The Battle of Borja: Cecilia Giménez, Restoration Monkeys, Paediatricians, Titian and Great Women Conservators
The Cecilia Giménez affair has re-combusted. First off, the elderly would-be restorer had reduced the world to incapacitating laughter/disbelief at the bungled restoration of a painting of Christ in her local church, Santuario de Misericordia, in Borja, north-eastern Spain (Fig. 5). When Ms Giménez’s unauthorised restoration of “Ecce Homo – Behold the Man” caused the work to be dubbed “Ecce Mono – Behold the Monkey” the church threatened to sue. When restoration experts converged to advise on how or whether the damage might be undone, thousands of wags petitioned for the wreck to be left untouched for all to see for all time. It was all too much for the well-meaning amateur restorer who, greatly distressed, took to her bed.
Now the eighty-one years old is on the warpath. The church had become an overnight tourist attraction. Ryanair offered cut-price flights from the UK. An entrance charge was introduced that netted two thousand euros in the first four days…upon which the would-be restorer went to law seeking remuneration for having imbued the formerly disintegrating picture with talismanic, money-spinning powers. On September 21st the Times reported the explanation offered by one of her two lawyers: “She just wants [the church] to conform to the law. If this implies an economic compensation, she wants it to be for charitable purposes.” At this startling assertion of intellectual property rights, the church retained lawyers to defend its exclusive right to milk tourists. Giménez’s lawyers now reportedly say that while she demands no cut of the entrance charges, they are investigating possible copyright infringements of her creation with a view to pursuing payments from the many people now using the restored image to sell products. It already appears on T-shirts, cell phone covers, coffee mugs and wine labels.
With everyone in the world now aware that restorations really can damage art, attempts are underway to neutralise this professionally corrosive realisation. What seems to have caused most alarm is the recognition that although Giménez’s restoration was an extreme case it was not an aberration within the wider context of professional conservation practices. (See, for example, the grotesque repeated abuses of a Veronese face at the Louvre: “Restoration Tragedies” in the August 23 Sunday Telegraph and our August 30 post). Normally, publicity generated in connection with restorations is eagerly cultivated by the restorers and the supervising/funding authorities alike. The reputations of the former can be burnished and the revenue streams of the latter increased. However, the October issue of the Art Newspaper attempts to quarantine the Giménez affair by confining it within a discrete sphere of delinquent and destructive amateur restorations, which it then attacks on no supporting visual evidence – without even reproducing the offending Spanish restoration. By courtesy of the Art Newspaper, the incident is thus being pressed to serve as no more than a cautionary tale against failures to pay Proper Fees for Proper Professional Restorers (“Do-it-yourself? Just don’t…”):
“Although the likelihood of a well-meaning member of the public walking into a prominent museum like London’s National Gallery, paintbrush in hand, ready to work on a Titian, is slim, what about works in small private collections that remain largely out of the public eye but may one day end up in a museum or national archive? Unfortunately, these pieces are all too often subjected to misguided interventions.”
Dragging the National Gallery into this imbroglio is not helpful to the institution. Has the Art Newspaper forgotten that someone recently walked into the gallery, aerosol paint-can in hand and set about not one but two Poussins? Or, for that matter, that this happened at a time when warder numbers had been halved, prompting subsequent strikes and greatly intensified anxieties about possible thefts and further vandalism? As for Titian, the example can only seem injudicious (or provocative) given the notorious damage done to the artist by the National Gallery’s own professionally qualified restorers (see right). Of two things, we should all be clear. First, in the adulteration of art, amateurs are the also-rans. It is the performance of the professionals that should concern us most. Second, in appraising restorers’ performance we should ignore the restoration chaff of hype and professional apologias and look harder at the material and aesthetic results.
The Art Newspaper gives voice to the leading American academic restorer Joyce Hill Stoner who, while advising the Spanish church on its restoration calamity, takes open professional comfort at this artistic ill-wind: “In some ways, we were heartbroken, but on the other hand, it has resulted in a tremendous boost in advocacy for our profession.” Like many restorers, Prof. Stoner often beats this advocacy drum – elsewhere she has said: “We think public education and advocacy about our profession is one key. Even the Antiques Roadshow people often say, ‘Ah, Madame, if you had not cleaned this piece of early American furniture it would have been worth $70,000, now it is worth no more than $700.’” In the Art Newspaper she elaborates: “Amateur restorers have always been a problem…a geology professor… scrubbed away trees…People say they are treating their paintings and I tell them that’s like telling a doctor that they’re in the middle of removing their own appendix…artists are the parents, we are the paediatricians”.
This reaction to the incident raises the question of why restorers can so clearly see and so forcefully repudiate amateur errors while remaining silent on far more serious professional blunders on vastly more important artists like Titian (see right). Dubbed “picture rats” in the 19th century, restorers defensively rebranded themselves “conservators” and “picture surgeons” in the 20th century. While Prof. Stoner’s invocation of medical authority might be expected from one who is the director of a programme that converts restorers into doctors at the University of Delaware’s Preservation Studies Doctoral Program, it is singularly ill-advised. If picture restorers bear any resemblance today to medical practitioners, it is to morticians who doll up artistic corpses or, fractionally more charitably, to the controversial branch of cosmetic surgery, where vain attempts to put back clocks and recover earlier states result in ghastly mishaps and the use of dangerously inappropriate materials. (For industrial-grade silicone breast implants, read synthetic resin picture varnishes. For “trout lips”, simply Google: “Veronese nose-jobs”.)
In 1999 Prof. Stoner, one of her profession’s more thoughtful exponents, gave an academic paper at Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, in celebration of Women’s History Month and asking “Are There Great Women Art Conservators?” She sought permission to “muse for a bit about the practical side of the conservation of paintings” and characterised modern conservation as a “three-legged stool” comprised of art history (reading); chemistry (part reading, part doing); and studio art (doing). This year she elaborated in an interview:
“We call it ‘the three-legged stool’— you need a thorough grounding in art history or archaeology or library science (depending on your specialty); you need excellent hand skills—painting, drawing, sewing, sculpting, casting, etc. (depending on your specialty); and you need excellent training in organic and inorganic chemistry; you need to understand thoroughly the properties of materials making up the works of art AND the materials you might use in a treatment.”
At the time of the Great Women Conservators paper, Prof. Anatoly Alyoshin of the Repin Institute, St Petersburg (where restorers must spend many years training as artists), had recently criticised western practitioners for their inadequate “hands-on” artistic skills. Visiting Stoner’s alma mater, New York University’s restoration school, Prof. Alyoshin asked how a student lacking artistic abilities would be handled. No problem, he was told, “We give him a job connected with surveys or the theory of restoration”. But, on qualifying, would such a person be permitted to work in a museum as a restorer? “Probably he can”, was the answer.
Prof. Stoner’s own query carried the implicit sub-question: What makes a great practising conservator of either gender? She answered thus: “Let us suppose that I was the GREATEST conservator that EVER worked. What would it mean?” It would mean that she had “removed previous repaints, old discoloured varnishes and grime very sensitively”, and then filled in all the resulting lacunae and abrasions with “easily removable” fresh paint, taking care perfectly to match the “surface texture, gloss and colour” of the surviving paint. However, were she ever to achieve these goals, “no one would know that I had actually worked [and] my success would be measured by my invisibility”, which would provide no basis for “greatness, fame or immortality”. Additionally, she expressed concern that restorers might be thought mere “hand-maidens to the artist”.
Concerning the egotism of professional restorers, we have already seen how those at the National Gallery claim and have been granted a right to impose personal aesthetic readings on pictures. In France, we have challenged restorers who explicitly claim a right to determine how old paintings be “presented” today, as if they are texts or scores to be performed and not unique concrete historical objects (“LA RESTAURATION EST UNE INTERPRÉTATION”, letter, Beaux-Arts Magazine, No 203, April 2001). On questions of mechanical competence, it might be noted that Stoner’s own nominee as Great Woman Conservator was none other than Joyce Plesters, the then recently deceased former head of science at the National Gallery (London).
This seemed perverse. Plesters was not a restorer. Nor was she was an artist. She was a scientist who took a degree in art history while working at the National Gallery and was thus at best a “two-legged stool”. She mistook a large panel painting composed of three butterfly-keyed boards for a single giant one and half metres wide plank. On another panel she counted six boards when there are seven. She reported that Raphael’s Cartoons at the Victoria and Albert Museum had been mounted on backing sheets, when they had not. She believed a planed-down panel had been set into a sheet of block-board when it had been glued onto it. As head of science she failed to warn the Gallery’s restorers against their technically delinquent practice of ironing some the largest and most important canvases (such as Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”) onto sheets of Sundeala board. As for her art historical judgements, she mocked the great scholar Ernst Gombrich for suggesting that Renaissance painters might, in emulation of Apelles, have toned down their own pictures with overall dark varnishes, when just such a painting was later identified within the National Gallery itself.
Prof. Stoner might more plausibly have nominated her fellow American picture restorer Caroline Keck (who held it important to accept an equal number of men and women into restoration lest the field lose power by becoming too “feminized’’). Although Keck, with her restorer husband Sheldon Keck, wrecked a major Phillips Collection Renoir when restoring it without authorisation (- like Cecilia Giménez), and also got badly mauled when disputing the British art historian John Richardson’s charge that restorers had committed crimes against cubist painting, she too was an ardent restoration propagandist, advising in 1993 that her profession should conduct its own PR:
“A group as large as ours has become must contain colleagues with the skills we need: run competitions for the best magazine and TV scripts, get communication going. The least each of us can do is make our treatment reports to owners lively and readable, attractive enough so these are left on the cocktail table to show off to guests…If we fail to assume responsibility for publicizing a fine image of ourselves, our work and the need for that work, no one else is likely to.”
Conservators are frequently urged by their professional “unions” to solicit professional hype. In the March 2008 ICON NEWS, the (female) head conservator of Westminster Abbey protested when “one of the big Sunday newspapers published what we thought was to be a nice piece on the forthcoming restoration of the Westminster Sedilia [but instead] sensationally claimed that the central heating had directly damaged the Coronation Chair” – even though another (female) conservator at the Abbey had precisely told The Art Newspaper that “The central heating is the main problem” (see ArtWatch UK Journal 23). The Guardian and the British Museum recently ran a joint course advising conservators on planting conservation friendly stories in the press and broadcast media. As for whether or not there any great women picture restorers, there are certainly professional awards aplenty for them. In 2003 Stoner herself was awarded the AIC University Products Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011 she further received both the AIC Paintings Speciality Group Award “for outstanding contributions to the field of paintings conservation”, and the College Art Association and Heritage Preservation Award for Distinction in Scholarship and Conservation. In memory of her husband of sixty years, Caroline Keck set up The IIC Keck Award specifically for those judged to have contributed most “towards promoting public understanding and appreciation of the accomplishments of the conservation profession.”
For all this question-begging conservation propagandising, it could well be Cecilia Giménez who attains the “immortal fame” that eludes her more professionally respectable peers. However high their working esteem, from the minute professional restorers retire hungry successors circle to undo and redo their work – which is why such a premium is placed on “easily removable” repainting. At the same time and despite all the Good News stories, succeeding waves of restorers remain riven with personal rivalries, conflicting methodologies and incompatible philosophies. Insofar as it is available, historically documented evidence of restoration practices frequently testifies not to any methodological progress but, rather, to a succession of variously compounding errors and injuries. With each generation failing to establish a properly critical literature or even to show an interest in developing appropriate methods of aesthetic appraisal, restoration itself remains an insufficiently examined arena in which restorers may play around putting things on and taking things off as the fancy takes them.
In our previous post, The “World’s worst restoration” and the Death of Authenticity, we examined the consequences of restorations for a number of the world’s most important artists (Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, Veronese, Holbein, Velazquez and Vermeer) that had been carried out in some of the most important buildings or museums. Here, we examine (right) the restoration-induced alterations in a small section of the surface of a single Titian painting. We should add that these comparisons are made from high quality hard copies of photographs taken by the National Gallery for its own conservation records and very kindly made available to us by the Gallery (along with access to the conservation and scholarly records themselves). We are greatly indebted and believe that the following comparisons are made not only on the best possible and most reliable evidence available, but are also fairly presented with the least possible distortion. Some of the comparisons shown (Figs. 11 and 14) were made by overlapping two photographs of before and after restoration states which had then been scanned together so that the extent of the differences between the two states can be gauged with complete confidence.
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The shapes that Lucas engineered here have no basis in Titian, have no basis in the vocabularies and shared understanding of his cultural era. Lucas’s imposed innovations are arbitrary, without insight, unwarranted and vulgarly ahistorical.
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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Lucian Freud’s blast against picture restorers, and a fellow painter’s note of appreciation
In his book “Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud”, Martin Gayford reports that Neil MacGregor, when director of the National Gallery, “often met Lucian Freud wandering around there in the evening, and learned a lot from him because he sees as an artist. This is quite different from the angle of an art historian.” Unfortunately, there is one lesson that Mr MacGregor might appear not to have learnt from Lucian Freud.
Few of the artists who enjoy the privilege of being able to visit the National Gallery after hours, alone or with a few friends, have attacked the gallery’s picture restorers publicly, but it so happens that the late Lucian Freud was one who bit the hand that indulged him. We can thank Martin Gayford for putting Freud’s condemnation of the National Gallery’s and other restorers on the record in his account of a visit they made to an El Greco exhibition at the gallery in February 2004:
“It is a slightly eerie experience being almost alone in this place that is usually so packed. LF is struck by the great sense of reality of certain works – the St Louis from Paris, the boy with a lighted coal from Edinburgh, the wonderful portrait from Boston (but not its horrible frame). But overall, he is disappointed. He is particularly upset by the slick, glossy, over-cleaned, over-bright appearance of many of the works (including, sadly, St Martin). ‘I have never seen so many completely fucked-up pictures. Sometimes I feel I could almost name the Winsor and Newton white the restorer has used.’ LF is highly conscious of a painting’s physical constitution. He is already thinking, he says, about how his own works will age through time, and wishes restorers would allow ‘old things to look old’. He was utterly infuriated, years ago, by the effect of restoration on Piero di Cosimo’s Satyr Mourning over a Nymph (c.1495), in the National Gallery, which was previously a painting – with reclining nude, tender mourning faun and attendant dogs – he loved.”
This condemnation is notable for two reasons. First, Freud was demonstrably right (see below and right). Second, as a great modern painter, he gives the lie to the common restorers’ slur that their artist/critics mistake dirt and old varnish for original paint and are romantic traditionalists who cannot adjust their prejudices to the “reality” that old master paintings, when properly scrubbed, are just like modernist paintings – i.e. brighter, cleaner, thinner and flatter. Freud, on any reckoning, was no such creature: although working entirely and un-apologetically as a figurative painter, his means were (in the tense we must now sadly use) both personal and products of no age other than our our own. They were radical and fully cognisant of the wherefores of modernist picture-making – being, as John Wonnacott so perceptively and elegantly describes below, a kind of locally applied “analytic” cubism. And Martin Gayford quotes Freud’s own precise warning that an “excessive reverence for the art of the past would be, I imagine, completely crippling.”
Anyone who possesses a particular couple of books can gauge the error of the National Gallery’s picture cleanings and “restorations”. In 1938 the gallery’s then director, Kenneth Clark, published a fine book of black and white photographs of details from pictures in the gallery (“One Hundred DETAILS from Pictures in the National Gallery”). Those photographs were of very high quality and had been taken for scientific rather than aesthetic purposes. In 1990, the gallery re-published Clark’s book but, this time, with recent colour photographs. In a foreword to the new edition, Neil Macgregor wrote that in 1938 the National Gallery’s pictures were “among the dirtiest in the world”. (There is surely a study to be made of the almost pathological disposition of those commentators who equate evidence of aged materials in pictures with dirt.) MacGregor acknowledges that while Clark complains in some of his commentaries of pleasure lost as a result of the interposition of “discoloured varnish or […] clumsy retouchings”, he remained fearful of “what might be found if the golden veils of dirt and varnish were ever to be removed.” Clark had good reason to be fearful: his then recent cleaning of Velazquez’s full length portrait of Philip IV of Spain (the “Silver Philip”) had – rightly – unleashed a firestorm of criticism and controversy.
Mr MacGregor acknowledges that following the wholesale cleanings that took place at the gallery after the Second World War, many pictures were now “different in critical respects” from the paintings about which Clark had written. It might be tempting to take the phrase “different in critical respects” as a MacGregor-esque euphemism for Freud’s “completely fucked-up”, given that he acknowledged that readers possessing both editions of the book “will decide how much is gain, how much loss” as a result of those cleanings. Alas, from that point onwards, Mr MacGregor seems to have lashed himself to the mast of the Good Ship Conservation and kept private any reservations that he might have had about picture restorations.
Clark’s book paired photographs of similar subjects taken from pictures by different artists and eras. The two details published of the Piero di Cosimo of which Freud lamented, his “A Mythological Subject” (or “Satyr Mourning over a Nymph”), were paired with pictures of Rubens, in the case of Piero’s faun, and Hogarth (a cat from his “The Graham Children”), in the case of Piero’s portrayal of a dog. Clark appended this note on the latter:
“Hogarth enjoyed painting this cat so much that the Graham children look hollow and lifeless beside her. She is the embodiment of cockney vitality, alert and adventurous – a sort of Nell Gwynne among cats. Her vulgarity would hardly be noticeable, were she not confronted by the noble silhouette of Piero’s hound who regards her with the gravity of an antique philosopher. The novelist Paul Bourget, when asked what the English critic Walter Pater looked like, replied: ‘Il ressemblait à un amant de Circe transformé en dogue.’”
To appreciate the changes wrought on that hound and a nearby pelican, see Figs. 1 to 6, right. The colour photographs published in the 1990 edition are here shown in greyscale so that like may be compared with like for the purposes of easier and more revealing comparisons.
A Reflection on the painting of Lucian Freud by the painter John Wonnacott:
I am told that on the blogosphere, I am yet again misquoted as saying that Lucian Freud couldn’t “compose” a picture for toffee. I am no more interested than was Lucian in rearranging objects to make art. What I actually said to the late Bruce Bernard over a bibulous Soho lunch for the Sunday Times colour supplement some twenty years ago was that Lucian couldn’t “design” a painting for toffee. We were talking only of his great late nudes. By contrast, an early head like the John Minton could hang next to Van der Weyden, with its delicate surface and clarity of design. When Bill Coldstream, Lucian’s contemporary and equal, made a paint mark in response to appearance it was related immediately to every other mark on the surface, leading the eye from edge to edge of the picture; that is, drawing as design. Lucian’s brush marks were related directly only to others within the particular object of his scrutiny. As Bruce Bernard went on to quote me: no one else could paint so intensely and so powerfully within the figure.
Never the less I was wrong.
Lucian, as Martin Gayford records in his book the “Man with a Blue Scarf”, always worked standing up so that he could dart backwards and forwards from his easel to subject particular objects to closer observation. In the grandest of the late images, different areas of the painting would be created from different viewpoints, different angles, different distances. These areas seem to crash in to each other, along surface fault lines that I at least find visually exhilarating. Whether this is design or anti-design matters not, it is brilliant and original.
I have been asked to compare Lucian Freud’s approach to painting a Royal Portrait with my own. When I was commissioned to paint the Royal Family I virtually lived in the Palace for a year, trundling my easels and materials, Spencer-like, from the “artist studio” right round to the White Stateroom where Lavery had made his equally large 1913 painting, of George V and family. I drew and redrew the room as the central subject of my design, only occasionally meeting my Royal sitters, about seven hours with each, on different sittings, allowing their figures to grow from and into my design. In Martin’s book we see Lucian standing some two metres from the Queen with a tiny canvas on a simple radial easel. He had the courage to deal with even so eminent a figure just as he dealt with every other human being: to quote his own words, “zoologically”.
Asked what his Royal sitter had thought of John Wonnacott, I regret to pass on the disappointingly minimal – - – - “scruffy”!
John Wonnacott’s magnificent portrait group of the Royal Family is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, where, since the arrival from the Tate of Sandy Nairne, as director, it has been consigned to the reserve collection. It can, however, be viewed on request.
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