The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part III: Cutting Michelangelo Down to Size
“Judging by Past Experience, it is Perilous to Suggest Restoration…”
~ Charles Heath Wilson, 1881, “The Life and Works of Michelangelo Buonarroti”. Publisher: John Murray, London.
“I once barged into a correspondence in The Times when the National Gallery was under fire from the ‘anti-cleaners’. I was ticked off very severely by Lord Crawford, the Chairman of the Trustees. I had, mildly I thought, criticised the authorities for ignoring the sincerely held views of the opposition…I was later restored to favour in high places when I made it clear in an article in The Studio that I was convinced that our National Treasures were in the keeping of qualified responsible people.”
T. J. Honeyman, 1971, “Art and Audacity”. Publisher: Collins, London.
It is not widely appreciated how inherently dangerous art restoration practices remain, or how culturally deranging restoration changes can be. At the bottom end of the trade, restorers often advertise their services on a promise to leave pictures “as good as new – or better”. The restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was – on the accounts of its own restorers and initiators – the biggest, the best, the most scientifically advanced and “radically transforming” top-end restoration ever undertaken. This “Restoration of the Century” left one of the world’s greatest artistic accomplishments so profoundly unlike its former self that enthusiasts could announce the discovery of a “New Michelangelo” who was “very different from the one art experts thought they knew”. At the same time, the chief restorer thrilled in 1982 that the frescoes looked as good as new: “as though they were executed yesterday”. In the midst of this commonplace restorers’ confusion between “recoveries” and “discoveries” (or sometimes, “revelations”), some surprising expressions of support materialised. In 1987, a top-end art historian writing in the magazine Apollo [Endnote 1] announced the demolition of the “Darkness Fallacy and the Sculptural Fallacy” within Michelangelo scholarship, and predicted that the then concurrent restorations of the Sistine and Brancacci chapels would leave both Michelangelo and Masaccio as “less isolated geniuses” who would be “returned to their respective periods” (i.e. confined within designated art historical boxes). In 1991, a newspaper art critic exulted in the displacement of “doomy outpourings of religious angst” by colours as “bright as Opal Fruits” – which colours reflected the workings of a “much more rational mind” . Unsurprisingly, such professional pleasure-taking in chemical transformations that could cut artistic Titans down to size alarmed those who had been happy with the surviving Michelangelo, and an enormous controversy arose. Unsurprisingly, the criticised characterised the criticisers as instances of “the magnitude of the shock to entrenched opinion” that had been unleashed by a triumphant restoration. (As will be seen, the expression of sincerely held citicisms can be harshly punished when substantial vested conservation interests are challenged.)
Behind this interpretive culture war, the effects of the restoration on Michelangelo’s art were material and aesthetic. Those changes are forever. Although bad scholarship can be remedied by good scholarship, the latter cannot undo damage to unique, historic works. What remains to be done, a third of a century after the restoration’s 1980 launch, is a proper, disinterested aesthetically informed analysis of the restoration-induced changes, item by item, figure by figure, photograph by photograph; and, a frank evaluation and acknowledgement of their cultural and art historical consequences. Had this restoration’s profound transformation been accepted without challenge, we would be in a world today where technicians enjoyed unfettered licence to rewrite (or as they sometimes prefer, “to re-present”) history itself. Even tacit endorsements of injurious restorations can damage scholarship and falsify history.
The restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was well and publicly defended from 1980 until the mid 1990s. At that period, a seismic shift occurred. What follows is an examination from a British perspective of the restoration’s defences up to 1995 (in which year implicit art historical support for the restoration resulted in a seriously misleading exhibition at the National Gallery); and, a further presentation of visual proofs of the restoration’s injurious consequences. We note here how many supporters have admitted entertaining doubts about the restoration’s probity.
A new cleaning method, and the selling of a “New Michelangelo”
In the 1980s, at the height of an international restoration mania, a supposedly “advanced” “scientific” cleaning material was used on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. It was ferocious in its effects and mechanistic in its application which was expressly designed to thwart personal and allegedly “subjective” and “unscientific”, aesthetic appraisals. The most sophisticated imagery on an immensely important historic work of art was thus subjected to a “treatment” that derived not from the complexities of picture restoration and its necessary acts of discrimination and constant evaluation but, rather, from architectural stone cleaning techniques. This cleaning method altered the ceiling’s centuries old artistic/historic continuity to such a degree that the restorers and their supporters ventured that history would need to be rewritten. The changes, for sure, were dramatic: depictions of figures that had been archetypally and transcendentally alive were brightened, flattened, rendered more abstract, more “on the picture surface” and left with an altogether more modernist and imaginatively impoverished aspect. Contrary to official claims this (demonstrably) was not a liberation or recovery of the ceiling’s original condition and appearance – see, particularly, Figs. 1 and 60.
When Michelangelo’s ceiling was unveiled in 1512 the world was stunned by the grandeur, pictorial audacity and, above all, by figural inventions that had rendered the divine corporeal and vividly alive within our own space and time. Michelangelo had not so much made depictions-on-surfaces as conjured perceived spaces adjacent to the ceiling’s imperfect forms. His optically “sculpted” spaces – which opened vistas beyond the ceiling’s surfaces while simultaneously projecting figures in front of them – had been realised through powers of draughtsmanship and modelling with utter disregard for the “integrity” of the architectural surfaces. Seemingly palpable space was necessary to situate Michelangelo’s monumental programme of over three hundred figures – figures that ran from depicted carved stone sculptures (his architecture-adorning putti), through living, space-occupying young sculptural Adonis’s (his contorted, anxious ignudi) and, more prosaically, through the historical ancestors of Christ, to the divinely gifted Prophets and Sibyls, and finally to God Himself and his celestial supporters. This was immediately acclaimed as a dazzling artistic and illusionistic advance. Its eventual influence was to carry mural painting into the Baroque and beyond. Although artistic fashions and modes of description change constantly, for nearly five centuries this “stupendous” work’s vital relationships endured, as the many copies made throughout its existence testify (see Fig. 1b).
How Doubts became Denials
With the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, while some art world players were galvanized into opposition, many others were excited and swept along by the presumptuous magnitude of the transformation. As mentioned, many of the supporters of the restoration have disclosed moments of doubt. We cited in our post of March 4th that the co-director and chief restorer of the ceiling, Gianluigi Colalucci, had said in 1990: “I must confess I harbour a lingering almost subconscious fear that someday someone will come, unexpectedly, with a really intelligent observation that will show all of us to have been blind.” The following year the Sunday Times art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, produced a celebratory book (“Sayonara Michelangelo”) in which he asked in the face of the transition:
“Who among us looking up for the first time at this new, bright, clear Sistine ceiling, perfectly rational, a light-filled work, was not tempted by the doubt: it can’t be so.”
This temptation was throttled by the sheer spectacle of the restoration as an art-changing performance:
“The thin and neat scaffolding bridge moved elegantly along the ceiling like a very slow windscreen wiper. In front of it lay the old Michelangelo, the great tragedian, all basso profundo and crescendo. Behind it the colourful new one, a lighter touch, a more inventive mind, a higher pitch, alto and diminuendo. It was being able to see both of them at once – Beethoven turning into Mozart before your eyes – that made this restoration such a memorable piece of theatre.”
Even the National Gallery’s thoughtful and scholarly (then) curator of Renaissance painting, Nicholas Penny, who recognised (“White Coats v. Bow Ties”, London Review of Books, 11 February 1993) that “The most terrifying thing about the restoration of old paintings and sculpture, as distinct from the editing of texts, is that something might be lost altogether”, swallowed his own moment of anxiety:
“But perhaps one should admit that something is lost however much is gained by any intervention – some possibility of interpretation if not some actual pigment or glaze or polish.” [Emphasis added.] With a seeming acceptance of such material and interpretive losses, the greater gains in the Sistine Chapel were said by Penny to have emerged as follows:
“Study of the ceiling now that it has been cleaned tends to distance Michelangelo from the art of recent centuries – and from the work of artists who were inspired by the ceiling – and reveals a far closer connection with the dazzling colours favoured by artists in his immediate following and also evident in some of the better-preserved 15-century Florentine panel paintings.”
Note the cultural role being served by “restoration” changes: even when their legitimacy is vehemently challenged, restorations facilitate through “study”, new interpretations and a certain re-shuffling of scholarly furniture. Scholars and restorers invariably say that they have duly considered and rejected the criticisms as ill-informed, but the fact remains that eventually all restorations themselves come to be rejected and undone by later restorers. Indeed the alleged need to undo previous restorations is one of the commonest justifications for a restoration. The net consequence of repeated restorations is not a return to an original condition each time, but a daisy chain of altered alterations, with each successive restoration leaving the given work looking unlike its previously “restored” state. With accumulating alterations, works get thinner and thinner. Insofar as such abraded appearances are acknowledged, they are attributed to previous “rubbing”, or other euphemisms. Losses of original material during restorations (as Penny conceded) are to some degree inevitable. This is because while painters work from supporting canvases or panels upwards, restorers work downwards with their solvents and abrasives towards or beyond pictures’ finished surfaces. Collisions are inevitable.
The “New Michelangelo”
The art historical revisionism that advanced with this restoration might have been plausible had changes of colouring been the only changes, and had any of Michelangelo’s contemporaries noted dazzling colours. By any properly visually alert appraisal, however, the changes were less ones of enhanced chromatic power than of debilitating losses to the ceiling’s initially celebrated dramatic modelling and lighting (see Fig. 60). Although Nicholas Penny acknowledged such objections to the received critical consensus, he nonetheless caricatured them:
“Polemics against the restoration appeal repeatedly to the ideas of chiaroscuro and harmony as artistic absolutes.” The implication that critics were in the grip of a fetishized false artistic consciousness was underscored: “It is painful but important to acknowledge that the inspiration one artist draws from another, earlier one is often inseparable from misunderstanding.” It is a common defence against critics to allege some “misunderstanding” of the “facts” because of ingrained or entrenched prejudices but with this restoration the objections stemmed not from misapprehensions or misplaced adherence to ahistorical idée fixes, but from the fact of the concrete, demonstrable and historically verifiable injuries to the painting.
Further Material Evidence of Injury
Having shown many directly comparative pairs of “before” and “after” restoration photographs as proofs of injury – we further present seven single photographs (Figs. 1 to 6 and 48b), each of which alone testifies to the destruction of the final stages of Michelangelo’s painting. To pinpoint the unsoundness of the restoration’s theoretical underpinning, we also show two other works, one drawn (Fig. 41), one painted (Fig. 47) that seem emblematic of serious critical neglect. It will be argued that insufficient respect for the artistic and documentary records (particularly in the form of graphic copies and related paintings) facilitated an initial misdiagnosis of Michelangelo’s painting methods. In addition, we examine the “macro” consequences in terms of changes to the previous relationships between the broad and differentiated zones of the Sistine Chapel’s consecutively decorated surfaces.
Selling the Restoration and Blocking the Critics
In December 1987 two articles that acknowledged the intensity of the controversy were published in Britain. One was a work of journalism by a leading cultural writer with strong interests in science, Brian Appleyard. The other was a full-blown and frankly declared Public Relations Apologia by Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, a professor of art history at New York University, a consultant member of the Vatican’s Scientific Advisory Committee on the restoration, and the Vatican’s spokesman on “scholarly and general information” for the public relations firm Arts and Communications Counsellors, which had been retained to handle the crisis.
To take the former first: on 20 December 1987 the Sunday Times magazine carried an article on the restoration – “Lost or Found?”. Its author, Brian Appleyard, acknowledged that he had been “carefully and elaborately briefed” by the co-directors of the restoration, Fabrizio Mancinelli, the curator of the Vatican Museums’ modern paintings, and Gianluigi Colalucci, the head restorer, and by Professor Carlo Pietrangeli, the director of the Vatican Museums, and that the next day he had been “scientifically persuaded” by the Vatican’s chemist, Nazzareno Gabrielli. Nonetheless, Appleyard gave a fair and balanced account, citing the arguments of James Beck, a professor of art history at Columbia University, New York. Even while recognising that “the vast majority of art historians are on the side of the Vatican”, Appleyard concluded “So far the Vatican have been troubled by Beck but have been secure behind the battery of art historians prepared to stand up and oppose him. But his fury and energy are beginning to pay off. More and more awkward questions are beginning to be asked and he warns of more home-grown opposition in Italy.”
An Artist Thwarted
The article itself prompted controversy in Britain by including directly comparative before and after restoration photographs of sections of the frescoes. To this artist’s eyes, those photo-comparisons showed instantly that the “cleaning” was damaging and that the protests were well founded (see Figs. 9 to 11b). Working then as the principal illustrator of the Independent, a new and fashionable newspaper with excellent arts coverage, I asked the arts editor if I might write a short article demonstrating the ways in which the ceiling was being damaged. He declined on grounds that the newspaper’s art critic, Andrew Graham Dixon, had (like Beck) visited the scaffolding, and had been persuaded (like many art historians and critics) that all was fine.
Thus, the first lesson in this controversy was that an artist who had trained for four years in a junior art school, for five years in a fine art college and for three post-graduate years at the Royal Academy Schools – and who afterwards had taught and practised drawing and sculpture for fifteen years – could be unvoiced in a debate about the treatment of a work of art in deference to the views of someone sixteen years younger who had read English at university and art history at the Courtauld Institute (- on which institution’s restorations see “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners”).
An Artist Heeded
When the Independent launched a Sunday edition in 1990, its arts editor invited an article on the Sistine Chapel restoration. In preparation, I contacted James Beck who put me in touch with many key critics. These included, in Italy, Professor Alessandro Conti, Venanzo Crocetti, the sculptor who had worked on the previous restoration of the Sistine ceiling in the 1930s, the restorer Mirella Simonetti; and, in the US, the critic and writer Alexander Eliot and the painter Frank Mason. From the Independent on Sunday I spoke directly to Professor Brandt, Dr Fabrizio Mancinelli, Professor John Shearman, (an advisor to the restoration who viciously attacked Beck on the record and then threatened to sue if I published his grossly defamatory comments), and wrote to Gianluigi Colalucci. The second lesson had thus been that critics of restorations, however prestigious, could find themselves victims of scurrilous attacks from professional peers.
Shooting the Messengers
When surveying the restoration’s then decade long literature, Brandt’s 1987 Apollo article emerged as a seminal document. Its declared purpose had precisely been to defend the “transformation of Michelangelo’s mysterious dark frescoes…into [the] blazing colouristic pyrotechnics that is attracting the most public attention and controversy” (this was despite the fact that Michelangelo had been praised at his own funeral for “the fleeting and sombre colours with which he had formed such rare and lofty shapes”). Most striking of all was Brandt’s assaults on the restoration’s critics, whether they were scholars, restorers, traditionalist artists or fashionably modish artists:
“But, a tiny, heterogeneous and vociferous cadre emerged with the dramatic charge that Vatican conservators are ruining one of the great icons of western civilisation.
“Convinced of the urgency of their mission, the critics conducted their campaign in the international press and television and achieved a remarkable degree of public visibility. A letter by a well-meaning group of American master painters of the Pop generation, calling for a halt to the cleaning of the Sistina (as well as the Last Supper) was one index of their success. An interview with one of the American Sistina critics in People Magazine was, however, another…
“To the ears of most art historians and conservation experts, however, the critics claims sounded more and more like the wild cries of some ferocious mutant of Chicken Little. Many believe that the critics, like that benighted bird, were misunderstanding insufficient evidence to draw mistaken conclusions to the alarm of the neighbours. Still the issue is a serious one. Are the critics merely opportunists, body-surfing on a wave of publicity they would never otherwise have enjoyed? Or should we be hearing in their polemics a warning that the cleaning of major works of art is another of those matters too important to be left to the experts?”
“If the critics’ questions have such detailed answers, what is the continuing public fuss about? Why has the criticism been so remarkably vague, shifting and misinformed? Why have the critics been so reluctant to make the frequent visits to the Sistine Chapel scaffolding…Why does criticism remain invulnerable to the abundant available information. How could such a small group of people, none of whom is – in a professional sense – an expert on Michelangelo and conservation, attract so much publicity and even some well-intentioned adherents? (The original nucleus of nay-sayers consists of only five persons: two painters, one former art critic and two art historians, distributed in Italy and the USA; connexions between them exist but are hard to define.)”
In addition to an insinuation of some underlying conspiracy, Brandt appended an imputation of political motivations that served as platforms for personal opportunism:
“It is easy to see how any hint that the Vatican might be hurting Michelangelo could fuel political fires while providing a chance for professional power play among factions of the intellectual establishment.”
If political motivations combined with personal power play might exist among critics in Italy, Brandt maintained, the situation was different in the United States where:
“The continuing publicity has, of course, also become a phenomenon in itself with a life and fascination of its own. All the more significant that only one American scholar has been tempted to join the public furore.
“None of this grandstanding matters much – although one doesn’t like to see an important issue distorted and people misled. I do not believe that a tenacious campaign of ill-informed criticism and personal attacks on the conservators will stop the careful cleaning of the Ceiling.”
At this historical point Brandt’s past abuse of the critics might best be taken to have been self-answering. Her assurance that “the cleaning chemicals do not actually come into contact with the fresco surface” has not worn well and, besides, was at odds with the chief restorer’s earlier admission that if left on a minute too long the chemicals began devouring the fresco surface and Michelangelo’s shading with it. Similarly, her claim that the restoration had been “spurred by the alarming discovery that the glue layers were contracting as they aged , and were pulling flakes of plaster and pigment away from the surface of Michelangelo’s frescoes” proved an impermanent position. As was later reported in “Art Restoration, The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” (James Beck and Michael Daley, 1993), it had been claimed in 1986 (six years into the restoration) that “various checks [had] ascertained that in several places minute flecks of colour were lifting” and that this had “necessitated an immediate restoration.” In 1987 it was said that extensive areas of flaking were progressively worsening and threatening an imminently “uncontrollable situation”. By 1988 Vatican spokesmen were claiming that the weight of encrustations upon the paint surface was causing it to break away from its ground. By 1989 it was said that the glues had “shrunk and puckered” causing “scabs” to fall away “pulling pigment with them”. It was said that this “slow destruction by glue-pox” was “the Vatican’s principle motivation for cleaning the ceiling”. When we asked Brandt in 1990 how big the puckerings were, she replied “Oh! Some are as big as your hand.” Soon after, in 1991, the problem de-escalated: initial investigations were acknowledged, once more, to have encountered “minute desquamations and loss of pigment.”
Brandt’s patronising claim that “the so-called ‘controversy’ is not actually about facts and issues but is a reflection of culture shock” lamely echoed charges made in earlier restoration controversies. During the National Gallery cleaning controversy in London in the late 1940s the critics were said by the art critic, Eric Newton of the Daily Telegraph, to be suffering from the “shocked eye”, a condition which afflicted “the connoisseur and the artist – the visually sensitive man with a quick eye and profound reverence for what he had seen”. Just as at the Sistine Chapel, Newton’s dismissal of the expertise of creative players was made on the claimed authority of restoration “science”. Such generalised appeals to the authority of science often prove to be empty incantation and Newton volunteered no more than “The purely scientific and technical aspects of the process, however are too complex to describe here.”
In 1857 picture cleanings at the Louvre were defended on the grounds that “It is understandable that the romantic amateur loves the rust and the haze of the varnish, for it has become a veil behind which he can see whatever he desires” (Horsin Déon). One critic of the Louvre’s restorations, Edgar Degas, threatened to produce a pamphlet that would be “a bomb”. When Brandt dismissed the Sistine Chapel critics on the grounds that the controversy was “rather unreal since the arguments against cleaning are mainly nostalgically emotional [while] those on the other side are chemical and scientific” she presented her role as being to “dissolve some of the murky argument and preserve a few facts”. As will be seen, artists and art historians can have distinctly differing views as to what constitutes a “fact” and what a blind prejudice.
The Evidence of Restoration Injuries – and the Surprising Reactions To It
When the Independent on Sunday’s picture desk obtained high-quality colour transparencies from the Vatican in 1990 we examined the image of the Erythraean Sybil, part of which had been shown in Appleyard’s Sunday Times article, and encountered among many losses the restoration-mangled foot seen at Figs. 2 and 3. Those losses and losses to a figure on one of the lunettes were first published in the Independent on Sunday of 25 March 1990 (see Figs. 12, 13 and 14) and then later in the Independent of 20 March 1991, where the arguments against the restoration were put by Daley, Beck, Conti, Eliot and the art historian Bruce Boucher, and balanced by three counter arguments.
Of the latter, Ernst Gombrich was harshest on the critics: “No one is infallible, but I have not the slightest doubt that the overall impression and operation is right, and the critics talk absolute nonsense.” The Courtauld Institute-trained editor of The Art Newspaper, Anna Somers Cocks, condescended that some people liked things to look “romantic and old, and can’t cope with the clarity and brilliance of what the Sistine Chapel looks like now it has been cleaned”. The Courtauld Institute-trained Nicholas Penny said “It’s one of the great revelations of our time but the transformation is so absolutely amazing that it is bound to give some people a shock and I am sympathetic to them being shocked”.
Brandt’s 1987 Apollo account had fallen on well-worked ground in Britain where even art world players with strong track records of being critical of restorations had become supportive of this restoration. The Courtauld Institute-trained restorer Sarah Walden, who had implicitly criticised many of her peers and predecessors in her 1985 book “The Ravished Image ~ Or How to Ruin Masterpieces by Restoration”, was one such and she offered this (simplistic) technical distinction in defence of the restoration’s results:
“Unlike easel paintings, frescos are not a film of paint on a surface but impregnate their own support and need no varnish. Given an intact, dry wall, they are spared many of the rigours of restoration, except for the removal of dust and dirt. As the recent cleaning of Raphael’s Galatea in the Farnesina in Rome has shown, and as the present work on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel seems to confirm, this is one area where impressive results can be had with far less risk.”
As shown on 28 April 2012, the restorer Leonetto Tintori had discovered on examining the ceiling that it had been covered by what he termed “Michelangelo’s auxilliary techniques” which included not just glue or size painting but also oils. Walden, whose principle critical complaints had been against the “Anglo-Saxon” schools of restoration in Germany, Britain and the US, as opposed to the “Latin” restorations of France and Italy , had evidently accepted the restorers’ claims that Michelangelo had simply coloured successive patches of wet and drying plaster at great speed and thereafter accepted whatever disparities and inequalities of value emerged on drying without making any unifying or enriching interventions with glue-based painting a secco on his fresco surfaces when dry, as was customary and as had been noted by his contemporaries. She had further accepted the restorers’ (revisionist and unsupported) claims that the large amounts of glue-based material on Michelangelo’s frescoes had been applied by restorers as a “varnish” to a work which, on her own account, would have required no varnish, and despite the fact that previous Vatican restorers had attributed that very material to Michelangelo. Gombrich, who had played a prominent role in the post-war cleaning controversies at the National Gallery in London – and who had written the Foreword to Walden’s book – was similarly persuaded by the present Vatican restorers’ well disseminated technical account.
Gombrich’s Startling Lapse of Scholarship and Visual Acuity
In 1995 Gombrich presented an exhibition, “Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art”, at the National Gallery (London) on the thesis that an avoidance of cast shadows had been “widespread among painters of the High Renaissance”. He did so without reference to the paintings of Michelangelo or Raphael. (When pressed on these omissions he replied “I never meant [the catalogue] to be an encyclopaedia of all cast shadows, though some of my readers seem to assume so.” – Letter to Michael Daley, 10 June 1995.) As will be shown, in a curious fashion, Gombrich’s pictorial amnesia constituted the logical terminus of a more general denial by art historians of the distinctive artistic relationships that had survived on the pre-restoration ceiling, and of the connections between those relationships and the art forms of the period and immediately afterwards. Defending this restoration became an exercise in not-seeing what was and what had been. Gombrich’s position on this restoration was a great disappointment to us given his outstanding earlier contributions.
Gombrich on the Sanctity of Scholarship
In 1978 as the Vatican Museums’ curators, restorers and scientists were moving towards restoring the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Gombrich had discussed one of Michelangelo’s prophets – his Ezekiel – in the context of problems of art connoisseurship and medical practices (and with no reference to colour) . He pointed out that just as with placebos “suggestibility plays a part in our response to works of art”. Demonstrating by a comparison between Jeremiah and Ezekiel that the latter was uncharacteristic of Michelangelo but characteristic of Raphael, he firmly attributed its execution to Raphael (see Fig. 25). Of all the prophets on the ceiling, he contended, this one alone lacked Michelangelo’s profound stylistic traits: “he always negates the picture plane. Jonah being the most famous example of this space-creating and surface-denying imagination, which so aroused the admiration of Renaissance writers.” How could it have been overlooked, Gombrich continued, that the Ezekiel, far from denying the picture plane, asserted it: “Instead of being self-enclosed it impetuously moves to the right, addressing an unseen partner in what looks like a violent argument. It is this implied movement which tears the cohesion to pieces and introduces a shrill note of drama entirely absent from the other creations. The composition is only superficially Michelangelesque…” Further, what the Ezekiel betrayed in its agitated gestures was Raphael’s own great indebtedness to Leonardo: “Indeed it is hardly too much to say that Ezekiel would fit comfortably into the groups of the apostles in the Last Supper of S. Maria delle Grazie.”
This was vintage Gombrich, learned, conceptually adroit, visually acute and boldly re-attributing a Michelangleo to Raphael through Leonardo. Except that here his elegant arguments and persuasive stylistic “evidence” amounted to no more than a plausible contrivance – a conceit that was, he confessed, an art connoisseur’s equivalent of the medical practitioner’s placebo. He hoped that connoisseurs “will not take offence and that the spirits of Michelangelo and Raphael will forgive me this harmless fabrication.” (Was that jest to become a maquette for a far greater and undisclosed prank on those two great artists seventeen years later?)
Gombrich and the Guardians of Memory
Two decades earlier, in a moving 1957 essay “Art and Scholarship”, Gombrich had championed the scholar as “the guardian of memories”. It seemed that he had been stung to do so by the painter Wyndham Lewis who had recently written:
“When I see a writer, a word man, among a number of painters, I shake my head. For I know he would not be there unless he was up to something. And I know that he will do them no good…”
Gombrich’s retort was: “Why should the artist bother about that spoilsport the scholar and his past? The brief answer to this question, I fear, may sound moralistic. Because truth is better than lies.”
Indeed it is – but this leaves his own later omissions in the National Gallery exhibition the more perplexing: How could so great a scholar make so seriously misleading and unfounded a claim in (seeming) defence of such an unsupportable restoration? Spicing this mystery is the fact, as shown below, that Gombrich’s faith in the Sistine ceiling restoration was not absolute and that he, too, like Colalucci, Januszczak and Penny, had once acknowledged a moment of doubt.
Gombrich’s Moment of Doubt
As mentioned, Gombrich was as one with the views of the restorer Sarah Walden on this restoration. Walden was to persist with her endorsement of the restoration until at least 2004 when, in a revised edition of her book (now titled “The Ravished Image ~ An Introduction to the Art of Picture Restoration & Its Risks”), she pressed Gombrich into a swipe at critics of the Sistine ceiling restoration:
“The subject of restoration tends to attract cranks and fanatics, but to suggest that the world’s foremost art historian was one of those would be absurd. He approved for example of the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, and wrote to me about an Italian who opposed it and was seeking his support: ‘Of course he wants to use [my writings] as ammunition against the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, but I do think the problems of cleaning are different…I have been up the scaffold…I have no doubt that the team are aware of the many problems…I am even fairly happy about the work on the Sistine ceiling.’” [Walden’s ellipses.]
While Walden tactfully refrained from identifying the Italian critic, by publishing a letter she received from Gombrich in 1987 in the revised book, she revealed an intriguingly confessional remark:
“Last week I was sent a book from Italy violently attacking the ‘cleaning’ of the Sistine ceiling. It may contain some exaggerations but it is still disquieting. Michelangelo e la Pittoria a Fresco, by Alessandro Conti (La Casa Usher, Florence 1986). If you read Italian and have a little time during the next few weeks I’ll gladly lend it to you to look at.”
That unsettling book was later described by Penny in the LRB as “the most sustained polemic against the restoration”. Charles Hope, an authority on Titian and then the Senior Lecturer in Renaissance Studies at the Warburg Institute, London, wrote (in a letter of 1994 to the restorer Helen Glanville – see below) that “The scholar who has done most to draw attention to the relevant texts is of course Conti; and whatever you think of his book (he is not a restorer, by the way), I am sure we can agree that it is obligatory reading for anyone interested in the controversy surrounding the ceiling. Yet [...] and so on not only pass over his arguments in silence instead of addressing them, they seem never to cite his book at all…” Gombrich, too, would seem to have suppressed his own disquiet and passed over Conti’s arguments even though he must have appreciated that Conti was a very considerable authority on restoration having taught the History and Techniques of Restoration at the University of Bologna; the History of Modern Art at the state university in Milan; and, the History of Art Criticism at the University of Siena. In his 1988 “History of the Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art” (republished by Butterworth in a 2007 English translation by Helen Glanville) Conti spoke of the alien “material and chromatic robe” with which the Sistine ceiling paintings had been invested “during the present restoration” and identified “the various media” Michelangelo had used on the ceiling as “fresco, lime and secco”. (For Conti’s further comments in that book on Domenico Carnevale’s repairs to Michelangelo’s ceiling, see the caption at Figs. 48a and 48b. That his now very scarce Michelangelo e la Pittoria a Fresco has yet to be published in English might itself be thought something of a scandal.)
The Context of Gombrich’s National Gallery Exhibition
Gombrich’s 1995 exhibition came not just towards the end of his long and distinguished career but at the end of a brief period of intense discussions in Britain on the restorations at the Sistine Chapel and the National Gallery. We had been at pains to show that extreme as the Sistine Chapel restoration was, it was part of a wider radically transforming international assault by restorers acting on historic works of art in the name of their “conservation”. (Between 1990 and 1995, this author alone had published twenty-three times on those subjects – see Fig. 12.) Such discussions greatly accelerated with the publication of the 1993 Beck/Daley book “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” which, in addition to two chapters on the Sistine Chapel carried a chapter on the National Gallery’s restorations. Responses to the book were various and sometimes startling. They prompted an additional chapter, “The Establishment Counterattacks”, in the revised 1996 American paperback edition. We should acknowledge here that the National Gallery, under its present director, Nicholas Penny, as initially under its previous director, Charles Saumarez Smith, has given ArtWatch UK full and most generously helpful access to all conservation and archival records, and that we have drawn heavily on the compendious material on the Gallery’s conservation practices that is provided in the annual Technical Bulletins. Moreover, since 2012 the Gallery has placed much archival material online.
Responses to “Art Restoration, the Culture, the Business and the Scandal”
After his initially even-handed coverage, Brian Appleyard now characterised Beck in the Independent as being “litigious” – even though he had brought no legal actions but had been sued (unsuccessfully) for criminal slander by an Italian sculpture restorer and had faced a possible prison sentence of three years. Appleyard compared the Beck/Daley book unfavourably before its publication – and before he had read it – with Walden’s book of 1985, specifically dismissing its unseen chapters on the Sistine ceiling on a Waldenesque insistence that “The fact that it was largely pure fresco made the cleaning process straightforward.”
On 18 November 1993 the New York Review of Books carried an essay by Charles Hope, on “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”. Hope (who was later to become, as Gombrich had been, the director of the Warburg Institute), recalled that “like many other art historians” his initial response to the cleaning had been “entirely favourable”, but which confidence, he now confessed, had been “entirely misplaced”. Viewed in their entirety, the cleaned frescoes create “a decidedly disagreeable impression: the colours are gaudy…the figures look crude and often flat and the architecture seems insubstantial and pedantic.” In short, “Restrained grandeur has been replaced by garish confusion” and it was “difficult to believe that the right procedure was adopted.” Worse followed for the restoration establishment. “Restorers are not always particularly well-informed about the history of art nor especially interested in it”, while, for their part, art historians “seldom have the scientific training to judge the full implication of the courses of action proposed to them.”
Perhaps most disturbing to the Sistine Chapel restoration supporters was Hope’s acknowledgement that when “Talking to friends I find that my unease is widely shared; and it is certainly noticeable that the completion of the restoration has not attracted the kind of acclaim that greeted the unveiling of the lunettes.” After the publication of his review, Hope told Beck in a letter (20 November 1993) “You’ll be cheered to know that several art historians have told me, by letter or in person, how glad they were that I had said what I did.” This greatly amplified a note of caution that had already been present in Nicholas Penny’s observations in the LRB nine months earlier:
“I have met few art historians, even among those who are nervous about the cleaning of paintings, who believe that a mistake was made in cleaning the ceiling. Nevertheless, many art lovers were shaken by what has been published on the subject and some have been no less alarmed by what they have seen in the chapel itself.”
A Restorer’s Response
Temperatures rose after Hope’s review. The Art Newspaper allotted four pages in its May 1994 issue for the counter arguments of Helen Glanville, a Courtauld Institute-trained picture restorer who had read Modern Languages at Oxford. Like Brandt seven years earlier in Apollo, Glanville struck a combative tone and a tendentious note by producing accounts of our “Accusations” against which she provided lawyerish “Defences” written in consultation with the authorities. In 1963 Gombrich had complained “Nobody who criticizes the policy of a great institution expects such criticism to be accepted without further argument. What one has the right to expect, however, is that the answer should concern itself with the substance of the criticism.” In language eerily reminiscent of that used against Beck by Shearman, Glanville challenged not only our character but the judgement of those who had supported us: “The most disturbing aspect is that reviews of the book (including that by Charles Hope in the New York Review of Books of 18 November 1993) appear to indicate that even respected members of the art world accept Daley’s presentation of ‘facts’ at face value”.
Hope sent a letter to Glanville explaining that he had been “particularly careful not to take Daley at his word”, that he had checked what I had written on Sebastiano was in accordance with the monograph on the artist by Professor Michael Hirst (of the Courtauld Institute, and a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling), and also with “the account of the [Sebastiano] restoration in the National Gallery’s Annual Report”. In further reproach, he added “I would have thought it was fairly obvious to anyone familiar with the recent literature that I had done my homework, not least because there are various arguments and texts used in the review which do not figure in the Beck-Daley book at all.  In my review I have tried very hard to be fair to both sides…Having read your article I see nothing that ought to be changed; indeed it would be difficult to see what you actually found objectionable in it…Before I began working on the review my scholarly sympathies were entirely on side of the defenders of the recent restoration, and I was hoping indeed expecting, to be persuaded that my unease at the present appearance of the ceiling was unjustified. But the reverse has happened, and not just because Beck and Daley produced such compelling arguments…” Hope then set out with great clarity the scholarly import of the material evidence we had supplied and which he had found persuasive:
“I was disappointed that you did not discuss directly what seemed to me the most important single type of evidence in the whole controversy, the drawing by Clovio of Jonah [see Fig. 1] and the one at Windsor showing the whole ceiling. Both of these, as you will remember, can be securely dated to no later than 1534, and they both show very specific, well-defined areas of shadow also recorded in the engravings of the sixteenth century and later, which have now disappeared. The important thing is that the drawings predate the engravings, that they were manifestly produced independently of one another, yet they are consistent. If they are misleading in the same way, we need to have some explanation of why this is so, because if Michelangelo did paint shadows of the kind they show, and in the places they show, then Beck and Daley would seem to be vindicated.”
Gombrich’s Denial of Historical Realities
Coming so soon after Hope’s generous and substantial support, Gombrich’s claim, as a scholar with an impeccable record as a critic of restorations, that cast shadows had popped out of existence for the duration of the High Renaissance might have seemed like manna to the National Gallery and the Vatican. Did his historical account not implicitly constitute a most authoritative rebuttal of the Beck-Daley, Hope-supported, central claim that the destruction of Michelangelo’s cast shadows had given historically corroborated proof of injury to the Sistine Chapel ceiling? In so doing, did he not also provide express relief to the restorers themselves? If the shadows had never existed during the High Renaissance, as he was claiming, how could they possibly have been harmed in restoration?
In May 1994 The Art Newspaper published my letter of reply to Glanville’s article. It concluded: “this concern [over restorations] is shared by others. The current director of the Prado, Calvo Serrraller, has condemned the Sistine Chapel restoration as a misguided ‘face-lift’. A restorer in St Petersburg complains of the ‘perniciousness of radical British restoration techniques’. A curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum condemns the ‘strident tones’ produced by ‘the exuberant cleaning of paint surfaces, for which the National Gallery has unfortunately become famous’. It is a pity that the National Gallery staff are not prepared to debate these matters directly. It is a pity that discussion should be necessary at all when, to educated eyes, the evidence of injury contained in before and after cleaning photographs is so unmissable.” It would seem, (on Gombrich’s recollection – “In the shadow of the masters”, interview, The Art Newspaper, May 1995) that that very month, the National Gallery’s director, Neil MacGregor, approached Gombrich to ask whether he would do an exhibition in the “The Artist’s Eye” series (in which artists assembled and discussed selections of paintings made from within the Gallery’s collection).
Mr MacGregor’s Choice
Gombrich submitted five or six proposals from which, he said, MacGregor “selected shadows”. Thus the National Gallery had obtained an exhibition that purported to explain why the masters of the High Renaissance had opted to “show us a shadowless world”. If the content was helpful to the Gallery, the fact of Gombrich’s participation might have been a greater boon still. As a critic of the Gallery’s restorations during the 1950s and 1960s he had been a dangerous foe. Before becoming the National Gallery’s director, MacGregor, as editor of the Burlington Magazine, had himself been a partisan of restorations and was well aware of Gombrich’s standing in these disputes. In a Burlington editorial in January 1985, MacGregor had written:
“Cleaning controversies are probably the liveliest, and they are certainly the hardiest, of the art world’s perennial topics of discussion. Of course, thefts and exports make bigger headlines, but they lack conversational staying power, just as new record prices slip faster and faster from the memory. But debates on cleaning run and run, this Magazine having been the forum for one of the most celebrated jousts in the early 1960s.”
MacGregor then drew a distinction that marked a crucial advance that picture restorers had made by the 1980s: “Then the key question was how, or even whether, to clean. Now it is more likely to focus on what can be learnt through cleaning about the picture itself.” This rebranding of art restoration, despite all of its inherent risks, as an aid to scholarship had seemed a spectacular professional coup. By the late 1980s museum restorers had forged a common professional alliance with curators in which “discoveries” made in the course of a restoration could be presented to the world through professional journals, museum press releases, and newspaper/television interviews. The National Gallery laid claim for having pioneered the new hybrid discipline known as Technical Art History, in which curators, restorers and scientists pool efforts so as to fly in tight professional formations. In reality, museums and galleries had set themselves a trap – and Gombrich had chosen the worst possible moment to flip sides in the Great Restoration Battles: to talk about what has been learned/discovered requires the production of material, visual evidence and such evidence becomes fair game for examination.
Gombrich’s Case Against the National Gallery’s Restoration Methods
In 1950 Gombrich had drawn attention in a letter to the Burlington Magazine, to a passage in Pliny which described wondrous effects achieved by the legendary painter Apelles when he finished off his pictures with a thinly spread dark coating or “varnish”. How could we be sure, Gombrich asked, that no Renaissance masters had ever emulated the great painter of antiquity by applying similarly toned varnishes to their own works? He received no reply from the National Gallery. Ten years later, he put the question again in his book “Art and Illusion”, this time provoking Helmut Ruhemann, the Gallery’s pioneering exponent of “Total Cleaning”, into a categorical insistence that “there is no evidence for anything so inherently improbable as that a great old master should cover his whole picture with a ‘toning down layer.’”
Gombrich returned to the fray in 1962 in a Burlington Magazine article (“Dark varnishes – Variations on a Theme from Pliny”) contending that even a single instance of tinted overall varnish would undermine the philosophy of the Gallery’s intrusive restorers who presumed to discern and recover originally “intended” effects among the complex, variously degraded, many times altered material layers of old paintings. Gombrich had cited Pliny’s remarkable technically eloquent account of Apelles’ method: “He used to give his pictures when finished a dark coating so thinly spread that, by reflecting, it enhanced the brilliance of the colour while, at the same time, it afforded protection from dust and dirt and was not itself visible except at close quarters. One main purpose was to prevent the brilliance of the colours from offending the eye, since it gave the impression as if the beholder were seeing them through a window of talc, so that he gave from a distance an imperceptible touch of severity to excessively rich colours.” To the National Gallery the suggestion that colour might be suppressed in any degree by an artist was an affronting heresy, and the idea that a dark toning layer might simultaneously render colours individually more brilliant while collectively more unified was an oxymoron.
The Gallery’s then head of conservation science, Joyce Plesters, responded with a long, witheringly dismissive rebuttal in the Burlington (“Dark Varnishes – Some Further Comments”). Professor Gombrich, she insisted, lacked “technical knowledge” and his scholarship was incomplete and misinterpreted. The entire documented history technical history of art – much of which she appeared to quote – showed that “no convincing case” could be made for a single artist ever having emulated Apelles’ tinted varnish. The passage from Pliny, she sniffed, was but a matter of “academic rather than practical importance” – a charge that was echoed by the director, Philip Hendy, in the Gallery’s Annual Report where he disparaged technically ignorant “university art historians”. Plesters grandly offered to “sift” and “throw light” upon any further historical material that Gombrich or others might care to present in future directly to the National Gallery. Once again, a moment of high political danger for the Gallery’s restorers and curators passed: if no evidence existed of artists having used glazes and varnishes in the manner alleged by critics, how could restorers possibly be damaging them?
The controversy slowly subsided into isolated protests such as that of the painter Pietro Annigoni who painted “MURDERERS” onto the doors of the National Gallery, one night in 1970, in protest against what he had described in a 1956 letter to the Times as “atrocious results [that] reveal an incredible absence of sensibility”. But by 1977 it was “game-over”, so to speak. That year the National Gallery felt confident enough to launch its Technical Bulletin in which restoration methods would be described and illustrated. In it, Plesters mused complacently that “one or two readers may recall the furore when the cleaning of discoloured varnishes from paintings…began to find critics”. (On Plesters’ own technical incompetence, see our post of 27 January 2011.) In the same year a former director of the Gallery, Kenneth Clark, pronounced picture cleaning “a battle won” and claimed responsibility for the victory by having installed a “scientific department with all the latest apparatus” at the National Gallery. He had done so, he said, not because he believed in the “application of science to picture cleaning”, but rather because “until quite recently the cleaning of pictures used to arouse extraordinary public indignation, and it was therefore advisable to have in the background what purported to be scientific evidence to ‘prove’ that every precaution had been taken.”
Joyce Plesters died in October 1996. Earlier that year the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin carried reports of the cleaning of two paintings by Leonardo’s follower Giampietrino. One, his Salome, had suffered the usual weakening of modelling and shading. The other, his Christ carrying his Cross (Fig. 45) had not. Intriguingly, the latter was said to enjoy both “intensity of colour” and a “restrained overall effect” – the very paradoxical effect the Gallery had dismissed as inherently improbable. Even more remarkably, Giampietrino had first built up an “illusion of relief” with “dark translucent glazes”, and then – just like Apelles – had deliberately “restricted his own range of values” with “a final extremely thin overall toning layer consisting of warm dark pigments and black [!] in a medium essentially of walnut oil with a little resin”. The “varnish” was thus virtually identical as a material to the painting itself – which may explain why it had survived for so long. Many, more soluble, resin varnishes with warm dark pigments had been judged to be earlier restorers’ attempt to impart a deceiving “old masters’ glow” after a harsh cleaning…and removed as alien disfigurements.
Conspicuously, the Technical Bulletin reports made no reference to the Burlington Magazine’s celebrated joust of the early 1960s. Had the Gallery privately informed its recently honoured guest exhibitor of his belated vindication, we wondered? It had not. When we informed Gombrich of this technical corroboration, he replied:
“Many thanks for your letter. I happen to have a birthday these days (87, alas!) and I could hardly have a nicer present than the information you sent me. I don’t ever see the N. G. Technical Bulletin and would have missed their final conversion to an obvious truth! Better late, than never. There is more joy in heaven (or Briardale gardens)…”
We published an account of the National Gallery’s remarkable discovery, and of Gombrich’s response to it, in the November 1998 Art Review (“The Unvarnished Truth”). Three years later in a prefatory remark for the revised 2004 edition of Walden’s book “The Ravished Image”, Gombrich announced: “It is now clear that the position I took forty nine years ago in this matter has been vindicated”. As, indeed, it had been, but curiously, Gombrich declined to mention the fact that an exact analogue of Apelles’ reported practice had been discovered on the work of an associate of Leonardo’s within the conservation studios of the Gallery which had originally dismissed his claims but recently honoured him with an “autograph” exhibition. Instead, he attributed his vindication to research reported five years later in a Burlington Magazine article of January 2001 on work conducted in the conservation studios of the Getty Museum. The article, “‘Amber Varnish’ and Orazio Gentileschi’s ‘Lot and His Daughters’”, by Mark Leonard, Narayan Khandekar and Dawson W. Carr, was certainly an important document. It reported that underneath a thick recent, disfiguring but easily soluble varnish, an older thinner much tougher (but still soluble) varnish “remained directly on the paint surface in many areas.” Examinations of paint samples established that “in some areas at least”, this varnish layer had been applied “very early in the life of the painting”, if not originally.
It had been found that in areas where sections of this early, possibly original varnish had been removed in earlier cleanings, the artistic consequences had been devastating:
“One particularly prominent loss was in the neck of the daughter at the left. The older varnish remained intact throughout the face, yet at the line of the chin it had been broken through, and removed throughout the rest of the neck. To the naked eye, it looked as if the final layer of modelling in the neck had been ripped from the surface. Although the preparatory flesh tones were still intact, the carefully nuanced sculptural solidity found throughout the rest of the face was missing.”
Although no one noticed it, this last remark echoed and corroborated Annigoni’s Times complaint of 1956 that restorers at the National Gallery pronounce “miracles” when “brilliant colours begin to appear“. Unfortunately, he continued, “what they have found are nothing but the preparative tones, sometimes even of the first sketch, on which the artist has worked carefully, giving the best that is in him, in preparation for the execution of the finished work.”
Welcome as such recent confirmations of longstanding claims by artist and art historian critics of restorations are, it should be noted to how great an extent they are arising after the horse had bolted. The National Gallery has yet to disown any of its post-war restorations – in which period it has restored and often re-restored almost its entire collection and often to seriously deleterious effects (see Figs. 55 to 59b by way of example). As the unwisdom of stripping off old varnishes finally begins to gain acceptance in restoration and curatorial circles, the fact remains that had artists’ testimony been heeded, not only would the ponderous and hugely expensive particle accelerators and other “diagnostic” apparatuses of modern museum conservation departments not have been needed, but that much of our visual cultural patrimony could far sooner have been spared mistreatment. Even before Gombrich’s first 1950 letter to the Burlington, in 1946, a painter, Laura Knight, had explained the intrinsic dangers of picture cleaning with perfectly calm “hands-on” knowledge and clarity in a letter to the Times (27 November):
“With the exception of direct painting, a comparatively modern method, a painter builds his pigment onto 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 – the removal of the covering varnish – is bound to remove also this surface painting and should never be undertaken.”
Although Gombrich might well once again have been feeling that “There is more joy in heaven…” this early or original Getty Museum Varnish had not corroborated his Apelles’ thesis to the same degree as the National Gallery’s research on the Giampietrino. There, the surviving original “varnish” layer was not simply naturally discoloured but had been deliberately loaded with “warm dark pigments and black”.
Had Gombrich learned of his own vindication on this point a decade sooner, he might perhaps have been less censorious of those who claimed that Michelangelo, too, had toned down his own colours with black pigment on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He might even have been less easily persuaded that Michelangelo had confined himself to painting into wet plaster with waterbound pigments. For that matter, even as late as 1993, had Gombrich heeded (as had done his successor at the Warburg Institute, Charles Hope), the hard evidence we presented in “Art Restoration” that the most massively extensive applications of original dark toning layers had occurred on the greatest masterpiece of the High Renaissance – Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling – he might have enjoyed his sense of vindication sooner . He might also then have appreciated that the very technical proof of the antiquity of the discoloured layer on the Orazio Gentileschi painting (the fact that this layer had not run into pre-existing age cracks) had been observed more than a century earlier on the surface of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling; that the ceiling’s controversially removed a secco passages had, in fact, precisely passed the Getty Cracks Test. As Charles Heath Wilson had discovered and reported when examining the ceiling within touching distance:
“There can be no doubt that nearly all of this work is contemporary, and in one part only was there evidence of a later and incapable hand. The size colour has cracked as the plaster has cracked, but apart from this appearance of age, the retouchings have all the characteristics of original work.”
Where Brandt had reported in her influential Apollo article that while the restorers had been on the lookout for “the famous secchi”… “they were surprised not find a secco passages”, Wilson had found it without any difficulty (and without any hi-tech apparatus) because: “Retouches in size-colour are easily recognised. Pure fresco has a metallic lustre, but the retouches are opaque. They are also necessarily painted differently from the fresco, have a sketchy appearance, with hard edges, or are hatched [see Fig. 34] where an attempt is made to graduate them.”
Perhaps, even after twenty further years of campaigning, we might need to re-emphasize that earlier testimony of Wilson’s: the size colour had cracked as the plaster had cracked. The glue/size had not run into any pre-existing cracks. That is to say, the size colour had been applied before the plaster had cracked. The plaster is known to have cracked before any restorers went near the ceiling. Ergo, the size colour could only have been applied when the ceiling was new – and therefore Michelangelo alone could have been the author of the secco painting that lay so clearly to view on the dry surface of his frescoes. This hard technical proof cross-links with the even earlier artistic corroboration of Michelangelo’s authorship of the shading and the cast shadows that was found in Clovio’s beautiful hand-drawn sketch of the Jonah shown at Fig. 1. Moreover, had Gombrich heeded our 1993 account, he would also have appreciated that Wilson had, a century earlier, precisely confirmed his Apelles’ dark toning thesis, insofar as Michelangelo’s extensive secco paintwork had been observed to have “consisted of a finely ground black, mixed with a size”.
By accepting Wilson’s firsthand testimony, Gombrich would further have appreciated, pace Mrs Walden, that Michelangelo had put this secco work to the following extensive artistic ends:
“The shadows of the draperies have been boldly and solidly retouched with this size colour, as well as the shadows on the backgrounds. This is the case not only in the groups of the Prophets and Sibyls, but also in the ancestors of Christ in the lunettes and the ornamental portions are retouched in the same way. The hair of the heads and the beards of many of the figures are finished in size colour, whilst the shadows are also thus strengthened, other parts are glazed with the same material, and even portions of the fresco are passed over with the size, without any admixture of colour, precisely as the force of watercolour drawings is increased with washes of gum…These retouchings, as usual with all the masters of the art at the time, constituted the finishing process or as Condivi expresses it, alluding to it in the history of these frescoes, ‘l’ultima mano’. They were evidently all done at the same time and therefore when the scaffold was in place.”
And not only! He would have seen an anticipation of the Getty Museum Optical Identification of Aesthetic Injuries Method. That is, Wilson had testified precisely that the faces of the Prophets Daniel and Jeremiah had “undoubtedly been injured by rude hands, suggesting that glazing has been partially or entirely swept away”. Specifically: “The face of Jeremiah seems colourless and painted in black and white only: that the face of Daniel is blotched with brown marks.”
Gombrich had thus been magnificently vindicated twice over on his Apelles Thesis: once on the testimony of a close follower of Leonardo, and once on the testimony of the mighty Michelangelo. He had very graciously accepted news from us of the (lesser) confirmation from within the National Gallery. How sad it is that he had left himself unable to lay rightful claim to the vastly more substantial example of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings. How sad, too, that in defending his error of judgement on Michelangelo, he should have obliged himself to unperson the artistic legacy of the twin giants Michelangelo and Raphael in order to mount an incoherent untenable shabby little exhibition at the National Gallery.
Sad as this all is, even now, it is not yet the end of the tragedy. Art historians and their (reversible) tribulations aside, how terrifying it remains that the consequence of the destruction of the precious historic/artistic material that comprised the finishing stages of Michelangelo’s own paintings (and which had protected the fresco surfaces for hundreds of years) is that the remaining now stripped-bare surfaces have been left prey to a persisting polluted atmospheric stew for which no solution has been found by the Vatican’s technical and scientific wizards after two decades of assurances – and twenty-six years after Prof. Brandt disclosed in Apollo that “I have urged repeatedly that problems of climate and pollution control in the Sistine Chapel be given higher priority.” In our post of 21 January, “Setting the Scene, Packing Them In” we cited reports that as many as 20,000 visitors a day were being run through the Chapel. Already, we are outdated. More recent reports put the daily total as high as 30,000 – and report a new pestilence: pickpockets operating within the Pope’s private chapel.
1. “The Sistine ceiling and the Critics”, David Ekserdjian, December 1987.
2. Wldemar Januszczak, “Sayonara Michelangelo”, 1991. Publisher: Bloomsbury, London.
3. The force of this distinction masked certain inconsistencies. For example, even in Britain during the early post-war period when national schools or tendencies were most pronounced, two highly successful German restorers represented polar opposites in picture restoration’s “ideological” wars. While Helmut Ruhemann lead the controversial school of “Total Cleaning” from within the National Gallery, Johannes Hell championed the philosophy of gradualist and minimalist restorations in which an overall appraisal of the aesthetic consequences of cleaning was maintained at all times. Hell, whose work was admired by members of the Royal Academy, including its painter-president, Gerald Kelly, did so from a successful career within the private sector but his disciples were to gain influential positions in the US museum world. Today, the linkage of competing restoration philosophies to national practices has lost almost all force. All museums – like the Louvre, like the Getty – now sport increasingly powerful science departments and engage nationally and internationally in the kind of professional collaborations between restorers, scientists and curators that operate under the new umbrella discipline know as Technical Art History – and there is scarcely a Technical Art Historian today who would subscribe to a “Total Cleaning” philosophy. Virtually to a person, restorers nowadays declare themselves to be minimalists.
4. Originally published under the title “Rhétorique de l’attribution (Reductio ad absurdum)” in Revue de l’Art, 42, October 1978. Republished as “The rhetoric of attribution – a cautionary tale” in Reflections on the history of art, 1987. (We are indebted to Charles Hope for locating the sources of this vividly recalled but utterly misplaced text.)
5. Charles Hope wrote to Helen Glanville: “The Fichard passage, for example, was not mentioned by them, but by Mancinelli, and I had to consult to Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft for 1891 to discover the full context; and it was Conti who drew attention to Michelangelo’s purchase of lake in 1508…” In the third James Beck Memorial Lecture, in London, June 2011, Hope discussed the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration in the context of the National Gallery’s post-war restoration policies. He warned how misunderstandings of key art historical terms such as sfumato and colorito had carried grave and irreversible consequences for much art “as it did in the case of the Sistine ceiling”. Hope’s lecture has been published in full in the ArtWatch UK members’ Journal No. 28. (For membership subscription details, contact Helen Hulson, Membership and Events Secretary, ArtWatch UK, at: email@example.com)
6. …or, even sooner still, had he read Alexander Eliot’s essay “The Sistine Cleanup: Agony or Ecstasy” in the March 1987 Harvard Magazine. In an interview with Einav Zamir on the Artwatch International website (“Evidence of the Eyes”), Eliot recalls: “Frank Mason said ‘We’ve got to protest and stop the cleaning’ to which I responded ‘You can’t buck city hall, let alone the Vatican.’ Then Frank said, ‘Yes, but think of how awful you’ll feel if you don’t try,’ and so he recruited me. I then wrote a piece for Harvard Magazine on the subject, which Jim Beck told me helped persuade him to join us. At that point, the Vatican became noticeably upset.”
For more of Eliot and Mason’s views on the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration, see A Light in the Dark: The Art & Life of Frank Mason and “Divine Light”.
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The Sistine Chapel Restorations: Part I ~ Setting the Scene, Packing Them In
The Vatican authorities are in conservation crisis today because they stripped the Sistine Chapel frescoes bare in the 1980s and 1990s. They did so against material and historical evidence that Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based a secco painting (see right and our posts of 1 April 2011 and 12 November 2012). That original, autograph material was removed in full knowledge that the stripped-down bare fresco surfaces would thereafter be attacked by atmospheric pollution unless given some other protective covering (see Appendix below). An attempt to coat the frescoes with synthetic resin (Paraloid B72) was abandoned leaving some surfaces clogged and the rest unprotected. The authorities then promised to install hi-tech paraphernalia that would somehow prevent the polluting atmosphere from making contact with the Chapel’s painted walls and ceiling (see caption at Fig. 4). As was shown in our previous post, that cockamamie promise was not delivered. Today, in a chapel increasingly over-crowded with paying visitors (see Fig. 1), these stripped-down frescoes stand in greater peril than ever.
Ironically, the “cleaning” of the ceiling, which arguably constitutes the greatest single restoration calamity of the 20th century, occurred at a time when picture restorers had skilfully rebranded themselves as safe, scientifically validated “conservators” of all that is valuable – even though Kenneth Clark had recently admitted to having founded the National Gallery’s science department in the late 1930s in order to dupe the public and wrong-foot restoration critics. A grandly titled “Laboratory for Scientific Research” had been created at the Vatican in 1922 on the “latest ideas” but during the 1980s Italian restorers admitted that running technical “tests” before restorations was professional “window-dressing” because it was always known in advance which materials were to be used.
Some restorers sincerely believed in the scientific hocus pocus that supposedly had trumped anachronistic and unacceptably “subjective” aesthetic responses. The appointed chief restorer of Michelangelo’s frescoes, Gianluigi Colalucci, was one such, insisting that: “Emotional and subjective considerations must not be permitted to intrude upon science”. At that time the Vatican’s curatorial and administrative authorities may not have sufficiently appreciated the extent to which every restoration of a great work of art is an accident waiting to happen: a collision of sublimity and incomprehension made tangible. In 1993, at the beginning of the fourth chapter of the JamesBeck/Michael Daley book “Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, we asked:
“If authentic painting by Michelangelo has been lost in the course of a scientific restoration, many questions need to be answered. Did a blunder occur because of or in spite of the use of a scientific approach? Has too great a dependence on scientific data undermined crucial powers of aesthetic discernment and judgement? Is the scientific method of restorers rigorous or slipshod? Is the scientific status of modern conservation legitimate or bogus? Do restorers always follow their own ground rules?”
In the last twenty years it has become clearer that the claimed scientific underpinnings of picture restoration methods were spurious and that an appreciation of the workings of art and its internal relationships is not to be gained through some analysis of material components in a laboratory, however highfalutin and expensive the “investigative” or “diagnostic” apparatus may be. Beyond its conceptually simplistic and aesthetically impoverished terms of reference, the very reporting of “scientific” conservation methods has lacked both critical rigour and methodological consistency. In practice conservation science has provided a flag of convenience under which fundamental artistic questions can be evaded while ever-more ambitiously grandiose, lavishly funded and spectacularly transforming projects are launched. The authorities at the Vatican seemed quite oblivious of the ease with which even the most modest restorations can escalate into dangerous and irreversible treatments.
In 1964 Dr Deoclecio Redig de Campos, the Vatican museums’ curator and director of restorations, launched a cautious cleaning of the 15th century frescoes by Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandio, Rosselli and Signoreli on the lower parts of the Sistine Chapel’s north and south walls. After 15 years, that programme led to the cleaning of two minor 16th century frescoes by Matteo da Lecce and van den Broecke on the east wall. By that date, direction had passed to Dr Fabrizio Mancinelli, the new curator (and soon to be, with Colalucci, the co-director of the Nippon Television Corporation-sponsored restoration of all of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes). As we reported in “Art Restoration”, Mancinelli decided that “Redig de Campos’s cautious policy of removing only part of the layer of grime and foreign substances…was not appropriate in this situation.”
What Mancinelli deemed appropriate was that the minor frescoes should be cleaned with the new aggressive cleaning compound AB 57, even though this would obliterate original painting applied a secco by the artists onto their frescoes when dry. Curiously, Mancinelli’s justification for this removal of authentic and historical material was primarily aesthetic. That is, he held that a cautious cleaning and repairing of the damaged original secco paints would give only “disappointing results” compared with what might be attained by what he termed “a more radical cleaning”. We should be absolutely clear: “radical” was a euphemism for stripping the paintings down to their bare fresco surfaces in order to introduce heightened (but inauthentic) colours. Although the programme was to prove unethical by restorers’ own professional codes, Mancinelli persuaded the authorities that the visual “gains” to be had by trading original material for chemically brightened colours on those two minor works would outweigh even a directly consequential need to “return to the side walls and [do] a more thorough job there too.” (Just as the slowest ship determines the speed of a convoy, so in decorated chapels the most brightly scrubbed surface sets the overall level of cleaning. Michelangelo’s fate was sealed.)
While restoring the east wall works in 1979, a single test of AB57 was made on one of Michelangelo’s lunettes (see Fig. 8 and, for the consequences, Figs. 4-7). Professor Carlo Pietrangeli, the director of the Vatican Museums, said in 1982 “the results were so encouraging that it was decided to take on the whole ceiling. By the summer of 1980 the work had begun.” As Pietrangeli told Patricia Corbett in the May 1982 Connoisseur, once AB57 was shown to deliver chromatically transformed frescoes, “No one was able to resist the temptation”. In 1987 Dr Walter Persegati, the Vatican Museums secretary and treasurer, said in the Bible Review “These tests brought forward such colours that we were both scared and excited…It was decided that the procedure developed for the cleaning of the van den Broeck and Matteo da Lecce was applicable to Michelangelo’s frescoes. Therefore, we decided we had to do it.”
Note that because it had been decided that it could be done, it was “therefore” also decided that it should be done. In Part II we investigate the means, the methods and the artistic consequences of that novel application of a new cleaning agent to the very old, very precious decorated surfaces of the Sistine Chapel. In doing so we also show why the Vatican’s curators were right to be scared.
“A major purpose of the conference was to underline a basic truth: the conservation of any work of art is doomed to failure unless equal emphasis is given to its past and its future vicissitudes…Scientists and historians worry that conservators can be too ready to intervene, too impatient of prior tests, and insufficiently heedful of future dangers.” ~ Kathleen Weil Garris Brandt, Professor of Fine Arts, at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and spokeswoman for the Vatican on the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, reporting the proceedings of the “London symposium on the conservation of wall-paintings” in the November 1987 Burlington Magazine.
“There is therefore much concern about the future of the frescoes, given that no protective layer has been applied in this campaign (the controversial use of paraloid was abandoned at an early stage of the cleaning of the lunettes). The Vatican has decided to seal the windows and introduce an air-conditioning and filtration system. Doubts were expressed at the conference. Could the threat from faulty air-conditioning be worse than the threat from atmospheric pollution and mass tourism? ” ~ Caroline Elam, editor of the Burlington Magazine, reviewing the 1990 symposium on the Sistine ceiling restoration held in Rome to give preliminary consideration to the cleaning of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement”.
“A ‘drunken herd’ of ‘unruly’ tourists is damaging Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel paintings, one of Italy’s leading arts figures claimed as the pope prepared to mark the 500th anniversary of the iconic frescoes’ creation.
Some 5 million people visit the chapel every year – sometimes as many as 20,000 in a single day — and an increasing number of experts are now arguing that mass tourism is damaging the paintings.
Despite a major, 14-year-long restoration project in the 1990s, they claim that the breath, sweat, dust and pollution brought in by visitors dramatically changes the Chapel’s humidity and temperature – factors to which frescoes are particularly sensitive…” ~ Claudio Lavanga, NBC News, 31 October 2012.
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Could the Louvre’s “Virgin and St. Anne” provide the proof that the (London) National Gallery’s “Virgin of the Rocks” is not by Leonardo da Vinci?
When the National Gallery’s restored “Virgin of the Rocks” was pronounced an entirely autograph Leonardo we were left reeling with incredulity. Picture restorers rarely decline opportunities to claim “discoveries” but could they really be claiming an ability to make a picture an autograph Leonardo simply by thinning its varnish? During the media frenzy of the National Gallery’s £1.5bn Leonardo blockbuster, its chief restorer, Larry Keith, was asked if a distinctive Leonardo brushstroke had emerged. “No”, he said, proof of authenticity lay in the picture’s internal relationships. Given that those relationships differ markedly from the ones present in the Louvre’s unquestionably autograph “Virgin of the Rocks”, what accounted for the discrepancies? The then curator, Luke Syson, replied that Leonardo’s style had, in the London copy, become abstracted, less naturalistic and more “metaphysical”. This seemed fanciful: had not all of Leonardo’s pictures carried a beguiling air of the metaphysical – and had this quality not derived from the artist’s preternaturally intense engagement with natural phenomena and the mysterious powers which operate through them? Had a new corroborating body of drawn studies emerged? The Gallery admits that not only is there no identifiable Leonardo brushwork but that the picture itself is “manifestly uneven in finish and execution” and that there has been “a good deal of agreement that Leonardo himself painted little or none of it”. When we asked if any securely autograph Leonardo paintings shared these newly claimed characteristics, Syson said that they were also found in the “Last Supper”, when only 20% of that large, fragmented, degraded, many-times restored, de-restored and re-restored mural survives – and when its recent restorers “discovered” that it had originally been choc-full of tiny naturalistic details (curtain hooks, slices of lemon, reflections on glassware, tablecloth patterns and so forth). Above all, the National Gallery’s latest upgrade flew in the face of – and seemingly sought to circumnavigate – a landmark 1996 article by a geologist (and now art historian), Ann Pizzorusso, who has shown that while the rock configurations in the Louvre version were entirely consistent with precise formations found in nature and in Leonardo’s own studies, those seen in the London version were found in neither. (See Pizzorusso, “Leonardo’s Geology: The Authenticity of the Virgin of the Rocks”, The MIT Press, Vol. 29, No. 3, and “Leonardo’s Geology: The Authenticity of the Virgin of the Rocks”, in Leonardo Magazine, Vol. 29. No. 3, 1996, pp. 197-200.) Here, Pizzorusso presents further elegant demonstrations of the London picture’s non-autograph status that are manifest in the (recently restored) late Leonardo masterpiece, “The Virgin and Child with St Anne”.
Ann Pizzorusso writes:
London’s National Gallery recently announced that its version of the “Virgin of the Rocks”, previously attributed to various artists who worked in Milan, was now, after being cleaned, solely the work of Leonardo da Vinci. The National Gallery supports its claims by stating that the work represents a change in style and that the geology in the picture is rendered in a more abstract, monumental style (see Appendix A).
While art historians have long discounted the National Gallery’s version as one by Leonardo, the Gallery has now discounted centuries of scholarship with their new interpretation and subsequent attribution of the painting to Leonardo. What is most ironic and troubling about the National Gallery’s position is that there are reams of contractual documents which still exist today documenting a 25 years long lawsuit concerning the two versions of the painting and which show, unequivocally, that Leonardo did not paint the version in the National Gallery. Prof. Charles Hope, a former director of the Warburg Institute, London, and an expert in notarial Latin states that there is no doubt that Leonardo painted the first version and not the second (New York Review, 9 February 2012).
While we may be able to forgive the National Gallery for not being up on notarial Latin, there is no excuse for their proposal that Leonardo changed his style. In the decades in which I have studied Leonardo from all aspects (we must remember, Leonardo did not consider himself primarily a painter) one thing stands out in all his works—a fidelity to nature and a lifelong effort to depict natural objects as realistically as possible.
The father of Leonardo studies, Carlo Pedretti, in his book analyzing Leonardo’s nature drawings, “Leonardo da Vinci Nature Studies from the Royal Library at Windsor Castle” (with a forward written by Kenneth Clark, a former director of the National Gallery in London), devotes the entire volume to discussing Leonardo’s preoccupation with natural objects and his fanaticism in attempting to depict them as realistically as possible. This passion was imparted to his students, Francesco Melzi, Cesare da Sesto, Giovanni Boltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono. So much so that a drawing of a Tree (RL 12417), long thought to be by Leonardo, was later attributed to Cesare da Sesto and a view of Amboise (RL 12727) to Francesco Melzi. In analyzing the works of Leonardo’s students one can see that they have followed Leonardo’s technique and depicted natural objects as realistically as possible. They had obviously heard quite a bit of ranting by Leonardo about “Botticelli’s bad landscapes” (see Appendix B).
Another reason why Leonardo’s approach is reflected in his art is that he was born in the transitional era of the late Middle Ages, an age still filled with superstition and fear, especially about such things as mountains, natural catastrophes and death. He grew up leading the way into the Renaissance, faced all these fears, and debunked them. He travelled extensively in the Alps outside of Milan taking note of nature and geology. He noted landslides and torrential flooding with its associated damage (see Figs. 3 & 4), he dissected corpses to provide the most accurate depiction of human anatomy we have ever had until relatively recent times. His work as engineer, geologist, botanist and astronomer cannot be disconnected from his work as an artist (see Figs. 8 & 9). To understand Leonardo, one must understand him completely. And to understand him completely is not difficult. He has written everything down. He was faithful to nature. If one applies just that one rule to Leonardo da Vinci, looking at his work from a scientific standpoint, the answer is crystal clear: fidelity to nature is a Leonardo trademark that can be used to determine the authenticity of his work.
Now that we have seen that the National Gallery has preferred not to acknowledge the work of many esteemed Leonardo scholars, maybe looking at the recently cleaned “Virgin and Child with St. Anne” in the Louvre will change its mind (see Figs. 1, 7, 10, 11, 14, 17, & 21). The “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, dated to about 1510, came later than the National Gallery version of the “Virgin of the Rocks”. We do not know how much later, as the National Gallery has now dated the initiation of its version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” as 1491/2-9 and its completion to 1506-08. Professor Hope, in his review of the notarial documents regarding the lawsuit states that the National Gallery version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” could not have been painted before 1508.
If we use the 17 year time period (1491-1508) which the National Gallery cites for its “Virgin of the Rocks”, it would mean Leonardo was painting the “Last Supper” (1492-7/8), completing the Burlington Cartoon (1499-1500 or 1506-08) and the “Virgin of the Rocks” at the same time. On page 96 of Kenneth Clark’s book entitled “Leonardo da Vinci” he indicates that Leonardo was exceptionally busy. Apart from the first “Virgin of the Rocks” his time was taken up with work for the court. He was the court limner and also painted two portraits of the Duke’s mistresses Cecilia Gallerani and Lucrezia Crivelli. With these portraits, we would be up to five major works in progress by Leonardo if we include the National Gallery’s “Virgin of the Rocks”.
This being said, all of these works being done at nearly the same time gives us the perfect opportunity to appraise, determine and evaluate the stylistic traits of the artist at that period of his career. In looking at the Burlington Cartoon and the “Virgin and St. Anne”, both are rich with geologic detail and accuracy. Leonardo has risen to new heights in his portrayal of landscape elements. His talent and passion are vividly displayed in the Burlington Cartoon and he reaches a level of sophistication, subtlety and accuracy in rendering the geology in the “Virgin and St. Anne” which had never been seen before (see Appendix C).
The St. Anne is a geologic tour-de-force. In fact, Leonardo experimented extensively on developing paints and a technique for depicting the pebbles of agate, chalcedony and marble at the feet of the Virgin and St. Anne (see in particular, Figs. 1 & 21). Leonardo writes in his notebooks about his efforts and how satisfied he was to have developed an approach to rendering the pebbles in such a realistic fashion. In fact the entire painting is one geologic treat after another. He had spent years in the Alps so he knew the landscape and geology exactly. With his newly developed technique for painting marbleized pebbles he was delighted (- see Appendix D).
Using a date of 1510 for the “Virgin and St. Anne” and a date of 1483-86 for the “Virgin of the Rocks”, both in the Louvre, we have proof that Leonardo did not change his style, and that, if anything, he became more fanatical in his quest for geologic accuracy, developing new paints and techniques for natural depiction and driving his students to deliver the most accurate depiction of nature in their own works.
So we must ask the question “How and why could Leonardo have changed his style to produce a work so lacking in geological and botanical accuracy as the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ in the National Gallery in London?” There is no evidence Leonardo changed his style and now, with the recently cleaned “Virgin and St. Anne”, we have that proof. We also know that his students were inculcated with his passion for accurate depiction of natural objects so we must also exclude his students as authors of the National Gallery work.
It would be best for the National Gallery to reopen the case for the attribution of the work to Leonardo. Hundreds of years of scholarship by Leonardo critics as well as the words and the works by Leonardo himself should not be discounted. The National Gallery does a disservice to those who have worked so hard to come up with incontrovertible evidence regarding the attribution of this work and most of all the National Gallery does a disservice to Leonardo himself.
The National Gallery’s claimed shift within Leonardo’s oeuvre
“We know that Leonardo’s painting technique gave priority to the figures. The Virgin is designed first, as she is in so many of his drawings, and the landscape seems to flow from her. Since Leonardo saw the painter’s acts of creation as analogous to God’s, his generation of the landscape in the Virgin of the Rocks and the absolute, unalterable perfection of the Madonna at the center could be understood as precisely connected with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. But the appearance of the Virgin and her companions, and of the plants and rocks, are different, in the two versions: the theological meaning of his stylistic choices has shifted slightly. In the Louvre picture Leonardo relies on entirely naturalistic tactics to give the picture its spiritual flavor: the sinless beauty of the Virgin becomes the same kind of truth as the natural beauty of the irises nearby. But in the London Virgin of the Rocks, the Virgin and Christ are supernatural, the world around rendered notably less naturalistically, the rocks are straightened to become great columns; the flowers appear to be ideal composites of the leaves and petals of real plants. Tackling the theme for a second time, Leonardo chose to show the viewer not just a vision of the Virgin Mary, but Gods’ perfect ideas for everything around her. What we are shown here is an ideal world made before the physical creation of our own imperfect cosmos, before the need for humankind’s salvation.”
The National Gallery catalogue, “Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan”, page 174.
Leonardo on Botticelli’s bad landscapes
“He is not universal who does not love equally all the elements in painting, as when one who does not like landscapes holds them to be a subject for cursory and straightforward investigation-just as our Botticelli said such study was of no use because by merely throwing a sponge soaked in a variety of colours at a wall there would be left on the wall a stain in which could be seen a beautiful landscape.”
Leonardo da Vinci, from: “Treatise on Painting”, the chapter on Criteria and Judgments, the subsection “How a painter is not worthy of praise unless he is universal”.
“Saint Anne–that delicate place, where the wind passes like the hand of some fine etcher over the surface, and the untorn shells are lying thick upon the sand, and the tops of the rocks, to which the waves never rise, are green with grass, grown fine as hair. It is the landscape, not of dreams or of fancy, but of places far withdrawn, and hours selected from a thousand with a miracle of finesse. Through Leonardo’s strange veil of sight things reach him so; in no ordinary night or day, but as in faint light of eclipse, or in some brief interval of falling rain at daybreak, or through deep water.”
Walter Horatio Pater, “The Renaissance, Studies in Art and Poetry”, The Echo Library 2006, page 54.
“The movement of the fifteenth century was twofold; partly the Renaissance, partly also the coming of what is called the ‘modern spirit’, with its realism, its appeal to experience. It comprehended a return to antiquity, and a return to nature. Raphael represents the return to antiquity, and Leonardo the return to nature. In this return to nature, he was seeking to satisfy a boundless curiosity by her perpetual surprises, a microscopic sense of finish by her finesse, or delicacy of operation, that subtilitas naturae which Bacon notices. So we find him often in intimate relations with men of science – with Fra Luca Paccioli the mathematician, and the anatomist Marc Antonio della Torre. His observations and experiments fill thirteen volumes of manuscript; and those who can judge describe him as anticipating long before, by rapid intuition, the later ideas of science. He explained the obscure light of the un-illuminated part of the moon, knew that the sea had once covered the mountains which contain shells, and of the gathering of the equatorial waters above the polar.
“Notebooks and sheets of about 1508 contain a number of notes on ‘mistioni’ (mixtures), a plastic material of his own invention with which he aimed at imitating the colour and design of semi-precious stones. He describes his production process and how, once the objects were thus produced, he spent much time finishing them with his own hand to a smooth and glossy surface…At the same time he was much taken by anatomical studies, so that when he described the production process of his ‘mistioni’ he came to specify the effect that was to be achieved: ‘…then you will dress it with peels of various colours, which will look like the mesentery of an animal’.
“In 1502, Francesco Malatesta wrote Isabella d’Este that Leonardo had looked at many of the Medici gems and objets d’art made of stone. Leonardo praised ‘the one of amythyst or jasper as Leonardo baptized it, because of the admirable variety of its colours’”.
Carlo Pedretti, Leonardo, A study in Chronology and Style, London, 1974, pages 132-137.
For an in-depth comparison of the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks see:
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Rocking the Louvre: the Bergeon Langle Disclosures on a Leonardo da Vinci restoration
ArtWatch has been haunted for two decades by a nearly-but-not-made restoration disclosure. In the 1993 Beck/Daley account of the Nippon TV sponsored Sistine Chapel restoration (Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal), we reported that in the late 1980s Leonetto Tintori, the restorer of Masaccio’s “Trinity” in the Santa Maria Novella, Florence, and a member of the international committee that investigated the controversial cleaning, had “urged the Sistine team privately to preserve what he termed ‘Michelangelo’s auxiliary techniques’ which in his view included oil painting as well as glue-based secco” (p. 111). What we had not been able to say was that Tintori (who died in 2000, aged 92) had prepared a dissenting minority report expressly opposing the radical and experimental cleaning method.
Shortly before the press conference called to announce the committee’s findings, Tintori was persuaded by a (now-deceased) member of the Vatican not to go public with his views. He was assured that his judgement had been accepted and that what remained on the Sistine Chapel ceiling of Michelangelo’s finishing auxiliary secco painting would be protected during the cleaning. With a catastrophically embarrassing professional schism averted, the restoration continued and the rest of what Tintori judged to be Michelangelo’s own auxiliary and finishing stages of painting was eliminated. Without knowledge of Tintori’s highly expert dissenting professional testimony, the public was assured that despite intense and widespread opposition the cleaning had received unanimous expert endorsement. Critics of the restoration were left prey to disparagement and even vilification.
On January 4th, we noted that in the widely reported schism that emerged at the Louvre with the resignations of Ségolène Bergeon Langle, the former director of conservation for the Louvre and France’s national museums, and, and Jean-Pierre Cuzin, the former director of paintings at the Louvre, from the Louvre’s international advisory committee on the restoration of Leonardo’s “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, it had been recognised that the resulting crisis of confidence was of a magnitude not seen since the Sistine Chapel controversy. Restoration advisory committees are not imposed on museums and customarily they serve as political/professional fig leaves. In the wake of the Louvre committee resignations, embarrassed and perhaps panicky members of the museum’s staff offered self-contradictory and unfounded assurances (see below). In January, the Louvre’s head of painting, Vincent Pomarède reportedly claimed that “The recent cleaning was absolutely necessary for both conservation and aesthetical reasons.” This assurance proved unfounded on both grounds. Pomarède added that no member of the committee “has ever said that the cleaning was not prudent and had gone too far technically.” One has now done so – publicly – and left museum restorations under an unprecedented spotlight.
During an earlier cleaning controversy at the Louvre, Edgar Degas threatened to produce an anti-restoration pamphlet that would be what he termed a “bomb” – but he never did so, so far as we know. Now, as Dalya Alberge reports in the Guardian, the French Le Journal des Arts yesterday published an interview with Ségolène Bergeon Langle of truly momentous if not incendiary consequence (see below). We learn that her resignation came after no fewer than twelve letters requesting information on the restoration’s course went unanswered; that it was made in specific and pointed protest against the use of retouching pigments whose safety had not been proven; and, that the Louvre’s public claims of some pressing conservation need to remove the varnish were false, having been made despite it being known within the museum that any potential threat to the paint came not from the varnish but from a single faulty board in the picture’s panel which was reacting to the museum’s insufficiently stable environmental conditions. Perhaps most disturbingly serious for art lovers are Bergeon Langle’s disclosures that along with old (but nonetheless still protective) varnishes, original material of Leonardo’s was removed – against her advice – from the painting; and, aesthetically, that it is confirmed that the modelling of the Virgin’s face was weakened (see Figs. 1 and 2; and, for weakening to the modelling of St. Anne’s face, Figs. 12 and 13).
That the Louvre authorities would not inform even so distinguished a member of its own advisory committee might suggest either that the restorers had not known in advance what they would be doing to the painting; or, they feared that disclosure of their intentions would provoke opposition within the advisory committee. Either way, this was clearly an unacceptable (if not improper) way for a museum to execute irreversible alterations to one of Leonardo’s most advanced sophisticated, complex and problematic works. To Bergeon Langle’s now public “insider” criticisms, additional detailed material to highlight further Louvre procedural shortcomings and misrepresentations to the press and to the public will shortly be presented by Michel Favre-Felix, the president of the Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique (ARIPA). Favre-Felix is also to call formally for the establishment of a national scientific ethics committee that would be independent of museums and their restoration teams and be charged with re-examining the conservation file on the challenged St. Anne restoration.
A second member of Louvre’s advisory committee, Jacques Franck, the world authority on Leonardo’s painting technique, has said to the Guardian that a restoration likely to generate such disapproval from leading figures should never have been undertaken in the first place and, given that Ségolène Bergeon Langle is unquestionably France’s highest authority on restoration matters, her alarmed protest is therefore one that should mean a lot to both Leonardo scholars and art lovers the world over.
Unfortunately, the restoration-induced changes on the St Anne are not unprecedented. It is Art’s general tragedy that while scholars have quietly enlarged the oeuvre of Leonardo over the last century and a half, restorers have repeatedly swabbed and scritched away at the surviving fabric of those precious works – sometimes to an astounding degree, as with the “Last Supper” in Milan. With the National Gallery’s substitute version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” we have seen how the distinctive Leonardesque expression on the angel’s mouth was altered (without any acknowledgement) despite the fact that a distinguished scholar and former director of the Gallery, Kenneth Clark, had seen the angel’s face as being “the one part of our Virgin of the Rocks where the evidence of Leonardo’s hand seems undeniable, not only in the full, simple modelling, but in the drawing of the hair”. It is a matter of note that four of the most enthusiastically supportive members of the Louvre advisory committee were drawn from the curators and restorers who were directly responsible for the London and Milan Leonardo restorations.
Of Leonardo’s accepted earlier paintings, in 1939 Kenneth Clark lavished especial praise on the treatment of modelling found on two portrait heads – and in his enthusiasm, he awarded the palm of best preservation to both of them. The “Ginevra Benci”, then in the Liechtenstein Collection but now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, was judged “the best preserved of all Leonardo’s early pictures”; one that “shows most clearly his intentions at this period”; and, one where “within the light oval of the face there is very little shadow, and the modelling is suggested by delicate gradations of tone, especially in the reflected lights.” Clark thrilled to the great refinement of execution: “We see a similar treatment of form in Desiderio’s low reliefs, controlled by the same sensibility to minute variations of surface. There are passages, such as the modelling of the eyelids, which Leonardo never surpassed in delicacy, and here for once he seems to have had none of that distaste for the medium which we can deduce from his later paintings, no less than from contemporary descriptions of his practice.” Ever aesthetically alert and deft, Clark saw all of these ultra-refined technical devices as being entirely “subordinate to the feeling of individual character with which Leonardo had been able to charge his portrait, so that this pale young woman has become one of the most memorable personalities of the Renaissance.” (We are grateful to Carroll Janis for drawing attention to this passage.)
Clark’s alertness to the physical/aesthetic characteristics of Leonardo’s hand was to the fore in his reflections on the “Portrait of a Musician” at the Ambrosiana in Milan. In the “subtle luminous modelling” of its head and its “delicate observation of light as it passes across the convex forms”, this work could only be “by Leonardo’s own hand alone and unaided” and it was “very similar to that of the angel in the Virgin of the Rocks”. As it stood before 1939, this too was “perhaps the best preserved of Leonardo’s paintings”, and in it we were then able to “learn something of his actual use of pigment, elsewhere obscured by dirty varnish, and we see that it was less smooth and ‘licked’ than that of his followers.”
Ironically, Clark, with his pathological aversion to “dirty” varnish (which is to say, old varnish on an old painting on an old support), was more responsible than anyone for the subsequent museum restoration/stripping mania. Looking around today’s museums, it is hard not to conclude that Clark might have been more careful in his wishes. Bergeon Langle’s warning against the modern addiction to penetrative imaging systems is particularly apt and timely: the hyper-active restoration changes (see right) made to the modelling and to the expression of those precious living Renaissance faces have cumulatively thinned and abraded pictures surfaces and material components and thereby remorselessly pushed great paintings into sad resemblances of their own infra-red under-states (see particularly, Figs. 4-11 and 19 & 20). Technical curiosity kills more than cats. In the case of Leonardo it has contrived to pull that artist back from his own increasingly lush highly-wrought subtly atmospheric shading towards the brilliant but thinner decorous linearity of Botticelli, when any comparison of the “Mona Lisa’s” hands with those of Leonardo’s “Annunciation” would have warned precisely against such perverse and regressive adulterations.
The interview given to Le Journal des Arts of 27 April, by Ségolène Bergeon Langle read as follows:
Why resign from the Louvre’s scientific advisory committee for the St Anne? “In January 2011 the committee had agreed on a gentle cleaning of late varnishes and the removal of the stains on the Virgin’s cloak. Yet, between July and October 2011 a more pronounced cleaning was done and presented as ‘necessary’, which I objected to. I was then faced with people who would oppose my position, which is technical and not based on aesthetics. My 12 letters [to the Louvre] asking for precisions on some aspects of the cleaning process and on the materials to be used for retouching, remained unanswered. I had to resign (on December 20th, 2011) to be heard just on one specific point: the Gamblin retouching pigments were not to be used since their innocuousness is not proven. Right from the beginning, false ideas have been put forth, like calling ‘repaints’ original retouches by Leonardo in the work’s early stages, or to attribute flaking in the paint layer to the ‘contracting varnish’, a [consequence that was] actually due to the sawing up of the wood [panel]…”
What do you think of the work done? “In my opinion, the precautionary principle hasn’t been respected. We must face the fact that the Virgin’s face is less modelled now. The cleaning should never have gone so far. However, I was happy that the grove [of trees] be preserved and, also, the ground’s material constituents that some ‘felt’ not original (though between January and April 2011 a brown-greenish section of the ground, located below St Anne’s elbow had been removed already). Besides, another matter of much controversy, the whitened layer on Christ Child’s body, has mistakenly been understood as a late varnish [that has] gone mouldy. I’m inclined to believe it was an irreversibly altered [original] glaze and, therefore, I have recommended that it be preserved, but nobody would hear me.”
The current Leonardo exhibition implies that his other paintings in the Louvre should be cleaned also. How do you feel about that? “Just not to do it, by all means! The original flesh paint in the St John-the-Baptist, being rich in oil, displays a significant network of drying cracks and might be fragile in the event of cleaning. For sure, scientific methods are essential but they need sound interpretation and wisdom dually… To date, there is too much boldness originating mistakes and an alarming fascination for infra-red investigation whereby are revealed under-layers that were never meant to be seen.”
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The Perpetual Restoration of Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ – Part 1: The Law of Diminishing Returns
The restoration of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” (1977 -1999) was defended last month at the National Gallery symposium on the artist’s methods and influence, by Pietro Marani, the Leonardo scholar who co-directed the restoration from 1993 onwards. When we pointed out that while the previous restoration had been praised for recovering all of Leonardo’s authentic paintwork, the last restoration had in fact introduced vast areas of new painting, Marani held that restorers and curators may impose their own generation’s values and interpretations. Appeals to the authority of one generation cuts little ice given how happy each proves to be to undo and redo its predecessor’s work – and, besides, given that on past form we are already half way along to the next generation’s “Last Supper” restoration, the one presently being defended is already approaching its own “sell-by date”.
In its early days, the last restoration was presented as a near miraculous liberation of the original and entirely unadulterated handiwork of Leonardo da Vinci, when that claim, far from being a novel one of its day, was, as mentioned, a re-run. In 1958, John Canaday, the art editor and art critic of the New York Times, reported how, following the war-time bombing of the refectory housing the mural in Milan:
“When the sandbags were removed…the ‘Last Supper’ was in such pitiful condition that historians were ready to list it as a war casualty. But since then the picture has been gone over as definitively as the combination of exhaustive scholarship and high technical skill make it possible to preserve once and for all whatever is discoverable of the original work. The results are better than anyone expected, although the painting still suggests a ghost at best or, at worst, an embalmed relic…”
Taking their cues from restorers, commentators often dismiss past treatments and celebrate more recent scientifically under-pinned “definitive”, “once and for all” and “miraculous” ones. (Just this week, a Rubens – his “Cain Slaying Abel” – that has been restored at the Courtauld Gallery with funding by the Bank of America, is said in a press release to have stabilized the painting for nothing less than “the next one hundred years”.) The “Last Supper” rescue operation took place in two stages in 1947-49 and 1952-54. In the first, the restorer Mauro Pelliccioli (see Fig. 1) supervised by a former Superintendent of Fine Arts in Milan, Fernanda Wittgens, anchored the disintegrating paint with shellac. As Wittgens’ wrote in the Christmas 1954 issue of Art News, “This was not ordinary shellac, of course, but an absolutely colourless one recently produced in England by a chemical process that removes all wax.” With this shellac, Wittgens went on, Pelliccioli performed his wonders:
“…it produced the greatest miracle of the entire restoration. The reattachment of the painted surface was achieved to perfection, and the colours acquired a new consistency as though they had been actually rejuvenated by the shellac that made them adhere to the wall…Mauro Pelliccioli, by doing away with all glues soluble in water, had permanently eliminated the danger of mould: he had at last hit upon a tremendously strong, transparent adhesive impervious to humidity.”
When the shellac was settled, Pelliccioli began scraping off the repaints of earlier restorers. Bernard Berenson visited the scaffold and later reported how, with no more than a penknife, a razor and a drop of turpentine, Pelliccioli had “touched bottom” by removing the “multiple restorations of centuries” and allowing the paint of Leonardo, “deteriorated by the centuries but no longer deturpated by incompetent hands” to be seen once more. In his diary note on October 21st 1953 Berenson said that Pellicciolli had known precisely “where to scrape” – a point echoed and amplified in H. H. Pars’ 1957 “Pictures in Peril”:
“Pelliccioli was able to distinguish those parts of the painting where nothing of the original painting was left, and those parts where overpainting and restoration concealed Leonardo’s own brilliant colours. Step by step these were revealed in the now firmly-fixed painting until we are now able to see Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ in better preservation than for many generations, deteriorated through the centuries it is true, but no longer marked and deformed by incompetent hands.”
Thus, to everyone’s satisfaction, the work had been physically rescued and what authentic Leonardo paintwork could be exposed to view had been liberated. Earlier restorers’ repainting was left in place only where it covered bare wall. Just twenty-one years later in 1975, Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, a former student of Pelliccioli’s, reported that fragments of paint were falling off the mural. Two years later, following tests, she began re-securing those parts of the paintwork that were becoming detached. Her minimal and straightforwardly necessary conservation measure was to mushroom, in parallel with the restorations of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, which began in 1980, and Masaccio’s Brancacci Chapel frescoes, which began in 1981, into one the most protracted radically ambitious, corporately-funded and controversial restorations of modern times.
It can now be seen that 1977 marked the high water mark of confidence in the recuperative powers of restorers and in the legitimacy of their increasingly bold and experimental methods. In the previous decade, heroic actions in wake of the floods in Florence had carried restorers to unprecedentedly high levels of public respect (even when they opted to strip frescoes from walls). In Britain, following a spuriously engineered triumph with the restoration of Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne” at the National Gallery, criticism had been declared dead by the victors. The National Gallery launched its Technical Bulletin in 1977 and in it, the Gallery’s head of conservation science, Joyce Plesters, mused complacently: “one or two readers may recall the furore when the cleaning of discoloured varnishes from paintings…began to find critics”. In the same year, Kenneth (Lord) Clark published his two volumes memoir “Another Part of the Wood” and “The Other Half” in which he pronounced picture cleaning “a battle won” and claimed credit for having taken the first steps, as director of the National Gallery (1934-1945), by installing a “scientific department with all the latest apparatus”. He had done so not because he believed in the “application of science to the problems of cleaning”, but because “until quite recently the cleaning of pictures used to arouse extraordinary public indignation and it was therefore advisable to have in the background what purported to be scientific evidence to ‘prove’ that every precaution had been taken.”
Duping the public in such manner occurred in Italy. In 1981, a year after the start of the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration in Rome, the restoration of the Brancacci Chapel commenced. Speaking of the prior tests made in connection with that restoration, the author Ken Shulman cites an Italian art historian (“Anatomy of a Restoration”, p. 156), who had said:
“Let’s be honest and admit what all restoration directors will say in private. At the beginning of any restoration, you order as many tests as you can imagine, fully aware that only about five per cent of them will be of any use during the restoration. The rest of the analyses are merely window dressing.”
With Leonardo’s “Last Supper”, amidst all the preliminary testing, no-one seemed concerned by the fly that was present in the ointment of Pelliccioli’s celebrated reductive, purist restoration: his liberation of Leonardo’s paintwork had come at a cost in terms of artistic legibility. A law of diminishing returns had been set in motion that would (as we will see in Part 2) produce panic and confusion among the restorers and their supervisors.
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What Price a Smile? The Louvre Leonardo Mouths that are Now at Risk
There is an air of confusion, and even a whiff of crisis, in today’s international art restoration community. At the National Gallery’s CHARISMA symposium on Leonardo’s technical practices and influence (January 13-14), many fascinating and highly informative demonstrations were made of non-invasive imaging techniques. A ground-breaking paper by Ana González Mozo revealed how the Prado’s copy of the Mona Lisa had faithfully tracked Leonardo’s own revisions on the original work. Imagine – a copy not so much of the finished masterpiece but of its very genesis. The proceedings, happily, are to be published. Unfortunately, at this richly rewarding and even-handedly conducted event, two critically serious weaknesses emerged during the proceedings and discussions that seemed linked and together to constitute a wider international art conservation faultline.
That is, firstly, there are manifest deficiencies of understanding on the crucial relationship between the discoveries that are being made through advances of technical analysis, and the original painterly/artistic means by which the art-objects-under-investigation were produced by artists in the first place. This single shortcoming carries profound cultural and professional consequences and is, we believe, a root cause of many of the controversies which arise in the field. Secondly, and concerning these controversies, a number of speakers (particularly Italian speakers, as it happens) used their papers to dismiss critics of their (sometimes long-past) restorations. Such combative unrepentance suggests how hard the task remains to establish some proper and effective systems and habits of disinterested critical appraisal in what is becoming an alarmingly expanionist and self-authorising and validating field. Much might be gained if restorer/conservationists themselves would devote more energies to those fruitful knowledge-advancing studies that leave vulnerable and uniquely precious historical works of art intact and free from what too often seem injudicious or debilitating interventions.
For some speakers, “virtual” indications of changes within pictures, seemed to be taken in themselves as invitations to swabs-on interventions. Certainly it seemed tactless and provocative when, at a time of great disputation, a Louvre curator, Vincent Delieuvin, ended a talk on non-invasive examinations of the museum’s Leonardo “Virgin of the Rocks” with the bald declaration “Restoration of the painting is possible”. Possible? No doubt it is politically so today at the Louvre, but desirable even under the present controversial circumstances? And what exactly has made this hitherto untreatable picture (see caption at Figs. 2 and 3) treatable? Must every restored masterpiece immediately trigger another? Will curators and their restorers never allow decent intervals for the fumes to evaporate and for their handiwork to be evaluated with due attention and consideration after the inevitable PR media barrages that nowadays accompany all major restorations? For that matter, is no one in authority concerned by the general and wider risks that are being incurred in the current Leonardo binge in which the oeuvre itself is being speculatively “grown” even as its most secure works are being recast by today’s more adventurous generation of technicians?
Concerning the Louvre fracas, Didier Rykner, surprised and disappointed us in his Art Tribune post of January 7th by disparaging the international debate on the restoration of Leonardo’s “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne”, that followed a Guardian report. Headed “A follow-up to the Debate…” that somewhat churlish post afforded a proxy defence of the Louvre’s current policy. Of the momentous resignations of Sègoléne Bergeon Langle, the former director for conservation at the Louvre and France’s national museums, and Jean-Pierre Cuzin, a former director of paintings at the Louvre, from the Louvre’s own international advisory committee, Rykner complains that the restoration has sparked a debate “when in fact nothing new has happened since since the month of October (see our article in French).” One thing that is new is that everyone now knows (thanks to the diligence and reach of the international press) what very few previously appreciated: a profound schism exists over picture restoration methods at one of the world’s greatest museums – in truth, the world’s greatest single museum – and, that the restoration of a major work of the world’s most famous artist is the centre of that dispute.
Rykner characterised the “Virgin and Child with St Anne” restoration as one in which only “three points had to be solved”, when, far from being some problem-solving exercise, this is a debate about the very nature and legitimacy of actions that might be made on an immensely complex, unfinished, ancient and precious masterpiece. Restorations never take place in antiseptic clinical spaces. They always reflect philosophies, interests and professional inclinations or dis-inclinations towards radical interventions. Conflicts in this arena are far from trivial and it is desirable that they should not take place in the dark.
There is great irony in the present situation. For many years after the Second World War, the Louvre occupied the virtuous conceptually elegant and restrained end of the restoration spectrum. And it did so in explicit opposition to the brutal simplistic campaign of “total cleaning” launched at the National Gallery by the restorer Helmut Ruhemann, who insisted that “important paintings should be thoroughly cleaned before we theorise about them”. Ruhemann’s influence at the National Gallery was under-written by the long-serving post-war director Philip Hendy, who wrote in the catalogue to the didactic 1947 exhibition of pictures cleaned (in secret) during the war: “The purpose of this exhibition is not only to do justice to the cleaned pictures, but, by extending the knowledge of their condition, to bring about a higher standard of criticism in this all-important subject.” By 1958 Bernard Berenson had been persuaded that “the recent restorations of pictures in the National Gallery are defended by most English people against the almost universal disapproval of continental craftsmen and critics.”
Berenson was right about the continental opposition but, perhaps being overly-reliant on the reports of Kenneth Clark (who had launched the National Gallery’s cleaning blitzkrieg in the late 1930s when he had hired “the brilliant Ruhemann”), he had quite missed the scale and the ferocity of opposition within England. In 1947 Hendy had made the self-defeating claim that: “There would not in all probability have been so much criticism of the appearance of the pictures cleaned since the war began if the public had been kept waiting until the cleaned pictures could be shown as they are shown [all together] now. Instead, they had to be scattered among the dirty pictures upon walls which there had been neither time no labour even to brush down after six years of increasing exposure to the elements.” If Hendy could not see the force of a widespread preference for “dirty” over “cleaned” pictures, by 1977 his predessor director, Kenneth Clark had quite forgotten the controversy the returned pictures had provoked: “A cleaned picture often looks very bright when first it is finished, but it loses its shine after a year or two, and I was fortunate in that the pictures I brought back for the reopening of the Gallery, all of which had been cleaned, had had time to ‘settle down’. No one complained about them.”
For a concrete example of the war-time consequences of Ruhemann-esque preludes to theorising, see Figs. 9 and 10. For a discussion of the role of the German restorer, Johan Hell, whose highly restrained work in Britain earned much support among artists and private patrons, see this author in the June, July/August and September 2006 issues of the Jackdaw. Hell’s great influence in Britain (he restored the collection of the Dulwich Picture Gallery to acclaim) was carried to the United States, albeit in dilute form, by his sometime student, John Brealey. In 1951, René Huyghe, the Louvre’s chief curator of paintings and drawings advised restorers and curators “If there is the slightest doubt, stop; for in this matter it is inadmissible to make a mistake. Excessive prudence leaves the future open without compromising it. But mistakes made by presumption are irreparable.” In the Sunday Times (15 January 2012) Bergeon Langle said “We prefer the most moderate cleaning possible. But my views weren’t taken into consideration.”
Not heeded, perhaps, but widely noted nonetheless. The debate that has been opened by the two Louvre resignations shows no sign of abating. In a recent article Bergeon Langle has further explained: “I deemed that the restoration was not being carried out in line with what I imagined was necessary for this Louvre painting. That is my firm belief.” We now learn through such increasingly frequent press reports and the assorted leaks and briefings on this schismatic dispute within the museum’s twenty members strong advisory committee, that the Louvre’s present curators, with the encouragement of certain English and Italian curator and conservator members of that committee, are resolved to pursue more radical, less precautionary treatments. What makes this dispute-among-experts so alarming is that evidence of the consequences of the shift from caution and physical restraint within the Louvre already exists – we don’t have to read the book (and the official accounts, should they ever be made available), we can simply look at the pictures: as previously shown, restorers at the museum may now change and then re-change the expressions on old master faces without even being required to record their adulterations in the museum’s dossiers. This, by any standards is an already extraordinary and indefensible position.
News of the Louvre resignations comes just seven months after the shocking disclosure of its cosmetic facial exercises and at the point where the cleaning of the “St. Anne” is completed and the perilous stage of retouching begins. It so happens that the expression of St. Anne’s mouth is interrupted by a panel join (see Fig. 1) which might provide another temptation for a little cosmetic surgery with the retouching brushes. We were not reassured when the Louvre’s present head of painting, Vincent Pomarede said recently that the retouchings would be “reversible”. “So what?”, we would ask. As shown right (Fig. 5), the Louvre recently made two egregious errors on a single Veronese face. That the second falsification – which is still in place – is theoretically as removable as the one it superseded does not mitigate the presently persisting offence and lapse of curatorial vigilance. The two members of the Louvre advisory committee from the National Gallery who have been enthusiastic supporters of the current restoration (the then curator Luke Syson, who has moved to the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and the head of conservation, Larry Keith), happen themselves to have been responsible on their own patch for another incomprehensible, initially unacknowledged (- even in the Gallery’s own Technical Bulletin report) but again “reversible” alteration to a (Leonardo) mouth – see Figs. 6, 7 and 8.
One of the more monumentally controversial restorations defended at the National Gallery symposium was that of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon. Sponsored by the Olivetti corporation, the restoration had been directed by the distinguished Leonardo scholar Pietro Marani, who is a member of the Louvre’s “St. Anne” advisory committee, and like Syson and Keith an enthusiastic supporter of the present restoration. When we pointed out at the conference that the previous restoration of the “Last Supper” in the 1950s had been praised at the time by Bernard Berenson as an ultimate recovery of all the surviving authentic Leonardo paintwork, Pietro Marani countered by claiming a right for each generation’s restorers and curators to impose their own values and interpretations on historic works of art. The consequences for Leonardo’s “Last Supper” of the claimed (“Buggins’ Turn”?) right to undo and redo every great work of art, will be examined in our next post.
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Perhaps the last word should be given to
Sègoléne Bergeon Langle who has recently commented:
“As a general rule, I prefer old works to be cleaned only very lightly. You can never retrieve the original colours, what you get instead is the current state of the painting materials. Leaving a slight veil over the work makes it
The National Gallery’s £1.5 billion Leonardo Restoration
Two decades after recognising that art restoration “discoveries” and “revelations” had become very big business, we encounter a blockbuster exhibition that required a Government indemnity of £1.5 billion and was specifically launched as a vehicle to celebrate a restoration that had yet to take place: “We started thinking about this five years ago, when we were beginning to plan the restoration of ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’, so an exhibition to celebrate that project seemed like the right thing to do.” So said Luke Syson, the curator of the National Gallery’s “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter of the Court of Milan” exhibition, in a BBC interview.
Museum restorations never take place in vacuums. If you build an exhibition on the proposed restoration of a very famous artist’s work you set certain narrative expectations in motion; create pressures and hopes of big, dramatic results. When the “Virgin of the Rocks” was put back on display after its restoration – and pronounced an entirely autograph Leonardo, even though the restorer had not removed all of his predecessor’s varnish – I was pleased to discuss the then forthcoming Leonardo exhibition with Luke Syson who said that its scholarly focus would be an analysis of the influence that a new type of Leonardo painting had had on his followers. Namely, that during the 15 or so years long gestation of the National Gallery’s version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” which was delivered unfinished in 1508, and the contemporaneous (1492-98) “Last Supper” in Milan, Leonardo’s painting style had become distinctly abstracted, less naturalistic and more metaphysical in character. When I expressed scepticism that this thesis might rest secure on two such different works as the “Virgin of the Rocks”, with its uncertain condition and status (the Gallery admits the picture is “manifestly uneven in finish and execution” and that there has been “a good deal of agreement that Leonardo himself painted little or none of it”), and the degraded, fragmented, many-times restored “Last Supper”, Syson disclosed that the Royal Academy’s full-size copy of the latter by Giampietrino was being borrowed. At this, I asked if the Gallery’s own Giampietrino “Christ carrying his Cross” (which had recently been relegated to the reserve collection – on Syson’s instruction, I learned) would also be included in the exhibition. It would not. This was disappointing – and a lost opportunity to right an ancient wrong.
The “Christ carrying his Cross” had been discussed by Larry Keith, the Gallery’s new head of conservation who has restored the “Virgin of the Rocks”, and Ashok Roy, the Gallery’s head of science, in the Gallery’s 1996 Technical Bulletin under the title “Giampietrino, Boltraffio, and the Influence of Leonardo”. This followed the restoration of two Giampietrinos (his “Christ” and his “Salome”) and Boltraffio’s “Virgin and Child”. A remarkable technical discovery had been made on “Christ carrying his Cross” the ramifications of which seemed not fully to have been appreciated. Keith and Roy did acknowledge that Giampietrino’s Leonardo borrowings were “not restricted to matters of composition alone, but also include other aspects of painting technique”; they granted that the “strong chiaroscuro and dark backgrounds of Giampietrino’s small format panels are clearly an attempt to emulate the more striking pictorial effects that Leonardo had introduced to Milan”; they explicitly acknowledged that Giampietrino’s painting technique was much influenced by Leonardo’s, and that this could be “seen in the sfumato and relief of the National Gallery Christ carrying his Cross” – which painting was “clearly derived from Leonardesque prototypes” and for which “A silver-point study of Christ carrying his Cross by Leonardo [was] clearly the compositional source…” And yet, despite all of this, they seemed at pains to cast Giampietrino as a pronouncedly lesser follower of Leonardo than Boltraffio.
While excluded from the forthcoming show, Giampietrino’s “Christ” has at least been liberated from the reserve collection, making it possible for the picture and its condition to be studied before visiting the Leonardo blockbuster. Not only is it as closely related to Leonardo’s imagery and methods as has been acknowledged, it is arguably the best preserved Renaissance picture in the National Gallery. Its good condition is a byproduct of what the Gallery describes as “an unusual pigmented glaze layer”. After carefully building and modelling his forms with successive layers of paint and glazes to “an illusion of relief”, Giampietrino covered the whole painting with a single “final extremely thin overall toning layer consisting of warm dark pigments and black”. This had had remarkable aesthetic and physical consequences. The layer was contemporary with the painting and, being composed of walnut oil with a little varnish, resistant to the usual varnish stripping solvents. The use of walnut oil further relates this picture to the “Virgin of the Rocks” where that oil had been used throughout.
During the picture cleaning controversies at the National Gallery after the Second World War, the possibility that just such toning overall finishes might exist on old paintings was advanced by Ernst Gombrich. In a letter to the Burlington Magazine in 1950 and in his 1960 book “Art and Illusion”, he cited a famous report by Pliny which described the overall dark veiling finishes that Apelles had applied to his paintings to wondrous effect, and asked “is it conceivable that such famous testimonies would never have induced a master of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries to emulate Apelles and apply a darkening varnish to achieve a more subtle tonal unity?” He then reflected “I do not think it is even claimed that our ‘safe’ cleaning methods could detect such a varnish, let alone that they could preserve it.” This provoked the National Gallery’s restorer Helmut Ruhemann (who had cleaned Leonardo’s “Virgin of the Rocks” in 1948-9 to unfortunate effect – see right) into a vehement dogmatic dismissal: “there is no evidence for anything so inherently improbable as that a great old master should cover his whole picture with a ‘toning down layer’.”
That Leonardo was a learned man and a reader of Pliny is acknowledged by both Syson and Keith in the present exhibition catalogue. In his 1962 Burlington Magazine article (“Dark Varnishes: Variations on a Theme from Pliny”), Gombrich repeated what Pliny had said of Apelles:
“He used to give his pictures when finished a dark coating so thinly spread that, by reflecting, it enhanced the brilliance of the colour while, at the same time, it afforded protection from dust and dirt and was not itself visible except at close quarters. One main purpose was to prevent the brilliance of the colours from offending the eye, since it gave the impression as if the beholder were seeing them through a window of talc, so that he gave from a distance an imperceptible touch of severity to excessively rich colours.”
How could the connection between Apelles’ final “dark coating so thinly spread” and Giampietrino’s “final, extremely thin overall toning layer [with] warm dark pigments and black” have passed without comment? The cleaning controversy of the 1960s had hardly faded from memory: as recently as 1985 it had been described by a subsequent director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor, as “one of the most celebrated jousts” in the Burlington Magazine. In the current National Gallery Technical Bulletin, (Vol. 32) Larry Keith, Ashok Roy, Rachel Morrison and Peter Schade, say of the restoration of the “Virgin of the Rocks” that while its practical intent was “primarily aesthetic” it also served to provide an example of the gallery’s interdisciplinary approach: “Whenever possible, major restorations are intended as the hub of a wide range of research activity that sees curators, scientists and restorers working together – increasingly alongside colleagues from other institutions”. Our criticsms of the Gallery’s customary use of restorations as effective “laboratory test cases” for conducting multidisciplinary research with an input from curators are longstanding, but what makes this unusual and pronounced “non-singing” of such a very important finding all the more perplexing is the fact that this discovery may be the tip of a scholarly iceberg. Tucked in footnote 24 of the 1996 Keith/Roy account is a disclosure that such overall toning layers are “quite rare in Italian painting of the period” and that they “may be confined to Milanese technique”. Did this mean that other instances had been found at the Gallery? Or even, given the Milanese locus, that Leonardo himself might have been the instigator or a user of such applications? (Kenneth Clark had earlier attributed disparities of finish in the “Virgin of the Rocks” precisely to damaged glazes – see right.)
When Larry Keith writes in the current catalogue that Leonardo exploited oil paint in the “Virgin of the Rocks” for its “subtle transitions and distinctions within the deepest tones, all of which were carefully orchestrated within a system of unified lighting”, he might as appropriately be describing the well-preserved effects of Giampietrino’s “Christ” as those in the “Virgin of the Rocks” where, despite the picture’s acknowledged “inconsistencies” of finish, Leonardo is said to have created a “new and remarkable unified coherence…by a carefully considered manipulation of lighting, colour and tonal values”.
Whatever the merits of Giampietrino as an artist, no Renaissance work in the Gallery shows a more tightly and subtly controlled overall development of forms, tones, colours, and expressively purposive lighting, than his “Christ”. It was unjust if not perverse when Keith/Roy, gave the laurel to Boltraffio, in part as “an artist capable of a more subtle understanding of Leonardo” but also as one who had been working in Leonardo’s studio “by 1491”, as opposed to Giampietrino of whom “it is not certain how much direct contact [he] would have had with Leonardo’s actual painting methods, and it would be misleading to assume that the imitation of Leonardo’s effects required direct reproduction of his techniques.” Under what circumstances and on whose authority other than Leonardo’s, might someone have made a full sized, exactly matching, oil-painted copy of the “Last Supper”? Besides which, in the current catalogue, Minna Moore Ede, when describing Giampietrino’s copy of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” as being with its “great clarity and three-dimensionality” the most faithful and accurate record of all, discloses that Giampietrino, just like Boltraffio, is now understood to have been a live-in apprentice who joined Leonardo’s workshop in the mid 1490s.
In the Technical Bulletin Keith/Roy saw “differences of palette” between the “more highly saturated local colour” of Giampietrino’s copy of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” and a “pictorial unity produced by a tightly controlled, restricted range of tone and value” in the work itself. That reading has been dropped: Keith now sees (Leonardo exhibition catalogue entry, p. 70) that the “Last Supper” was, as Giampietrino’s copy had testified, executed in a “higher-keyed, lighter palette” than that of the London “Virgin of the Rocks”.
Even if Giampietrino’s work had been “essentially imitative, showing more of an attempted simulation of the painted appearance of Leonardo’s works than an understanding of his ideas”, as opposed to Boltraffio’s “more sophisticated” grasp, it might for that very reason leave him the more reliable guide to the original appearances of Leonardo’s paintings than Boltraffio in his more ambitious attempts to think and compose in the manner of his master and superior. In their 1996 account, Keith and Roy undermine their own slur that Giampietrino’s overall toning layer attempted a spurious impression of a Leonardesque suppressed colourism by explaining how, in his “Christ”, Giampietrino had covered his white gesso ground with “a stiffly brushed, rather opaque imprimiture of a light brownish grey”, while for his “deep red” draperies he had first applied “an unusual strongly coloured dense red-brown underpaint consisting of vermilion, red earth and black, with an increased proportion of black used under the shadow of the folds.” Those passages of painting were further reinforced with “dark red glazes”. Taken together, it was precisely admitted that (- and quite remarkably Apelles-like), “The overall effect is restrained in spite of the intensity of colour and creates a more naturalistic effect.”
The late-discovered existence of Giampietrino’s dark toning layer constituted a repudiation of the Gallery’s former head of science, Joyce Plesters, who (in the Burlington Magazine in 1962 – “Dark Varnishes – Some Further Comments”) had parodied the very idea as a “crude device of indiscriminately deadening all the colours by the application of an overall yellow, brown, or blackish varnish”. In 1996 Plesters was then still alive (as was a long-serving trustee of the National Gallery, Denis Mahon, who had joined her in attacks on Gombrich in the 1962 Burlington Magazine – “Miscellanea for the Cleaning Controversy” ). In 1996 I asked Gombrich if the Gallery had informed him of its discovery of an overall toning layer of “warm dark pigments and black in a medium essentially of walnut oil, with a little resin”. He said not but that he was pleased to learn of the Gallery’s “final conversion to an obvious truth”. We published our first account of this episode thirteen years ago (“The Unvarnished Truth”, Art Review, November 1998). Could it be that a continuing institutional desire to spare the posthumous blushes of departed Gallery players who bungled in spectacular fashion is permanently to blight an interesting artist’s reputation, retard the gallery’s own (in many respects admirable and generously shared) scholarship and thwart full recognition of the achievements of one of the most distinguished art historians to have made home in this country?
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Lucian Freud’s blast against picture restorers, and a fellow painter’s note of appreciation
In his book “Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud”, Martin Gayford reports that Neil MacGregor, when director of the National Gallery, “often met Lucian Freud wandering around there in the evening, and learned a lot from him because he sees as an artist. This is quite different from the angle of an art historian.” Unfortunately, there is one lesson that Mr MacGregor might appear not to have learnt from Lucian Freud.
Few of the artists who enjoy the privilege of being able to visit the National Gallery after hours, alone or with a few friends, have attacked the gallery’s picture restorers publicly, but it so happens that the late Lucian Freud was one who bit the hand that indulged him. We can thank Martin Gayford for putting Freud’s condemnation of the National Gallery’s and other restorers on the record in his account of a visit they made to an El Greco exhibition at the gallery in February 2004:
“It is a slightly eerie experience being almost alone in this place that is usually so packed. LF is struck by the great sense of reality of certain works – the St Louis from Paris, the boy with a lighted coal from Edinburgh, the wonderful portrait from Boston (but not its horrible frame). But overall, he is disappointed. He is particularly upset by the slick, glossy, over-cleaned, over-bright appearance of many of the works (including, sadly, St Martin). ‘I have never seen so many completely fucked-up pictures. Sometimes I feel I could almost name the Winsor and Newton white the restorer has used.’ LF is highly conscious of a painting’s physical constitution. He is already thinking, he says, about how his own works will age through time, and wishes restorers would allow ‘old things to look old’. He was utterly infuriated, years ago, by the effect of restoration on Piero di Cosimo’s Satyr Mourning over a Nymph (c.1495), in the National Gallery, which was previously a painting – with reclining nude, tender mourning faun and attendant dogs – he loved.”
This condemnation is notable for two reasons. First, Freud was demonstrably right (see below and right). Second, as a great modern painter, he gives the lie to the common restorers’ slur that their artist/critics mistake dirt and old varnish for original paint and are romantic traditionalists who cannot adjust their prejudices to the “reality” that old master paintings, when properly scrubbed, are just like modernist paintings – i.e. brighter, cleaner, thinner and flatter. Freud, on any reckoning, was no such creature: although working entirely and un-apologetically as a figurative painter, his means were (in the tense we must now sadly use) both personal and products of no age other than our our own. They were radical and fully cognisant of the wherefores of modernist picture-making – being, as John Wonnacott so perceptively and elegantly describes below, a kind of locally applied “analytic” cubism. And Martin Gayford quotes Freud’s own precise warning that an “excessive reverence for the art of the past would be, I imagine, completely crippling.”
Anyone who possesses a particular couple of books can gauge the error of the National Gallery’s picture cleanings and “restorations”. In 1938 the gallery’s then director, Kenneth Clark, published a fine book of black and white photographs of details from pictures in the gallery (“One Hundred DETAILS from Pictures in the National Gallery”). Those photographs were of very high quality and had been taken for scientific rather than aesthetic purposes. In 1990, the gallery re-published Clark’s book but, this time, with recent colour photographs. In a foreword to the new edition, Neil Macgregor wrote that in 1938 the National Gallery’s pictures were “among the dirtiest in the world”. (There is surely a study to be made of the almost pathological disposition of those commentators who equate evidence of aged materials in pictures with dirt.) MacGregor acknowledges that while Clark complains in some of his commentaries of pleasure lost as a result of the interposition of “discoloured varnish or […] clumsy retouchings”, he remained fearful of “what might be found if the golden veils of dirt and varnish were ever to be removed.” Clark had good reason to be fearful: his then recent cleaning of Velazquez’s full length portrait of Philip IV of Spain (the “Silver Philip”) had – rightly – unleashed a firestorm of criticism and controversy.
Mr MacGregor acknowledges that following the wholesale cleanings that took place at the gallery after the Second World War, many pictures were now “different in critical respects” from the paintings about which Clark had written. It might be tempting to take the phrase “different in critical respects” as a MacGregor-esque euphemism for Freud’s “completely fucked-up”, given that he acknowledged that readers possessing both editions of the book “will decide how much is gain, how much loss” as a result of those cleanings. Alas, from that point onwards, Mr MacGregor seems to have lashed himself to the mast of the Good Ship Conservation and kept private any reservations that he might have had about picture restorations.
Clark’s book paired photographs of similar subjects taken from pictures by different artists and eras. The two details published of the Piero di Cosimo of which Freud lamented, his “A Mythological Subject” (or “Satyr Mourning over a Nymph”), were paired with pictures of Rubens, in the case of Piero’s faun, and Hogarth (a cat from his “The Graham Children”), in the case of Piero’s portrayal of a dog. Clark appended this note on the latter:
“Hogarth enjoyed painting this cat so much that the Graham children look hollow and lifeless beside her. She is the embodiment of cockney vitality, alert and adventurous – a sort of Nell Gwynne among cats. Her vulgarity would hardly be noticeable, were she not confronted by the noble silhouette of Piero’s hound who regards her with the gravity of an antique philosopher. The novelist Paul Bourget, when asked what the English critic Walter Pater looked like, replied: ‘Il ressemblait à un amant de Circe transformé en dogue.’”
To appreciate the changes wrought on that hound and a nearby pelican, see Figs. 1 to 6, right. The colour photographs published in the 1990 edition are here shown in greyscale so that like may be compared with like for the purposes of easier and more revealing comparisons.
A Reflection on the painting of Lucian Freud by the painter John Wonnacott:
I am told that on the blogosphere, I am yet again misquoted as saying that Lucian Freud couldn’t “compose” a picture for toffee. I am no more interested than was Lucian in rearranging objects to make art. What I actually said to the late Bruce Bernard over a bibulous Soho lunch for the Sunday Times colour supplement some twenty years ago was that Lucian couldn’t “design” a painting for toffee. We were talking only of his great late nudes. By contrast, an early head like the John Minton could hang next to Van der Weyden, with its delicate surface and clarity of design. When Bill Coldstream, Lucian’s contemporary and equal, made a paint mark in response to appearance it was related immediately to every other mark on the surface, leading the eye from edge to edge of the picture; that is, drawing as design. Lucian’s brush marks were related directly only to others within the particular object of his scrutiny. As Bruce Bernard went on to quote me: no one else could paint so intensely and so powerfully within the figure.
Never the less I was wrong.
Lucian, as Martin Gayford records in his book the “Man with a Blue Scarf”, always worked standing up so that he could dart backwards and forwards from his easel to subject particular objects to closer observation. In the grandest of the late images, different areas of the painting would be created from different viewpoints, different angles, different distances. These areas seem to crash in to each other, along surface fault lines that I at least find visually exhilarating. Whether this is design or anti-design matters not, it is brilliant and original.
I have been asked to compare Lucian Freud’s approach to painting a Royal Portrait with my own. When I was commissioned to paint the Royal Family I virtually lived in the Palace for a year, trundling my easels and materials, Spencer-like, from the “artist studio” right round to the White Stateroom where Lavery had made his equally large 1913 painting, of George V and family. I drew and redrew the room as the central subject of my design, only occasionally meeting my Royal sitters, about seven hours with each, on different sittings, allowing their figures to grow from and into my design. In Martin’s book we see Lucian standing some two metres from the Queen with a tiny canvas on a simple radial easel. He had the courage to deal with even so eminent a figure just as he dealt with every other human being: to quote his own words, “zoologically”.
Asked what his Royal sitter had thought of John Wonnacott, I regret to pass on the disappointingly minimal – - – - “scruffy”!
John Wonnacott’s magnificent portrait group of the Royal Family is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, where, since the arrival from the Tate of Sandy Nairne, as director, it has been consigned to the reserve collection. It can, however, be viewed on request.
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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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