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11th July 2012

Review: Stone-washed Renoirs and the Shock of the Undone

We knew at a glance that something was amiss. On June 16th, a newspaper photograph trailed an imminent auction sale of Renoir’s “Baigneuse” of 1888. Even on the evidence of that single de-saturated newsprint reproduction (right, Fig. 1) it seemed clear that the privately owned masterpiece had gone through the picture restoration wash cycle a time (or two) too often. A comparison of Christie’s pre-sale zoom-able online photograph with historic photographs of the painting further suggested that picture conservation’s would-be beauticians had been at work with swab and solvent: Renoir’s bather had been left (Fig. 2) a paler sugar-smooth pictorially and plastically enfeebled version of her original self. (For the picture’s appearance and condition in 1944, see Figs. 7 and 9.)

Just as museum curators who organise splashy temporary exhibitions rarely broadcast the “conservation” injuries borne by works loaned from sister institutions, so auction houses, which of necessity must act primarily as agents for owners, can seem no less reticent on this fraught subject. In practice, we find that in of both of these art spheres, the “now” is often implicitly presented as the “originally-was” and “always-has-been”, thereby thwarting what would be the greatest inducement to halt needless adulterations of unique historically-rooted artefacts: a full public disclosure of “conservation” treatments and frank art-critical discussion of their material and artistic consequences. By coincidence, recent museum and saleroom activities have brought to London a slew of little-seen examples of Renoir’s oeuvre. As cases in point of Renoir’s vulnerability, we examine here treatments of his “Baigneuse” of 1888 and the Washington National Gallery’s “The Dancer” of 1874.

Renoir’s “Baigneuse” was given star billing (on a £12/18m estimate) at Christie’s June 20th Impressionist/Modern sale, for the catalogue of which it provided the cover illustration (Fig. 2). While much was made in the eight pages long catalogue entry of an impeccable and unbroken provenance through ten successive owners, not a word was said about any restorations of the painting, and although many early photographs are identified in the picture’s literature, none is reproduced. It is disclosed that this Renoir is to be included in the forthcoming “catalogue critique” of the artist’s work being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute from the Archives of François Daulte, Durand-Ruel, Venturi, Vollard and Wildenstein. (Perhaps the present condition of the picture will be discussed in that publication?)

On the night of the sale, an announcement that the picture had been withdrawn drew gasps of surprise. Artinfo reported that the vendor had accepted a private offer from an unidentified buyer for an undisclosed sum somewhere within the estimate. Trade and press eyebrows have been raised at such secretive, pre-auction sales and the withdrawal was the more confounding because expectations of a big auction house “event” had been raised by extensive (and quite stunningly fetching) pre-sale press coverage with photographs of the painting enlivened by the seemingly routine inclusion of beautiful young female staff members.

With modern paintings, the starting point for any appraisal should be the earliest known photograph. Old photographs are historic records. Historic records should never be ignored. Old photographs of pictures assembled in homes or exhibition galleries are especially precious and instructive. The photograph of Renoir’s 1905 exhibition at the Grafton Gallery (Fig. 3) testifies not only to the then generally more vivacious relative values within individual works but to the striking variety of pictorial effects and painterly means deployed within Renoir’s oeuvre.

With regard to the photographic testimony of the original appearances of individual pictures, consider first the large, near-central painting in the 1905 Grafton Gallery photograph – Renoir’s “The Dancer”. This picture, now at the National Gallery, Washington, is 138 years old but was then only 31 years old and unrestored. Then, the background was disposed in distinct but linked quadrants (top-left; top-right; bottom right; bottom left). These were not so much naturalistic renderings of an actual space as subservient pictorial devices spotlighting the central bow-tight figure of a child trainee who, through balletic discipline and artistry, had assumed a commanding Velazquez-worthy sideways-on viewer-confronting presence.

To that expressive end Renoir had welded the dramatically contra-directional lower legs into unity by a pronounced dark shadow in the vertical triangular space they bounded. That shadow sprang also from the heel of the (right) weight-supporting foot backwards and upwards in space, thereby throwing the bottom edges of the trailed skirts into relief. This dark zone in the lower-right counterbalanced another in the upper-left, which had in turn emphasised and thrown into relief the front edge of the costume, withdrawing only to leave a lighter, again relieving, tone at the dancer’s dark hair. The progressive loss through restorations of those artful dispositions (as seen in Figs. 4 & 5) and the picture’s general descent towards an inchoate, arbitrary pictorial froth that increasingly resembles the underlying condition seen today in its own infra-red imaging (see Fig. 6), is heart-breaking. Renoir had here been a sculptor before he became a sculptor, playing off forms that asserted his picture plane with others that ran sharply away from or towards it (rather as Michelangelo had famously done in his crucifixion of Haman). Degas, who spoke of Renoir’s “sharpness of tones”, had chided himself for constructing his own drawings of standing dancers from the head down instead of from the feet up. Renoir had here given a masterclass in how to project a standing figure upwards from the floor. These things artists know and appreciate.

Compendious photographic evidence suggests that restorers (frequently working myopically through head-mounted magnifying eyepieces) have consistently confounded dirt or discoloured varnish with the shiftingly elusive dark grounds used by artists to set off light-toned figures. As seen in our post of June 1st, Klimt’s portrait of Serena Lederer (which was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1980) has suffered in just such a manner. In the same post we saw also how Renoir’s deployment of a dark background zone in the upper left quadrant of background and a secondary but counter-balancing dark zone in the lower right quadrant of his “Dance in the City” had also been undone by successive restorers.

By courtesy of the 1905 photograph of the dancer we can now see that by 1944 the picture’s decisive tonal orchestration had already been subverted (see Fig. 3 and caption at Fig. 6). By the time of the picture’s appearance at the 2012 Frick show of Renoir’s full-length portraits (which was reviewed in our post of June 1st), the original dark tones in the lower right quadrant had effectively disappeared, leaving two odd arbitrarily truncated dark attachments to the right heel (Fig. 5). Cumulatively, this painting has suffered needless artistic vandalism of which no one speaks. The fact that graphite underdrawing is now visible on the painting has been mentioned but without any hint of alarm or censure.

With Renoir’s “Baigneuse” of 1888, the earliest photograph in our own records (- donations to ArtWatch of old photographs or postcards are always most gratefully received) is that published in 1944 when the painting was 56 years old, as seen here in greyscale at Fig. 7 (left) and at Fig. 9. Six years later, by 1950, the painting had been radically transformed, as seen at Fig. 7 (right, in greyscale) and Fig. 8 (left, in colour). The differences that emerged between 1944 and 1950 were compounded by further changes between the picture’s 1950 state (seen in colour at Fig. 8, left) and its 2012 state (seen in colour at Fig. 8, right). However many times and by whomever this painting might have been “restored”, it is clear that the resulting interventions have profoundly altered its constructional and pictorial rationales. The total extent of the alterations that occurred between 1944 and 2012 are examined right in greyscale details in Figs. 11-18. The differences between the 1950 and 2012 states are examined in colour details at Figs. 19, 20 and 21.

By 1888 Renoir had visited Algiers and Italy, come to admire Cezanne as well as Delacroix, discovered Italian painting and read Cennino Cennini’s Treatise on Painting. He had just completed an intense series of classically inspired, Ingresque female nudes, culminating in that declared trial for decorative painting, the Philadelphia Museum’s great “Bathers” of 1887, by which date he held the nude to be one of the most “essential forms of art”.

Compared with Fantin-Latour’s palpable but fluidly allegorical figure at Fig. 10, Renoir’s “Baigneuse” has, in its 1944 state, a markedly more stolid, out-of-Courbet corporeality. For all its spirited brushwork and sparkling colour, plastically, it constitutes an essay in composure, stability and parallelism. The torso seemingly rests on its own base of compressed and spreading buttocks and thighs. The thighs, knees and lower legs are held together in a manner more primly archaic (Egyptian) than classical. Movement is confined to the bather’s right hand which dries the left side of the waist. This action has enlivening consequences. The upper torso is pulled round by the right arm and the head is turned leftwards and downwards as if to contemplate the drying action of the towel. The left arm is required to be held aloft to free the left side of the figure, and, flexing at the elbow as the left hand draws across the face, it first echoes the thighs but then curls gracefully, weightlessly away in space.

What, then, explains the differences between the picture’s previous and its present condition? In such cases it is always possible to play the “Sistine Chapel Ceiling Restoration Defence” and claim that in 1944 the then 56 years old picture was very dirty and that the removal of this dirt has liberated the forms and the colours of the painting to a hitherto unsuspected degree. But the pattern of relationships that is visible, even under dirt, should not change character during a cleaning. Rather, it should emerge enhanced, with the lights lighter and the darks darker – and all individual values holding their previous positions. This has not happened – the picture has got progressively lighter with successive cleanings instead of returning to its previously cleaned state. If it really had been left by Renoir in today’s state, how could the previous but now lost artistically constructive values ever have arisen? If left untouched for the next 56 years, would anyone expect the painting to return to its 1944 appearance with the stripes on the towel and the shading of the fingers regaining strength? Would a general shading and enhancement of forms once more helpfully tuck the left hand behind the head? How might dirt have drawn more clearly and repositioned the left shoulder? How might it have more emphatically shaded the right, distant side of the face?

If we consider the difference between the 1950 and 2012 colour plates (shown at Figs. 8, 19, 20 & 21), what might account for the loss of orange coloured modelling in the left cheek, and of individual brushstrokes depicting the hair? Is it possible to claim on the evidence of these photographs that there has been a build-up of dirt on the picture over the last 62 years?

When examining the bather’s face in close-up today, as shown at Fig. 21, can we have any confidence that the paint presently surviving in that section is just as it was when left by Renoir in 1888? What kind of brush or paint might he have used that would have resulted in the present fragmentary, seemingly abraded, scattering of orange paint that lies over the blue background between the hand, the face and the shoulder?

In the next post we examine the conservation fate of more than a score of Renoirs that have been loaned from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts to the Royal Academy. We shall see how Sterling Clark learned the hard way not to trust art experts on matters of condition in paintings when, having been assured that Domenico Ghirlandaio’s “Portrait of a Lady” had never been repainted, he bought it, only to discover, very shortly afterwards, a postcard of the painting showing it in an earlier and quite different state.

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: A photograph by Stefan Rousseau for PA Wire, published in the Daily Telegraph, on June 16.
Above, Fig. 2: Christie’s catalogue (detail) for the June 20th Impressionist/Modern sale.
Above, Fig. 3: A Renoir exhibition (organised by his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel) at the Grafton Galleries in Lonon, 1905.
Above, left, Fig. 4: Renoir’s “The Dancer”, as seen in 1944 (“Renoir”, by Michel Drucker). Above, right, Fig. 5: Renoir’s “The Dancer”, as seen in 2012 at the Frick (“Renoir ~ Impressionism and Full-Length Painting”, Colin B. Bailey).
Above, Fig. 6: Renoir’s “The Dancer”, as seen in a Washington National Gallery infrared reflectogram published in Colin B. Bailey’s “Renoir ~ Impressionism and Full-Length Painting”, p. 42. Bailey discloses (p. 53) that the picture, which had been described as needing to be “slightly cleaned and restretched” on February 25th 1927, was said by March 24th that year to be “very dirty” and “very much worn and likely to break”. Because the picture was recognised to be “very thinly painted”, and therefore not to be “cleaned in the usual way”, the restorer was advised to “handle it very carefully”. Bailey produces no photographs of the picture before and after this first restoration but comments:
It must have been the restorers at Beers Brothers who painted the back of the plain weave, double-threaded lining canvas with a layer of opaque, lead white paint.” He complains that “While admirably supporting Renoir’s original (and now fragile) canvas, this layer has had the unintended consequence of preventing the penetration of X-rays and so limiting our technical knowledge of the artist’s preparations.”
Never mind about possibly expanding our “virtual” knowledge of the artist’s preparatory stages through invasive imaging – what about appraising the actual material consequences of putting the sum total of Renoir’s frail, thinly painted picture face-down and ironing onto its back a double-threaded canvas? Do any photographic – or other – records of that intervention exist? Did that particular lining melt no glazes; force no paint into the interstices of the original canvas – or force no glue through them onto the paint layer itself? Was that particular lining never subsequently judged to be in need of ameliorative “conservation treatment”?
Above, Fig. 7: Renoir’s “Baigneuse”, left, as in Michel Drucker’s “Renoir”, 1944; and, right, as in “Pierre Auguste Renoir” by Walter Pach, 1950, The Library of Great Painters.
Above, Fig. 8: Renoir’s “Baigneuse”, left, as in Pach, 1950; right, as in Christie’s, 2012.
Above, left, Fig. 9: Renoir’s “Baigneuse”, 1944, detail as in Drucker. Above, right, Fig. 10: Henri Fantin-Latour’s pastel and scraper over charcoal on canvas 1880 “Music”, detail. (See “Fantin-Latour”, the catalogue to the 1983 exhibition organised by the Réunion des Musées nationaux and the National Gallery of Canada.)
Above, left, Figs 11 (top) & 13, details from Renoir’s “Baigneuse”, as seen in Drucker, 1944. Above, right, Figs. 12 Top) & 14, details from Renoir’s “Baigneuse”, as seen in Christie’s, 2012.
Above, details, from Renoir’s “Baigneuse”, top, Fig. 15, 1944, as in Drucker; below, Fig. 16, as in Christie’s, 2012.
Above, left, Fig. 17, detail from Renoir’s “Baigneuse”, as in Drucker, 1944. Above, right, Fig. 18, detail, as in Christie’s, 2012. Note how the the shoulder has dissolved and shifted after 1944, simultaneously revealing an earlier position; how the space between the shoulder/face/hand has lightened.
Above, Fig. 19, detail from Renoir’s “Baigneuse” as in Pach, 1950. Note the beginning of the shoulder’s dissolution.
Above, Fig. 20, detail from Renoir’s “Baigneuse”, as in Christie’s, 2012. Note the loss of Renoir’s final drawing with hatched brushstrokes.
Above, Fig. 21, detail from Renoir’s “Baigneuse”, as in Christie’s, 2012. Note the floating orange paint fragments.
Above, Fig. 22: The cover (detail) of the catalogue for the Royal Academy’s current exhibition of pictures loaned from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA.
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I June 2012

Review: Renoir at the Frick – The Curatorial and Conservational Photographic Blind Spots

The Frick Collection’s recent temporary exhibition “Renoir ~ Impressionism and Full-length Painting” contained ten pictures and took ten years to assemble. It was organised by the deputy director, Colin Bailey, to showcase the The Promenade, the museum’s sole and “somewhat overlooked” Renoir – “overlooked” because Henry Clay Frick’s entrenched prohibition against loans had prevented the picture from travelling to major Renoir shows such as the 1997-78 “Renoir Portraits” exhibition which Bailey had organised for the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, The Art Institute of Chicago and The Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. If the Promenade could not join the international party then the party might come to the Frick.

For this celebration of a single work nine major pictures were borrowed from seven museums and Bailey, a distinguished scholar of French art, produced a book/catalogue that contains much illuminating material on contemporary costume and fashionable mores. As delightful as the show itself ought to have been, the experience proved dispiriting and alarming. Partly, this was because such temporary compilations of dream combinations always come with downsides and a common glaring omission. In this case, for several months a gallery-full of important Frick pictures were bumped from view as important works from other, also temporarily depleted, museums were put at risk. The Musée d’Orsay, for example, sent both its Dance in the City, which had been transferred from its original canvas and relined (see Figs. 10-13 and below), and its Dance in the Country, across the Atlantic. The National Gallery (London) sent its already travel-damaged The Umbrellas, and did so at a time when it had lent its brittle, fragile, shotgun-blasted, “never-to-travel” Leonardo Cartoon to the Louvre. The Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, lent its fire-damaged Madame Henriot “en travesti” (The Page)…and so forth.

The omission that is common to all borrowed compilations was the failure – perhaps for reasons of institutional politesse – to take the opportunity to assess the relative physical conditions of the variously treated and restored cross-section of pictures from within an oeuvre or, in this case, from a specific moment within an oeuvre – “the decade of Impressionism”. This commonly encountered lacuna was the more apparent because Bailey himself discusses conservation matters rather more than most. He does so, however, as a seemingly grateful recipient/beneficiary of museum restoration departments’ technical largesse and their routinely delivered “discoveries”. With his prefatory expression of deep gratitude to an international slew of conservators for “their participation in undertaking technical examination on the paintings in their charge and for allowing me to publish their findings in this catalogue” we knew precisely what critical appraisals not to expect.

Strictly speaking it would not be necessary to call for comparative assessments on such occasions if museums were all, as a matter of course, completely frank about the restoration-injured conditions of individual works. By way of an example of what might be discussed at a time when recollection of the show is still fresh and when armed with Bailey’s book/catalogue, which is as intensively researched and handsomely illustrated as might ever be expected, we consider here the technical history, in so far as it has been disclosed, of just one of the nine loaned pictures – Renoir’s beautiful invention of arrested intimacy-in-movement, his Dance in the City.

The obvious starting point for any appraisal of a picture’s successive states should be the earliest photographic record of the work. With Renoir we enjoy an immense if not comprehensive photographic record. We even have film footage of him painting and sculpting. We have contemporary or near-contemporary photographs that show his paintings in the context of close proximity to other paintings and in a common light (Fig. 1). When the testimony of early photographs differs markedly from presently photographed states (as so often is the case with modern masters – see Figs. 3-7), then, self-evidently, there is an issue crying to be addressed.

When, for example, we compare the very different states of Renoir’s Dance in the City, as seen in Figs. 3 & 4, despite making allowances for photographic variations (such as the great discrepancies of size between the earlier and later images) and being mindful of Bailey’s own thanks to the photographer Michael Bodycomb for having “improved the quality of almost every image”), it is clear that the painting today is not the work that it once was; that its values and relationships have changed. Consider the floor on which the dancers perform: then, it was more varied in its tones; today it is more equal. Then, the floor to the right of the ball gown was darker than the floor to the left of the couple. That darkness served to emphasize the sweeping profile at the back of the trailing gown. Reading downwards from the waist, the shape of two convex masses of material formerly made a leisurely elegant descent towards the train. Today, that “materially” expressive clarity of design in the lower of the two draped forms has been quite disrupted, if not lost, as the now lighter tone of the floor merges with the now diminished shaded tints of the gown (see Figs. 3, 4 & 11).

For all of Bailey’s admirably close (and expertly advised) attentiveness to the dress-making “mechanics” of the gown – “…The skirt is draped in puffed folds (en bouillonée) with a tier of drapery in the front and two pleated flounces at the bottom. The long train is is draped and pleated to form poufs in the back, and a petticoat can be glimpsed beneath it” – he misses the weakened and possibly redrawn profile. Bailey well describes Renoir’s preoccupation with costume. As the son of a tailor and a seamstress, how could that artist have been unaware of or indifferent to the expressive “cut” and sweep of a costume on a swirling, waltzing figure? Previously, the costume of the male dancer was more various in its tones. Today it reads as a uniform black appendage to the female dancer. Previously there had been no hint of the present overly-assertive, sharpened and darkened treatment of the coat tails which pictorially are now as disruptively emphatic as the head of a claw hammer.

For Bailey, the now lighter toned, more equal floor is “immaculate”. To a charlady that might well seem gratifyingly the case, but Renoir, as Bailey acknowledges, fretted greatly about establishing integrated relationships of figures and backgrounds. As Renoir himself put it: “I just struggle with my figures until they are a harmonious unity with their landscape background, and I want people to feel that neither the setting nor the figures are dull and lifeless.” (“Renoir by Renoir”, N.Y., 1990, p. 50). “Harmonious” sometimes seems to be an elusive concept to non-artists. It is not synonymous with “more-alike”. Rather, it describes the uniting through an artistically forged equilibrium of otherwise potentially disparate, disjunctive elements. We constantly see in artists’ preliminary, intimate sketches how their very first thoughts attempt to anticipate and resolve the requirements of such pictorial equilibriums – see Figs. 8 & 9.

Rendering Renoir’s dance floor more homogeneous has had a spatially flattening and pictorially deadening effect. Rendering it both generally lighter and more equal has contributed to the unfortunate effect of detaching the couple from their swirling space and leaving them as isolated and self-contained as a pressed flower in a book. Indication of the painter’s pictorially melding preoccupation is unmissable in the small oil sketch at Fig. 9 that Renoir made for another of his dance paintings. Compared with the earlier state of Dance in the City, the present one resembles an artificially sharpened photograph.

With apparent injuries we must always look for causes and look for them behind as much as within official accounts. As mentioned, and as Bailey euphemises, this picture has “had a complicated structural history”. That is, it has been both transferred and relined. Both operations are highly dangerous. When the paint film was detached from (its presumably original) canvas, the restorers took the opportunity to photograph the painting from the back of the paint, capturing the image in reverse. This image is excitedly presented as having afforded “a rare glimpse into Renoir’s initial preparations…we can see the lines demarcating the back and the train of the womans dress” (but see comments and photograph at Fig. 10). In the same vein, an X-radiograph “shows how enegetically Renoir laid out both his figures and the background elements”. Bailey discusses an infrared reflectogram (Fig. 11) and acknowledges that these “technical” images were made by the Laboratoire du Louvre, C2RMF. Our colleague in ARIPA, Michel Favre Felix, advises that a certain number of paintings coming from the Louvre or from “l’Orangerie”, were “more or less restored” in 1986 on entering the Musée d’Orsay. Bailey confirms that the picture entered the Louvre in 1979 and was transferred to the the Musée d’Orsay in 1986 but offers no details on any restorations of the picture. The pronounced differences in the picture that are evident in Figs. 4 and 13 would however suggest that a restoration took place at some point after 1986.

Needless to say, Renoir painted from the bottom up with overlaid patches of paint and his final, most considered statements therefore formed the upper visible surface of the original paint film. That original, considered and final surface (as was best seen and recorded in the earlier photograph at fig. 2), is no longer to be found in current photographs or in the flesh. Whatever interest penetrative imaging might have, it is secondary in importance to the actual appearance of pictures to the human eye. The current escalating vogue for “technical” imaging that probes beneath the surfaces of pictures serves to divert attention from destructive restoration actions on pictures’ critically important upper surfaces. If the present international museums merry-go-round of borrowings makes the need to address the condition of paintings impolitic, then that is a further compelling reason for curtailing it.

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig.1: An exhibition of Renoir paintings at the Durand-Ruel Gallery, New York, in February 1914 (as shown in Bailey, p.103). The Frick Collection’s Renoir of 1875-76, The Promenade, can be seen in the centre of the wall on the left. There can be no doubt, vis-à-vis the adjacent Renoirs, that this picture was then, when less than forty years old, a relatively light “blond” painting within the oeuvre – much as contemporary written accounts testify.
Above, Fig. 2: Durand-Ruel’s Grand Salon at 35, rue de Rome, Paris (Bailey, p. 187), showing Renoir’s Dance in the City of 1883 on the left. We can see from the shadows cast by the furniture, that Renoir’s picture was at that precise, now historically-telling moment, brightly lit from multiple light sources. The fact that it is captured against a dark wall and adjacent to a very light painted double door is of immense assistance is assessing the work’s own (then) tonal values.
Above, left, Fig. 3: Detail of Fig. 2.
Above, right, Fig. 4: A greyscale conversion of Renoir’s Dance in the City, as seen in Bailey’s book/catalogue. Note the apparent lightening of the woman’s hair, the model for which was the dark haired artist, Susanne Valadon.
Above, left, Fig. 5: Klimt’s portrait of Serena Lederer, as recorded in 1930 in a photograph published in the New York Neue Galerie’s 2007 “Gustav Klimt ~ The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections”.
Above, right, Fig. 6: Klimt’s portrait of Serena Lederer, in an undated photograph taken after the picture was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1980 and published in the New York Neue Galerie’s 2007 “Gustav Klimt ~ The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections”.
Above, Fig. 7: The cover of the ArtWatch UK Journal No 23 in which it was pointed out that the restorers of Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze (on which the figure in the cover illustrations appears), had failed to provide directly comparable before and after restoration photographs. Museums that own Klimts, like the Neue Galerie in New York, are as unforthcoming on their restoration histories as are museums that own Renoirs, like the Phillips Collection, in Washington. It would be a very good thing for art if every owner had to maintain an up to date logbook that recorded all that was known about a picture’s provenance and the conservation treatments and repairs that it had undergone.
Above, left, Fig. 8: Le Lever (Les Bas), a monotype print in black ink on white laid paper, by Edgar Degas, as published in Eugenia Parry Janis’s seminal 1968 “Degas Monotypes ~ Essay, Catalogue & Checklist” for an exhibition at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.
Above, right, Fig. 9: An oil sketch by Renoir for his painting Dance in the Country, published in Bailey, p. 176. No such sketch exists for Dance in the City, but the overall attack in this small study would seem perfectly in keeping with Renoir’s own claim to have struggled with his figures until they achieved a harmonious unity with their landscape background.
Above, left, Fig. 10: The back of Dance in the City after the paint film had been detached from its canvas, as published by Bailey at p. 180.
Bailey’s excitement at the opportunity to enjoy “a rare glimpse into Renoir’s initial preparations” is problematic. What little evidence is discernable of the first steps of painting the figures is what can be glimpsed through a double white fog. As Bailey describes, on an already preprimed canvas, Renoir blocked in a further section of white ground priming over the area which was to contain the two figures. It is claimed that through this double barrier of white paint we can see how Renoir “laid out the contours of his dancing couple with a brush”. It is even said that we can “see the lines demarcating the back and the train of the womans dress”. It is unfortunate that the small size of the reproduction and its hazy image do not permit a safe reading of the information. It is not said whether or not those initial lines were adhered to in the subsequent painting. Do they conform to the shapes of the back of the gown that were evident in the undated but presumably the earliest known photograph of the painting that is seen here at Fig. 2? Were those shapes that initially defined the forms of the white gown maintained and bolstered during the painting by the darket tones of the adjacent floor? “Information” gained through “advanced”, technically expensive imaging systems is neither self-sufficient nor self-evident, it must always be read and interpreted. If conservators and curators opt not to address the testimony of the most accessible and least problematic technical records of condition (that is, the full range of successive ordinary photographs), they will not be well-placed to ask the right questions and make the best readings. There is every danger at the moment of the new technical imaging being deployed as a diversion from, not a resolution of, the most urgent questions of the physical and aesthetic well-being of old paintings.
Above, right, Fig. 11: Dance in the City, an infra-red reflectogram, made by the Laboratoire du Louvre, C2RMF.
Above, Fig. 12: Renoir’s Dance in the City, detail, as shown in the 1985 catalogue to “Renoir”, an IBM sponsored travelling exhibition organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain in collaboration with the Réunion des musées nationaux and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
Above, Fig. 13: Renoir’s Dance in the City, detail, as shown in the 2012 book/catalogue for the “Renoir ~ Impressionism and Full-Length Painting” exhibition which was financially supported by: The Florence Gould Foundation and Michel David-Weill; The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation; The Grand Marnier Foundation; the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation; the Fiduciary Trust Company International; and, the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.
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15th May 2012

Review: Deadly Docents, Dirty Varnish and a Big Educational Push at the Frick

The hardest thing to do in today’s internationalised world of museum administration is to stand still. A trip to New York always compels a visit to the delightful time-frozen art palace that is the Frick Collection but it would seem that, even there, maintaining the status quo there has proved unendurable. Madcap schemes to build new galleries for new exhibitions under the Frick’s garden have been drawn up. It is possible that the new director, Ian Wardropper (former chairman of the department of European sculpture and decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), has dampened ardour for the kind of curatorial and physical “bolt-ons” that have skewed similarly bequeathed jewels like the Wallace Collection in London and the Phillips Collection in Washington (where today the historic works and their period architectural setting have been swamped and diminished by curatorial and architectural expansionism; where today “Special exhibitions are a signature element …offering new perspectives on the work of contemporary and modern artists.”) The Frick’s director does however seem minded to expand the audio tours and “other educational programs” and a book prominently displayed in the Frick’s shop (see right) serves as explicit manifesto for Education’s bid to interpose itself noisily at the very centre of museums between art and its visitors. As the painter Gareth Hawker describes below, something vital and of the essence is threatened by the prospect. And, as the painter James Keul discovered on a recent visit, something similar is already up and running at the Getty:

The docent in the Rembrandt room of the East Pavilion upper level, which covers art from 1600-1800, was speaking to a tour group of about 20 people, mostly middle-aged, and asking what observations people had made on the small painting of the Abduction of Europa. One member of the group asked why all of the paintings appear so dark. The docent answered that varnish and oils applied over the years had darkened, leaving many works darker than they were intended to be. Presumably, this was meant to plant a seed in peoples’ minds that all dark paintings are the result of a darkened varnish rather than an intended effect that was used, in this case by a Baroque artist, to provide contrast and thus bathe a picture in a divine light…”

Gareth Hawker writes:

Visitors who plan a quiet hour or so contemplating works of Art in an American museum risk being accosted by guides called “Docents” who intend to deepen their museum experience. Docents, according to Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee, the authors of “Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience” (2011, Getty Publications – see Figs. 1 – 4), seek to enable the visitor to “make meanings”. The book’s purpose “is to explain making meanings – to open the world by means of art”. Although many readers might be baffled by such sentences as: “metacognition is a byproduct of practice and it facilitates profound experience”, Burnham and Kai-Kee’s respective positions as Head of Education at the Frick Collection, New York, and Education Specialist at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, requires that their campaign to help docents influence a whole culture by shaping the public’s attitude to works of Art be examined.

Docents are amateur enthusiasts, who have been trained to a high level – though not to degree standard – in both teaching and art history. They come from all sorts of backgrounds, and are of all ages. They probably think of themselves as more or less ordinary people who enjoy appreciating art and wish to help others to do so.

The position of the Docent was created in 1907 in response to a perceived need. Visitors to art galleries wished for a guidance in appreciating works of art which was deeper than that being provided by art-historical lectures. Docents were trained and appointed to meet this need by providing an education in aesthetic pleasure. Nearly a century later, there is no longer agreement about what might be meant by “an education in aesthetic pleasure”. So this book appears at an opportune moment, just when museum educators are seeking to clarify their roles.

In order to help redefine their objectives, Burnham and Kai-Kee refer to the work of the educationalist John Dewey who wrote in his classic 1934, Art as Experience, that “The task is to restore confidence between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience.” Dewey had identified an ideal response to a work of art. The visitor would begin by gaining an “experience” (that is, a sense of unity). A teacher might help the visitor in this, by stimulating and guiding his thoughts, but without ever imposing any view or judgement. In this way, “guided interpretation” might help the visitor to “make meaning” – to recognise relationships in many aspects of life and art. At its highest this process can generate a sense of over-arching interconnectedness which Dewey called a “culmination”.

In one exercise, students working in a group are encouraged to offer up any ideas and reflections which come to mind in reaction to a painting. These “thought showers” sound as if they could be open and productive, but, if a student asks an awkward question, the process seems to go into shut-down, as the following account (p. 71) may illustrate:

The picture (the Frick Saint Francis by Giovanni Bellini) is beginning to cast its habitual spell. Suddenly, without warning, in a slightly confrontational tone, one man in the group asks, ‘What’s the difference between a work of art and a mere illustration? This might be just an illustration.’ [See Fig. 2] The question raises larger philosophical issues that are more difficult than he probably realizes and than I can accommodate in the context of a gallery program. I urge him to be patient. Perhaps the experience of the painting may begin to resolve the question, at least for him.”

The docent hopes that the student’s experience of the painting might begin to resolve his question – ignoring that fact that it was his experience which had prompted the question in the first place. Perhaps only certain types of experience are acceptable. (Dewey made a distinction between “experience” and “an experience”). The docent also suggests that the student’s question might be resolved, “for him”, as if his question were personal; as if he were troubled by a mental hang-up; and as if she were his counsellor. But his question was not personal. It was a general question about how works of art may be classified. An answer which was good only “for him” would not have addressed the issue – if indeed such an answer could have any meaning at all.

So, to summarise, the teacher has judged that her student has had the wrong kind of experience, but will not explain why; she judges that he is probably ignorant of issues which are connected with his question but she will not tell him what they are. This begins to look less like an application of Dewey’s theories and more like a power-struggle in which the docent issues a put-down and asserts her superiority.

As so often throughout the book, while the theories seem perfectly innocuous, even illuminating, it is the way in which they are put into practice which gives cause for concern. The authors seem to share a general squeamishness about talking about artistic quality. This is a mindset which is just as prevalent in Museum education in the UK as in the USA. While the authors appear to accept Dewey’s observation that works of aesthetic merit may be found at all levels of human endeavour, not solely in High Art, they apparently interpret this to mean that one must not point out the difference between good and bad.

The authors do mention the importance of looking and seeing, but by these terms they seem to mean finding and telling stories, rather than observing shapes and colours. Works are treated as objects to be read, like books, with stories to be discovered and assimilated. Looking at a painting for its artistic qualities is considered only as a small part of a student’s involvement, not of central importance. (Whistler’s Ten O’ Clock lecture, with its concentration on qualities such as colour, tone and shape, would form a stark contrast to the narrative approach outlined here.)

For the authors, talking is an essential part of the process of experiencing a work of visual art. The authors would like to see the docent become increasingly prominent in museums. They wish to see teaching develop in such a way that, “galleries may be defined as places where dialogues take place around works of art” (p. 151). This means that galleries would no longer be defined as places where one goes to look at paintings. They would no longer be quiet. The authors envisage galleries “filled with the hum of conversation […as] educators move from the periphery to the center.” But this move may have harmful consequences. If visitors learn to think of the appreciation of works of art as a series of “experiences”, with little regard to artistic quality, their eyes will be closed to many fundamental aspects of the art of painting. Such visitors are unlikely to observe that some pictures are better than others. They will not notice when quality has been reduced over time: when paintings have been degraded by insensitive restoration “treatments”. Their non-judgemental, non-critical stance will make them easy prey for apologists who promote restorations with appeals to crude sensation such as, “now we can see what was underneath that dark paint!” or, “now look at how bright that blue has become!”

Works of art will be relegated to the status of tools which enable the visitor “to open the world by means of art.” Defining the function of art in this way is simplistic. Art can have many meanings or none at all, yet we can still recognise that it is “right” – if our minds are quiet. Yet the museum of the future which the authors envisage is hectic and noisy.

Responsible for the continuing translations of meaning that occur in the new museum, the educators who teach are the most accomplished members of the education department, best qualified to shape and animate museum programs. They lead the department, define its philosophy and mission, and overturn the historical definition of teaching as a peripheral, volunteer, or entry-level activity.”

If, by “translations of meaning” the authors mean anything like the “guided interpretation” we have seen in the verbatim accounts of their teaching sessions, we know that it will involve subtly pressurising the visitor to conform to their view of art, “shaping and animating” his “experience”.

A quiet hour contemplating beautiful paintings looks likely to become ever more elusive if the authors get their way.

Gareth Hawker

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Above, Fig. 1: The cover of the 2011 book that has been published by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Above, Fig. 2: The Frick Collection Giovanni Bellini “St Francis in the Desert”, 1480.
Art and its Appropriators ~ A Note on the Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania (Michael Daley)
In “Teaching in the Art Museum” (p. 3), Rika Burnham describes the concluding essay chapter on the Barnes Foundation as “a special case study in museum education”.
The Barnes, as a foundation whose primary purpose was educational, rather than being a museum in which teaching happens to take place, appealed greatly to the author – even as its method was rejected. Invited in 2003 to teach as a guest lecturer (unusually, for one untrained in the Barnes method), Burnham came to appreciate how Albert Barnes had collected and assembled a collection to be continually rearranged “by the teachers” so that they might make visible a “continually evolving universe of art and ideas”. If outdated as a pedagogical system, the central role of the educator in the Barnes foundation’s mission was seen to offer “rich possibilities as a model for the future of our profession”.
Above, fig. 3: Albert C. Barnes with Renoir’s “Bathers in the Forest” (left). Photograph of 1932 from the Barnes Foundation Archives.
Barnes, like Henry Clay Frick, was a ruthless accumulator of wealth but where Frick amassed prime art specimens like some super-philatelist, Barnes was gripped both by specific artistic passions and generous democratising impulses. Above all, he was in thrall to Renoir’s late and summary, non-impressionist, nude paintings. An intimate of and close collaborator with John Dewey, Barnes bequeathed his stupendous collection (a thousand pictures with over one hundred and eighty Renoirs) as the tool of an educational method. Executed with his money, his works of art, and according to his and Dewey’s ideas, this unique experiment affronted many in the artworld. As the cash value and the esteem of the collection rocketed, covetous eyes grew impatient with the foundation’s high-minded purpose and began seeking ways to prise the art away from a distinctive teaching method that encouraged/demanded that the student make the great mental effort to acquire the specific habits of perception of artists so as to see as the artist sees.
Above, Fig. 4: Two of the original (now shamefully denuded) Barnes Foundation galleries, as published in “Teaching in the Art Museum”.
When Rika Burnham, the Frick’s present Head of Education and a former Getty Museum Scholar, undertook her teaching at the Barnes, she did so with evident trepidation. Her account (p. 134) opens like a Hammer horror film set in Translyvania:
Darkness is falling in Merion, Pennsylvania, as I leave the station and walk slowly up the hill and turn onto North Latch’s Lane. The year is 2003 but it could just as easily be 1950. Unchanged, the Barnes Foundation stands silent, proud, only slightly faded by time and the endless controversies that have swirled around it since Albert C. Barnes died in 1951. The night watchman at the front gate pokes his head out and says they are expecting me. I walk up to the massive wooden doors and lift the large knocker, pausing for a moment to imagine the treasures inside. My knock sounds heavy and hollow. Slowly the door opens…my heart is racing. Twenty years of teaching at the Metropolitan have not prepared me for teaching in an installation like this.”
Burnham’s dilemma was this:
Is it possible to teach with these works of art, I wonder, as my eyes adjust slowly to the complex arrangements, the soft but dim lighting? How could I teach in these cacophanous arrangement of art objects? How could I help my students see and make sense of the art in what appear to be overflowing, even hyperactive spaces?”
It sometimes seems that the default response of every museum employee and volunteer, when confronted by an old painting, is to complain knowingly about its “condition”. Perhaps in a field heavy with “conservators” it would be held professionally tactless or even provocative to entertain the possibility that non-treatment might ever be preferable to “conservation”? Burnham was first required to talk about two early Netherlandish devotional pictures given to the school of Gerard David, a “Virgin and Child” and the “Crucifixion with the Virgin, St John, and the Magdalene”. She immediately took against the two works and their setting:
However, questionable attribution is only one of my concerns. Both pictures are darkened by varnish and surrounded by many objects and other pictures. My heart sinks. It is hard to imagine that we will be able to see much, let alone sustain study and dialogue.”
One senses on Burnham’s own account that the Barnes students may have come to the rescue of a disoriented teacher:
This is a second year class; the students have spent the previous year learning the Barnes method of seeing. One is a psychologist, another a lawyer, and still others are artists…We sit and begin in silence. We search for words, describing what we see, at first hesitatingly, then with more confidence. Through our shared dialogue we slowly begin to unfold the small ‘Virgin and Child’. The students are patient and disciplined in their looking, persistent. The small work of art becomes large and radiant to our eyes, its spiritual mystery paramount, while questions of attribution and history, for the moment, recede.”
Such revelatory surprises were to come thick and fast. Not only was the varnish-darkened picture possessed of radiance, but Burnham was surprised by its ability to command any attention at all “given that it is surrounded by many other works of art, some large and imposing.” The teacher, already a veteran Metropolitan Museum Educator, came belatedly to the realization that “pictures can be part of their ensembles, yet still assert themselves…”
Week after week and, seemingly, against all odds, pictures were to come alive for Burnham. El Greco was reached.
Above, Fig. 5: El Greco, “Vision of Saint Hyacinth”. For its display context at the Barnes, see Fig. 4 (top).
For Burnham, the attributional quibble came first: “Perhaps painted by El Greco or by his son, Jorge Manuel, it is one of three versions of the subject.” Such doubts notwithstanding, “We look intently, searching for meaning and understanding, and again, the picture shines through its darkened coat of varnish.” A landscape by Claude Lorrain is at first seemingly inaccessible hanging over a glass case, but it too “triumphs over dim evening light and yellowed, aging varnish”.
Although her heart initially sank on entering the Barnes collection, Burnham now hopes that despite its enforced move to downtown Philadelphia, the collection may yet “inform our museum education visions…as we search for a pedagogy advancing our own questions, promoting freedom, and serving us as we seek ever-deeper understanding of the artworks we love”. One senses likely obstacles to this ambitious prospectus: there is an institutionally insurrectionary, anti-curatorial, anti-scholarly bias that, paradoxically, requires building an alliance in which curators must relinquish authority: “If education truly is central to the mission of art museums, as most have claimed since their founding, I believe that educators must collaborate with curators and conservators so that that objects can be free to engage in dialogues with one another that are not limited only by curatorial imperatives.” It is hard to see how – outside of the Barnes as it once was – it could be other than a daydream to call for a world in which throughout “museums big and small, works of art can be moved into surprising juxtapositions at the request of the teachers, to create new dialogues and open new horizons.”
Moreover, the Barnes’ enforced migration has had disastrous consequences for what might once have served as an educational beacon. Wrested from its bequeathed purpose-built beautifully landscaped and architecturally handsome home (with distinguished carved sculptural decorations), the Barnes collection has been deposited within a mean-spirited conservationally sanitised replication of its old interiors. Moreover, these are set within an ugly, affronting, clichéd modernist mausoleum that in repudiating history celebrates nothing more than its own materials and its tyrannical soul-destroying rectilinear aesthetic obsessions – an aesthetic which nods derivatively and dutifully to the “signature” modernist roof-top glass box that has been defiantly bolted on to the top of Tate Modern’s own “modernised” historic building. Compounding the offences against art and generosity of spirit that this hi-jacked legacy constitutes, it transpires that the new building already serves (in flagrant breach of the terms of Barnes’ stipulations) as yet one more commercial “events venue” with a “nice museum attached”.
That betrayal has not gone unchallenged. In yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, Nicholas Tinari, a patent attorney who studied at the Barnes from 1989-91 and later co-founded Barnes Watch in attempt to stop the trustees of the Barnes Foundation from altering the terms of its indenture of trust, speaks of his anger and sadness at the opening of the gallery in Philadelphia: “anger at the gross betrayal of Albert Barnes’ remarkable gift and sadness “for something truly unique [that] is gone, not only an art collection in the perfect setting, but an original idea.”
Tinari’s heart-felt sadness is realistic – a dream has died. The Barnes experiment is not universally replicable and its high aesthetic demands could certainly not be met in the envisaged relativist talking shops when “In the art museum of the future, we walk into a gallery in which the hum of conversation fills the space”. In François Truffaut’s film version of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″ the “book people” are seen wandering around talking to themselves in order to keep alive the chosen book that they have committed to memory in a society where books are outlawed and destroyed as anti-social. In the transformed museum espoused by Burnham and Kai-Kee, the silent contemplation of a painting will give way to group inductions by educators who make themselves “responsible for these dialogues”; who ask to have a central place in the future museum. In practice, such a transformation threatens the greatest gift that a work of art offers: its implicit invitation to individual viewers to think their own thoughts, to have their own responses, to commune in tranquility directly with the artist. That is the great luxury and privilege that the museum makes possible to all comers regardless of wealth and ownership. Michelangelo once said that he was never less alone than when alone with his thoughts. Can art’s educators really not appreciate that guaranteeing to all the circumstances that permit vivid, living personal, one-to-one engagement with art – to the value of which the authors of this book themselves eloquently testify – should be the primary objective of all museum administrators? It is the art itself that is educational. We do not get waylaid in theatres and concert halls by would-be explainers, nor should we in galleries. Art appreciation classes belong in the class-room.
LINKS:
National/Professional/Volunteer Organizations:
American Association of Museums
www.aam-us.org
National Docent Symposium Council
www.docents.net
Congress of Volunteer Administrator Associations
www.COVAA.org
Association of Volunteer Resources Management
www.vrm-roundtable.org
Points of Light Organization
www.pointsoflight.org
United States Federation of Friends of Museums (USFFM)
www.usffm.org
World Federation of Friends of Museums
www.museumsfriends.net
Regional Museum Organizations
New England Museum Association (NEMA)
www.nemanet.org
Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums (MAAM)
www.midatlanticmuseums.org
Association of Midwest Museums (AMM)
www.midwestmuseum.org
Mountain Plains Museum Association (MAPA)
www.mpma.net
Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC)
www.semcdirect.net
Western Museums Association (WMA)
www.westmuse.org
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