Transparency and Neglect: Conservation on Display

“In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies” – an exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania that focuses on the process of conserving ancient artifacts.

In what seems like a new trend to explore the world of art conservation through process-oriented exhibitions, the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, in conjunction with the National Gallery of Canada, opened “Restoration and Revelation: Conserving the Suida-Manning Collection” to the public on Saturday, November 17. The exhibition focuses on the conservation efforts, including the cleaning and repainting, of several Old Master paintings and drawings from the museum’s Suida-Manning Collection, established in 1998. In a recent press release, the Blanton Museum stresses the potential for discovery, asserting that “new knowledge about the works and their makers” can result from restorations. However, the use of a reconstructive approach (repainting) in treating these objects suggests a greater interest in “visual integrity” than historical veracity.

Similar exhibitions, such as the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s “In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies,” create environments in which patrons can actually view restorations through a glass-enclosed conservation lab. The Ghent Altarpiece cleaning is also on display for public viewing. While it would seem that a certain degree of transparency is implicit in such demonstrations, thereby creating a sense of accountability, the effect is rather to heroicize art conservation and its practitioners.

Antonio Carneo’s “The Death of Rachel” undergoing conservation treatment at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, for the current exhibition “Restoration and Revelation” at UT Austin.

Perhaps a more fair and balanced approach to the many issues concerning the conservation of paintings, particularly those that have suffered severe deterioration, would produce an honest examination of the field overall. As James Beck and Michael Daley state in their book, Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business, and the Scandal, “The ‘science of restoration’, like all science, is not a monolithic cure-all.” If a museum rejects this reasoning, then questions regarding the moral implications of extensive repainting, and the museum’s obligation to its patrons to present clear delineations between original and contemporary components of any work, are otherwise wholly ignored. Any knowledge gained from such an exhibition is therefore tempered by what has been lost – the opportunity to develop a more informed audience, and therefore, a more critical public opinion.

“Restoration and Revelation: Conserving the Suida-Manning Collection,” is scheduled to run through May 5, 2013.

The Menil’s Picasso: A Victim of Vandalism or Adaptive Reuse?

Left: Uriel Landeros vandalizing a Picasso painting, Right: Picasso's work after Landeros's alterations

The recent “tagging” of Picasso’s Woman in a Red Armchair in Houston raises questions of ownership, as parties weigh in on the implications of vandalism. This past June, 22-year old Uriel Landeros entered the Menil Collection with a can of spray paint and a stencil. As seen in a video taken by a witness, Landeros quickly defaces the painting, rips the stencil roughly from the surface, and exits through a side door. He is currently in hiding, and faces several felony charges that could result in up to 10 years of prison and a $10,000 fine.

Perhaps riding on the public outcry against the young Houston artist in recent months, the Cueto James Art Gallery chose to stage a show of a dozen original Landeros pieces – essentially treating the act of vandalism as a work of art in itself by rewarding the perpetrator. The sardonically titled exhibition, “Houston, We Have a Problem,” opened in late October to much fanfare and spectacle. It seems somewhat akin to Tate Modern’s proposed exhibition, “Art Under Attack,” set to begin in October of next year. This show will examine recent acts of vandalism – such as that carried out on Mark Rothko’s painting, Black on Maroon – as something of cultural curiosity rather than criminal behavior. Both shows have gained a fair amount of media coverage thus far, however James Perez, owner of the Cueto James Art Gallery, has denied that the showcase is meant to stir up publicity, stating “I’m already popular. This is for Uriel.”

Still, one wonders whether the attack on the Picasso was aimed at gaining attention for the artist’s cause, rather than for creating something of artistic value, as was certainly the case for Polish artist Vladimir Umanets, who vandalized the aforementioned Rothko painting in support of “Yellowism.” Further, Perez believes that the process of tagging another’s work is like “taking something and making it your own,” which begs the age-old question of who, if anyone, can actually own a work of art. Should an individual have the right to tamper with something that belongs to society as a whole? This question is complicated further by the fact that the painting itself is considered private, rather than public, property, forming the very basis for the charges held against him. Cultural value does not come into play, in this regard.

In either case, restoration efforts are expected to result in a “full recovery,” though the overall lack of concern for the painting and for the Menil Collection on the part of both Landeros and Perez is disconcerting, to say the least. In a video posted by Landeros on YouTube this past August, he claims that he never intended to “destroy Pablo’s painting or to insult the Menil,” yet goes on to say that the spray paint could simply be removed with “a little bit of Windex.” Likely, the restoration will be more complicated than that, and as Uriel Landeros continues to receive attention from the public, Picasso’s Woman in a Red Armchair slowly returns to its former state. If such acts of vandalism occur in the future, as they certainly will,  the question remains whether it is fair to hold our artistic heritage hostage for the sake of individual beliefs.

Carracci Gallery Restoration, ‘Discovery’ Vs. Preservation

Italian officials announced in early October plans to undergo a $1.5 million restoration effort of the world-renowned Carracci Gallery, whose elaborate decoration, commissioned in 1597 by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese, has been a topic of scholarly dialogue for hundreds of years. This project results from an earlier campaign undertaken by the French Service des Monuments historiques to stabilize the vaulted ceiling. While it is unclear precisely what restorative measures will take place when work begins in early January, the World Monuments Fund asserts that this is primarily a scientific endeavor which seeks to remedy “conservation issues” identified during the 1994 restoration. The WMF further claims that “conservation is necessary to ensure that the paintings in the gallery do not deteriorate or become harmed by structural problems in the ceiling.”

Whereas such efforts would appear essential to the survival of the numerous frescoes and stucco decoration that adorn the walls of the Carracci Gallery, a very different sentiment seems to be emanating from the Italian Culture Ministry, which is responsible for the promotion and stewardship of museums and historical monuments throughout Rome. As quoted in the New York Times, the presumed result of “determining which hands painted which section” is hailed as a significant perk of the project, as opposed to the conservation efforts extolled by the WMF. This would suggest that the entire endeavor functions more to satisfy curiosity than to ensure permanent survival, and further suggests that exploratory cleanings, which do not directly address deterioration or “structural problems,” will be employed primarily for attribution purposes.

Furthermore, a proposed plan to assemble a committee to determine the “scope of the restoration,” implies a more extensive undertaking than what was deemed necessary by the 1994 restorers. Rossella Vodret of the Italian Culture Ministry assures us that “if problems arise, the intelligence and professional qualities of the experts involved will win out,” and while one is inclined to appreciate this absolute faith in professional restorers, we also must ask ourselves whether the risk to lasting preservation is worth the possible gain of discovery.

Fortunately, the international community will be watching closely to see what develops as the project takes shape in early 2013.