The “World’s worst restoration” and the Death of Authenticity
When news broke of the 81 years old painter Cecilia Gimenez’s disastrous restoration of a painting of Christ in her local church, the world fell about laughing (see Figs. 2 to 5). The distressed restorer has taken to her bed as people queue to see the now infamous monkey-faced Christ and, wishing to preserve the hilarity, over 5,000 wags have signed a petition to block attempts to “return the painting to its pre-restoration glory” – as if such an outcome might credibly be in prospect.
With one honourable exception (Fig. 1) commentators failed to grasp that while this debacle is an extreme case it is not an aberration within modern art restoration practices. To the contrary, adulterations of major works of art are commonplace, seemingly systemic products of a booming, insufficiently monitored international art conservation nexus. In our previous post it was shown both how a steamboat painted by Turner sank without trace during two top-flight restorations at the US Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, and, how Renoir’s oeuvre is being traduced across museums. Here, to show that it is not just in sleepy Spanish churches that paintings are risk, we reprise a few of the professional art world’s own most radically controversial – and officially sanctioned – restorations.
The Observer columnist, Barbara Ellen, having good sport with the Spanish Incident (see Fig. 2), hoped a wave of copycat vigilante restorations (“Let’s nip into the Louvre and give the Mona Lisa something to smirk about”) would not ensue. Her nightmare has been “virtually” realised – Fig. 3. When saying that Ms Gimenez perhaps had not realised “that, as a rule, professional art restorers don’t start work with a bucket of Flash and some Brillo pads”, she assumed too much. While Brillo pads were skipped at the Sistine Chapel, bucket loads of oven-cleaner-like substances were repeatedly brushed onto and washed from Michelangelo’s Ceiling frescoes to the artistically injurious consequences described below and at Fig. 23. As we reported on April 1st 2011 – and that was no joke – the Vatican’s restorers’ own account of their experimental fresco cleaning method read as follows:
“…Removal of retouchings and repaintings with a mixed gelatinous solvent, consisting of ammonium bicarbonate, sodium bicarbonate, Desogen (a surf-actant and anti-fungal agent), carboxymethylcellulose (a thixotropic agent), dissolved in distilled water. Mixture acts on contact. The times of application, rigorously measured, were:
“First application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing with water. Left to dry for 24 hours.
“Second application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing and leaving to dry as before. If necessary, and locally only, small applications, followed by plentiful final washing.
“In the case of salt efflorescences consisting of calcium carbonate, there was added to the solvent mixture a saturated solution of dimethylformamide…
“Final treatment: the thorough, complete and overall application of a solution of Paraloid B72 diluted to 3% in organic solvent, removed from the surface of the pictorial skin by the combined action almost simultaneously of organic solvent and distilled water, which coagulates the surface acrylic resin dissolved by the solvent.”
A quick rinse with Flash might have been kinder.
There are three component parts in the professional restoration armoury: taking material off; putting material on; and, defending and promoting the said removals and additions with techno/aesthetic reassurances. Notwithstanding all supposedly science-validated self-justifications (reports on restorations are invariably written by the restorers themselves), the proper and appropriate test of a restoration is aesthetic appraisal of the resulting changes. It is reassuring that so many recognise that the transformation made to the Spanish painting shown at Fig. 5 constitutes a gross artistic injury. Perhaps the less extreme but also gratuitous injuries recently inflicted by restorers at the Louvre on the Veronese figure and face shown at Figs. 6 to 10 (and here reported on December 28th 2010) might also be acknowledged as the very crime against art and history that they constitute.
As shown at Fig. 10, even when the Louvre’s restorers were caught having secretly re-repainted the already repainted and publicly criticised Veronese face, the museum maintained a brazen official insouciance. The authorities do these things because they can and, presumably, because they do not know better. They ignore criticisms because they can and again, presumably, because they do not comprehend their force and their gravity.
In Figs. 11 to 26 we show the variously unfortunate consequences of restorers taking off and putting on material. (Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every unhappy restoration is so in its own way.) It is widely recognised in the art trade that pictures untouched or rarely touched by restorers enjoy better conditions than many-times restored works. For that reason, a high premium is placed on such rare but fortunate works. This reality notwithstanding, nothing seems capable of restraining the tide of restorations.
In Figs. 11 and 13 we see two successive restorers at work on the same figure in the same mural, Leonardo’s “Last Supper”, in Milan. It is a long-standing complaint that restorers thrive by undoing and redoing each others’ handiwork. In Fig. 11 the restorer Mauro Pelliccioli is removing paint with a knife. His restoration, the first post war intervention on the notoriously unstable mural, was highly acclaimed at the time. His philosophy had been to remove earlier restorers’ repaint where it concealed original paint-work by Leonardo, but to leave it in place when covering only bare wall (- see our post of February 8th 2012). In Figure 13 Pelliccioli’s former student and assistant, Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, is seen repainting Leonardo’s mural (- or, as restorers prefer, “reintegrating” the remains of original paint with fresh additional paint). Given that an estimated 80 per cent of Leonardo’s work had been lost and that Barcilon had aimed to remove all previous restorers’ handiwork regardless of whether or not original Leonardo paint survived underneath, she had to do massive amounts of repainting during her agonising two decades long restoration (see our post of March 14th 2012).
In Figs. 12 and 14 we see how dramatically differently two professionally linked Italian restorers, working just one generation apart, left the very same principal figure in Leonardo’s “Last Supper”. (What might be expected to survive or emerge from the next two restorations?) Like the 81 years old Cecilia Gimenez, Barcilon exercised artistic licence – albeit to a far lesser degree – during her painterly interventions on Leonardo’s remains. Where the cuff of Christ’s right sleeve had originally hung below and behind the table, for example, she painted it resting upon the table. To Christ, she too gave a new face and expression. The sole commentator to have recognised such continuums between extreme and lesser restoration injuries, the Sunday Telegraph columnist, Alasdair Palmer, wrote: “while the gulf between what modern restorers do and the dreadful hatchet-job done by Cecilia Gimenez is large, it is not always as vast as restorers would like us to believe”. He noted that while Pinin Brambilla Barcilon had done some magnificent work in recreating what she took to be Leonardo’s original picture, “it wasn’t a restoration because most of the paint applied by Leonardo had long ago disappeared”, and he cited an art historian who holds precisely that “The Last Supper is now a first-rate example of Barcilon’s work. It is not a Leonardo”. Palmer further notes that some of the most severe critics of recent restorations are other restorers:
“‘A great deal of restoration is incompetent,’ maintains Bruno Zanardi, professor of the theory and practice of restoration at the University of Urbino, and one of Italy’s most distinguished restorers. ‘Many of those who are let loose on great works of art do not know what they are doing: they have not been properly trained, and do not understand how fragile old pictures are.’”
To French and Italian transgressions many British and American ones might be added. At the National Gallery, London, it has been officially acknowledged that changes are made to pictures “primarily for aesthetic reasons”, and that while these aesthetic changes rest on the judgements of individual restorers whose “different aesthetic decisions” may result in pictures which “look very different”, all such results are considered “equally valid” (see “The New Relativisms and the Death of ‘Authenticity’”). In Figs. 15 and 16 we show a detail of the National Gallery’s Holbein, “The Ambassadors”. During its restoration (which, like that of Michelangelo’s Sistine Capel Ceiling, was a televised and sponsored event) the then head of conservation, Martin Wyld, took the opportunity to improve and, on “experts” advice, to change the surviving design of the Turkish carpet. In doing so, he paid scant regard to the aerial perspective that had previously been found in the picture. Ignoring the shadows that had previously been cast on the carpet, Wyld introduced a crisper, cleaner, flatter, more “on the picture surface”, altogether more abstract, modernist and, therefore, ahistorical version of Holbein’s original depiction.
More egregious were the changes made to Holbein’s anamorphic skull (Figs. 17 and 18). The cleaning exposed many losses of paint on the skull which bewildered the restorers and caused them to introduce – for the first time, to our knowledge – a piece of painted “virtual reality”. As we put it in a letter to the Independent (“Virtual reality art”, 29 January 2000):
“When the National Gallery recently restored Holbein’s The Ambassadors, the famous skull in the foreground was repainted to a new design not according to the laws of perspective by which it had been produced but after a computer-generated distortion of a photograph of an actual skull.
“This bizarre imposition of ‘virtual reality’ on to an old master painting is defended by the gallery on the grounds that ‘modern imaging techniques’ offer ‘more scope for exploring possible reconstructions’ than do the 16th century perspectival conventions by which the artist’s image had originally been generated.
“The difference between the original and the new parts has been concealed from the general public by the restorer’s attempt to integrate the handiwork of his own ‘tentative reconstruction’ with surrounding old paint by painting fake lines of cracking to match the old, actual cracks.”
In Figs. 19 and 20 we see the liberties taken by Wyld’s predecessor, Arthur Lucas, on Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”. Lucas boasted to art students at the Slade School of Art that “there is more of me than Titian in that sky”. In thrall to new technologies and materials, Lucas took the trustees’ permission to reline the canvas, as authority for ironing the picture on to a double board of compressed paper. Such boards are today found to be unstable and will doubtless serve to licence further “urgent” conservation treatments.
In Figs. 21 and 22 we again show the startling changes made to a painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington during the course of two restorations. During the first, as seen on the right of Fig. 21, a general weakening of values occurred. The woman’s necklace, for example, was dimished. As seen on the left in Fig. 22 , during a further restoration, part of the necklace disappeared. Rather than paint it back in, the restorer painted out the surviving section, as can be seen on the right.
When specific bits of paintings disappear restorers often claim that they were only additions made by earlier restorers. If such claims sometimes provoke scepticism, in the case of overall losses and degradations restorers usually offer no defences, seemingly hoping that curators, trustees, art critics, scholars and members of the public will be delighted or distracted by brightened colours and lightened tonalities. In Fig. 23, on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, we see both the general lightening and brightening that attends an aggressive cleaning and losses of specific features and pictorially strategic values. Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based painting but because the Vatican’s restorers held this to be either dirt or earlier restorations, it was all removed. Michelangelo had redrawn and remodelled the drapery seen on the left hanging from the figure’s right shoulder. It was washed off. The removal is shown to be an error by the testimony of earlier copies of the ceiling. (Rubens had copied the drapery as it was found before the recent cleaning.) Michelangelo sought to enhance sculptural effects to his painted figures by adding shadows that were seemingly cast by the three dimensional bodies he had depicted with contrasting brightly lit forms and dark, shadowy recesses and nooks. The latter, too, were lost.
Back at the National Gallery in London, we see in Fig. 24 similarly catastrophic general losses (in the course of another single restoration) of tonal gradations and modelling. In the case of the horse’s right nostril, we see the loss of the very aperture which formerly had carried air to the creature’s lungs. Alasdair Palmer points out that a comparison of the National Gallery picture with its sister panel in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence is shocking to behold. It is the more unforgivable because the National Gallery restoration was prompted by an earlier one of the Florence picture that had not flattened and weakened the horses.
The National Gallery’s great Velazquez, “The Rokeby Venus”, suffered dreadful injuries in 1914 at the hands of a suffragette (Fig. 25). That damage was as nothing when compared with subsequent injuries inflicted by restorers who here too (Fig. 26) were blind to artists’ manipulation of space; creation of atmosphere; rendering of form through calibrated tonal gradations. Before the gallery’s restorers had done their Cecilia Gimenez-esque worst, there existed a parity of brilliance in the two figures, with both displaying the seeming self-illumination of divinities. What sense of that miraculous evocation survives today? Little wonder that the previous owner of the picture made a scene at the National Gallery on sight of its “restoration” and protested that, had he known how it would be treated, he would never have sold it. His grievous personal loss-through-restoration was of a single picture. What price the world’s continuing collective losses at the hands of restorers?
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Misreading Visual Evidence ~ No 2: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling
No single proof of a restoration-induced injury to a work of art could be clearer than the photograph shown here (Fig. 1) of a section of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes. It was taken after the last restoration and shows in its centre section a repair made in 1566 by the painter Domenico Carnevale when a section of Michelangelo’s fresco fell away during settlement of the building (see Fig. 2 diagram). Carnevale had re-plastered the loss and, while the plaster surface was still wet, faithfully painted it to match Michelangelo’s (then) surrounding colours and tones. The repair was a good one and for centuries it remained almost invisible (see Figs. 4, 5 & 6). Ever since the last restoration it has been glaringly evident that Carnevale’s painted section no longer matches what has survived of Michelangelo’s painting (see Fig. 7). As will be shown, on the evidence of these photographs, fair estimation can be made of the injuries inflicted upon Michelangelo’s frescoes during restoration.
The reason why the photographs testify to restoration injury is simple and elegant. Carnevale’s repair was made a fresco in “good” or buon fresco, which is to say, solely with pigments that were painted onto the still-wet plaster and, crucially, without any later additional painting on the surface of the fresco after it had dried. With this method, Carnevale matched the pictorial values of Michelangelo’s frescoes as they were then found, only half of a century after their completion. However, unlike Carnevale’s painting, where the pigments were locked into the lime plaster when it dried, Michelangelo’s own frescoes were completed a secco – that is to say, with much additional glue or size-based painting applied to the surface of the frescoes after they had dried. Against great evidence (see below), the Vatican’s restorers concluded that Michelangelo had painted entirely in buon fresco without a secco additions and, on that (unsound) decision, they contended that it would be perfectly safe to apply a recently developed oven cleaner-like thixotropic cocktail of cleaning agents (in two applications of three minutes duration each, each being washed off with copious amounts of water) that had been designed to strip polluted encrustations from marble buildings and that would most certainly strip all organic material – which in the event would include Michelangelo’s own glue-based painting – from the ceiling’s plaster surface.
Because Carnevale’s own painted repair was not so vulnerable we now see in the repaired (centre) section a better record of how Michelangelo’s own painting had appeared than exists in the surviving sections of Michelangelo’s painting. By properly reading the testimony of this photographic record, we can calculate the scale of loss that ensued when Michelangelo’s own a secco work on the surface of his frescoes was removed.
By that method, Michelangelo had painted shadows onto his figures after the plaster had dried. After the recent removal of those shadows a figure emerged (as seen right) with arms that were apparently depicted flatly and without tonal modulation in a single local colour/tone by Michelangelo on either side of a section by Carnevale where the forms of the arms were fully modelled by dramatic shading. Could that ever have been the case? Would Carnevale have been allowed to conduct a master-class demonstration to Michelangelo on how to render painted forms sculpturally? Those who still defend this restoration – as some British newspaper art critics do – might attempt to offer some credible explanation for this startling visual and plastic mismatch, which presently stands as the largest elephant in the art restoration room.
The crime against art that this restoration constituted was compounded by art historical apologists who claimed that the Michelangelo everyone for nearly five centuries had thought existed, had never existed, and that a new, true Michelangelo who, far from being “essentially a sculptor” was “one of the great colourists of Western Art”, had been uncovered by courtesy of a single cleaning. To justify this historically revisionist and artistically subverting “outcome”, apologists for the restoration were obliged to offer one of the most cockamamie art historical/technical accounts: namely, that what had “deceived” Michelangelo’s own contemporaries and everyone else for nearly five centuries had been nothing more than the effects of dirt and soot that had slowly and imperceptibly accumulated on the ceiling’s frescoes over the centuries.
This deceiving filthy material had, the artistically credulous are invited to accept, artfully arranged itself around Michelangelo’s flat, bright, “colouristic” designs so as to mimic the effects of the very sculptural preoccupations for which Michelangelo was already famed. In due course, it was further suggested, this artful dirt and soot had been set in glue by successive restorers, who, on one occasion, it is said, did so while standing on the top of thirty feet high step-ladders while brandishing glue-filled sponges tied to the end of thirty feet long poles. When the Vatican authorities were challenged on this account (by us) they had to admit that no proof existed of any glues ever having been applied by any restorers. What the Vatican authorities might also have admitted is that a further indisputable technical proof of Michelangelo’s authorship of the glue-painting on the fresco surface had emerged in the 19th century when the Vatican made its own moveable scaffold available to the British painter Charles Heath Wilson – and that this testimony was known to them. On examining the ceiling, Wilson had found that:
“…the frescoes are extensively retouched with size-colour…evidently by the hand of Michelangelo”.
Wilson could not only see this glue painting on the plaster surface, he could touch it:
“The colour readily melted on being touched with a wet finger and consisted of a finely ground black, mixed with a size…The shadows of the drapery have been boldy 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 the Sybils, but also in those of the Ancestors of Christ in the lunettes and the ornamental portions are retouched in the same way. The hair of the heads and 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 water colour 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, ‘l’ultima mano’.”
In addition to his expert (i.e. artist’s) testimony, Wilson offered two further material proofs of Michelangelo’s authorship that might otherwise have been expected to be considered clinching by today’s “scientific” restorers:
“They [the retouchings] were evidently done all at the same time and therefore when the [original] scaffold was in its place.”
“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.”
It is a matter of record that the ceiling cracked before any restorers went near it. If the size painting cracked with the plaster, it must have predated the cracking – and, therefore, also that of any restorer’s intervention. Or, to reverse the testimony: if the glue had been applied by restorers long after Michelangelo had painted the ceiling and long after the ceiling had cracked, as has been suggested, it would have run into the already extensive cracks – but it was not and it had not. We can thus be in no doubt that today’s restorers removed the final stages of Michelangelo’s own work; that the “New Michelangelo” they had “discovered” was nothing more than the mutilated remains of his original work that they had left on the ceiling; that no part of the ceiling had escaped the consequences of their labours.
The last restorers of Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes seem not fully to have heeded the cautionary evidence of their predecessors’ mishaps. The warnings – both pictorial and documentary – were clear enough. We see in the photograph of the left hand of God from Michelangelo’s “The Separation of the Earth from the Waters” (Fig. 10) that there is today a great mismatch between the sleeve and the fragment of cuff that had been repaired by Carnivale. Engraved copies of the 18th and 19th centuries (see Figs. 8 & 9) suggest that losses of shading to God’s left arm preceded the latest restoration. Charles Heath Wilson, who complained of the ceiling’s filthy and neglected condition and believed that it would profit from cleaning, nonetheless warned in terms against any watery interventions. Not only had he found Michelangelo’s size-painting vulnerable to a wetted finger, he complained that parts of the ceiling had already “undoubtedly been injured by rude [restoration] hands, suggesting that glazing has been partially or entirely swept away” and that great restoration injuries had previously occurred when the ceiling had been “washed by labouring men with water in which a caustic has been mixed”. (For details of the recent water-based cleaning methods, see bottom right.) The consequences of water injuries had been set out by Wilson:
“Thus great brushes or sponges have been swept over the skies and backgrounds and have not only removed dirt in a coarse unequal way, but have eaten into the colours and destroyed them in a variety of places. The Face, shoulder and arms of the prophet Daniel, various parts of the bodies and limbs of the young men sitting over the cornice and other portions of the frescoes have been nearly obliterated by this savage proceeding. The Injury done is irremediable, for the surface of Michelangelo’s work has been swept away.”
For a full account of the ceiling’s injuries, see “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, The Business and The Scandal”, London 1993 and 1996, New York 1994, by James Beck and Michael Daley.
For evidence of injuries to the prophet Daniel, see our post of January 23rd 2011.
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