The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part III: Cutting Michelangelo Down to Size
“Judging by Past Experience, it is Perilous to Suggest Restoration…”
~ Charles Heath Wilson, 1881, “The Life and Works of Michelangelo Buonarroti”. Publisher: John Murray, London.
“I once barged into a correspondence in The Times when the National Gallery was under fire from the ‘anti-cleaners’. I was ticked off very severely by Lord Crawford, the Chairman of the Trustees. I had, mildly I thought, criticised the authorities for ignoring the sincerely held views of the opposition…I was later restored to favour in high places when I made it clear in an article in The Studio that I was convinced that our National Treasures were in the keeping of qualified responsible people.”
T. J. Honeyman, 1971, “Art and Audacity”. Publisher: Collins, London.
It is not widely appreciated how inherently dangerous art restoration practices remain, or how culturally deranging restoration changes can be. At the bottom end of the trade, restorers often advertise their services on a promise to leave pictures “as good as new – or better”. The restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was – on the accounts of its own restorers and initiators – the biggest, the best, the most scientifically advanced and “radically transforming” top-end restoration ever undertaken. This “Restoration of the Century” left one of the world’s greatest artistic accomplishments so profoundly unlike its former self that enthusiasts could announce the discovery of a “New Michelangelo” who was “very different from the one art experts thought they knew”. At the same time, the chief restorer thrilled in 1982 that the frescoes looked as good as new: “as though they were executed yesterday”. In the midst of this commonplace restorers’ confusion between “recoveries” and “discoveries” (or sometimes, “revelations”), some surprising expressions of support materialised. In 1987, a top-end art historian writing in the magazine Apollo [Endnote 1] announced the demolition of the “Darkness Fallacy and the Sculptural Fallacy” within Michelangelo scholarship, and predicted that the then concurrent restorations of the Sistine and Brancacci chapels would leave both Michelangelo and Masaccio as “less isolated geniuses” who would be “returned to their respective periods” (i.e. confined within designated art historical boxes). In 1991, a newspaper art critic exulted in the displacement of “doomy outpourings of religious angst” by colours as “bright as Opal Fruits” – which colours reflected the workings of a “much more rational mind” . Unsurprisingly, such professional pleasure-taking in chemical transformations that could cut artistic Titans down to size alarmed those who had been happy with the surviving Michelangelo, and an enormous controversy arose. Unsurprisingly, the criticised characterised the criticisers as instances of “the magnitude of the shock to entrenched opinion” that had been unleashed by a triumphant restoration. (As will be seen, the expression of sincerely held citicisms can be harshly punished when substantial vested conservation interests are challenged.)
Behind this interpretive culture war, the effects of the restoration on Michelangelo’s art were material and aesthetic. Those changes are forever. Although bad scholarship can be remedied by good scholarship, the latter cannot undo damage to unique, historic works. What remains to be done, a third of a century after the restoration’s 1980 launch, is a proper, disinterested aesthetically informed analysis of the restoration-induced changes, item by item, figure by figure, photograph by photograph; and, a frank evaluation and acknowledgement of their cultural and art historical consequences. Had this restoration’s profound transformation been accepted without challenge, we would be in a world today where technicians enjoyed unfettered licence to rewrite (or as they sometimes prefer, “to re-present”) history itself. Even tacit endorsements of injurious restorations can damage scholarship and falsify history.
The restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was well and publicly defended from 1980 until the mid 1990s. At that period, a seismic shift occurred. What follows is an examination from a British perspective of the restoration’s defences up to 1995 (in which year implicit art historical support for the restoration resulted in a seriously misleading exhibition at the National Gallery); and, a further presentation of visual proofs of the restoration’s injurious consequences. We note here how many supporters have admitted entertaining doubts about the restoration’s probity.
A new cleaning method, and the selling of a “New Michelangelo”
In the 1980s, at the height of an international restoration mania, a supposedly “advanced” “scientific” cleaning material was used on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. It was ferocious in its effects and mechanistic in its application which was expressly designed to thwart personal and allegedly “subjective” and “unscientific”, aesthetic appraisals. The most sophisticated imagery on an immensely important historic work of art was thus subjected to a “treatment” that derived not from the complexities of picture restoration and its necessary acts of discrimination and constant evaluation but, rather, from architectural stone cleaning techniques. This cleaning method altered the ceiling’s centuries old artistic/historic continuity to such a degree that the restorers and their supporters ventured that history would need to be rewritten. The changes, for sure, were dramatic: depictions of figures that had been archetypally and transcendentally alive were brightened, flattened, rendered more abstract, more “on the picture surface” and left with an altogether more modernist and imaginatively impoverished aspect. Contrary to official claims this (demonstrably) was not a liberation or recovery of the ceiling’s original condition and appearance – see, particularly, Figs. 1 and 60.
When Michelangelo’s ceiling was unveiled in 1512 the world was stunned by the grandeur, pictorial audacity and, above all, by figural inventions that had rendered the divine corporeal and vividly alive within our own space and time. Michelangelo had not so much made depictions-on-surfaces as conjured perceived spaces adjacent to the ceiling’s imperfect forms. His optically “sculpted” spaces – which opened vistas beyond the ceiling’s surfaces while simultaneously projecting figures in front of them – had been realised through powers of draughtsmanship and modelling with utter disregard for the “integrity” of the architectural surfaces. Seemingly palpable space was necessary to situate Michelangelo’s monumental programme of over three hundred figures – figures that ran from depicted carved stone sculptures (his architecture-adorning putti), through living, space-occupying young sculptural Adonis’s (his contorted, anxious ignudi) and, more prosaically, through the historical ancestors of Christ, to the divinely gifted Prophets and Sibyls, and finally to God Himself and his celestial supporters. This was immediately acclaimed as a dazzling artistic and illusionistic advance. Its eventual influence was to carry mural painting into the Baroque and beyond. Although artistic fashions and modes of description change constantly, for nearly five centuries this “stupendous” work’s vital relationships endured, as the many copies made throughout its existence testify (see Fig. 1b).
How Doubts became Denials
With the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, while some art world players were galvanized into opposition, many others were excited and swept along by the presumptuous magnitude of the transformation. As mentioned, many of the supporters of the restoration have disclosed moments of doubt. We cited in our post of March 4th that the co-director and chief restorer of the ceiling, Gianluigi Colalucci, had said in 1990: “I must confess I harbour a lingering almost subconscious fear that someday someone will come, unexpectedly, with a really intelligent observation that will show all of us to have been blind.” The following year the Sunday Times art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, produced a celebratory book (“Sayonara Michelangelo”) in which he asked in the face of the transition:
“Who among us looking up for the first time at this new, bright, clear Sistine ceiling, perfectly rational, a light-filled work, was not tempted by the doubt: it can’t be so.”
This temptation was throttled by the sheer spectacle of the restoration as an art-changing performance:
“The thin and neat scaffolding bridge moved elegantly along the ceiling like a very slow windscreen wiper. In front of it lay the old Michelangelo, the great tragedian, all basso profundo and crescendo. Behind it the colourful new one, a lighter touch, a more inventive mind, a higher pitch, alto and diminuendo. It was being able to see both of them at once – Beethoven turning into Mozart before your eyes – that made this restoration such a memorable piece of theatre.”
Even the National Gallery’s thoughtful and scholarly (then) curator of Renaissance painting, Nicholas Penny, who recognised (“White Coats v. Bow Ties”, London Review of Books, 11 February 1993) that “The most terrifying thing about the restoration of old paintings and sculpture, as distinct from the editing of texts, is that something might be lost altogether”, swallowed his own moment of anxiety:
“But perhaps one should admit that something is lost however much is gained by any intervention – some possibility of interpretation if not some actual pigment or glaze or polish.” [Emphasis added.] With a seeming acceptance of such material and interpretive losses, the greater gains in the Sistine Chapel were said by Penny to have emerged as follows:
“Study of the ceiling now that it has been cleaned tends to distance Michelangelo from the art of recent centuries – and from the work of artists who were inspired by the ceiling – and reveals a far closer connection with the dazzling colours favoured by artists in his immediate following and also evident in some of the better-preserved 15-century Florentine panel paintings.”
Note the cultural role being served by “restoration” changes: even when their legitimacy is vehemently challenged, restorations facilitate through “study”, new interpretations and a certain re-shuffling of scholarly furniture. Scholars and restorers invariably say that they have duly considered and rejected the criticisms as ill-informed, but the fact remains that eventually all restorations themselves come to be rejected and undone by later restorers. Indeed the alleged need to undo previous restorations is one of the commonest justifications for a restoration. The net consequence of repeated restorations is not a return to an original condition each time, but a daisy chain of altered alterations, with each successive restoration leaving the given work looking unlike its previously “restored” state. With accumulating alterations, works get thinner and thinner. Insofar as such abraded appearances are acknowledged, they are attributed to previous “rubbing”, or other euphemisms. Losses of original material during restorations (as Penny conceded) are to some degree inevitable. This is because while painters work from supporting canvases or panels upwards, restorers work downwards with their solvents and abrasives towards or beyond pictures’ finished surfaces. Collisions are inevitable.
The “New Michelangelo”
The art historical revisionism that advanced with this restoration might have been plausible had changes of colouring been the only changes, and had any of Michelangelo’s contemporaries noted dazzling colours. By any properly visually alert appraisal, however, the changes were less ones of enhanced chromatic power than of debilitating losses to the ceiling’s initially celebrated dramatic modelling and lighting (see Fig. 60). Although Nicholas Penny acknowledged such objections to the received critical consensus, he nonetheless caricatured them:
“Polemics against the restoration appeal repeatedly to the ideas of chiaroscuro and harmony as artistic absolutes.” The implication that critics were in the grip of a fetishized false artistic consciousness was underscored: “It is painful but important to acknowledge that the inspiration one artist draws from another, earlier one is often inseparable from misunderstanding.” It is a common defence against critics to allege some “misunderstanding” of the “facts” because of ingrained or entrenched prejudices but with this restoration the objections stemmed not from misapprehensions or misplaced adherence to ahistorical idée fixes, but from the fact of the concrete, demonstrable and historically verifiable injuries to the painting.
Further Material Evidence of Injury
Having shown many directly comparative pairs of “before” and “after” restoration photographs as proofs of injury – we further present seven single photographs (Figs. 1 to 6 and 48b), each of which alone testifies to the destruction of the final stages of Michelangelo’s painting. To pinpoint the unsoundness of the restoration’s theoretical underpinning, we also show two other works, one drawn (Fig. 41), one painted (Fig. 47) that seem emblematic of serious critical neglect. It will be argued that insufficient respect for the artistic and documentary records (particularly in the form of graphic copies and related paintings) facilitated an initial misdiagnosis of Michelangelo’s painting methods. In addition, we examine the “macro” consequences in terms of changes to the previous relationships between the broad and differentiated zones of the Sistine Chapel’s consecutively decorated surfaces.
Selling the Restoration and Blocking the Critics
In December 1987 two articles that acknowledged the intensity of the controversy were published in Britain. One was a work of journalism by a leading cultural writer with strong interests in science, Brian Appleyard. The other was a full-blown and frankly declared Public Relations Apologia by Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, a professor of art history at New York University, a consultant member of the Vatican’s Scientific Advisory Committee on the restoration, and the Vatican’s spokesman on “scholarly and general information” for the public relations firm Arts and Communications Counsellors, which had been retained to handle the crisis.
To take the former first: on 20 December 1987 the Sunday Times magazine carried an article on the restoration – “Lost or Found?”. Its author, Brian Appleyard, acknowledged that he had been “carefully and elaborately briefed” by the co-directors of the restoration, Fabrizio Mancinelli, the curator of the Vatican Museums’ modern paintings, and Gianluigi Colalucci, the head restorer, and by Professor Carlo Pietrangeli, the director of the Vatican Museums, and that the next day he had been “scientifically persuaded” by the Vatican’s chemist, Nazzareno Gabrielli. Nonetheless, Appleyard gave a fair and balanced account, citing the arguments of James Beck, a professor of art history at Columbia University, New York. Even while recognising that “the vast majority of art historians are on the side of the Vatican”, Appleyard concluded “So far the Vatican have been troubled by Beck but have been secure behind the battery of art historians prepared to stand up and oppose him. But his fury and energy are beginning to pay off. More and more awkward questions are beginning to be asked and he warns of more home-grown opposition in Italy.”
An Artist Thwarted
The article itself prompted controversy in Britain by including directly comparative before and after restoration photographs of sections of the frescoes. To this artist’s eyes, those photo-comparisons showed instantly that the “cleaning” was damaging and that the protests were well founded (see Figs. 9 to 11b). Working then as the principal illustrator of the Independent, a new and fashionable newspaper with excellent arts coverage, I asked the arts editor if I might write a short article demonstrating the ways in which the ceiling was being damaged. He declined on grounds that the newspaper’s art critic, Andrew Graham Dixon, had (like Beck) visited the scaffolding, and had been persuaded (like many art historians and critics) that all was fine.
Thus, the first lesson in this controversy was that an artist who had trained for four years in a junior art school, for five years in a fine art college and for three post-graduate years at the Royal Academy Schools – and who afterwards had taught and practised drawing and sculpture for fifteen years – could be unvoiced in a debate about the treatment of a work of art in deference to the views of someone sixteen years younger who had read English at university and art history at the Courtauld Institute (- on which institution’s restorations see “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners”).
An Artist Heeded
When the Independent launched a Sunday edition in 1990, its arts editor invited an article on the Sistine Chapel restoration. In preparation, I contacted James Beck who put me in touch with many key critics. These included, in Italy, Professor Alessandro Conti, Venanzo Crocetti, the sculptor who had worked on the previous restoration of the Sistine ceiling in the 1930s, the restorer Mirella Simonetti; and, in the US, the critic and writer Alexander Eliot and the painter Frank Mason. From the Independent on Sunday I spoke directly to Professor Brandt, Dr Fabrizio Mancinelli, Professor John Shearman, (an advisor to the restoration who viciously attacked Beck on the record and then threatened to sue if I published his grossly defamatory comments), and wrote to Gianluigi Colalucci. The second lesson had thus been that critics of restorations, however prestigious, could find themselves victims of scurrilous attacks from professional peers.
Shooting the Messengers
When surveying the restoration’s then decade long literature, Brandt’s 1987 Apollo article emerged as a seminal document. Its declared purpose had precisely been to defend the “transformation of Michelangelo’s mysterious dark frescoes…into [the] blazing colouristic pyrotechnics that is attracting the most public attention and controversy” (this was despite the fact that Michelangelo had been praised at his own funeral for “the fleeting and sombre colours with which he had formed such rare and lofty shapes”). Most striking of all was Brandt’s assaults on the restoration’s critics, whether they were scholars, restorers, traditionalist artists or fashionably modish artists:
“But, a tiny, heterogeneous and vociferous cadre emerged with the dramatic charge that Vatican conservators are ruining one of the great icons of western civilisation.
“Convinced of the urgency of their mission, the critics conducted their campaign in the international press and television and achieved a remarkable degree of public visibility. A letter by a well-meaning group of American master painters of the Pop generation, calling for a halt to the cleaning of the Sistina (as well as the Last Supper) was one index of their success. An interview with one of the American Sistina critics in People Magazine was, however, another…
“To the ears of most art historians and conservation experts, however, the critics claims sounded more and more like the wild cries of some ferocious mutant of Chicken Little. Many believe that the critics, like that benighted bird, were misunderstanding insufficient evidence to draw mistaken conclusions to the alarm of the neighbours. Still the issue is a serious one. Are the critics merely opportunists, body-surfing on a wave of publicity they would never otherwise have enjoyed? Or should we be hearing in their polemics a warning that the cleaning of major works of art is another of those matters too important to be left to the experts?”
“If the critics’ questions have such detailed answers, what is the continuing public fuss about? Why has the criticism been so remarkably vague, shifting and misinformed? Why have the critics been so reluctant to make the frequent visits to the Sistine Chapel scaffolding…Why does criticism remain invulnerable to the abundant available information. How could such a small group of people, none of whom is – in a professional sense – an expert on Michelangelo and conservation, attract so much publicity and even some well-intentioned adherents? (The original nucleus of nay-sayers consists of only five persons: two painters, one former art critic and two art historians, distributed in Italy and the USA; connexions between them exist but are hard to define.)”
In addition to an insinuation of some underlying conspiracy, Brandt appended an imputation of political motivations that served as platforms for personal opportunism:
“It is easy to see how any hint that the Vatican might be hurting Michelangelo could fuel political fires while providing a chance for professional power play among factions of the intellectual establishment.”
If political motivations combined with personal power play might exist among critics in Italy, Brandt maintained, the situation was different in the United States where:
“The continuing publicity has, of course, also become a phenomenon in itself with a life and fascination of its own. All the more significant that only one American scholar has been tempted to join the public furore.
“None of this grandstanding matters much – although one doesn’t like to see an important issue distorted and people misled. I do not believe that a tenacious campaign of ill-informed criticism and personal attacks on the conservators will stop the careful cleaning of the Ceiling.”
At this historical point Brandt’s past abuse of the critics might best be taken to have been self-answering. Her assurance that “the cleaning chemicals do not actually come into contact with the fresco surface” has not worn well and, besides, was at odds with the chief restorer’s earlier admission that if left on a minute too long the chemicals began devouring the fresco surface and Michelangelo’s shading with it. Similarly, her claim that the restoration had been “spurred by the alarming discovery that the glue layers were contracting as they aged , and were pulling flakes of plaster and pigment away from the surface of Michelangelo’s frescoes” proved an impermanent position. As was later reported in “Art Restoration, The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” (James Beck and Michael Daley, 1993), it had been claimed in 1986 (six years into the restoration) that “various checks [had] ascertained that in several places minute flecks of colour were lifting” and that this had “necessitated an immediate restoration.” In 1987 it was said that extensive areas of flaking were progressively worsening and threatening an imminently “uncontrollable situation”. By 1988 Vatican spokesmen were claiming that the weight of encrustations upon the paint surface was causing it to break away from its ground. By 1989 it was said that the glues had “shrunk and puckered” causing “scabs” to fall away “pulling pigment with them”. It was said that this “slow destruction by glue-pox” was “the Vatican’s principle motivation for cleaning the ceiling”. When we asked Brandt in 1990 how big the puckerings were, she replied “Oh! Some are as big as your hand.” Soon after, in 1991, the problem de-escalated: initial investigations were acknowledged, once more, to have encountered “minute desquamations and loss of pigment.”
Brandt’s patronising claim that “the so-called ‘controversy’ is not actually about facts and issues but is a reflection of culture shock” lamely echoed charges made in earlier restoration controversies. During the National Gallery cleaning controversy in London in the late 1940s the critics were said by the art critic, Eric Newton of the Daily Telegraph, to be suffering from the “shocked eye”, a condition which afflicted “the connoisseur and the artist – the visually sensitive man with a quick eye and profound reverence for what he had seen”. Just as at the Sistine Chapel, Newton’s dismissal of the expertise of creative players was made on the claimed authority of restoration “science”. Such generalised appeals to the authority of science often prove to be empty incantation and Newton volunteered no more than “The purely scientific and technical aspects of the process, however are too complex to describe here.”
In 1857 picture cleanings at the Louvre were defended on the grounds that “It is understandable that the romantic amateur loves the rust and the haze of the varnish, for it has become a veil behind which he can see whatever he desires” (Horsin Déon). One critic of the Louvre’s restorations, Edgar Degas, threatened to produce a pamphlet that would be “a bomb”. When Brandt dismissed the Sistine Chapel critics on the grounds that the controversy was “rather unreal since the arguments against cleaning are mainly nostalgically emotional [while] those on the other side are chemical and scientific” she presented her role as being to “dissolve some of the murky argument and preserve a few facts”. As will be seen, artists and art historians can have distinctly differing views as to what constitutes a “fact” and what a blind prejudice.
The Evidence of Restoration Injuries – and the Surprising Reactions To It
When the Independent on Sunday’s picture desk obtained high-quality colour transparencies from the Vatican in 1990 we examined the image of the Erythraean Sybil, part of which had been shown in Appleyard’s Sunday Times article, and encountered among many losses the restoration-mangled foot seen at Figs. 2 and 3. Those losses and losses to a figure on one of the lunettes were first published in the Independent on Sunday of 25 March 1990 (see Figs. 12, 13 and 14) and then later in the Independent of 20 March 1991, where the arguments against the restoration were put by Daley, Beck, Conti, Eliot and the art historian Bruce Boucher, and balanced by three counter arguments.
Of the latter, Ernst Gombrich was harshest on the critics: “No one is infallible, but I have not the slightest doubt that the overall impression and operation is right, and the critics talk absolute nonsense.” The Courtauld Institute-trained editor of The Art Newspaper, Anna Somers Cocks, condescended that some people liked things to look “romantic and old, and can’t cope with the clarity and brilliance of what the Sistine Chapel looks like now it has been cleaned”. The Courtauld Institute-trained Nicholas Penny said “It’s one of the great revelations of our time but the transformation is so absolutely amazing that it is bound to give some people a shock and I am sympathetic to them being shocked”.
Brandt’s 1987 Apollo account had fallen on well-worked ground in Britain where even art world players with strong track records of being critical of restorations had become supportive of this restoration. The Courtauld Institute-trained restorer Sarah Walden, who had implicitly criticised many of her peers and predecessors in her 1985 book “The Ravished Image ~ Or How to Ruin Masterpieces by Restoration”, was one such and she offered this (simplistic) technical distinction in defence of the restoration’s results:
“Unlike easel paintings, frescos are not a film of paint on a surface but impregnate their own support and need no varnish. Given an intact, dry wall, they are spared many of the rigours of restoration, except for the removal of dust and dirt. As the recent cleaning of Raphael’s Galatea in the Farnesina in Rome has shown, and as the present work on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel seems to confirm, this is one area where impressive results can be had with far less risk.”
As shown on 28 April 2012, the restorer Leonetto Tintori had discovered on examining the ceiling that it had been covered by what he termed “Michelangelo’s auxilliary techniques” which included not just glue or size painting but also oils. Walden, whose principle critical complaints had been against the “Anglo-Saxon” schools of restoration in Germany, Britain and the US, as opposed to the “Latin” restorations of France and Italy , had evidently accepted the restorers’ claims that Michelangelo had simply coloured successive patches of wet and drying plaster at great speed and thereafter accepted whatever disparities and inequalities of value emerged on drying without making any unifying or enriching interventions with glue-based painting a secco on his fresco surfaces when dry, as was customary and as had been noted by his contemporaries. She had further accepted the restorers’ (revisionist and unsupported) claims that the large amounts of glue-based material on Michelangelo’s frescoes had been applied by restorers as a “varnish” to a work which, on her own account, would have required no varnish, and despite the fact that previous Vatican restorers had attributed that very material to Michelangelo. Gombrich, who had played a prominent role in the post-war cleaning controversies at the National Gallery in London – and who had written the Foreword to Walden’s book – was similarly persuaded by the present Vatican restorers’ well disseminated technical account.
Gombrich’s Startling Lapse of Scholarship and Visual Acuity
In 1995 Gombrich presented an exhibition, “Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art”, at the National Gallery (London) on the thesis that an avoidance of cast shadows had been “widespread among painters of the High Renaissance”. He did so without reference to the paintings of Michelangelo or Raphael. (When pressed on these omissions he replied “I never meant [the catalogue] to be an encyclopaedia of all cast shadows, though some of my readers seem to assume so.” – Letter to Michael Daley, 10 June 1995.) As will be shown, in a curious fashion, Gombrich’s pictorial amnesia constituted the logical terminus of a more general denial by art historians of the distinctive artistic relationships that had survived on the pre-restoration ceiling, and of the connections between those relationships and the art forms of the period and immediately afterwards. Defending this restoration became an exercise in not-seeing what was and what had been. Gombrich’s position on this restoration was a great disappointment to us given his outstanding earlier contributions.
Gombrich on the Sanctity of Scholarship
In 1978 as the Vatican Museums’ curators, restorers and scientists were moving towards restoring the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Gombrich had discussed one of Michelangelo’s prophets – his Ezekiel – in the context of problems of art connoisseurship and medical practices (and with no reference to colour) . He pointed out that just as with placebos “suggestibility plays a part in our response to works of art”. Demonstrating by a comparison between Jeremiah and Ezekiel that the latter was uncharacteristic of Michelangelo but characteristic of Raphael, he firmly attributed its execution to Raphael (see Fig. 25). Of all the prophets on the ceiling, he contended, this one alone lacked Michelangelo’s profound stylistic traits: “he always negates the picture plane. Jonah being the most famous example of this space-creating and surface-denying imagination, which so aroused the admiration of Renaissance writers.” How could it have been overlooked, Gombrich continued, that the Ezekiel, far from denying the picture plane, asserted it: “Instead of being self-enclosed it impetuously moves to the right, addressing an unseen partner in what looks like a violent argument. It is this implied movement which tears the cohesion to pieces and introduces a shrill note of drama entirely absent from the other creations. The composition is only superficially Michelangelesque…” Further, what the Ezekiel betrayed in its agitated gestures was Raphael’s own great indebtedness to Leonardo: “Indeed it is hardly too much to say that Ezekiel would fit comfortably into the groups of the apostles in the Last Supper of S. Maria delle Grazie.”
This was vintage Gombrich, learned, conceptually adroit, visually acute and boldly re-attributing a Michelangleo to Raphael through Leonardo. Except that here his elegant arguments and persuasive stylistic “evidence” amounted to no more than a plausible contrivance – a conceit that was, he confessed, an art connoisseur’s equivalent of the medical practitioner’s placebo. He hoped that connoisseurs “will not take offence and that the spirits of Michelangelo and Raphael will forgive me this harmless fabrication.” (Was that jest to become a maquette for a far greater and undisclosed prank on those two great artists seventeen years later?)
Gombrich and the Guardians of Memory
Two decades earlier, in a moving 1957 essay “Art and Scholarship”, Gombrich had championed the scholar as “the guardian of memories”. It seemed that he had been stung to do so by the painter Wyndham Lewis who had recently written:
“When I see a writer, a word man, among a number of painters, I shake my head. For I know he would not be there unless he was up to something. And I know that he will do them no good…”
Gombrich’s retort was: “Why should the artist bother about that spoilsport the scholar and his past? The brief answer to this question, I fear, may sound moralistic. Because truth is better than lies.”
Indeed it is – but this leaves his own later omissions in the National Gallery exhibition the more perplexing: How could so great a scholar make so seriously misleading and unfounded a claim in (seeming) defence of such an unsupportable restoration? Spicing this mystery is the fact, as shown below, that Gombrich’s faith in the Sistine ceiling restoration was not absolute and that he, too, like Colalucci, Januszczak and Penny, had once acknowledged a moment of doubt.
Gombrich’s Moment of Doubt
As mentioned, Gombrich was as one with the views of the restorer Sarah Walden on this restoration. Walden was to persist with her endorsement of the restoration until at least 2004 when, in a revised edition of her book (now titled “The Ravished Image ~ An Introduction to the Art of Picture Restoration & Its Risks”), she pressed Gombrich into a swipe at critics of the Sistine ceiling restoration:
“The subject of restoration tends to attract cranks and fanatics, but to suggest that the world’s foremost art historian was one of those would be absurd. He approved for example of the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, and wrote to me about an Italian who opposed it and was seeking his support: ‘Of course he wants to use [my writings] as ammunition against the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, but I do think the problems of cleaning are different…I have been up the scaffold…I have no doubt that the team are aware of the many problems…I am even fairly happy about the work on the Sistine ceiling.’” [Walden’s ellipses.]
While Walden tactfully refrained from identifying the Italian critic, by publishing a letter she received from Gombrich in 1987 in the revised book, she revealed an intriguingly confessional remark:
“Last week I was sent a book from Italy violently attacking the ‘cleaning’ of the Sistine ceiling. It may contain some exaggerations but it is still disquieting. Michelangelo e la Pittoria a Fresco, by Alessandro Conti (La Casa Usher, Florence 1986). If you read Italian and have a little time during the next few weeks I’ll gladly lend it to you to look at.”
That unsettling book was later described by Penny in the LRB as “the most sustained polemic against the restoration”. Charles Hope, an authority on Titian and then the Senior Lecturer in Renaissance Studies at the Warburg Institute, London, wrote (in a letter of 1994 to the restorer Helen Glanville – see below) that “The scholar who has done most to draw attention to the relevant texts is of course Conti; and whatever you think of his book (he is not a restorer, by the way), I am sure we can agree that it is obligatory reading for anyone interested in the controversy surrounding the ceiling. Yet [...] and so on not only pass over his arguments in silence instead of addressing them, they seem never to cite his book at all…” Gombrich, too, would seem to have suppressed his own disquiet and passed over Conti’s arguments even though he must have appreciated that Conti was a very considerable authority on restoration having taught the History and Techniques of Restoration at the University of Bologna; the History of Modern Art at the state university in Milan; and, the History of Art Criticism at the University of Siena. In his 1988 “History of the Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art” (republished by Butterworth in a 2007 English translation by Helen Glanville) Conti spoke of the alien “material and chromatic robe” with which the Sistine ceiling paintings had been invested “during the present restoration” and identified “the various media” Michelangelo had used on the ceiling as “fresco, lime and secco”. (For Conti’s further comments in that book on Domenico Carnevale’s repairs to Michelangelo’s ceiling, see the caption at Figs. 48a and 48b. That his now very scarce Michelangelo e la Pittoria a Fresco has yet to be published in English might itself be thought something of a scandal.)
The Context of Gombrich’s National Gallery Exhibition
Gombrich’s 1995 exhibition came not just towards the end of his long and distinguished career but at the end of a brief period of intense discussions in Britain on the restorations at the Sistine Chapel and the National Gallery. We had been at pains to show that extreme as the Sistine Chapel restoration was, it was part of a wider radically transforming international assault by restorers acting on historic works of art in the name of their “conservation”. (Between 1990 and 1995, this author alone had published twenty-three times on those subjects – see Fig. 12.) Such discussions greatly accelerated with the publication of the 1993 Beck/Daley book “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” which, in addition to two chapters on the Sistine Chapel carried a chapter on the National Gallery’s restorations. Responses to the book were various and sometimes startling. They prompted an additional chapter, “The Establishment Counterattacks”, in the revised 1996 American paperback edition. We should acknowledge here that the National Gallery, under its present director, Nicholas Penny, as initially under its previous director, Charles Saumarez Smith, has given ArtWatch UK full and most generously helpful access to all conservation and archival records, and that we have drawn heavily on the compendious material on the Gallery’s conservation practices that is provided in the annual Technical Bulletins. Moreover, since 2012 the Gallery has placed much archival material online.
Responses to “Art Restoration, the Culture, the Business and the Scandal”
After his initially even-handed coverage, Brian Appleyard now characterised Beck in the Independent as being “litigious” – even though he had brought no legal actions but had been sued (unsuccessfully) for criminal slander by an Italian sculpture restorer and had faced a possible prison sentence of three years. Appleyard compared the Beck/Daley book unfavourably before its publication – and before he had read it – with Walden’s book of 1985, specifically dismissing its unseen chapters on the Sistine ceiling on a Waldenesque insistence that “The fact that it was largely pure fresco made the cleaning process straightforward.”
On 18 November 1993 the New York Review of Books carried an essay by Charles Hope, on “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”. Hope (who was later to become, as Gombrich had been, the director of the Warburg Institute), recalled that “like many other art historians” his initial response to the cleaning had been “entirely favourable”, but which confidence, he now confessed, had been “entirely misplaced”. Viewed in their entirety, the cleaned frescoes create “a decidedly disagreeable impression: the colours are gaudy…the figures look crude and often flat and the architecture seems insubstantial and pedantic.” In short, “Restrained grandeur has been replaced by garish confusion” and it was “difficult to believe that the right procedure was adopted.” Worse followed for the restoration establishment. “Restorers are not always particularly well-informed about the history of art nor especially interested in it”, while, for their part, art historians “seldom have the scientific training to judge the full implication of the courses of action proposed to them.”
Perhaps most disturbing to the Sistine Chapel restoration supporters was Hope’s acknowledgement that when “Talking to friends I find that my unease is widely shared; and it is certainly noticeable that the completion of the restoration has not attracted the kind of acclaim that greeted the unveiling of the lunettes.” After the publication of his review, Hope told Beck in a letter (20 November 1993) “You’ll be cheered to know that several art historians have told me, by letter or in person, how glad they were that I had said what I did.” This greatly amplified a note of caution that had already been present in Nicholas Penny’s observations in the LRB nine months earlier:
“I have met few art historians, even among those who are nervous about the cleaning of paintings, who believe that a mistake was made in cleaning the ceiling. Nevertheless, many art lovers were shaken by what has been published on the subject and some have been no less alarmed by what they have seen in the chapel itself.”
A Restorer’s Response
Temperatures rose after Hope’s review. The Art Newspaper allotted four pages in its May 1994 issue for the counter arguments of Helen Glanville, a Courtauld Institute-trained picture restorer who had read Modern Languages at Oxford. Like Brandt seven years earlier in Apollo, Glanville struck a combative tone and a tendentious note by producing accounts of our “Accusations” against which she provided lawyerish “Defences” written in consultation with the authorities. In 1963 Gombrich had complained “Nobody who criticizes the policy of a great institution expects such criticism to be accepted without further argument. What one has the right to expect, however, is that the answer should concern itself with the substance of the criticism.” In language eerily reminiscent of that used against Beck by Shearman, Glanville challenged not only our character but the judgement of those who had supported us: “The most disturbing aspect is that reviews of the book (including that by Charles Hope in the New York Review of Books of 18 November 1993) appear to indicate that even respected members of the art world accept Daley’s presentation of ‘facts’ at face value”.
Hope sent a letter to Glanville explaining that he had been “particularly careful not to take Daley at his word”, that he had checked what I had written on Sebastiano was in accordance with the monograph on the artist by Professor Michael Hirst (of the Courtauld Institute, and a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling), and also with “the account of the [Sebastiano] restoration in the National Gallery’s Annual Report”. In further reproach, he added “I would have thought it was fairly obvious to anyone familiar with the recent literature that I had done my homework, not least because there are various arguments and texts used in the review which do not figure in the Beck-Daley book at all.  In my review I have tried very hard to be fair to both sides…Having read your article I see nothing that ought to be changed; indeed it would be difficult to see what you actually found objectionable in it…Before I began working on the review my scholarly sympathies were entirely on side of the defenders of the recent restoration, and I was hoping indeed expecting, to be persuaded that my unease at the present appearance of the ceiling was unjustified. But the reverse has happened, and not just because Beck and Daley produced such compelling arguments…” Hope then set out with great clarity the scholarly import of the material evidence we had supplied and which he had found persuasive:
“I was disappointed that you did not discuss directly what seemed to me the most important single type of evidence in the whole controversy, the drawing by Clovio of Jonah [see Fig. 1] and the one at Windsor showing the whole ceiling. Both of these, as you will remember, can be securely dated to no later than 1534, and they both show very specific, well-defined areas of shadow also recorded in the engravings of the sixteenth century and later, which have now disappeared. The important thing is that the drawings predate the engravings, that they were manifestly produced independently of one another, yet they are consistent. If they are misleading in the same way, we need to have some explanation of why this is so, because if Michelangelo did paint shadows of the kind they show, and in the places they show, then Beck and Daley would seem to be vindicated.”
Gombrich’s Denial of Historical Realities
Coming so soon after Hope’s generous and substantial support, Gombrich’s claim, as a scholar with an impeccable record as a critic of restorations, that cast shadows had popped out of existence for the duration of the High Renaissance might have seemed like manna to the National Gallery and the Vatican. Did his historical account not implicitly constitute a most authoritative rebuttal of the Beck-Daley, Hope-supported, central claim that the destruction of Michelangelo’s cast shadows had given historically corroborated proof of injury to the Sistine Chapel ceiling? In so doing, did he not also provide express relief to the restorers themselves? If the shadows had never existed during the High Renaissance, as he was claiming, how could they possibly have been harmed in restoration?
In May 1994 The Art Newspaper published my letter of reply to Glanville’s article. It concluded: “this concern [over restorations] is shared by others. The current director of the Prado, Calvo Serrraller, has condemned the Sistine Chapel restoration as a misguided ‘face-lift’. A restorer in St Petersburg complains of the ‘perniciousness of radical British restoration techniques’. A curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum condemns the ‘strident tones’ produced by ‘the exuberant cleaning of paint surfaces, for which the National Gallery has unfortunately become famous’. It is a pity that the National Gallery staff are not prepared to debate these matters directly. It is a pity that discussion should be necessary at all when, to educated eyes, the evidence of injury contained in before and after cleaning photographs is so unmissable.” It would seem, (on Gombrich’s recollection – “In the shadow of the masters”, interview, The Art Newspaper, May 1995) that that very month, the National Gallery’s director, Neil MacGregor, approached Gombrich to ask whether he would do an exhibition in the “The Artist’s Eye” series (in which artists assembled and discussed selections of paintings made from within the Gallery’s collection).
Mr MacGregor’s Choice
Gombrich submitted five or six proposals from which, he said, MacGregor “selected shadows”. Thus the National Gallery had obtained an exhibition that purported to explain why the masters of the High Renaissance had opted to “show us a shadowless world”. If the content was helpful to the Gallery, the fact of Gombrich’s participation might have been a greater boon still. As a critic of the Gallery’s restorations during the 1950s and 1960s he had been a dangerous foe. Before becoming the National Gallery’s director, MacGregor, as editor of the Burlington Magazine, had himself been a partisan of restorations and was well aware of Gombrich’s standing in these disputes. In a Burlington editorial in January 1985, MacGregor had written:
“Cleaning controversies are probably the liveliest, and they are certainly the hardiest, of the art world’s perennial topics of discussion. Of course, thefts and exports make bigger headlines, but they lack conversational staying power, just as new record prices slip faster and faster from the memory. But debates on cleaning run and run, this Magazine having been the forum for one of the most celebrated jousts in the early 1960s.”
MacGregor then drew a distinction that marked a crucial advance that picture restorers had made by the 1980s: “Then the key question was how, or even whether, to clean. Now it is more likely to focus on what can be learnt through cleaning about the picture itself.” This rebranding of art restoration, despite all of its inherent risks, as an aid to scholarship had seemed a spectacular professional coup. By the late 1980s museum restorers had forged a common professional alliance with curators in which “discoveries” made in the course of a restoration could be presented to the world through professional journals, museum press releases, and newspaper/television interviews. The National Gallery laid claim for having pioneered the new hybrid discipline known as Technical Art History, in which curators, restorers and scientists pool efforts so as to fly in tight professional formations. In reality, museums and galleries had set themselves a trap – and Gombrich had chosen the worst possible moment to flip sides in the Great Restoration Battles: to talk about what has been learned/discovered requires the production of material, visual evidence and such evidence becomes fair game for examination.
Gombrich’s Case Against the National Gallery’s Restoration Methods
In 1950 Gombrich had drawn attention in a letter to the Burlington Magazine, to a passage in Pliny which described wondrous effects achieved by the legendary painter Apelles when he finished off his pictures with a thinly spread dark coating or “varnish”. How could we be sure, Gombrich asked, that no Renaissance masters had ever emulated the great painter of antiquity by applying similarly toned varnishes to their own works? He received no reply from the National Gallery. Ten years later, he put the question again in his book “Art and Illusion”, this time provoking Helmut Ruhemann, the Gallery’s pioneering exponent of “Total Cleaning”, into a categorical insistence that “there is no evidence for anything so inherently improbable as that a great old master should cover his whole picture with a ‘toning down layer.'”
Gombrich returned to the fray in 1962 in a Burlington Magazine article (“Dark varnishes – Variations on a Theme from Pliny”) contending that even a single instance of tinted overall varnish would undermine the philosophy of the Gallery’s intrusive restorers who presumed to discern and recover originally “intended” effects among the complex, variously degraded, many times altered material layers of old paintings. Gombrich had cited Pliny’s remarkable technically eloquent account of Apelles’ method: “He used to give his pictures when finished a dark coating so thinly spread that, by reflecting, it enhanced the brilliance of the colour while, at the same time, it afforded protection from dust and dirt and was not itself visible except at close quarters. One main purpose was to prevent the brilliance of the colours from offending the eye, since it gave the impression as if the beholder were seeing them through a window of talc, so that he gave from a distance an imperceptible touch of severity to excessively rich colours.” To the National Gallery the suggestion that colour might be suppressed in any degree by an artist was an affronting heresy, and the idea that a dark toning layer might simultaneously render colours individually more brilliant while collectively more unified was an oxymoron.
The Gallery’s then head of conservation science, Joyce Plesters, responded with a long, witheringly dismissive rebuttal in the Burlington (“Dark Varnishes – Some Further Comments”). Professor Gombrich, she insisted, lacked “technical knowledge” and his scholarship was incomplete and misinterpreted. The entire documented history technical history of art – much of which she appeared to quote – showed that “no convincing case” could be made for a single artist ever having emulated Apelles’ tinted varnish. The passage from Pliny, she sniffed, was but a matter of “academic rather than practical importance” – a charge that was echoed by the director, Philip Hendy, in the Gallery’s Annual Report where he disparaged technically ignorant “university art historians”. Plesters grandly offered to “sift” and “throw light” upon any further historical material that Gombrich or others might care to present in future directly to the National Gallery. Once again, a moment of high political danger for the Gallery’s restorers and curators passed: if no evidence existed of artists having used glazes and varnishes in the manner alleged by critics, how could restorers possibly be damaging them?
The controversy slowly subsided into isolated protests such as that of the painter Pietro Annigoni who painted “MURDERERS” onto the doors of the National Gallery, one night in 1970, in protest against what he had described in a 1956 letter to the Times as “atrocious results [that] reveal an incredible absence of sensibility”. But by 1977 it was “game-over”, so to speak. That year the National Gallery felt confident enough to launch its Technical Bulletin in which restoration methods would be described and illustrated. In it, Plesters mused complacently that “one or two readers may recall the furore when the cleaning of discoloured varnishes from paintings…began to find critics”. (On Plesters’ own technical incompetence, see our post of 27 January 2011.) In the same year a former director of the Gallery, Kenneth Clark, pronounced picture cleaning “a battle won” and claimed responsibility for the victory by having installed a “scientific department with all the latest apparatus” at the National Gallery. He had done so, he said, not because he believed in the “application of science to picture cleaning”, but rather because “until quite recently the cleaning of pictures used to arouse extraordinary public indignation, and it was therefore advisable to have in the background what purported to be scientific evidence to ‘prove’ that every precaution had been taken.”
Joyce Plesters died in October 1996. Earlier that year the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin carried reports of the cleaning of two paintings by Leonardo’s follower Giampietrino. One, his Salome, had suffered the usual weakening of modelling and shading. The other, his Christ carrying his Cross (Fig. 45) had not. Intriguingly, the latter was said to enjoy both “intensity of colour” and a “restrained overall effect” – the very paradoxical effect the Gallery had dismissed as inherently improbable. Even more remarkably, Giampietrino had first built up an “illusion of relief” with “dark translucent glazes”, and then – just like Apelles – had deliberately “restricted his own range of values” with “a final extremely thin overall toning layer consisting of warm dark pigments and black [!] in a medium essentially of walnut oil with a little resin”. The “varnish” was thus virtually identical as a material to the painting itself – which may explain why it had survived for so long. Many, more soluble, resin varnishes with warm dark pigments had been judged to be earlier restorers’ attempt to impart a deceiving “old masters’ glow” after a harsh cleaning…and removed as alien disfigurements.
Conspicuously, the Technical Bulletin reports made no reference to the Burlington Magazine’s celebrated joust of the early 1960s. Had the Gallery privately informed its recently honoured guest exhibitor of his belated vindication, we wondered? It had not. When we informed Gombrich of this technical corroboration, he replied:
“Many thanks for your letter. I happen to have a birthday these days (87, alas!) and I could hardly have a nicer present than the information you sent me. I don’t ever see the N. G. Technical Bulletin and would have missed their final conversion to an obvious truth! Better late, than never. There is more joy in heaven (or Briardale gardens)…”
We published an account of the National Gallery’s remarkable discovery, and of Gombrich’s response to it, in the November 1998 Art Review (“The Unvarnished Truth”). Three years later in a prefatory remark for the revised 2004 edition of Walden’s book “The Ravished Image”, Gombrich announced: “It is now clear that the position I took forty nine years ago in this matter has been vindicated”. As, indeed, it had been, but curiously, Gombrich declined to mention the fact that an exact analogue of Apelles’ reported practice had been discovered on the work of an associate of Leonardo’s within the conservation studios of the Gallery which had originally dismissed his claims but recently honoured him with an “autograph” exhibition. Instead, he attributed his vindication to research reported five years later in a Burlington Magazine article of January 2001 on work conducted in the conservation studios of the Getty Museum. The article, “‘Amber Varnish’ and Orazio Gentileschi’s ‘Lot and His Daughters'”, by Mark Leonard, Narayan Khandekar and Dawson W. Carr, was certainly an important document. It reported that underneath a thick recent, disfiguring but easily soluble varnish, an older thinner much tougher (but still soluble) varnish “remained directly on the paint surface in many areas.” Examinations of paint samples established that “in some areas at least”, this varnish layer had been applied “very early in the life of the painting”, if not originally.
It had been found that in areas where sections of this early, possibly original varnish had been removed in earlier cleanings, the artistic consequences had been devastating:
“One particularly prominent loss was in the neck of the daughter at the left. The older varnish remained intact throughout the face, yet at the line of the chin it had been broken through, and removed throughout the rest of the neck. To the naked eye, it looked as if the final layer of modelling in the neck had been ripped from the surface. Although the preparatory flesh tones were still intact, the carefully nuanced sculptural solidity found throughout the rest of the face was missing.”
Although no one noticed it, this last remark echoed and corroborated Annigoni’s Times complaint of 1956 that restorers at the National Gallery pronounce “miracles” when “brilliant colours begin to appear“. Unfortunately, he continued, “what they have found are nothing but the preparative tones, sometimes even of the first sketch, on which the artist has worked carefully, giving the best that is in him, in preparation for the execution of the finished work.”
Welcome as such recent confirmations of longstanding claims by artist and art historian critics of restorations are, it should be noted to how great an extent they are arising after the horse had bolted. The National Gallery has yet to disown any of its post-war restorations – in which period it has restored and often re-restored almost its entire collection and often to seriously deleterious effects (see Figs. 55 to 59b by way of example). As the unwisdom of stripping off old varnishes finally begins to gain acceptance in restoration and curatorial circles, the fact remains that had artists’ testimony been heeded, not only would the ponderous and hugely expensive particle accelerators and other “diagnostic” apparatuses of modern museum conservation departments not have been needed, but that much of our visual cultural patrimony could far sooner have been spared mistreatment. Even before Gombrich’s first 1950 letter to the Burlington, in 1946, a painter, Laura Knight, had explained the intrinsic dangers of picture cleaning with perfectly calm “hands-on” knowledge and clarity in a letter to the Times (27 November):
“With the exception of direct painting, a comparatively modern method, a painter builds his pigment onto canvas or panel – always with the final effect in view. The actual surface of a picture is the picture as it leaves the artist’s hand. The varnish which finally covers the work for protection to a varying extent amalgamates with the paint underneath. Therefore drastic cleaning – the removal of the covering varnish – is bound to remove also this surface painting and should never be undertaken.”
Although Gombrich might well once again have been feeling that “There is more joy in heaven…” this early or original Getty Museum Varnish had not corroborated his Apelles’ thesis to the same degree as the National Gallery’s research on the Giampietrino. There, the surviving original “varnish” layer was not simply naturally discoloured but had been deliberately loaded with “warm dark pigments and black”.
Had Gombrich learned of his own vindication on this point a decade sooner, he might perhaps have been less censorious of those who claimed that Michelangelo, too, had toned down his own colours with black pigment on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He might even have been less easily persuaded that Michelangelo had confined himself to painting into wet plaster with waterbound pigments. For that matter, even as late as 1993, had Gombrich heeded (as had done his successor at the Warburg Institute, Charles Hope), the hard evidence we presented in “Art Restoration” that the most massively extensive applications of original dark toning layers had occurred on the greatest masterpiece of the High Renaissance – Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling – he might have enjoyed his sense of vindication sooner . He might also then have appreciated that the very technical proof of the antiquity of the discoloured layer on the Orazio Gentileschi painting (the fact that this layer had not run into pre-existing age cracks) had been observed more than a century earlier on the surface of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling; that the ceiling’s controversially removed a secco passages had, in fact, precisely passed the Getty Cracks Test. As Charles Heath Wilson had discovered and reported when examining the ceiling within touching distance:
“There can be no doubt that nearly all of this work is contemporary, and in one part only was there evidence of a later and incapable hand. The size colour has cracked as the plaster has cracked, but apart from this appearance of age, the retouchings have all the characteristics of original work.”
Where Brandt had reported in her influential Apollo article that while the restorers had been on the lookout for “the famous secchi”… “they were surprised not find a secco passages”, Wilson had found it without any difficulty (and without any hi-tech apparatus) because: “Retouches in size-colour are easily recognised. Pure fresco has a metallic lustre, but the retouches are opaque. They are also necessarily painted differently from the fresco, have a sketchy appearance, with hard edges, or are hatched [see Fig. 34] where an attempt is made to graduate them.”
Perhaps, even after twenty further years of campaigning, we might need to re-emphasize that earlier testimony of Wilson’s: the size colour had cracked as the plaster had cracked. The glue/size had not run into any pre-existing cracks. That is to say, the size colour had been applied before the plaster had cracked. The plaster is known to have cracked before any restorers went near the ceiling. Ergo, the size colour could only have been applied when the ceiling was new – and therefore Michelangelo alone could have been the author of the secco painting that lay so clearly to view on the dry surface of his frescoes. This hard technical proof cross-links with the even earlier artistic corroboration of Michelangelo’s authorship of the shading and the cast shadows that was found in Clovio’s beautiful hand-drawn sketch of the Jonah shown at Fig. 1. Moreover, had Gombrich heeded our 1993 account, he would also have appreciated that Wilson had, a century earlier, precisely confirmed his Apelles’ dark toning thesis, insofar as Michelangelo’s extensive secco paintwork had been observed to have “consisted of a finely ground black, mixed with a size”.
By accepting Wilson’s firsthand testimony, Gombrich would further have appreciated, pace Mrs Walden, that Michelangelo had put this secco work to the following extensive artistic ends:
“The shadows of the draperies have been boldly and solidly retouched with this size colour, as well as the shadows on the backgrounds. This is the case not only in the groups of the Prophets and Sibyls, but also in the ancestors of Christ in the lunettes and the ornamental portions are retouched in the same way. The hair of the heads and the beards of many of the figures are finished in size colour, whilst the shadows are also thus strengthened, other parts are glazed with the same material, and even portions of the fresco are passed over with the size, without any admixture of colour, precisely as the force of watercolour drawings is increased with washes of gum…These retouchings, as usual with all the masters of the art at the time, constituted the finishing process or as Condivi expresses it, alluding to it in the history of these frescoes, ‘l’ultima mano’. They were evidently all done at the same time and therefore when the scaffold was in place.”
And not only! He would have seen an anticipation of the Getty Museum Optical Identification of Aesthetic Injuries Method. That is, Wilson had testified precisely that the faces of the Prophets Daniel and Jeremiah had “undoubtedly been injured by rude hands, suggesting that glazing has been partially or entirely swept away”. Specifically: “The face of Jeremiah seems colourless and painted in black and white only: that the face of Daniel is blotched with brown marks.”
Gombrich had thus been magnificently vindicated twice over on his Apelles Thesis: once on the testimony of a close follower of Leonardo, and once on the testimony of the mighty Michelangelo. He had very graciously accepted news from us of the (lesser) confirmation from within the National Gallery. How sad it is that he had left himself unable to lay rightful claim to the vastly more substantial example of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings. How sad, too, that in defending his error of judgement on Michelangelo, he should have obliged himself to unperson the artistic legacy of the twin giants Michelangelo and Raphael in order to mount an incoherent untenable shabby little exhibition at the National Gallery.
Sad as this all is, even now, it is not yet the end of the tragedy. Art historians and their (reversible) tribulations aside, how terrifying it remains that the consequence of the destruction of the precious historic/artistic material that comprised the finishing stages of Michelangelo’s own paintings (and which had protected the fresco surfaces for hundreds of years) is that the remaining now stripped-bare surfaces have been left prey to a persisting polluted atmospheric stew for which no solution has been found by the Vatican’s technical and scientific wizards after two decades of assurances – and twenty-six years after Prof. Brandt disclosed in Apollo that “I have urged repeatedly that problems of climate and pollution control in the Sistine Chapel be given higher priority.” In our post of 21 January, “Setting the Scene, Packing Them In” we cited reports that as many as 20,000 visitors a day were being run through the Chapel. Already, we are outdated. More recent reports put the daily total as high as 30,000 – and report a new pestilence: pickpockets operating within the Pope’s private chapel.
1. “The Sistine ceiling and the Critics”, David Ekserdjian, December 1987.
2. Wldemar Januszczak, “Sayonara Michelangelo”, 1991. Publisher: Bloomsbury, London.
3. The force of this distinction masked certain inconsistencies. For example, even in Britain during the early post-war period when national schools or tendencies were most pronounced, two highly successful German restorers represented polar opposites in picture restoration’s “ideological” wars. While Helmut Ruhemann lead the controversial school of “Total Cleaning” from within the National Gallery, Johannes Hell championed the philosophy of gradualist and minimalist restorations in which an overall appraisal of the aesthetic consequences of cleaning was maintained at all times. Hell, whose work was admired by members of the Royal Academy, including its painter-president, Gerald Kelly, did so from a successful career within the private sector but his disciples were to gain influential positions in the US museum world. Today, the linkage of competing restoration philosophies to national practices has lost almost all force. All museums – like the Louvre, like the Getty – now sport increasingly powerful science departments and engage nationally and internationally in the kind of professional collaborations between restorers, scientists and curators that operate under the new umbrella discipline know as Technical Art History – and there is scarcely a Technical Art Historian today who would subscribe to a “Total Cleaning” philosophy. Virtually to a person, restorers nowadays declare themselves to be minimalists.
4. Originally published under the title “Rhétorique de l’attribution (Reductio ad absurdum)” in Revue de l’Art, 42, October 1978. Republished as “The rhetoric of attribution – a cautionary tale” in Reflections on the history of art, 1987. (We are indebted to Charles Hope for locating the sources of this vividly recalled but utterly misplaced text.)
5. Charles Hope wrote to Helen Glanville: “The Fichard passage, for example, was not mentioned by them, but by Mancinelli, and I had to consult to Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft for 1891 to discover the full context; and it was Conti who drew attention to Michelangelo’s purchase of lake in 1508…” In the third James Beck Memorial Lecture, in London, June 2011, Hope discussed the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration in the context of the National Gallery’s post-war restoration policies. He warned how misunderstandings of key art historical terms such as sfumato and colorito had carried grave and irreversible consequences for much art “as it did in the case of the Sistine ceiling”. Hope’s lecture has been published in full in the ArtWatch UK members’ Journal No. 28. (For membership subscription details, contact Helen Hulson, Membership and Events Secretary, ArtWatch UK, at: email@example.com)
6. …or, even sooner still, had he read Alexander Eliot’s essay “The Sistine Cleanup: Agony or Ecstasy” in the March 1987 Harvard Magazine. In an interview with Einav Zamir on the Artwatch International website (“Evidence of the Eyes”), Eliot recalls: “Frank Mason said ‘We’ve got to protest and stop the cleaning’ to which I responded ‘You can’t buck city hall, let alone the Vatican.’ Then Frank said, ‘Yes, but think of how awful you’ll feel if you don’t try,’ and so he recruited me. I then wrote a piece for Harvard Magazine on the subject, which Jim Beck told me helped persuade him to join us. At that point, the Vatican became noticeably upset.”
For more of Eliot and Mason’s views on the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration, see A Light in the Dark: The Art & Life of Frank Mason and “Divine Light”.
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The “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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L. O. L. It’s Peeping Tom Time at the National Gallery!
A little over a decade ago we were requested to move away from Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne” by a member of the National Gallery’s education department who was about to give a talk. Her narrative thrust on this great canvas (which had been glued by restorers on to a sheet of “Sundeala” board) proved more sociological than artistic or art historical. It had a villain – the original patron – who, the audience learned, had been a rich dirty old man who supplied extravagantly expensive pigments for an ostentatiously sexy depiction of a victim – an abused mythical woman – who would provide literary cover for his private delectation within his own apartment.
If the Gallery had then hit a low with such travestying philistine cant, we now find that in its drive to increase visitor numbers and extend social constituencies, it has jettisoned the very distinction between Art and Life. Pictures acquired at immense expense in the name of the Public Good are no longer treated as self-sufficient imaginatively crafted works that merit reciprocally reflective attention from the viewer but as pretexts for real-life events of a titillating, humanly exploitative and degrading nature.
Thus, in the bureaucratised stew that is the Cultural Olympiad’s London 2012 Festival, the National Gallery has permitted Titian’s great poesies to serve as springboards to three “edgy” artists. In 2001, in a drawing for Jackdaw (see Fig. 4), we had already marked one of this triumverate, Mark Wallinger, as a clown ripe for elevation to the National Gallery Pantheon, and today, with few honourable exceptions, the newspaper art critics have duly fawned over his efforts:
We are so cast only if we choose to play the chump-role that is offered as a legitimately “performative” (to use Sir Nicholas Serota’s term-of-the-moment) contribution to art. We do not have to do so. We do not have to be complicit with museum educators’ perverse cultural de-constructions. Rather, we might ask them why they do not consider this particular use of real people – women hired-in for the duration – to be a form of “sexploitation”. We might also ask them, as public educators, to explain the connection that they believe Wallinger’s stunt has with Ovid’s stories and Titian’s depictions of them. Even if Wallinger cannot see that Acteon was the very opposite of a voyeur – a man who had had the great misfortune accidentally to intrude upon a bathing goddess – might we not ask why no one at the National Gallery felt able to disabuse him.
Our examination of the fate of more than twenty Clark Art Institute Renoirs now showing at the Royal Academy will follow in the next post.
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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.
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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.
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Rocking the Louvre: the Bergeon Langle Disclosures on a Leonardo da Vinci restoration
ArtWatch has been haunted for two decades by a nearly-but-not-made restoration disclosure. In the 1993 Beck/Daley account of the Nippon TV sponsored Sistine Chapel restoration (Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal), we reported that in the late 1980s Leonetto Tintori, the restorer of Masaccio’s “Trinity” in the Santa Maria Novella, Florence, and a member of the international committee that investigated the controversial cleaning, had “urged the Sistine team privately to preserve what he termed ‘Michelangelo’s auxiliary techniques’ which in his view included oil painting as well as glue-based secco” (p. 111). What we had not been able to say was that Tintori (who died in 2000, aged 92) had prepared a dissenting minority report expressly opposing the radical and experimental cleaning method.
Shortly before the press conference called to announce the committee’s findings, Tintori was persuaded by a (now-deceased) member of the Vatican not to go public with his views. He was assured that his judgement had been accepted and that what remained on the Sistine Chapel ceiling of Michelangelo’s finishing auxiliary secco painting would be protected during the cleaning. With a catastrophically embarrassing professional schism averted, the restoration continued and the rest of what Tintori judged to be Michelangelo’s own auxiliary and finishing stages of painting was eliminated. Without knowledge of Tintori’s highly expert dissenting professional testimony, the public was assured that despite intense and widespread opposition the cleaning had received unanimous expert endorsement. Critics of the restoration were left prey to disparagement and even vilification.
On January 4th, we noted that in the widely reported schism that emerged at the Louvre with the resignations of Ségolène Bergeon Langle, the former director of conservation for the Louvre and France’s national museums, and, and Jean-Pierre Cuzin, the former director of paintings at the Louvre, from the Louvre’s international advisory committee on the restoration of Leonardo’s “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, it had been recognised that the resulting crisis of confidence was of a magnitude not seen since the Sistine Chapel controversy. Restoration advisory committees are not imposed on museums and customarily they serve as political/professional fig leaves. In the wake of the Louvre committee resignations, embarrassed and perhaps panicky members of the museum’s staff offered self-contradictory and unfounded assurances (see below). In January, the Louvre’s head of painting, Vincent Pomarède reportedly claimed that “The recent cleaning was absolutely necessary for both conservation and aesthetical reasons.” This assurance proved unfounded on both grounds. Pomarède added that no member of the committee “has ever said that the cleaning was not prudent and had gone too far technically.” One has now done so – publicly – and left museum restorations under an unprecedented spotlight.
During an earlier cleaning controversy at the Louvre, Edgar Degas threatened to produce an anti-restoration pamphlet that would be what he termed a “bomb” – but he never did so, so far as we know. Now, as Dalya Alberge reports in the Guardian, the French Le Journal des Arts yesterday published an interview with Ségolène Bergeon Langle of truly momentous if not incendiary consequence (see below). We learn that her resignation came after no fewer than twelve letters requesting information on the restoration’s course went unanswered; that it was made in specific and pointed protest against the use of retouching pigments whose safety had not been proven; and, that the Louvre’s public claims of some pressing conservation need to remove the varnish were false, having been made despite it being known within the museum that any potential threat to the paint came not from the varnish but from a single faulty board in the picture’s panel which was reacting to the museum’s insufficiently stable environmental conditions. Perhaps most disturbingly serious for art lovers are Bergeon Langle’s disclosures that along with old (but nonetheless still protective) varnishes, original material of Leonardo’s was removed – against her advice – from the painting; and, aesthetically, that it is confirmed that the modelling of the Virgin’s face was weakened (see Figs. 1 and 2; and, for weakening to the modelling of St. Anne’s face, Figs. 12 and 13).
That the Louvre authorities would not inform even so distinguished a member of its own advisory committee might suggest either that the restorers had not known in advance what they would be doing to the painting; or, they feared that disclosure of their intentions would provoke opposition within the advisory committee. Either way, this was clearly an unacceptable (if not improper) way for a museum to execute irreversible alterations to one of Leonardo’s most advanced sophisticated, complex and problematic works. To Bergeon Langle’s now public “insider” criticisms, additional detailed material to highlight further Louvre procedural shortcomings and misrepresentations to the press and to the public will shortly be presented by Michel Favre-Felix, the president of the Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique (ARIPA). Favre-Felix is also to call formally for the establishment of a national scientific ethics committee that would be independent of museums and their restoration teams and be charged with re-examining the conservation file on the challenged St. Anne restoration.
A second member of Louvre’s advisory committee, Jacques Franck, the world authority on Leonardo’s painting technique, has said to the Guardian that a restoration likely to generate such disapproval from leading figures should never have been undertaken in the first place and, given that Ségolène Bergeon Langle is unquestionably France’s highest authority on restoration matters, her alarmed protest is therefore one that should mean a lot to both Leonardo scholars and art lovers the world over.
Unfortunately, the restoration-induced changes on the St Anne are not unprecedented. It is Art’s general tragedy that while scholars have quietly enlarged the oeuvre of Leonardo over the last century and a half, restorers have repeatedly swabbed and scritched away at the surviving fabric of those precious works – sometimes to an astounding degree, as with the “Last Supper” in Milan. With the National Gallery’s substitute version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” we have seen how the distinctive Leonardesque expression on the angel’s mouth was altered (without any acknowledgement) despite the fact that a distinguished scholar and former director of the Gallery, Kenneth Clark, had seen the angel’s face as being “the one part of our Virgin of the Rocks where the evidence of Leonardo’s hand seems undeniable, not only in the full, simple modelling, but in the drawing of the hair”. It is a matter of note that four of the most enthusiastically supportive members of the Louvre advisory committee were drawn from the curators and restorers who were directly responsible for the London and Milan Leonardo restorations.
Of Leonardo’s accepted earlier paintings, in 1939 Kenneth Clark lavished especial praise on the treatment of modelling found on two portrait heads – and in his enthusiasm, he awarded the palm of best preservation to both of them. The “Ginevra Benci”, then in the Liechtenstein Collection but now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, was judged “the best preserved of all Leonardo’s early pictures”; one that “shows most clearly his intentions at this period”; and, one where “within the light oval of the face there is very little shadow, and the modelling is suggested by delicate gradations of tone, especially in the reflected lights.” Clark thrilled to the great refinement of execution: “We see a similar treatment of form in Desiderio’s low reliefs, controlled by the same sensibility to minute variations of surface. There are passages, such as the modelling of the eyelids, which Leonardo never surpassed in delicacy, and here for once he seems to have had none of that distaste for the medium which we can deduce from his later paintings, no less than from contemporary descriptions of his practice.” Ever aesthetically alert and deft, Clark saw all of these ultra-refined technical devices as being entirely “subordinate to the feeling of individual character with which Leonardo had been able to charge his portrait, so that this pale young woman has become one of the most memorable personalities of the Renaissance.” (We are grateful to Carroll Janis for drawing attention to this passage.)
Clark’s alertness to the physical/aesthetic characteristics of Leonardo’s hand was to the fore in his reflections on the “Portrait of a Musician” at the Ambrosiana in Milan. In the “subtle luminous modelling” of its head and its “delicate observation of light as it passes across the convex forms”, this work could only be “by Leonardo’s own hand alone and unaided” and it was “very similar to that of the angel in the Virgin of the Rocks”. As it stood before 1939, this too was “perhaps the best preserved of Leonardo’s paintings”, and in it we were then able to “learn something of his actual use of pigment, elsewhere obscured by dirty varnish, and we see that it was less smooth and ‘licked’ than that of his followers.”
Ironically, Clark, with his pathological aversion to “dirty” varnish (which is to say, old varnish on an old painting on an old support), was more responsible than anyone for the subsequent museum restoration/stripping mania. Looking around today’s museums, it is hard not to conclude that Clark might have been more careful in his wishes. Bergeon Langle’s warning against the modern addiction to penetrative imaging systems is particularly apt and timely: the hyper-active restoration changes (see right) made to the modelling and to the expression of those precious living Renaissance faces have cumulatively thinned and abraded pictures surfaces and material components and thereby remorselessly pushed great paintings into sad resemblances of their own infra-red under-states (see particularly, Figs. 4-11 and 19 & 20). Technical curiosity kills more than cats. In the case of Leonardo it has contrived to pull that artist back from his own increasingly lush highly-wrought subtly atmospheric shading towards the brilliant but thinner decorous linearity of Botticelli, when any comparison of the “Mona Lisa’s” hands with those of Leonardo’s “Annunciation” would have warned precisely against such perverse and regressive adulterations.
The interview given to Le Journal des Arts of 27 April, by Ségolène Bergeon Langle read as follows:
Why resign from the Louvre’s scientific advisory committee for the St Anne? “In January 2011 the committee had agreed on a gentle cleaning of late varnishes and the removal of the stains on the Virgin’s cloak. Yet, between July and October 2011 a more pronounced cleaning was done and presented as ‘necessary’, which I objected to. I was then faced with people who would oppose my position, which is technical and not based on aesthetics. My 12 letters [to the Louvre] asking for precisions on some aspects of the cleaning process and on the materials to be used for retouching, remained unanswered. I had to resign (on December 20th, 2011) to be heard just on one specific point: the Gamblin retouching pigments were not to be used since their innocuousness is not proven. Right from the beginning, false ideas have been put forth, like calling ‘repaints’ original retouches by Leonardo in the work’s early stages, or to attribute flaking in the paint layer to the ‘contracting varnish’, a [consequence that was] actually due to the sawing up of the wood [panel]…”
What do you think of the work done? “In my opinion, the precautionary principle hasn’t been respected. We must face the fact that the Virgin’s face is less modelled now. The cleaning should never have gone so far. However, I was happy that the grove [of trees] be preserved and, also, the ground’s material constituents that some ‘felt’ not original (though between January and April 2011 a brown-greenish section of the ground, located below St Anne’s elbow had been removed already). Besides, another matter of much controversy, the whitened layer on Christ Child’s body, has mistakenly been understood as a late varnish [that has] gone mouldy. I’m inclined to believe it was an irreversibly altered [original] glaze and, therefore, I have recommended that it be preserved, but nobody would hear me.”
The current Leonardo exhibition implies that his other paintings in the Louvre should be cleaned also. How do you feel about that? “Just not to do it, by all means! The original flesh paint in the St John-the-Baptist, being rich in oil, displays a significant network of drying cracks and might be fragile in the event of cleaning. For sure, scientific methods are essential but they need sound interpretation and wisdom dually… To date, there is too much boldness originating mistakes and an alarming fascination for infra-red investigation whereby are revealed under-layers that were never meant to be seen.”
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Two “As Good as New”, Colour Contrasting Velazquezs ~ Thanks to the Fundación Iberdrola
Following the recent National Gallery restoration that launched a £1.5 billion Leonardo blockbuster, comes news of a brace of corporately funded restorations (- two pictures and a classical sculpture) at the Prado. The energy corporation Iberdrola is acting through its cultural off-shoot, “Fundación Iberdrola”, to “Raise awareness about the contribution of the IBERDROLA Group to society” by allocations of pre-tax profits dedicated “decisively to the promotion and dissemination of art and culture in the territories where IBERDROLA operates”. As part of its green image-building campaign of Good Works (which includes illuminating buildings at night and training young researchers in the energy field) the foundation has made itself “Protector Member” of the Prado’s “Restoration Programme” which encourages restoration research and trains restorers within the museum to the tune of 300,000 euros per annum.
Our prime fear with Art/Business relationships in the treatment of unique, historic and irreplaceable works of art has always been that the commercial tail might wag the custodial dog; might press for excitement and drama over minimalist judicious and restrained intervention; for more frequent rather than less frequent interventions – in effect, might expect big bangs for big bucks. A second concern is that corporate restorations receive over-hyped and propagandistic “Good News” promotion as instruments of miraculous “recoveries” and “discoveries”. This last practice compounds the problem of chronic unaccountability in art restoration. Restorers who work in-house at museums are, for obvious reasons, given full political protection for their actions however controversial or demonstrably harmful they might be. Museums rarely concede that even long-past restorations were harmful and almost never admit to recent – let alone current – injuries.
When reporting the Prado’s latest restorations, the online Artdaily.org, echoes Iberdrola’s own website account of the treatment of the monumental, paired paintings “Philip III on Horseback” and “Margaret of Austria on Horseback”. As the proselytising global energy giant puts it: “These paintings have been rehabilitated by the art gallery’s team of technicians with the backing of Fundación IBERDROLA as a supporting member of its restoration activity. The labour of specialists has allowed for recovering the original values of both portraits, which were significantly affected by the accumulation of dirt and the alteration of the varnish that had buffered the contrasts of colour”. Both accounts fail to appraise the Prado’s own before and after cleaning photographs which show changes that seem arbitrary and artistically injurious (see Figs. 1, 4 & 5). Such preparedness to accept on trust that the latest photographically recorded states are the best, most “advanced”, most reliably truthful – and even “original” – conditions of historic works of art reflects a wider and dangerous absence of properly critical appraisals of restorations. It would seem axiomatic that if works of art are to be altered (and then re-altered by the next generation) the processes concerned should be absolutely transparent and freely discussed. Artdaily trills that the paintings have been “fully restored to their original appearance” by the removal of a “veil” of dirt and “altered” varnish; and, that the restorers “allowed for the recuperation of [the pictures'] original values”. This is naive and illogical: if removing the “veil” had revealed the original paintwork, what would need to be recuperated?
The over-selling of restorations can distort scholarship itself. Where Artdaily describes the two pictures as having been painted by Velazquez with the help of assistants, Iberdrola speaks with possessive proprietary pride of “emblematic works of Diego Velazquez” now rightfully displayed in the same gallery as “Las Meninas” and “the other three renowned equestrian portraits of the artist”. This inflation traduces the labours of scholars. In her 1948 book “Velazquez”, Elizabeth du Gué Trapier (a member of the Hispanic Society of America) said of the Philip III that it is:
“by an unknown artist, or according to Beruete by Bartolomé González, retouched by Velázquez…Beruete wrote of Philip III’s portrait: ‘The greater part of the horse, the retouches of the armour, the horseman’s right arm, leg and foot; the stirrup, bit, the ornaments which hang from the horse’s croup, and the retouching of some parts of the sea-scape in the distance, are undoubtedly by his hand; one feels in them the lightness of his touch and his habitual precision and vigour. On the other hand, the forehead and the nostrils of the horse, as well as a great part of the background, were doubtless executed by the pupil Mazo.’ Beruete thought that Veláquez left the head of the King in its original state; others are of the opinion that he repainted it.”
More recently, in his posthumously republished Catalogue Raisonné (Taschen/Wildenstein, 1996), José Lopez-Rey describes a bewildering array of attributions and summarises that most scholars are agreed “on the strength of visual evidence that this equestrian portrait […had been] executed by a lesser hand and later reworked by Velázquez or under his direction”. Lopez-Rey adds that “Whoever the original painter of Philip III on Horseback, the painting has been visibly repainted, mainly the head, chest, forelegs and tail of the horse, possibly by Velázquez or an assistant in about 1634-35” and that by 1772 both Philip III and Queen Margaret had been extended from vertical to roughly square formats by additional vertical strips of canvas on both sides. Re Iberdrola’s hyperbole, Lopez-Rey draws distinctions between the entirely autograph Velazquezs “The Surrender of Breda” and the equestrian portraits of Philip IV and Prince Balthasar Carlos; the equestrian portrait of Queen Isabel, where Velazquez’s hand is “recognisable”, and the two recently restored works under consideration here, where that authorial hand is present only to a “lesser degree” in pictures “which were mostly executed by other painters”.
Given this consensus of uncertain authorial contributions, Iberdrola’s attempt to spin authentic Velazquez silk seems brazen when the Prado’s own before and after restoration photographs of the Philip III show so many artistically disturbing changes. During their latest restoration/recuperation, the sections of canvas that had been added to the sides of both paintings during the 18th century were cut off. Artdaily says that these additions had been made to make the paintings compositionally compatible with other works when installed in a new room in the Royal Palace in Madrid. The Fundación Iberdrola justifies stripping these historical extensions on the grounds that their removal has created a greater compositional contrast between the two pictures and the three great autograph Velazquez equestrian portraits of Philp IV, Isabel of Bourbon and Prince Baltasar Carlos. Artdaily describes the cleaning and the cropping together as having achieved the greatest possible recuperation of the “original perceptual conditions“. What is not acknowledged by either party is that this removal of historically resonant material has served to eliminate possibly discomfiting visual testimony to the original condition of the paintings (- at least insofar as it had survived into the 18th century) and made the task of gauging the effects of successive restorations almost impossible.
It can be assumed that when those strips were added, their values matched and seamlessly extended the then extant values of the two pictures (as with the repair to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes discussed in our April 1st 2011 post). What, therefore, might account for the mismatched values that had emerged and persisted (see right) until the recent twin restoration? The strips would likely have been painted by a single artist, in a single campaign and without need for making the numerous revisions and re-revisions by the assorted, variously attributed hands that are evident in the paintings themselves. It is unlikley that any paint layers in the extensions would have been made over already varnished paintwork and therefore be at risk of floating off during cleaning. Conspicuously, the most obviously exculpatory explanation for the mismatch of tones – that the additions had matched the values of the picture when under an old darkened varnish – has not been offered. The restorers reportedly attribute the mismatches solely to the technical fact that the bordering strips had been painted over darker ground colours than those in the paintings, and that this had somehow caused “the pigments in the two areas [to have] behaved differently over the course of the centuries”. This does not hold water: while darker grounds would certainly come to influence the values of the extensions as the overlying paint became translucent with age (as can most clearly be seen in the “see-through” of the first state of Philip III’s horse), it could not alone have done so to such striking (and varying) extents as have occurred in the two paintings. Whereas, the fact that darker grounds were used on the extensions would itself suggest an initial perceived need to match the then darker values of the paintings.
There is another reason for disregarding the current restorers’ explanation. If the dark ground theory were correct, the mismatch phenomenon would have arisen very slowly over time and not have – as the photographic record shows – lurched into being on successive restorations (see Figs. 2, 6 & 7). Artdaily has not shown before and after photographs of the Queen Margaret, which painting Lopez-Rey describes in the 1996 edition of his catalogue raisonné as having been restored in 1968. His post-1968 illustration is shown here in Fig. 2. However, in the 1978 edition of the book an apparently earlier (and presumably pre-1968 restoration) state is reproduced (see Figs. 6 & 7 for details of that state). At that date, the left-hand extension read only fractionally darker than the painting, and although the right-hand extension was appreciably darker it was less obtrusively so than was the case after the 1968 restoration. As described opposite, and as can clearly be seen in Fig. 7, the impact of the dark ground was neglible at the brightest part of the sky, on the horizon, where it might have been expected to be most evident. The original dramatically escalating darkness in the sky above those points should, therefore, properly be taken as part of the original tonal schema – and not as either accumulated filth or ground paint see-through. The similarity of the states in both paintings, as seen in Fig. 2, might suggest that the Philip too had been restored around the late 1960s. The differences between the pre and the post 1968 restoration states of the Margaret speak of massive changes of value being made during a single “treatment”. The horse, for example, was reduced from a deep rich chestnut to a tan colouring. That the earlier chestnut appearance had not been a by-product of some filthy misleading “veil” is demonstrable: the whites on the horse’s muzzle and upper left leg read as white not yellow or grey or brown. Whatever might account for the radical changes, it was not consistent with the removal of some overall disfiguring layer.
Characterising the surgical elimination of material that bears awkward testimony of an earlier, now irrecoverably lost state, as a recuperation of a painting’s “ original conditions” is naive and seriously misleading. With every restoration – however funded – the most urgent critical question must always be: “did it do any harm?” To answer it, we must begin by using our eyes and, perhaps, by heeding the advice of artists, one of whom reportedly asked “What’s that dirt called that the restorers clean off? Oh, that’s right – burnt umber.”
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