Sunday, August 26, 2012

"Oops, sorry about that" restorations gone bad

"Restoration tragedies"

A ruinous attempt to repaint a Spanish fresco has highlighted the dangers of art restoration


Alasdair Palmer

August 26th, 2012

The Telegraph

When Cecilia Gimenez, a woman in her eighties, took her paintbrushes to a 19th-century fresco of Christ in a church in the Spanish town of Borja, she thought there were parts of the picture that needed repainting. So she started retouching the original herself, bringing great enthusiasm and dedication to the task, utterly convinced her work would improve it.

Unfortunately, she had no idea what she was doing. She started making mistakes – but her attempts to correct them only made things worse. By the time she had finished, she had wrecked the picture. Her crude and ugly “restoration” can only be described as the ruination of the painting that she wanted to clean up. The damage is almost certainly irreversible.

The original picture, by Elias Garcia Martinez, was admittedly not a particularly distinguished work, but it was not an unattractive picture, and it was precious to the locals who worshipped regularly in the church.

Professional restorers do not, of course, make the kind of crass and catastrophic blunders that Cecilia Gimenez made. But if their interventions do not actually destroy far more important works of art than Martinez’s fresco, there is a growing consensus that they do not always improve them – and on occasion, they may seriously damage them.

Take a look, for example, at what the National Gallery did to Paolo Uccello’s painting, The Battle of San Romano, which was radically cleaned in the Sixties. The colours look faded, almost bleached out, and the figures and horses strangely flat. To get an idea of what The Battle of San Romano would have looked like had it not been cleaned so radically, compare the National Gallery’s version with the picture by Uccello of the same subject in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The difference is shocking.

Some of the most severe critics of recent restorations are themselves 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.”

Prof Zanardi thinks that Correggio’s frescos in the dome of Parma Cathedral are a good example of bad restoration. “That restoration was, in my view, a catastrophe. The delicacy of Correggio’s modelling was lost. The figures became stiff – Correggio was, and is, famous for his ability to create the illusion of movement in his works. The clouds – an essential part of the composition – were turned into rigid blocks of grey and white, rather than the wonderfully ethereal, almost diaphanous whisps that Correggio had created.”

How could restorers apparently bungle anything on such a scale? “Ignorance,” explains Prof Zanardi. “And using the wrong methods as a consequence.”

Techniques of restoration are an immensely delicate and controversial topic: the procedures that one generation of restorers swear by, and insist constitute the final answer to how to restore paintings, are frequently repudiated in equally emphatic terms by their successors.

In the Fifties and Sixties, for example, many frescos were detached from the walls on which they had been painted on the grounds that it would protect them from damp and other environmental damage. In the Eighties, restorers came to the conclusion that this practice was in fact extremely damaging, and it is now never followed.

But it’s too late to do anything about the hundreds of square metres of frescos that have already been detached. They can’t be put back on the walls from which they were taken; they are far too fragile. Some of them are in danger of crumbling to dust. No one knows how long detached frescos – now exhibited in museums, their very thin painted surface having been transferred on to boards of various types – will last.

In the name of restoration, pictures have been glued, gouged, treated with industrial solvents, and even ironed with steam rollers. The speed with which procedures are taken up and then rejected might lead one to conclude that the techniques in vogue today will soon be repudiated. So wouldn’t the safest response be to do nothing, and leave each work unrestored?

Unsurprisingly, today’s professional restorers answer “No” to that question. For the most part, they think they have finally got the techniques right, so that their own work, unlike that of almost every other restorer in the past, is now safe and accurate.

It is true there have been some very beautiful and successful restorations in the past 20 years, including the restoration of Piero della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross in Arezzo, of Giotto’s frescos in the Arena Chapel in Padua, and of the sculptures and frescos from the 12th and 13th century in the Baptistery in Parma.

There have also been some amazing reconstructions. The most famous of these is the ''restoration’’ of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in Milan. Thanks to Leonardo’s decision to turn his back on traditional fresco technique, and to apply paint to a dry surface rather than to wet plaster, The Last Supper started to flake off by 1517, which was less than 20 years after it had been finished. By 1572, one observer said it was “half ruined”, and by 1722, Leonardo’s work had been reduced, in many places, to stretches of bare plaster. In 1726, a painter named Bellotti decided it was time to restore it. Most art historians now accept that Bellotti did not actually restore the picture: he completely repainted it.

Bellotti’s “restoration” was the first of a grand total of eight attempts to bring back Leonardo’s masterpiece. The most recent of these was finished in 2000, after 20 years’ work. Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, the lead restorer, did some magnificent work in recreating what she thought was Leonardo’s original picture. But it wasn’t a restoration, because most of the paint applied by Leonardo’s hand had long ago disappeared. As one art historian puts it: “The Last Supper is now a first-rate example of Barcilon’s work. It is not a Leonardo.”

Recreation is not restoration – but recreation is the perennial temptation of the restorer, who often feels that he or she can recreate the original work, either by simply “re-doing” the parts of the original picture that have been lost, or by removing the work of later hands and revealing the work of the Master himself underneath.

Something of that sort happened with the restoration of Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel. There, there is no doubt that Michelangelo’s original work survives: after he finished the ceiling, it was not subject to any significant restoration prior to the comprehensive “cleaning” that took place in the late Eighties and early Nineties.

Michelangelo’s masterpiece emerged from that restoration transformed: the colours were much brighter, the compositions flatter, and the modelling on the figures seemed to be cruder. Shadows that Michelangelo had painted in order to give his figures a more rounded appearance had been cleaned off. The restorers said they had discovered a “new Michelangelo”: one who used vibrant colours.

Michael Daley, who runs ArtWatch, an organisation dedicated to trying to prevent unnecessary restoration and to expose poor restoration work, disagrees profoundly that the restoration revealed the true Michelangelo. “The restoration of the Sistine ceiling was a disaster. The restorers got rid of a great deal of Michelangelo’s work, claiming wrongly that it was merely soot, dirt, or the result of later painters. In fact, it was Michelangelo’s work they got rid of.” Mr Daley insists that the colours were made garish and clashing because the restorers removed the layers of varnish Michelangelo had applied quite deliberately in order to harmonise and to damp down his colours. “Michelangelo’s masterpiece is still magnificent,” he adds. “But it has been very significantly diminished.”

Mr Daley was, together with the late James Beck, a professor of art history at Columbia, one of the first to realise what had happened to Michelangelo’s masterpiece. He and Prof Beck were initially derided for their views – but today, probably the majority of Renaissance specialists think that the restoration over-cleaned Michelangelo’s work, and that it would have been better had the Sistine Chapel been much less radically cleaned, or even left alone.

It is not only the works of Old Masters that suffer at the hands of restorers. Much more recent paintings by artists such as Turner, Renoir, Sergeant, Seurat, Klimt and Picasso have undergone restorations that have left them looking less impressive than they did prior to the restorers’ intervention.

“I go round museums and galleries in Europe, Britain and America and am depressed by what I see,” says Mr Daley. “Restoration is now an industry, and restorers constantly find new works to fiddle with. Soon, there won’t be any unrestored works left. We are gradually destroying the entire corpus of Western art.”

That judgment may be too extreme. But 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.

No comments: