Review: Deadly Docents, Dirty Varnish and a Big Educational Push at the Frick
The hardest thing to do in today’s internationalised world of museum administration is to stand still. A trip to New York always compels a visit to the delightful time-frozen art palace that is the Frick Collection but it would seem that, even there, maintaining the status quo there has proved unendurable. Madcap schemes to build new galleries for new exhibitions under the Frick’s garden have been drawn up. It is possible that the new director, Ian Wardropper (former chairman of the department of European sculpture and decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), has dampened ardour for the kind of curatorial and physical “bolt-ons” that have skewed similarly bequeathed jewels like the Wallace Collection in London and the Phillips Collection in Washington (where today the historic works and their period architectural setting have been swamped and diminished by curatorial and architectural expansionism; where today “Special exhibitions are a signature element …offering new perspectives on the work of contemporary and modern artists.”) The Frick’s director does however seem minded to expand the audio tours and “other educational programs” and a book prominently displayed in the Frick’s shop (see right) serves as explicit manifesto for Education’s bid to interpose itself noisily at the very centre of museums between art and its visitors. As the painter Gareth Hawker describes below, something vital and of the essence is threatened by the prospect. And, as the painter James Keul discovered on a recent visit, something similar is already up and running at the Getty:
“The docent in the Rembrandt room of the East Pavilion upper level, which covers art from 1600-1800, was speaking to a tour group of about 20 people, mostly middle-aged, and asking what observations people had made on the small painting of the Abduction of Europa. One member of the group asked why all of the paintings appear so dark. The docent answered that varnish and oils applied over the years had darkened, leaving many works darker than they were intended to be. Presumably, this was meant to plant a seed in peoples’ minds that all dark paintings are the result of a darkened varnish rather than an intended effect that was used, in this case by a Baroque artist, to provide contrast and thus bathe a picture in a divine light…”
Gareth Hawker writes:
Visitors who plan a quiet hour or so contemplating works of Art in an American museum risk being accosted by guides called “Docents” who intend to deepen their museum experience. Docents, according to Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee, the authors of “Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience” (2011, Getty Publications – see Figs. 1 – 4), seek to enable the visitor to “make meanings”. The book’s purpose “is to explain making meanings – to open the world by means of art”. Although many readers might be baffled by such sentences as: “metacognition is a byproduct of practice and it facilitates profound experience”, Burnham and Kai-Kee’s respective positions as Head of Education at the Frick Collection, New York, and Education Specialist at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, requires that their campaign to help docents influence a whole culture by shaping the public’s attitude to works of Art be examined.
Docents are amateur enthusiasts, who have been trained to a high level – though not to degree standard – in both teaching and art history. They come from all sorts of backgrounds, and are of all ages. They probably think of themselves as more or less ordinary people who enjoy appreciating art and wish to help others to do so.
The position of the Docent was created in 1907 in response to a perceived need. Visitors to art galleries wished for a guidance in appreciating works of art which was deeper than that being provided by art-historical lectures. Docents were trained and appointed to meet this need by providing an education in aesthetic pleasure. Nearly a century later, there is no longer agreement about what might be meant by “an education in aesthetic pleasure”. So this book appears at an opportune moment, just when museum educators are seeking to clarify their roles.
In order to help redefine their objectives, Burnham and Kai-Kee refer to the work of the educationalist John Dewey who wrote in his classic 1934, Art as Experience, that “The task is to restore confidence between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience.” Dewey had identified an ideal response to a work of art. The visitor would begin by gaining an “experience” (that is, a sense of unity). A teacher might help the visitor in this, by stimulating and guiding his thoughts, but without ever imposing any view or judgement. In this way, “guided interpretation” might help the visitor to “make meaning” – to recognise relationships in many aspects of life and art. At its highest this process can generate a sense of over-arching interconnectedness which Dewey called a “culmination”.
In one exercise, students working in a group are encouraged to offer up any ideas and reflections which come to mind in reaction to a painting. These “thought showers” sound as if they could be open and productive, but, if a student asks an awkward question, the process seems to go into shut-down, as the following account (p. 71) may illustrate:
“The picture (the Frick Saint Francis by Giovanni Bellini) is beginning to cast its habitual spell. Suddenly, without warning, in a slightly confrontational tone, one man in the group asks, ‘What’s the difference between a work of art and a mere illustration? This might be just an illustration.’ [See Fig. 2] The question raises larger philosophical issues that are more difficult than he probably realizes and than I can accommodate in the context of a gallery program. I urge him to be patient. Perhaps the experience of the painting may begin to resolve the question, at least for him.”
The docent hopes that the student’s experience of the painting might begin to resolve his question – ignoring that fact that it was his experience which had prompted the question in the first place. Perhaps only certain types of experience are acceptable. (Dewey made a distinction between “experience” and “an experience”). The docent also suggests that the student’s question might be resolved, “for him”, as if his question were personal; as if he were troubled by a mental hang-up; and as if she were his counsellor. But his question was not personal. It was a general question about how works of art may be classified. An answer which was good only “for him” would not have addressed the issue – if indeed such an answer could have any meaning at all.
So, to summarise, the teacher has judged that her student has had the wrong kind of experience, but will not explain why; she judges that he is probably ignorant of issues which are connected with his question but she will not tell him what they are. This begins to look less like an application of Dewey’s theories and more like a power-struggle in which the docent issues a put-down and asserts her superiority.
As so often throughout the book, while the theories seem perfectly innocuous, even illuminating, it is the way in which they are put into practice which gives cause for concern. The authors seem to share a general squeamishness about talking about artistic quality. This is a mindset which is just as prevalent in Museum education in the UK as in the USA. While the authors appear to accept Dewey’s observation that works of aesthetic merit may be found at all levels of human endeavour, not solely in High Art, they apparently interpret this to mean that one must not point out the difference between good and bad.
The authors do mention the importance of looking and seeing, but by these terms they seem to mean finding and telling stories, rather than observing shapes and colours. Works are treated as objects to be read, like books, with stories to be discovered and assimilated. Looking at a painting for its artistic qualities is considered only as a small part of a student’s involvement, not of central importance. (Whistler’s Ten O’ Clock lecture, with its concentration on qualities such as colour, tone and shape, would form a stark contrast to the narrative approach outlined here.)
For the authors, talking is an essential part of the process of experiencing a work of visual art. The authors would like to see the docent become increasingly prominent in museums. They wish to see teaching develop in such a way that, “galleries may be defined as places where dialogues take place around works of art” (p. 151). This means that galleries would no longer be defined as places where one goes to look at paintings. They would no longer be quiet. The authors envisage galleries “filled with the hum of conversation […as] educators move from the periphery to the center.” But this move may have harmful consequences. If visitors learn to think of the appreciation of works of art as a series of “experiences”, with little regard to artistic quality, their eyes will be closed to many fundamental aspects of the art of painting. Such visitors are unlikely to observe that some pictures are better than others. They will not notice when quality has been reduced over time: when paintings have been degraded by insensitive restoration “treatments”. Their non-judgemental, non-critical stance will make them easy prey for apologists who promote restorations with appeals to crude sensation such as, “now we can see what was underneath that dark paint!” or, “now look at how bright that blue has become!”
Works of art will be relegated to the status of tools which enable the visitor “to open the world by means of art.” Defining the function of art in this way is simplistic. Art can have many meanings or none at all, yet we can still recognise that it is “right” – if our minds are quiet. Yet the museum of the future which the authors envisage is hectic and noisy.
“Responsible for the continuing translations of meaning that occur in the new museum, the educators who teach are the most accomplished members of the education department, best qualified to shape and animate museum programs. They lead the department, define its philosophy and mission, and overturn the historical definition of teaching as a peripheral, volunteer, or entry-level activity.”
If, by “translations of meaning” the authors mean anything like the “guided interpretation” we have seen in the verbatim accounts of their teaching sessions, we know that it will involve subtly pressurising the visitor to conform to their view of art, “shaping and animating” his “experience”.
A quiet hour contemplating beautiful paintings looks likely to become ever more elusive if the authors get their way.
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Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic – A suitable Case for Treatment?
A director of the National Gallery, Sir Philip Hendy, once joked that the (helpful) consequence of successive picture restorations was the eventual recovery of a perfectly preserved, pristine white under-painting. After several further generations of modernist stripping and purging, even the restorers have taken fright. Now – and perhaps feeling licensed by the indulgencies and frivolities of post-modernism – they are discovering the delights of “putting back” what their (sometimes very recent) predecessors should never have taken off. After a century of pictorial reductionism, the latest pioneering “recoverist” restoration at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Thomas Eakins’s painting The Gross Clinic, has been heavily trailed in the press. In celebrating their own attempts to reconstitute what had been wrongly discarded, today’s restorers seem little aware that they, too, are entering methodological quick-sands.
James Keul writes:
The Thomas Eakins picture The Gross Clinic is arguably the most important American painting of the 19th Century. In spite of – or perhaps because of – this exalted status it has had a difficult and complicated history. Aside from suffering the “theme park” indignity of being relegated to a mock-medical tent when first exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Expo in Philadelphia, and an initial rejection by contemporary critics, it has been humiliated further through its subjection to no fewer than five major restorations in its relatively short existence of 136 years.
The painting has been relined three times – one of which nearly caused it to tear in half. (Why should a modern canvas require relining even once, let alone three times?) It was dramatically altered in 1925 by the removal of dark glazes that Eakins had applied with the specific artistic intention of toning down areas that were meant to recede. As recently as 1961, an overall varnish was applied that has since darkened enough to be used as one of the justifications for the most recent restoration of the painting last year (- but see photograph and caption comments at top right). The days when museums could credibly refuse to admit that paintings were damaged by past restorations have passed and it has become increasingly common to see labels next to paintings admitting such unfortunate occurrences. At the Metropolitan Museum’s 2008 exhibition “The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, for example, numerous paintings were accompanied by specific acknowledgements of past restoration-induced injuries. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s decision to restore the Gross Clinic is another example of this new trend – but one, as will be seen, with a crucial difference.
It is almost inevitable that each new generation of restorers views itself as superior to its predecessors. Perhaps restorers today are more cautious than those of a half-century ago and it is encouraging to see that with the benefit of hindsight many earlier harmful practices have been abandoned. With new developments in x-radiographs, infrared reflectography, chromatography and other specialized equipment, restorers certainly have a lot more technical (if not artistic) information at their disposal, but the question remains: what does this mean for the art itself?
In the case of the 2010 restoration of the Gross Clinic, it meant that Mark Tucker, Senior Conservator of Paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with a team of restorers, including a Mellon Fellow in Conservation, felt sufficiently confident in this new technology to undertake the task of repainting large portions of Thomas Eakins’ masterpiece in an attempt to bring it back to the way Eakins had intended it to be seen. At best, however, this could only have been a partially realisable goal. Attempting to return a painting to its original condition is, on its own, an area of great debate. With age, paintings acquire patinas and, as with all objects, time takes its toll. What makes this restoration the more troubling is the fact that the latest restorers in the chain are not trying to bring it back to its (supposed) original condition, but rather to a specific condition that is represented in photographs from a period more than thirty years after the painting was completed and after the painting had already been lined with an ironed-on backing canvas – a procedure now widely acknowledged to risk adversely effecting a painting’s appearance.
Our concerns about the questionable nature of this enterprise have been compounded by the explanations that have been offered to us concerning its execution. Mr. Tucker informs us, for example, that, in order to maximize the accuracy of the placement of his own “in-painting”, tracings were made on clear Mylar film from an enlargement of a photograph of the painting taken in 1917. Some of these tracings were cut out, “producing something that looked like a stencil”, and were used to “place small temporary reference marks that were useful in attaining an appearance in the restored damages that is as faithful as possible to the early images of the painting”. [Emphasis added.] Inferring what an artist wanted his work to look like decades or even centuries after it was made is problematic enough, but attempting to recreate one particular historical state of the painting based on black and white photography is problematic to say the least.
In addition to the inherent problems presented by using photography for this purpose at all, because no colour reproductions of the painting exist prior to the 1925 restoration, determining even the proper colours becomes itself a major issue. When asked how the freshly added colours were determined, Mr. Tucker replied that their colour choices were:
“based on a determination of the pigments present in a preserved area of the original surface, on a direct visual match to the colour of the best preserved areas of the passageway, and on close consideration of the relationship between the colours present on the painting and the tones recorded in the 1917 photograph”.
This attempt itself raises concerns. Because pigments vary greatly depending on their source, how can one be sure that the pigments used by today’s restorers will be the same as those used by Eakins? Any artist who has bought raw umber from different manufacturers will immediately notice differences in colour “temperature” and value from one brand to another. If the latest restorers were to say that it does not matter since the colours used were matched to the adjacent colours that had survived on the painting, the question would arise: what, then, was the point of even “determining” the pigments that the artist had originally used?
There would also be a question concerning the reliability of the tones present in the period photograph that was chosen as a point of reference.The restorers have informed us that they also used a drawing made of the painting by Eakins himself as a source of reference. But, aside from questions concerning the level of its accuracy to the original painting, the fact remains that the drawing is a different work of art from the painting and whatever its accuracy might be (see comments right), it is clear that on close examination it differs greatly from the picture today in terms of pictorial/tonal values. To use some combination of the testimonies of a drawing that does not match the painting and a period (1917) photograph whose reliability cannot be assumed, in order to infer some compromise position on the artist’s original intent as a basis for present “in-painting” (- which is, properly speaking, re-painting) leaves a great deal of room for error and artistic interpretation on the part of the restorer, and possible historical falsifications.
On the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) website, under a heading ‘compensation for loss’, the recommended practice states that “If compensation is so extensive that it forms a substantial portion of the cultural property, then the compensation should be visually apparent to all viewers”. Though only a recommended practice, it is indicative of the importance of authenticity. This recommendation was not followed in the case of the Gross Clinic. The “in-painting” on the occasion of the last restoration was an attempt to recover an original condition that had been lost, and to match it perfectly (- that is to say, deceivingly) to the surviving surrounding passages. If a group of school children were to go to the Philadelphia Museum today and look at the Gross Clinic, they would not be able to tell where Eakins’ work ended and where Mr. Tucker’s began.
The video which accompanied the recent Eakins exhibition and which covers the history of the painting by examining the evidence left by its various restorations, states that this is the third painting by Thomas Eakins from their collection that has been “renewed” with repainting (- the other two being his Between Rounds and Mending the Nets). As a society, we must think about what we want to see when going to museums. Is it the image that is important, or is it the authenticity? For sure, the picture will have changed significantly since it was painted (more by restoration than by time), but attempting to bring back something that has been lost is simply not possible. While Thomas Eakins’ painting might look closer to the original now than it previously had, it is by no means an original picture today. Rather, it is a reconstruction of what today’s restorers take to have been its likely original condition, had so many bad things not been done to it by their predecessors. We trust that future visitors to the museum will be fully informed of the eventful “conservation history” of this painting.
James Keul is a painter and the executive director of ArtWatch International
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Why is the Metropolitan Museum of Art afraid of public disclosures on its picture restorers’ cleaning materials?
Many museums have mastered the art of presenting their picture restorations as miraculous recoveries that preclude any need for examination or criticism. A few days after our post on secrecy and unaccountability at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a Public Relations officer at the museum, in the presence of Artwatch International’s executive director, James Keul, asked television crew members who had just interviewed Michael Gallagher, the Met’s head of picture conservation, not to broadcast his comments on cleaning solvents, any mention of which would “open the doors for critics”.
There are strong – but not good – reasons why a museum might wish to avoid discussions on the materials that restorers use. In hope of prising the Met’s doors, we re-visit the museum’s secret 1971 cleaning of Velazquez’s great portrait Juan de Pareja at Wildenstein and Company. We do so in the light of four documents: an untitled, undated Met booklet; a special conservation issue of the Met’s Bulletin (winter 1993/94); and two accounts given by the Met’s then director, Thomas Hoving, in his books of 1993 (Making the Mummies Dance) and 1996 (False Impressions). None of these identifies the solvents and varnishes used on what had been one of the world’s best preserved Velazquezes.
Restorations take place within general cultures and within local/institutional cultures. Healthy cultures require debate and transparency. Unfortunately the richly-funded, impregnably protected Met sometimes seems to take itself as the summation of Culture. When, in 1971, the museum snatched Juan de Pareja from the impoverished and enfeebled British (who had owned it for centuries), institutional pride was fit to burst. The Met booklet carried entries from the President of the Board, Douglas Dillon; the Director, Thomas Hoving; the Vice-Director and Curator in Chief, Theodore Rousseau; the Curator in Charge, European Paintings, Everett Fahy; and the “Conservator”, Hubert von Sonnenburg. Before the sale, Hoving, Rousseau, Sonnenburg and Fahy had flown to London, Madrid, and Rome – a sort of “boy-gang” playing at spreading rumours like “the disinformation section of the KGB”, as Hoving, (who later claimed to have discussed with Wildenstein’s how to “manipulate the art press and crank up the rumor mill” in a general strategy of “dissimulation and misleading rumors”), put it.
When bought, the picture was not paraded to the Met but “sneaked” into Wildenstein and Company “for secrecy”, partly because funds had been committed without the Board’s knowledge but also because, as Hoving put it, the Board had to remain longer in the dark as “total secrecy” would still be needed to “prepare our public relations stance” and “have the time to clean it.” The deceiving of the public was absolute: for a short period before the restoration, the picture was exhibited to New Yorkers as Wildenstein’s own property. Ignoring back-room machinations, the crucial question is: Why should a miraculously well-preserved, three and a quarter century old unlined canvas, have immediately been subjected to the traumas of a rushed restoration before the Board and the city might learn of the acquisition?
Hoving deferred to Sonnenburg on matters of connoisseurship and artistic technique, and had abnegated all responsibility for deciding whether or not to buy the picture: “back in New York with Chairman Dillon, Rousseau and I were on pins and needles awaiting Sonnenburg’s word. Would it be yes, or forget it? ” When Hoving, Sonnenburg, Rousseau and Fahy assembled before the painting in London, the Met’s conservation oracle suavely predicted a new and different picture that would be liberated dramatically from within a yellowed varnish tomb. Hoving sold those predictions of an even greater artistic glory to the Met’s big-wigs, some of whom had personally pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars. Velazquez’s mixed-race assistant with “dark-brown flesh” would emerge with “rosy” flesh tones and a nice clean “grey” doublet. Thus were the museum’s key players guaranteed a dramatic restoration result that would “present” as a further triumph of their collective perspicacity – and also, by eliminating any trace of Radnor family restorations (restorations that had been posited but nowhere established by Sonnenburg), expunge all historical and aesthetic continuities and make the picture entirely their own.
In such possessive and chauvinistic contexts, admitting the possibility of errors, aesthetic losses, or regrets, becomes unthinkable. This restoration would be – must be – beyond appraisal, reflection, debate or criticism. But given that no artist, writer or musician is above evaluation and criticism, why should a technician, acting on what was by common agreement the finest creative work of one of the world’s greatest artists, have been so indulged? And for that matter, why should every Met restorer be allowed to “touch base” on whatever he takes to be a picture’s bedrock “original” surface? How original can a repeatedly solvent-invaded, swab-abraded surface be?
Sonnenburg, working under intense pressure to complete before any political or journalistic exposure of the secrecy, on a script of his own writing, proved himself right to Hoving’s satisfaction: “the most astounding feature of the work was that there was hardly any color in the picture.” Purging the picture of extraneous “varnishes,” or what Hoving called “gunk” transformed the picture, but at what cost? Looking at the booklet’s now historically precious fold-out spread of three identically sized and printed full colour plates that recorded the restoration in progress (see previous post), it would seem that the original “varnished” state was indeed more, and more variously, colourful.
Sonnenburg’s high reputation as a moderate, risk-avoiding restorer stood on his having spent several years as an apprentice to the most famously cautious, slow-working and aesthetically alert restorer, Johan Hell. In Britain, Hell’s restorations were greatly preferred by artists to those of his fellow German émigré Helmut Ruhemann, who established the National Gallery’s highly controversial in-house restoration department after the Second World War. The President of the Royal Academy, Sir Gerald Kelly, entrusted his own grandest works to Hell’s varnishing technique.
By hiring Sonnenburg in the 1960s, the Met put cultural distance between its earlier troubled restorations and those then raging at the National Gallery, but it did so without anyone fully comprehending Hell’s philosophy or method. For a time, Sonneburg was succeeded at the Met by the British restorer John Brealey who had also studied with Hell. Brealey’s disastrous restoration of Velazquez’s Las Meninas at the Prado (see right) shows him to have been no proper student of Hell’s (– a judgement endorsed to us by Dr Hell’s late widow, Kate). The Met booklet sequence makes clear that, on the great Juan de Pareja, Sonneburg proceeded in outright violation of his declared master’s precepts and practices. By swiftly stripping the picture from one side to the other, instead of first establishing the antiquity of the “varnish” and only then, perhaps, proceeding to clean gradually and equally overall, Sonneburg embraced the practices of Ruhemann and repudiated those of his master (- to whose work we shall return in future posts).
The cover photograph of the Met booklet shows the face in detail. A close-up reveals a system of open and exposed cracking that is more visually disruptive than was ever recorded before or after the restoration (see above right). We do not know how – or with what solvents – the painting had been cleaned before that point. There is no indication of when the photograph was taken. We do not know what steps were taken to minimise the visual disruption of those cracks afterwards. We do know – as Sonnenburg must have – that Hell would never have arrived at that point in a restoration; would never have stripped a picture of all varnish, even into its cracks, for fear of letting his solvents invade the paintwork and attack the exposed paint/ground interface.
There may be irony in the fact that the heavy restoration doors now being slammed at the Met have, for five years past, been generously and most helpfully opened to us at the National Gallery in London.
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