New York University’s restoration school, Prof. Alyoshin asked how a student lacking artistic abilities would be handled. No problem, he was told, “We give him a job connected with surveys or the theory of restoration”. But, on qualifying, would such a person be permitted to work in a museum as a restorer? “Probably he can”, was the answer.

Prof. Stoner’s own query carried the implicit sub-question: What makes a great practising conservator of either gender? She answered thus: “Let us suppose that I was the GREATEST conservator that EVER worked. What would it mean?” It would mean that she had “removed previous repaints, old discoloured varnishes and grime very sensitively”, and then filled in all the resulting lacunae and abrasions with “easily removable” fresh paint, taking care perfectly to match the “surface texture, gloss and colour” of the surviving paint. However, were she ever to achieve these goals, “no one would know that I had actually worked [and] my success would be measured by my invisibility”, which would provide no basis for “greatness, fame or immortality”. Additionally, she expressed concern that restorers might be thought mere “hand-maidens to the artist”.

Concerning the egotism of professional restorers, we have already seen how those at the National Gallery claim and have been granted a right to impose personal aesthetic readings on pictures. In France, we have challenged restorers who explicitly claim a right to determine how old paintings be “presented” today, as if they are texts or scores to be performed and not unique concrete historical objects (“LA RESTAURATION EST UNE INTERPRÉTATION”, letter, Beaux-Arts Magazine, No 203, April 2001). On questions of mechanical competence, it might be noted that Stoner’s own nominee as Great Woman Conservator was none other than Joyce Plesters, the then recently deceased former head of science at the National Gallery (London).

This seemed perverse. Plesters was not a restorer. Nor was she was an artist. She was a scientist who took a degree in art history while working at the National Gallery and was thus at best a “two-legged stool”. She mistook a large panel painting composed of three butterfly-keyed boards for a single giant one and half metres wide plank. On another panel she counted six boards when there are seven. She reported that Raphael’s Cartoons at the Victoria and Albert Museum had been mounted on backing sheets, when they had not. She believed a planed-down panel had been set into a sheet of block-board when it had been glued onto it. As head of science she failed to warn the Gallery’s restorers against their technically delinquent practice of ironing some the largest and most important canvases (such as Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”) onto sheets of Sundeala board. As for her art historical judgements, she mocked the great scholar Ernst Gombrich for suggesting that Renaissance painters might, in emulation of Apelles, have toned down their own pictures with overall dark varnishes, when just such a painting was later identified within the National Gallery itself.

Prof. Stoner might more plausibly have nominated her fellow American picture restorer Caroline Keck (who held it important to accept an equal number of men and women into restoration lest the field lose power by becoming too “feminized’’). Although Keck, with her restorer husband Sheldon Keck, wrecked a major Phillips Collection Renoir when restoring it without authorisation (- like Cecilia Giménez), and also got badly mauled when disputing the British art historian John Richardson’s charge that restorers had committed crimes against cubist painting, she too was an ardent restoration propagandist, advising in 1993 that her profession should conduct its own PR:

A group as large as ours has become must contain colleagues with the skills we need: run competitions for the best magazine and TV scripts, get communication going. The least each of us can do is make our treatment reports to owners lively and readable, attractive enough so these are left on the cocktail table to show off to guests…If we fail to assume responsibility for publicizing a fine image of ourselves, our work and the need for that work, no one else is likely to.”

Conservators are frequently urged by their professional “unions” to solicit professional hype. In the March 2008 ICON NEWS, the (female) head conservator of Westminster Abbey protested when “one of the big Sunday newspapers published what we thought was to be a nice piece on the forthcoming restoration of the Westminster Sedilia [but instead] sensationally claimed that the central heating had directly damaged the Coronation Chair” – even though another (female) conservator at the Abbey had precisely told The Art Newspaper that “The central heating is the main problem” (see ArtWatch UK Journal 23). The Guardian and the British Museum recently ran a joint course advising conservators on planting conservation friendly stories in the press and broadcast media. As for whether or not there any great women picture restorers, there are certainly professional awards aplenty for them. In 2003 Stoner herself was awarded the AIC University Products Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011 she further received both the AIC Paintings Speciality Group Award “for outstanding contributions to the field of paintings conservation”, and the College Art Association and Heritage Preservation Award for Distinction in Scholarship and Conservation. In memory of her husband of sixty years, Caroline Keck set up The IIC Keck Award specifically for those judged to have contributed most “towards promoting public understanding and appreciation of the accomplishments of the conservation profession.”

For all this question-begging conservation propagandising, it could well be Cecilia Giménez who attains the “immortal fame” that eludes her more professionally respectable peers. However high their working esteem, from the minute professional restorers retire hungry successors circle to undo and redo their work – which is why such a premium is placed on “easily removable” repainting. At the same time and despite all the Good News stories, succeeding waves of restorers remain riven with personal rivalries, conflicting methodologies and incompatible philosophies. Insofar as it is available, historically documented evidence of restoration practices frequently testifies not to any methodological progress but, rather, to a succession of variously compounding errors and injuries. With each generation failing to establish a properly critical literature or even to show an interest in developing appropriate methods of aesthetic appraisal, restoration itself remains an insufficiently examined arena in which restorers may play around putting things on and taking things off as the fancy takes them.

In our previous post, The “World’s worst restoration” and the Death of Authenticity, we examined the consequences of restorations for a number of the world’s most important artists (Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, Veronese, Holbein, Velazquez and Vermeer) that had been carried out in some of the most important buildings or museums. Here, we examine (right) the restoration-induced alterations in a small section of the surface of a single Titian painting. We should add that these comparisons are made from high quality hard copies of photographs taken by the National Gallery for its own conservation records and very kindly made available to us by the Gallery (along with access to the conservation and scholarly records themselves). We are greatly indebted and believe that the following comparisons are made not only on the best possible and most reliable evidence available, but are also fairly presented with the least possible distortion. Some of the comparisons shown (Figs. 11 and 14) were made by overlapping two photographs of before and after restoration states which had then been scanned together so that the extent of the differences between the two states can be gauged with complete confidence.

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: One of many spoofs carried on Upi.com was this of the late TV painting instructor Bob Ross.
Above, Fig. 2: A satirical news blog (pocho.com) saw a resemblance between Cecilia Giménez’s monkey-faced Christ and a newly discovered species of monkey…
ABOVE, THE ARTWATCH UK QUIZ OF THE MONTH:
Who was the author and who the restorer of the above painting shown, left (Fig. 3), before restoration, and, right (Fig. 4), after restoration?
(For answers, see captions at Figs. 9 and 10.)
Above, Fig. 5: After going viral on the internet, this “before and after” may already be the world’s most famous record of a restoration’s devastating consequences.
Above, Fig. 6: The headline of an article published in the March 2000 Art Review, showing the effects of a single restoration on the National Gallery’s Titian “Portrait of a Man”.
Above, top, Fig. 7: Detail of the National Gallery’s Titian “Bacchus and Ariadne”, before restoration.
Above, Fig. 8: Detail of the National Gallery’s Titian “Bacchus and Ariadne”, after restoration.
Above, top, Fig. 9: a (rotated) detail of the National Gallery’s Titian “Bacchus and Ariadne”, before restoration by Arthur Lucas in 1967-69.
Above, Fig. 10: the detail of the National Gallery’s Titian “Bacchus and Ariadne” at Fig. 9, seen after restoration.
Notice how among very many changes, Lucas had changed the design of the vine wreath on the figure on the right of this detail (the drunken Silenus on his Ass). The mystery portrait shown above at Figs. 3 and 4 appears here in the top left hand corners.
Above, Fig. 11: A detail of the National Gallery’s Titian “Bacchus and Ariadne”, shown (left) before restoration by Arthur Lucas in 1967-69, and (right) after restoration. In this image, the figures have been rotated to their correct orientation on the painting itself. Note the dramatic tonal changes made to the values of the two large voluminous shapes in the bottom left corner of these photographs.
Above, top, Fig. 12: A detail of the National Gallery’s Titian “Bacchus and Ariadne”, before restoration by Arthur Lucas.
Above, Fig. 13: A detail of the National Gallery’s Titian “Bacchus and Ariadne”, after restoration by Arthur Lucas.
In the caption to Fig. 11 above, we refer to the dramatic alteration during restoration of two large voluminous shapes. As can be seen here, those shapes were part of Titian’s depiction of drapery. Before the cleaning, this drapery was markedly darker than the flesh tones on the figure of Silenus. After restoration the drapery is seen to be much lighter in tone and closer to the flesh tones of that figure. This shifted relationship requires explanation. When discoloured varnishes are removed from paintings certain optical consequences can fairly be expected. That is, the tonal range in the picture can be expected to be increased. The lightest tones are disproportionately affected (depressed) by discoloured varnish and can be expected to emerge much more brightly. The darkest tones are also depressed and rendered cloudier and therefore lighter. The mid-tones are proportionally least distorted by discoloured varnish. After making allowances of this kind, it follows that any radical shift of relationships between values constitutes a cause for concern over possible losses of paint or glazes. For example, a form that is seen to be lighter than its neighbour, when viewed through a discoloured varnish, cannot be expected to become darker than the neighbour as a consequence of a cleaning. Such concerns are repeatedly triggered by the records of this restoration. Notice for example the restoration-reversed relationship between the hair of the musician seen in Figs. 12 and 13, and the background. In addition to marked changes of relationships (between tonal values) and unexplained alterations to specific details (for example, vine leaves, and facial features such as eyes and mouths), other changes – as discussed below – strike at the artistic character and expression of the painting itself.
Above, Fig. 14: A detail of Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”, before restoration (above), and after restoration (below).
Here, we see changes of values and relationships that are not explicable in terms of straightforward optical alterations. We see changes of artistic character that are antithetical to Titian’s known artistic traits; that cannot be justified on any technical/optical grounds; that, therefore constitute injuries and falsifications. We see alterations to the design of the draperies and even reductions in the number of folds that formerly were present. When charges of this kind are made against restorers a standard defence is offered: “What you saw before was not original but had been added by an earlier restorer. I removed those additions in order to reveal the true and authentic condition underneath.” If true, the restored work would more closely resemble the artist’s established traits and methods of depiction. Here, it does not. The painting’s character is changed for the worse. It is made more modernist, more of the 20th century, altogether less of a Titian. The changes impart a new and entirely alien linear precision to the limbs that is both anatomically deficient and, stylistically, more akin to that of a painter like Mantegna than Titian. Before restoration the forms of the limbs turned over at their contours. The contours were bridges to another side or place, not boundaries, abstractions or “things-in-themselves”. Rather, they were simply a succession of points at which receding, retreating surfaces disappeared from the viewer’s sight. The clue as to how this space and form creating illusion can be created in paint lies in the word “velatura”. The supreme painterly deployment of this technique by Titian is well illustrated in two paintings on the Studio Rousar site.
Above, top, Fig. 15: In this pre-cleaning state, the logic of the painting is still (whatever its previous convoluted “conservation history”) essentially “plastic”, sculptural. A sculptor would be able to model the depicted forms in clay relief with considerable ease. Whatever is said about the importance of Titian’s colour, the fact remains that when seen in greyscale conversions, as here, his figures are not rendered structurally incoherent, they remain sculpturally organised and palpably three-dimensional.
Above, Fig. 16: In this post-cleaning and restoration state we see clearly the falling apart that takes place when restorers who are devoid of any sculptural/pictorial sensitivity begin attacking passages of surface individually, one bit at a time on some technical rationale or other but, crucially, without any sense of “connected-ness” and designed pictorial organisation.

The shapes that Lucas engineered here have no basis in Titian, have no basis in the vocabularies and shared understanding of his cultural era. Lucas’s imposed innovations are arbitrary, without insight, unwarranted and vulgarly ahistorical.

Above, top, Fig. 17: The shoulder, before cleaning.
Above, middle, Fig. 18: The shoulder, after cleaning and restoration (that is to say, after Lucas’s own repainting).
Above, Fig. 19: The shoulder, during cleaning and before Lucas’s repainting.
When Lucas boasted to Slade School of Art students that there was more of himself than Titian in the sky of this painting he was not telling the whole story. The differences between Figs. 19 and the later state at Fig. 18 testify to extensive repainting of a stylistically corrupting character. It is clear that no authority existed in surviving paintwork for Lucas’s sharpening and repositioning of the contour of the shoulder, for example. This otherwise incomprehensible re-presentation of the shoulder through a “Cubist” succession of emphatically discrete planes that generate sharp points, not curves, at their intersections may be part of a wider restorers’ chic wherein taking liberties with Titian’s contours is an ultimate top of the pay-grade swank.
On March 29 1998, Scotland on Sunday reported on the restoration at the National Galleries of Scotland of two Titians on loan from the Duke of Sutherland. Our alarm at news of these restorations was cited: “Daley…said ‘ My heart sank when I heard about the cleaning of these Titians. Restorers want to work on masterpieces because in doing so they leave their own stamp on the paintings but cleaning – and particularly overpainting – is an extremely hazardous business.'”
To which the gallery reportedly responded: “cleaning techniques have been refined over the decades and the solvents used nowadays are as mild as saliva.” The restorer, John Dick claimed that his predecessor, Kennedy North, had used “relatively crude” solvents and damaged the work. His own work, Dick said, carried no such risks:
Most of the areas I will be painting are so small I will not have to invent anything. I will simply have to match the colours to the original. It will be more difficult when it comes to improving some of the contours, which I know I will be tempted to do, but which can be dangerous. I will consult with other conservators and with the director [then Timothy Clifford]. In the end, a decision has to be taken but if it does not look good it can always be taken back off again.”
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