The Battle of Borja: Cecilia Giménez, Restoration Monkeys, Paediatricians, Titian and Great Women Conservators
The Cecilia Giménez affair has re-combusted. First off, the elderly would-be restorer had reduced the world to incapacitating laughter/disbelief at the bungled restoration of a painting of Christ in her local church, Santuario de Misericordia, in Borja, north-eastern Spain (Fig. 5). When Ms Giménez’s unauthorised restoration of “Ecce Homo – Behold the Man” caused the work to be dubbed “Ecce Mono – Behold the Monkey” the church threatened to sue. When restoration experts converged to advise on how or whether the damage might be undone, thousands of wags petitioned for the wreck to be left untouched for all to see for all time. It was all too much for the well-meaning amateur restorer who, greatly distressed, took to her bed.
Now the eighty-one years old is on the warpath. The church had become an overnight tourist attraction. Ryanair offered cut-price flights from the UK. An entrance charge was introduced that netted two thousand euros in the first four days…upon which the would-be restorer went to law seeking remuneration for having imbued the formerly disintegrating picture with talismanic, money-spinning powers. On September 21st the Times reported the explanation offered by one of her two lawyers: “She just wants [the church] to conform to the law. If this implies an economic compensation, she wants it to be for charitable purposes.” At this startling assertion of intellectual property rights, the church retained lawyers to defend its exclusive right to milk tourists. Giménez’s lawyers now reportedly say that while she demands no cut of the entrance charges, they are investigating possible copyright infringements of her creation with a view to pursuing payments from the many people now using the restored image to sell products. It already appears on T-shirts, cell phone covers, coffee mugs and wine labels.
With everyone in the world now aware that restorations really can damage art, attempts are underway to neutralise this professionally corrosive realisation. What seems to have caused most alarm is the recognition that although Giménez’s restoration was an extreme case it was not an aberration within the wider context of professional conservation practices. (See, for example, the grotesque repeated abuses of a Veronese face at the Louvre: “Restoration Tragedies” in the August 23 Sunday Telegraph and our August 30 post). Normally, publicity generated in connection with restorations is eagerly cultivated by the restorers and the supervising/funding authorities alike. The reputations of the former can be burnished and the revenue streams of the latter increased. However, the October issue of the Art Newspaper attempts to quarantine the Giménez affair by confining it within a discrete sphere of delinquent and destructive amateur restorations, which it then attacks on no supporting visual evidence – without even reproducing the offending Spanish restoration. By courtesy of the Art Newspaper, the incident is thus being pressed to serve as no more than a cautionary tale against failures to pay Proper Fees for Proper Professional Restorers (“Do-it-yourself? Just don’t…”):
“Although the likelihood of a well-meaning member of the public walking into a prominent museum like London’s National Gallery, paintbrush in hand, ready to work on a Titian, is slim, what about works in small private collections that remain largely out of the public eye but may one day end up in a museum or national archive? Unfortunately, these pieces are all too often subjected to misguided interventions.”
Dragging the National Gallery into this imbroglio is not helpful to the institution. Has the Art Newspaper forgotten that someone recently walked into the gallery, aerosol paint-can in hand and set about not one but two Poussins? Or, for that matter, that this happened at a time when warder numbers had been halved, prompting subsequent strikes and greatly intensified anxieties about possible thefts and further vandalism? As for Titian, the example can only seem injudicious (or provocative) given the notorious damage done to the artist by the National Gallery’s own professionally qualified restorers (see right). Of two things, we should all be clear. First, in the adulteration of art, amateurs are the also-rans. It is the performance of the professionals that should concern us most. Second, in appraising restorers’ performance we should ignore the restoration chaff of hype and professional apologias and look harder at the material and aesthetic results.
The Art Newspaper gives voice to the leading American academic restorer Joyce Hill Stoner who, while advising the Spanish church on its restoration calamity, takes open professional comfort at this artistic ill-wind: “In some ways, we were heartbroken, but on the other hand, it has resulted in a tremendous boost in advocacy for our profession.” Like many restorers, Prof. Stoner often beats this advocacy drum – elsewhere she has said: “We think public education and advocacy about our profession is one key. Even the Antiques Roadshow people often say, ‘Ah, Madame, if you had not cleaned this piece of early American furniture it would have been worth $70,000, now it is worth no more than $700.’” In the Art Newspaper she elaborates: “Amateur restorers have always been a problem…a geology professor… scrubbed away trees…People say they are treating their paintings and I tell them that’s like telling a doctor that they’re in the middle of removing their own appendix…artists are the parents, we are the paediatricians”.
This reaction to the incident raises the question of why restorers can so clearly see and so forcefully repudiate amateur errors while remaining silent on far more serious professional blunders on vastly more important artists like Titian (see right). Dubbed “picture rats” in the 19th century, restorers defensively rebranded themselves “conservators” and “picture surgeons” in the 20th century. While Prof. Stoner’s invocation of medical authority might be expected from one who is the director of a programme that converts restorers into doctors at the University of Delaware’s Preservation Studies Doctoral Program, it is singularly ill-advised. If picture restorers bear any resemblance today to medical practitioners, it is to morticians who doll up artistic corpses or, fractionally more charitably, to the controversial branch of cosmetic surgery, where vain attempts to put back clocks and recover earlier states result in ghastly mishaps and the use of dangerously inappropriate materials. (For industrial-grade silicone breast implants, read synthetic resin picture varnishes. For “trout lips”, simply Google: “Veronese nose-jobs”.)
In 1999 Prof. Stoner, one of her profession’s more thoughtful exponents, gave an academic paper at Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, in celebration of Women’s History Month and asking “Are There Great Women Art Conservators?” She sought permission to “muse for a bit about the practical side of the conservation of paintings” and characterised modern conservation as a “three-legged stool” comprised of art history (reading); chemistry (part reading, part doing); and studio art (doing). This year she elaborated in an interview:
“We call it ‘the three-legged stool’— you need a thorough grounding in art history or archaeology or library science (depending on your specialty); you need excellent hand skills—painting, drawing, sewing, sculpting, casting, etc. (depending on your specialty); and you need excellent training in organic and inorganic chemistry; you need to understand thoroughly the properties of materials making up the works of art AND the materials you might use in a treatment.”
At the time of the Great Women Conservators paper, Prof. Anatoly Alyoshin of the Repin Institute, St Petersburg (where restorers must spend many years training as artists), had recently criticised western practitioners for their inadequate “hands-on” artistic skills. Visiting Stoner’s alma mater, New York University’s restoration school, Prof. Alyoshin asked how a student lacking artistic abilities would be handled. No problem, he was told, “We give him a job connected with surveys or the theory of restoration”. But, on qualifying, would such a person be permitted to work in a museum as a restorer? “Probably he can”, was the answer.
Prof. Stoner’s own query carried the implicit sub-question: What makes a great practising conservator of either gender? She answered thus: “Let us suppose that I was the GREATEST conservator that EVER worked. What would it mean?” It would mean that she had “removed previous repaints, old discoloured varnishes and grime very sensitively”, and then filled in all the resulting lacunae and abrasions with “easily removable” fresh paint, taking care perfectly to match the “surface texture, gloss and colour” of the surviving paint. However, were she ever to achieve these goals, “no one would know that I had actually worked [and] my success would be measured by my invisibility”, which would provide no basis for “greatness, fame or immortality”. Additionally, she expressed concern that restorers might be thought mere “hand-maidens to the artist”.
Concerning the egotism of professional restorers, we have already seen how those at the National Gallery claim and have been granted a right to impose personal aesthetic readings on pictures. In France, we have challenged restorers who explicitly claim a right to determine how old paintings be “presented” today, as if they are texts or scores to be performed and not unique concrete historical objects (“LA RESTAURATION EST UNE INTERPRÉTATION”, letter, Beaux-Arts Magazine, No 203, April 2001). On questions of mechanical competence, it might be noted that Stoner’s own nominee as Great Woman Conservator was none other than Joyce Plesters, the then recently deceased former head of science at the National Gallery (London).
This seemed perverse. Plesters was not a restorer. Nor was she was an artist. She was a scientist who took a degree in art history while working at the National Gallery and was thus at best a “two-legged stool”. She mistook a large panel painting composed of three butterfly-keyed boards for a single giant one and half metres wide plank. On another panel she counted six boards when there are seven. She reported that Raphael’s Cartoons at the Victoria and Albert Museum had been mounted on backing sheets, when they had not. She believed a planed-down panel had been set into a sheet of block-board when it had been glued onto it. As head of science she failed to warn the Gallery’s restorers against their technically delinquent practice of ironing some the largest and most important canvases (such as Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”) onto sheets of Sundeala board. As for her art historical judgements, she mocked the great scholar Ernst Gombrich for suggesting that Renaissance painters might, in emulation of Apelles, have toned down their own pictures with overall dark varnishes, when just such a painting was later identified within the National Gallery itself.
Prof. Stoner might more plausibly have nominated her fellow American picture restorer Caroline Keck (who held it important to accept an equal number of men and women into restoration lest the field lose power by becoming too “feminized’’). Although Keck, with her restorer husband Sheldon Keck, wrecked a major Phillips Collection Renoir when restoring it without authorisation (- like Cecilia Giménez), and also got badly mauled when disputing the British art historian John Richardson’s charge that restorers had committed crimes against cubist painting, she too was an ardent restoration propagandist, advising in 1993 that her profession should conduct its own PR:
“A group as large as ours has become must contain colleagues with the skills we need: run competitions for the best magazine and TV scripts, get communication going. The least each of us can do is make our treatment reports to owners lively and readable, attractive enough so these are left on the cocktail table to show off to guests…If we fail to assume responsibility for publicizing a fine image of ourselves, our work and the need for that work, no one else is likely to.”
Conservators are frequently urged by their professional “unions” to solicit professional hype. In the March 2008 ICON NEWS, the (female) head conservator of Westminster Abbey protested when “one of the big Sunday newspapers published what we thought was to be a nice piece on the forthcoming restoration of the Westminster Sedilia [but instead] sensationally claimed that the central heating had directly damaged the Coronation Chair” – even though another (female) conservator at the Abbey had precisely told The Art Newspaper that “The central heating is the main problem” (see ArtWatch UK Journal 23). The Guardian and the British Museum recently ran a joint course advising conservators on planting conservation friendly stories in the press and broadcast media. As for whether or not there any great women picture restorers, there are certainly professional awards aplenty for them. In 2003 Stoner herself was awarded the AIC University Products Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011 she further received both the AIC Paintings Speciality Group Award “for outstanding contributions to the field of paintings conservation”, and the College Art Association and Heritage Preservation Award for Distinction in Scholarship and Conservation. In memory of her husband of sixty years, Caroline Keck set up The IIC Keck Award specifically for those judged to have contributed most “towards promoting public understanding and appreciation of the accomplishments of the conservation profession.”
For all this question-begging conservation propagandising, it could well be Cecilia Giménez who attains the “immortal fame” that eludes her more professionally respectable peers. However high their working esteem, from the minute professional restorers retire hungry successors circle to undo and redo their work – which is why such a premium is placed on “easily removable” repainting. At the same time and despite all the Good News stories, succeeding waves of restorers remain riven with personal rivalries, conflicting methodologies and incompatible philosophies. Insofar as it is available, historically documented evidence of restoration practices frequently testifies not to any methodological progress but, rather, to a succession of variously compounding errors and injuries. With each generation failing to establish a properly critical literature or even to show an interest in developing appropriate methods of aesthetic appraisal, restoration itself remains an insufficiently examined arena in which restorers may play around putting things on and taking things off as the fancy takes them.
In our previous post, The “World’s worst restoration” and the Death of Authenticity, we examined the consequences of restorations for a number of the world’s most important artists (Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, Veronese, Holbein, Velazquez and Vermeer) that had been carried out in some of the most important buildings or museums. Here, we examine (right) the restoration-induced alterations in a small section of the surface of a single Titian painting. We should add that these comparisons are made from high quality hard copies of photographs taken by the National Gallery for its own conservation records and very kindly made available to us by the Gallery (along with access to the conservation and scholarly records themselves). We are greatly indebted and believe that the following comparisons are made not only on the best possible and most reliable evidence available, but are also fairly presented with the least possible distortion. Some of the comparisons shown (Figs. 11 and 14) were made by overlapping two photographs of before and after restoration states which had then been scanned together so that the extent of the differences between the two states can be gauged with complete confidence.
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The shapes that Lucas engineered here have no basis in Titian, have no basis in the vocabularies and shared understanding of his cultural era. Lucas’s imposed innovations are arbitrary, without insight, unwarranted and vulgarly ahistorical.
How the National Gallery belatedly vindicated the restoration criticisms of Sir Ernst Gombrich
History has repeatedly shown that scholars and art-lovers (no matter how distinguished and mild-mannered) who put themselves between museum picture restorers and their professional ambitions, run high risks.
In 1950 Ernst Gombrich drew attention, in a Burlington Magazine letter, to Pliny’s description of wondrous effects achieved by Apelles when finishing off his paintings with a thinly spread dark coating or “varnish”. How could we be sure when stripping off “varnishes” today, he asked, that no Renaissance masters had applied toned varnishes to their own works in emulation of antiquity’s fabled painter? He received silence.
When he repeated the question in his seminal 1960 book Art and Illusion, his scholarly reputation and position as director of the Warburg Institute at London University commanded an answer. One came from Helmut Ruhemann, the National Gallery’s consultant restorer and author of its notorious “total cleaning” policy. Ruhemann insisted in the British Journal of Aesthetics that there was no evidence whatsoever “for anything so improbable as that a great old master should cover his picture with a ‘toning-down layer’.”
Gombrich returned play in a 1962 Burlington Magazine article (“Dark varnishes: Variations on a Theme from Pliny”). The discovery of a single instance of a tinted overall varnish, he suggested, would undermine the dogmatic philosophy of the National Gallery’s restorers. A dual reply came from the gallery’s “heavy mob” – its head of science, Joyce Plesters (who was married to the restorer Norman Brommelle), and the pugnacious former trustee and collector, Denis Mahon, in two further Burlington articles.
Plesters herself dismissed Gombrich on two fronts: for lacking “technical knowledge” and for displaying incomplete and misinterpreted scholarship. The entire documented technical history of art, she claimed, showed that “no convincing case” could be made for a single artist ever having emulated Apelles’ legendary dark varnishes. The passage from Pliny, she sniffed, was merely a matter of “academic rather than practical importance”. She offered to “sift” and “throw light upon” any future historical material that Professor Gombrich might uncover – should he but present it directly to the National Gallery. Her technical rank-pulling was underwritten (as perhaps was her article in part) by the director, Sir Philip Hendy, who disparaged technically ignorant “university art historians” in the gallery’s annual report.
In reality Plesters was a technical incompetent. It was she who claimed that the Raphael cartoons at the Victoria and Albert Museum were stuck onto “backing sheets” when there are none. It was she who described the large (150 cms wide) panel The Entombment, which is attributed to Michelangelo, as a single massive plank when it is comprised of three boards held by butterfly keys. It was she who counted six boards on the large panel Samson and Delilah, which is attributed to Rubens, when there are seven.
Her errors were products of a then unchecked institutional culture of technical adventurism and gross aesthetic recklessness. Great Renaissance paintings were ironed onto boards of compressed paper (Sundeala board) which today are too unstable to be moved. One such was Sebastiano del Piombo’s The Raising of Lazarus. That painting, originally on panel, had been transferred to canvas. When decision was made to re-attach the canvas to a Sundeala “panel”, technical examination identified three further “backing” canvases. When these three “backings” were duly removed it was discovered that no fourth and “original” canvas existed and that the surviving paint was attached only to a layer of disintegrating paper. But that crisis-of-their-own-making provided the gallery’s restorers with opportunity to play what Professor Thomas Molnar here called “demiurge” and improve upon the artistic content of the painting. In order to stabilise the paint layer which they had left loose and unprotected, the restorers embedded it from behind with terylene fabric attached by lashings of warm, dilute wax-resin cement. Because Sebastiano had painted his picture on a warm-coloured ground and because paint becomes more translucent with age and allows the tone of the ground greater influence on the picture’s values, the restorers decided to brighten things up and give the picture a brilliant white ground (like that of a Pre-Raphaelite painting) by adding highly reflective pigments to their own remedial wax-resin cement applications.
Plesters died in August 1996. Earlier that year, the National Gallery had published a report in its Technical Bulletin on the cleaning of two paintings by a Leonardo follower, Giampietrino. One, his Salome, had clearly suffered the Gallery’s trademark restoration losses of modelled form (see right and below), but his Christ Carrying the Cross was miraculously unscathed. Moreover, that picture was found simultaneously to display an “intensity of colour” and a restrained “overall effect” – precisely the paradoxical combination attributed by Pliny to Apelles but that had been pronounced technically preposterous by Ruhemann, Plesters, Mahon, Hendy et al.
It further emerged that Giampietrino, having first built up an “illusion of relief” with “dark translucent glazes”, had, again just as Pliny had said of Apelles, 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”. Sir Ernst, nearly half a century on, had finally been vindicated but the report, inexplicably, made no reference to the dispute of the 1960s – to the very dispute which in 1985 had been described by the Burlington Magazine’s then editor, Neil MacGregor, as “one of the most celebrated jousts” ever. Had the National Gallery, having ridiculed Gombrich in the 1960s, not told him of its own remarkable technical/art historical discovery and of his own vindication? It had not. When we reported the findings in June 1996, Sir Ernst was approaching his 87th birthday. He replied:
“I could hardly have a nicer present than the information you sent me. I don’t see the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin, and would have missed their final conversion to an obvious truth…”
Gombrich’s vindication proved a double one. Not only had the gallery discovered a technical/physical corroboration of the scholar’s astute original supposition, but the survival of a Renaissance artist’s final toned coating served further to corroborate Gombrich’s general criticisms of the gallery’s over-zealous picture cleanings. Because the two Giampietrino works were restored at the same time in the same gallery, but with the surface of the one being protected from solvent action by an ancient oil-film, while that of the other was unprotected, an unwitting laboratory experiment had been conducted on the gallery’s own “cleanings”. We can now compare the appearance of the restored but protected painting, with that of the restored but unprotected one (see right and Michael Daley, “The Lost Art of Picture Conservation”, The Art Review, September, 1999). As can be seen here, the unprotected painting (the Salome) suffered clear and dramatic losses of modelling and weakening of forms.
For a number of years after the twin Giampietrino restorations, it was possible to examine the two cleaned specimens side by side and to demonstrate the unequal effects of the treatments they had received. That is no longer possible. One of the pair has been relegated to the ill-lit basement of the reserve collection which is accessible to the public for only a few hours a week on Wednesday afternoons.
The relegated work is not the restoration-injured Salome, but the miraculously preserved Christ, the very picture which now arguably constitutes the best-preserved example of a Renaissance artist’s technique in the entire collection. This picture, which might be expected to enjoy pride of place in the main galleries, shares its new dungeon exile with another recent National Gallery Embarrassment – the Beccafumi panel painting Marcia which was dropped and smashed at the Gallery when being “de-installed” from a temporary exhibition. We had hoped and suggested that the Christ might make a return to daylight on the occasion of the Gallery’s forthcoming Leonardo blockbuster exhibition, but it seems that it will not do so – not even to join Giampietrino’s full-sized faithful copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper. (For many years, that Giampietrino mouldered in the Royal Academy’s basement as embarrassing relic of the institution’s former artistic interests.) When the last restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper got into difficulties, the copy was taken to Milan so that full-size tracings of Leonardo’s figures might establish the limits of the restorer’s own substantial watercolour in-painting.
It seems fitting that last word be given to Sir Ernst, who died on November 3rd 2001. In another letter in 1988 he had recalled:
“I believe it was Francis Bacon who said ‘knowledge is power’. I had to learn the hard way that power can also masquerade as knowledge, and since there are very few people able to judge these issues, they very easily get away with it.”
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