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2017-04-11 Conservator Rodin Absolution

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way: Rodin’s Fragile “L’Absolution” Treated for Display & Travel?

2017-04-11 Auguste Rodin Absolution

Auguste Rodin, L’Absolution (c. 1900), before treatment. Courtesy: The Art Newspaper (14 March 2017).

Ruth Osborne

The Art Newspaper reported last month on an extremely fragile piece by sculptor Auguste Rodin, held in the collection of the Musée Rodin in Paris, that is now to go on exhibition and on the road.

The work, titled “L’Absolution”, was created from plaster and cloth by Rodin, approximately around 1900. Its complicated construction consists of over 6′ of plaster sculpture in three pieces created in the 1890s – the torso of a seated Ugolino [of Dante’s Divine Comedy], a martyr’s head, and the Earth – draped delicately over with a cloth molded by the artist in a thin layer of plaster. You can find archival images of the work in black & white from the Musée Rodin here.

The upcoming move is described by the new chief curator of collections Christine Lancestremère as “a little scary”, and the article acknowledges she also “[suspected] that its fragility prevented it from going on display before”. Then why is this display and move still happening? According to the report, the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Rodin’s death demanded this item go into the “Kiefer Rodin” exhibit (Mar-Oct 2017), which will highlight several works by contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer conceived as responses to sculptures and drawings by Rodin. The exhibit is also set to travel to the Barnes in Philadelphia in November, and will be on display there thru March 2018. After that, “L’Absolution” will move to the Musée Rodin in Meudon to be on permanent display there.  You can find a list of the sponsors of this joint exhibition on the Barnes’ website here.

But first, of course, a little handling by conservators to try and make the work more “stable” for travel and display. After all, the cloth makes structure of the work itself so delicate that it must be displayed behind glass “to prevent the fabric from moving with the wind”. Safe movement of the piece alone made some of the plaster on the cloth fall off.

2017-04-11 Conservator Rodin Absolution

Conservator examines Rodin’s L’Absolution. Courtesy: The Art Newspaper (14 March 2017).

Conservator examination of the sculpture involved:

(1) Recently fallen plaster restored.

(2) Securing fabric back into original position on the sculpture.

(3) “Cleaning” of the entire piece.

Meanwhile, there is very little documentation on the work itself from the artist. Lancestremère admits that they don’t even know if it is finished or not. All they had to work from in this treatment was one photo of this rather complicated 3-dimensional object: “Rodin did not make a marble or terracotta work from it, which is rare for the artist, and there is nothing in the archives about the piece except for one photograph.”

However, upon visiting the Musée Rodin’s online collections portal, we found these three black & white photographs, though they have no visible date associated with them.

The funding for the treatment was awarded by TEFAF for “restoration and reconstruction of the never before seen work”. TEFAF itself was originally founded in 1988 by a group of art dealers as an art fair, and has only 5 years ago established its Museum Restoration Fund. Upon ArtWatch inquiring about why TEFAF was chosen for funding the restoration, Lancestremère said that this was the choice of the Museum’s selection committee, and that the remainder of the operation was being financed by the Museum’s budgeted funds for restoration. TEFAF itself has an interesting, if questionable, history related to (1) forgeries appearing at its fairs (see here) and therein (2) vetting its own experts (see here).

A quick overview of TEFAF’s Museum Restoration Fund on the website shows that it “was launched to mark TEFAF’s 25th anniversary in 2012”.  Since then, it has restored a mixture of paintings and sculptural objects – including ancient Egyptian coffins and a sarcophagus – at major museums in the U.S. and Europe. But why is an art fair – which makes money off of the success of art sales and a space in recent years wherein one expects to uncover new “discoveries” and attributions – supporting such a questionable conservation project and exhibition?

TEFAF’s report at the announcement of the award itself is telling:

This is the first time it has been restored since its creation. Absolution resembles no other work by Rodin and it testifies to his bold and modern outlook. 

Being connected with such a rare, unique work is certainly a selling point for TEFAF as a “bold”, “modern” art fair. This statement also makes it clear that TEFAF is getting in on the ground floor, so to speak, of understanding and analyzing the work, as it is “the first time” there have been hands on this work other than Rodin’s. For technical details on how the conservation actually worked, TEFAF’s announcement went on to say:

The restoration of this work is particularly complex and requires two different kinds of expertise from two specialists: a painting restorer for the drapery and a sculpture restorer for the plaster elements. Currently, the three plaster sections have come apart, and need to be repositioned and fixed. The fabric pieces have lost their folds and shape and there are many losses in the plaster coating that held the drapery in place, with splinters that are in danger of breaking off.

So from this, one would be remiss to ask how did the three plaster sections come apart? Did they fall spontaneously or were they moved? According to our conversation with Lancestremère:

It seems that the three plaster subjects remained together until the 1980s. We do not know when exactly they were dissociated, but it is probable that it occurred perhaps on the occasion of a move from one reserve to the other […] the whole was considered too fragile, and it was preferable to separate the most prominent elements, the head of the Martyrdom, and the body of the Earth. The elements did not fall on their own because they are not broken. On the other hand, the textile had already had to slip and the folds to be discarded because, in the 1980 photographs, there are already numerous losses of material and a positioning of the drape which is not compatible with the remains of plaster present on the textile.

So the damage due to the piece over time and various potential moves while remaining in storage was not well documented. But if damage occurred to a piece that has only ever been in storage, would this fragility not concern the conservators in preparation of its travel outside the Musée Rodin to two different locations? When asked about how the multi-part piece was stabilized, Lancestremère let us know that the splintered pieces and the plaster-coated textile were stabilized by a mixture of adhesive and magnets: The three gypsum elements were reattached to each other with a reversible system composed of metallic elements fixed on the plaster by bonded resin studs (reversible adhesive) inside the plaster test. In the case of draped plaster fabrics, the gypsum scales raised were fixed with a fixative on the fabric. And the textile is held in place thanks to magnets of different sizes.

The piece has since gone on display at the Musée Rodin, where we will see how well these repairs hold up under the gaze of thousands entering the galleries. ArtWatch has also asked Lancestremère if, given the vulnerability of the sculpture, the Musée Rodin is concerned about its vulnerability in traveling overseas, but the exhibit opening it seems has kept the staff quiet for now. We will keep you posted on this development. In the meantime, take a look at their press packet for the exhibition here, which shows this photo (below) of the work on display in the center of one of the galleries.

L'Absolution Kiefer-Rodin exhibit

L’Absolution on display in Kiefer-Rodin exhibit, Musée Rodin, Paris, March 2017. Courtesy: Musée Rodin, Paris.

 UPDATE:

We’ve just received an update from the Musée Rodin in Paris on the treatment of Rodin’s L’Absolution and its travel status for the Kiefer Rodin exhibit. We would also like to thank the Musée Rodin staff for the below photographs of the work during treatment.

Lancastremère writes:

the Absolution sculpture will not go to Philadelphia. It is much too fragile for such a long and complicated journey […]The very large presence of the textile, which can not be supported or genuinely wedged, makes the packaging very complex and inevitably very “fragile”. Vibrations and other shocks are a risk both for assemblages between the different subjects in plaster and for the textile coated with gypsum, the very fine scales of which are liable to fall.

2017-04-11 Absolution Rodin Conservation

Treatment of L’Absolution. Courtesy: Musée Rodin, Paris/ph. P.Hisbacq.

2017-04-11 Absolution Rodin Treatment

Treatment of L’Absolution. Courtesy: Musée Rodin, Paris/ph. P.Hisbacq.

 

 

A Look at Art Conservation in the News.

Ruth Osborne

In order to get a better sense of how conservation is presented to and perceived by the public today, ArtWatch has undertaken an overview of art conservation as it has appeared in the media over the past year.

Thoughts and opinions on the purpose of conservation have developed and changed over the past 150 years as society considers new scientific technologies.  Noticing trends in news coverage of conservation interventions, as well as the state of the field as a whole, will allow for an understanding of the role of conservation as it is understood in the 21st century. This post will consider the following:

(1) How are conservators represented in relation to the works they’re treating?

(2) What is given precedence in reports of current conservation treatment, the work itself or benefits for the field at large?

(3) According to news coverage, what is the ultimate goal of modern conservation and what is being put in place to further this goal?

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Patricia Favero, conservator at The Phillips Collection, with Picasso’s The Blue Room and showing its under layer. Courtesy: Evan Vucci/AP.

Art conservation as a field was born of the need to care for works of art as they experienced the ravages of time and misuse. Taking this into consideration, would it not come as a surprise that so many news stories covering the work of conservators focus on the promise of discovery instead of preserving the physical nature of the work from further deterioration? Is the act of prodding for findings beneath layers of paint with infrared imagery to discover an underlying image that the original artist painted over considered “conserving” the work from future deterioration? Regardless of how this fits into contemporary or classical theories of conservation, research into Picasso’s The Blue Room was still presented in the media last June as being part of the work’s conservation.

Just this week, The New York TImes reported on a new “discovery” of Jackson Pollock’s technique revealed by conservators treating his 1947 Alchemy at the Guggenheim Venice. His intentional, rather than random, paint-splattering technique has in fact been acknowledged by scholars before. Time magazine’s art critic Robert Hughes wrote in 1982 that: “…Pollock–in his best work–had an almost preternatural control over the total effect of those skeins and receding depths of paint. In them, the light is always right. Nor are they absolutely spontaneous; he would often retouch the drip with a brush.” It is certainly interesting how computer imagery can unpack the layers of this painting. But cannot the eyes of connoisseurs already perceive his technique by examining the painting and its underlying grid in a thorough visual analysis, instead of relying on computer analysis to reveal his method?

But dialogue is being pulled away from connoisseurship and its capabilities and towards a heavy reliance on science to achieve “objective” proof. Is science truly as definitive and free of error as is assumed by the media?

2015-03-24 - Leonardo La Belle Ferroniere Louvre

Leonardo da Vinci, La Belle Ferronière, 1490-96. Courtesy: Louvre, Paris

After announcement was made in February 2014 of the Louvre’s plan to restore the extremely vulnerable La Belle Ferronière by Leonardo, and after Michael Daley of ArtWatch UK questioned the safety of this plan, several months later it was revealed that it was to be the first Leonardo to show in the Middle East. Its planned transportation to the Louvre’s new satellite museum in Abu Dhabi was released to the press in October. This risky proposal to transport an extremely important confirmed Leonardo was precisely what necessitated its conservation, no doubt, as Louvre representatives related: “For such an important painting it is very important for us to have time. The first [restoration] committee met last week and now we will restore the painting and take all the time we need [and then] we will be very proud to show the restored painting.” But how does one simply gloss over the danger of transporting an already vulnerable painting overseas for temporary exhibit? Is it to be assumed that restoring it will make it less susceptible to damage? We have already had our share of works severely ruined on transport within the same country – even within the same museum building.

On another Leonardo panel surrounded by much controversy is his Lady with an Ermine, which has been altered by several restorers over the centuries.  In 2007, ArtWatch reported on the promise of the picture’s digital reconstruction through a multispectral high-res camera. In these investigations, the role of conservation proposes to help undo the work of past ill-treatments and restore a more authentic version of the original. However, as we wrote:

“It is critical to remember that the conclusions drawn as a result of these diagnostic tests are not necessarily correct. Even the most ‘objective’ scientific evidence requires interpretation, and so many of the public announcements that have been made, touting the newest discoveries of the original intentions of the artist, are not universally agreed upon, nor should they be…the concern lies in the knowledge that historically latest technologies have often been used to promote rather than replace restorations. The fear in this case is that believing to fully understand what lies beneath the surface of an artwork will embolden restorers and justify their aims to go looking, with their preconceived notions, for what they now expect to find.”

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Digital imaging showing three different versions of Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine. Courtesy: BBC News.

Come 2010, ArtWatch UK argued against its traveling to London on loan for a National Gallery exhibition. To prevent damage in transit, and to ready the painting for blockbuster exhibit, pieces are often sent to the conservator’s studio with the hope of increasing stability in the work. But the more a painting is handled and touched, the more its integrity is altered, no?  BBC coverage last fall revealed conservators were still working with the panel to reveal “extraordinary revelations” about Leonardo’s work through this process. The reporter highlights the promise of new discoveries about Leonardo’s method as this digital digging has used “intense light” emitted from a multi-lens camera to make visible three different stages of the canvas. Who knows what this might mean for any future proposed traveling exhibitions on Leonardo’s process for which this work could be put at risk again?

Conservators’ abilities to unravel mysteries about the artist and his subjects with the help of technology was certainly a popular theme in 2014.  It was seen in the multiple reports on the “artist’s original intention” that emerged from Gustave Cailleboite’s Paris Street; Rainy Day at the Art Institute of Chicago. Revelations about the artist’s true palette and the canvas’s true dimensions abounded. Here, the conservator serves to uncover a truer version of Cailleboite that had been “hidden” for decades since its last restoration (of an unknown date). Under old varnish, the sky was found to be a more saturated blue and to contain greater light and movement in its surface gradation. Sharper details overall, according to this report, have now altered relationships between the figures and buildings in the composition.

2015-03-24 - Art Institute Chicago Kelly Keegan Gustave Caillebotte Paris Street Rainy Day

Art Institute of Chicago conservator Kelly Keegan with Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day. Courtesy: Art Institute of Chicago.

One article on the Art Institute’s website even suggests that: “The result is a transformed sense of light and atmosphere that is likely to change the way viewers respond to Caillebotte’s vision of 19th-century Paris and its people.” But does the woman’s hand inserted into the central man’s arm not still indicate their relationship as walking partners? Though the skies have cleared up a bit, wasn’t it presumed this would happen with cleaning of the varnish? Even if the sun may be about to come out, does it really reveal all that much about the artist’s true intentions, as the figures’ umbrellas are still up to protect from rain?

Meanwhile, the The Wall Street Journal reported that this treatment is now the reason to confirm the artist’s designation as an Impressionist: “As a result, curators now believe Caillebotte is likely to be viewed more as a bona fide Impressionist and less a traditional realist.” But wasn’t this already assumed by scholarship? Is this treatment really a breakthrough, as the media might have us believe?

These breakthrough discoveries were only made possible by a series of scientific tools, including infrared imagery, microscopy, and UV light and X-Rays, apart from the actual cleaning via swabs. While it is certainly important to have a solid understanding about a work’s makeup before treatment, will all works now expect to reveal hidden secrets every time they are cleaned? Have the expectations on a work of art increased, and will this help or hurt the integrity of works in the long run? The notion about conservation revealing hidden secrets in a painting continued in coverage of Villanova’s two-year treatment of the Triumph of David in September. In this case, the news report touted the x-ray and infrared tools that allowed conservators to “see into the painting.” According to this coverage, conservation once again aims to return works to, what is presumed to be, a more authentic state.

In a related issue, conservation has also been promoted for its “forensic” capabilities for authenticating authorship of works. Last March it was reported that two canvases by the nineteenth-century American romantic painter Martin Johnson Heade underwent testing at the Atlanta Art Conservation Center to prove their authorship through the existence of the artist’s finger print and brushstrokes, after being denied by Harvard’s Fogg Museum. In this press release, lab testing is referred to as “forensic science” that should take precedence alongside the connoisseur’s trained eye: “…the public needs to realize that connoisseurship has to adapt to a new and demanding educational standard. That standard I believe will become the future of proper art attribution…”

2015-03-24 - Harvard Straus Center for Conservation

Henry Lie, Director of the Harvard Straus Center for Conservation. Courtesy: Index Magazine.

Hand-in-hand with the claimed abilities of science and technology to do what the human eye is no longer trusted to, came unreserved praise for new high-tech conservation lab techniques. Reports on the newly re-opened Harvard Art Museums emphasized above all the dynamic influence of science in the origins of modern conservation: “it was really the beginning of the field…the first time a science-based approach was taken to looking at these materials.” Meanwhile, the role of new “optical illusions” was the focus of one article on conservation studies at American universities. According to this article, the microscopy, nanotechnology, and x-ray tools conservators use allow them to bring back to life that which was once considered lost. Terms like “forensic tool” are used. But can we truly bring back something from the past? Will all traces of time truly be wiped away? That seems to be what this reporter would have his audience believe is possible.

Finally, the last line from an article entitled “What does a conservator do?” adds rather presumptuously: “Above all they are soothsayers, probing cultural materials to reveal the secrets of how and when they were made, and how they will survive into the future” (emphasis added).

2014-09-11 - conservation painting
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Conversing with Conservators

Angelea Selleck

While I was a graduate student I had the opportunity to interview two conservators for a research project. After reading extensively about cases of botched restorations, I felt it was important to get the opinion of professionals in this field in order to gain a deeper insight into how such atrocities can occur and how it is viewed in the conservation community.

It was clear that the conservators were aware of these issues and the mentioning of botched restorations is a sensitive topic. However, I was assured they strictly adhere to and respect the code of ethics and such cases are few and far between. Below, are accounts of my interactions with two conservators.

 

I spoke with a Swiss conservator who works at a very prestigious institution in Zürich. This conservator was very open and welcoming of questions, even if they were rather probing. Her methodology and practice was very conservative and had an approach of “less is more” when it came to cleaning paintings. While this is the approach that the majority of conservators apply, there are unfortunately ones who do not adhere to this method. Some of the most devastating cases are Vermeer’s painting at the National Gallery or the restoration of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. In-painting is where the majority of restorations can go wrong. However, for the Swiss conservator, in-painting is considered to be a technique of the past and resorted to only on a few occasions. However, she did have clients that requested objects in the painting to be painted a different color or elimination of a tree or shadow because the owner believed it would look better. With these clients, the conservator laughed and said she would never do any sort of thing but mentioned that there are other conservators who would. Indeed there are conservators who would restore a painting to the tastes of the client instead of preserving the integrity of the work. When this happens, the conservator is taking his or her own artistic license with the original work. In these unfortunate scenarios, the conservator’s code of ethics is not being adhered to. Are conservators under any authority that reprimands when one’s responsibility first and foremost to the work of art is tossed out the window?

 

Conservators either work for institutions (i.e. museums and galleries) or operate for private clients. The private conservator I interviewed was quick to emphasize that there her and her colleagues all strictly abide by the conservator’s code of ethics and place the interests of the work before those of the client. In addition to an interview, she also showed their lab, which was a large warehouse-like appendage to their offices, as well as some of the projects that she and her colleagues were working on. They were all curious and welcoming to a foreigner and answered any questions I had. Their projects ranged from a small faded portrait on wood to a large contemporary piece that needed some cleaning after being outside in the Swiss winter. My experience at this institution was positive and I did not get a sense that they felt I was intruding or looking for a scandal. They were aware of the bad publicity that conservators sometimes receive but viewed malpractice as the exception and not the rule. However, if botched restorations are isolated incidents, how do they happen to well-known works of art in major institutions around the world?

 

I also reached out to an American conservator who works for a museum in the United States. He knew very well the work of Art Watch and the reputation of James Beck and Michael Daley. After sending him a section of my dissertation, which focused on art restoration and advocated for greater reform, I did not hear back from him. It is unclear whether my association with ArtWatch caused him to not get back in contact with me or perhaps was too busy to reply.  In any case it is a shame. He is an accomplished conservator who would have had a lot of insight. It was a real surprise that he never replied back after showing genuine interest in my work.
Over the years, art conservation has made an effort to become a more serious and credible institution with strict codes of ethics and dedicated to preserving our world’s greatest works of art. However, mistakes and poor judgement can still transpire. Unfortunately, as we have discovered over the past 20 years, some conservators are reluctant to disclose any unfortunate mishaps on the job, which only conceals the problem for future caretakers and could result in greater damage to the work. When this happens it is important for conservators to be as transparent as possible in order to prevent further cases of destruction to our artistic heritage. And it seems they are making steps in the right direction.

Sistine Ceiling 2.0: Restoration of the Carracci Gallery Frescoes.

Ruth Osborne
2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery Palazzo Farnese Rome

Carracci Gallery, 2014.

This past February, announcements were made concerning the restoration project planned for the frescoes adorning the Carracci Gallery at the Palazzo Farnese in Rome.

This is no new thing for Annibale Carracci’s monumental cycle The Love of the Gods (1597-1606), which had already undergone “consolidation” only a few decades after completion under Baroque painter Carlo Maratta later in the seventeenth-century. [1] Since the beginning of the twentieth-century, the frescoes have undergone patched cleaning in 1923, 1936, and 1994 (though it is not clear just how much was accomplished during this latest effort beyond a general assessment of the issues).

2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery WMF Europe French Deputy Ambassador

Erkki Maillard, French Deputy Ambassador (right), and Bertrand du Vignaud, President of WMF Europe (right), in the Carracci Gallery. Courtesy: ANSAmed, 2014.

The French government, which has inhabited the historic building since 1874, first opened the gallery and palazzo to the public in 1936. Today it houses both the French Embassy and the Ecole Française de Rome, with reportedly small groups of visitors coming to see the Carracci frescoes only by appointment. According to the project’s Press Release from the New York-based non-profit World Monuments Fund:

“Today conservation is necessary to ensure that the paintings in the gallery do not deteriorate or become harmed by structural problems in the ceiling. The campaign of 1994, realized under the direction of the French Service des Monuments historiques, assembled information on the condition of the vault that led to some proposed solutions to conservation issues, but it was not possible at the time to secure sufficient funding to carry out the proposed treatments. The previous analysis will be helpful in developing the conservation program for the painted decorations, stucco, and gilding that adorn the room. Work is scheduled to begin this year and will be coordinated by WMF in collaboration with local heritage authorities and international experts.”

Besides WMF, the other groups that have joined together to help get the project off the ground are the French Embassy in Italy, the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage, and the Foundation de l’Orangerie (connected with French banking giant BNP Paribas). [2]

 

 

2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery Queen Cassiopeia King Cepheus

Cracking of Carracci’s depiction of Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus of Ethiopia. Courtesy: Domenico Stinellis/AP, 2014.

Restorers will first go about cleaning off layers of dirt and old overpainting from areas that had been restored in previous years. They will then work to fill any extensive cracks and repair water damage. [3]  According to WMF, this is the first time in the gallery’s history that the side walls, in addition to the ceiling in its entirety, will be treated. No doubt there is much restorers hope to glean from this work, more so than a simple stabilization of Carracci’s 400 year-old masterpiece. It is also understood that this year-long project will likely uncover some secrets about the frescoes’ condition. As Italian culture ministry official Rossella Vodret said to the New York Times in 2012, the work of the restorers will hopefully aid in “determining which hands painted which section” – Annibale’s, Agostino’s, or others from their workshop. She added emphasis on the “scientific endeavor” of this project. Meanwhile, scholars who have shown concern towards this massive overhaul are deemed “purists.” [4]

Objections arise not because of any “purist” impulses but because of (well-founded) concerns about the complex nature and (intended or un-intended) aesthetic consequences of comprehensive, long term, high cost, high-profile, heavily sponsored programs that aim at a single definitive comprehension to a cluster of real, feared or assumed problems. And why should the matter be decided by scientists alone? In the Times’ coverage of this project two years ago, an interesting statement was made by Vodret: “We are certain that if problems arise, the intelligence and professional qualities of the experts involved will win out.” [5]  But precisely which experts? What kind of one-sided expertise? Ancient works of art are primarily artistic and historical artifacts. Any proposed treatment must take those factors into consideration – and, certainly, scientists alone are not competent in those vital areas. For example, removing all previous (historic) repairs will likely expose injuries that gave rise to the repainting in the first place. If it does, will those injuries be repainted again to the standards and tastes of the twenty-first century or left as wrecked passages? There is talk of a threat from water infiltration. Is that a substantive threat? Does the roof leak? Do gutters need to be replaced? Is the building affected by rising damp?

2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery corner frescoes

More damage over illusionistic corner frescoes. Courtesy: Domenico Stinellis/AP, 2014.

Is it just a scare? Alleged conservation threats that were cited in the past on other major projects can prove unfounded when challenged – as was the case with the claimed “glue pox” that was said (on no evidence) to be devouring the Sistine Chapel ceiling at a dramatically escalating rate.

The project, which is underway as of the beginning of March, was set in motion by a new committee of 30 scientific restoration specialists formed in 2009 to consider the ceiling’s treatments and make recommendations for future work. [5] The conglomerate of international non-profits mentioned above have chosen the reputable Italian restoration group ATI Farnese as the  to carry out the project. $200,000 of the 1 million euros this project will entail has been allocated to preliminary studies of the ceiling (a portion provided for specifically by the Italian government). [6] A sense of immediacy to protect pervades discussion of the work to be done: “The value placed on the gallery meant that it has been restored at times in the past, including an urgent fix ordered in 1994 when the ceiling threatened to collapse. Now, new cracks and leaks that threatened the masterpieces inside have demanded an immediate response to protect what many call a significant piece of cultural heritage. ” [7] French Deputy Ambassador Erkki Maillard lists issues of cracking along the side panels and the vault, concern for infiltration of water damage and lifting of paint, and “paintings obscured by time that also need to be cleaned.” [8]  These delicately and poignantly illusionistic frescoes run the risk of experiencing a traumatic face-lift. Restorers will likely uncover unfortunate remnants from the partial cleanings of the 1920s and 30s. This could, in turn, either lead them back to page one, or set them off on a path from which there is no return.

The grandiose treatment is projected to last at least until spring 2015, when the gallery will finally reopen to the public. One must also not fail to take into consideration the impact of the growing tourist industry on the newly-cleaned frescoes, once revealed. According to Maillard, the current policy for outside visitors is previously-reserved small weekly tours. [9]  While these will be put on hold during restoration over the next year, what might be the result of the frescoes unveiling next spring? Will it bring in a greater demand for viewings? How will the French Embassy respond to an increased interest in this monumental piece of Italian artistic heritage? The sharp rise in visitors to the Sistine Chapel in recent years has undoubtedly placed a new fear in the Vatican for the well-being of their own crowning masterpiece (Read the ArtWatch UK article here). The final statement from WMF as to the Carracci project’s importance: “Once completed, the current conservation project will allow the Palazzo Farnese and the Carracci gallery to be accessible to the public more regularly, following years of restricted access to this cultural treasure.” [10]

2014-04-03 - Carracci Gallery tour

Guided tour through Carracci Gallery in February 2014. Courtesy: Domenico Stinellis/AP, 2014.

——–

 

[1] “Project: Carracci Gallery at the Palazzo Farnese,” WMF Program: Field Project. World Monuments Fund. http://www.wmf.org/project/carracci-gallery-palazzo-farnese (last accessed 21 March 2014).

[2] Press Release: “World Monuments Fund & its Partners Announce Project to Restore The Famous Carracci Gallery in Rome’s Palazzo Farnese,” http://www.wmf.org/sites/default/files/press_releases/Palazzo%20Farnese%20Release.pdf (last accessed 28 March 2014).

[3] Frances D’Emilio, AP, “French Embassy’s glorious ceiling in Renaissance palazzo to be rescued by modern day ‘Medicis’,” 26 February 2014. Newser. http://www.newser.com/article/5a9be14133f74636886aa0f1dde7e4e6/french-embassys-glorious-ceiling-in-renaissance-palazzo-to-be-rescued-by-modern-day-medicis.html (last accessed 28 March 2014).

[4] Elisabetta Povoledo, “Restoration Planned for Carracci Gallery in Rome,” New York Times. 10 October 2012. http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/10/restoration-planned-for-carracci-gallery-in-rome/?

_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=1 (last accessed 21 March 2014).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sandra Cordon, ANSA, “Palazzo Farnese’s Carracci gallery to shine anew: Restoration begins on Baroque masterpieces in French embassy,” 27 February 2014. La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno. http://www.lagazzettadelmezzogiorno.it/english/palazzo-farnese-s-carracci-gallery-to-shine-anew-no698007 (last accessed 21 March 2014).

[7] Guillemette de la Borie  “À Rome, les Carrache sous bâche,” 27 February 2014. La Croix.

http://www.la-croix.com/Culture/Actualite/A-Rome-les-Carrache-sous-bache-2014-02-27-1113125 (last accessed 14 March 2014).

[8] Cordon.

[9] Borie.

[10] D’Emilio.

[11] “Project: Carracci Gallery at the Palazzo Farnese,” WMF.

2013-12-29 - Vermeer Girl Interrupted at Her Music Frick Collection

Vermeer Interrupted: A Study of Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl Interrupted at Her Music” at The Frick Collection

Ruth Osborne

In October, ArtWatch opened a discussion on the state of Vermeer paintings in New York collections, with the aim of establishing a greater understanding of each work in its multiple layers of conservation.  Unsettling examination of a Vermeer in the Royal Collection at St. James’ Palace by ArtWatch UK has energized our study of Vermeers on this side of the Atlantic.

2013-12-29 - Vermeer Girl with a Pearl Earring

Visitors snapping shots of Mauritshuis’ Girl with a Pearl Earring at The Frick’s 2013 exhibition. Photo: AFP/Getty Images.

While Michael Daley calls London’s National Gallery to task on the blind eye they took to conservation in their recent “Vermeer and Music” exhibition, it appears quite the opposite is being done currently by the Frick. The Frick’s current show, “Masterpieces of Dutch Painting,” begins with conservation propaganda from the Mauritshuis that serves to build up a wall of defense around the changes made as a result of treatment efforts. The first large room (of only two for this exhibition) focuses the viewer on two simple items: Vermeer’s famed Girl with a Pearl Earring and a panel on the scientific “discoveries” of its conservation treatment in 1994.[1]
The Mauritshuis’ publication Vermeer Illuminated states that, as of the spring of 1994:

The Girl with a Pearl Earring was in a relatively good state of conservation. There were no imminent threats to the material condition of the painting…However, from an aesthetic point of view, the painting was not in good condition. The varnish had yellowed considerable and the old retouches had discoloured to such an extent that they looked like dark shadows.”

So essentially, conservators at the Mauritshuis put their hands once more to Vermeer’s canvas to undo previous bad restoration work. This is not something out of the ordinary for conservators, but the degree to which it lends to the debilitating of an artist’s oeuvre over several decades is astonishing. In Vermeer Illuminated, Mauritshuis makes sure to mention that their in-house conservators and restorers only set about the 1994 treatment “after consulting the international support committee,” which would no doubt give them the green light on removing the old varnish and touch-ups only to “sparingly retouch with stable materials” and revarnish.[2]

2013-12-29 - Vermeer Girl Interrupted at Her Music Frick Collection

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) Girl Interrupted at Her Music, 1658–59 (detail). Oil on canvas. The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Michael Bodycomb.

This post will focus on the first Vermeer to enter Henry Clay Frick’s hands, Girl Interrupted at Her Music (c. 1660). There is a general lack of knowledge about his oeuvre until being put on the map by Gustave Friedrich Waagen and Théophile Thoré-Brüger’s monograph survey essay in the early nineteenth-century. This gap of scholarship creates considerable problems for understanding the various damages and retouchings that occurred in subsequent decades.

Even before Girl Interrupted at Her Music entered Frick’s collection in 1901, Vermeer scholar Hofstade de Groot reported in 1899 on issues of inconsistency within the canvas. He noted the existence of a bird cage and violin painted-in by a later hand, which had by that point been painted over with the picture of Cupid that still appears today. The website “Essential Vermeer,” devoted to a close examination of the artist’s works, acknowledges both de Groot’s grievance and other issues due to “heavy-handed restorations.”[3] De Groot also took offense at the bird cage and violin hanging on a wall in the background which appeared to be a recent addition. In 1908, seven years after the painting entered Frick’s collection, de Groot relates conservation treatment with these issues of pictorial inconsistency:  “This picture of Cupid became visible when the work was cleaned. Its place was formerly occupied by a violin and bow, noticed in the catalogue of the Smeth van Alphen sale of 1810.”[4]  In 1995, Martin Bailey maintains that Girl Interrupted at Her Music is “in worn condition and the birdcage hanging on the wall near the window may be a later addition by another artist”[5]; the present day conservator of the Frick Collection backs this judgment.[6]

Girl Interrupted was also not so highly-admired among Frick’s purchases of this time. Today, the Frick places heavy blame on restorers who ruined the canvas with treatment between the time of Frick’s purchase and the painting being brought into the collection. Secondly, they place blame on the Knoedler dealer Charles Carstairs, who worked with Frick in his purchasing from the gallery:

“By all accounts, Frick’s 1901 acquisition of Vermeer’s Girl Interrupted at Her Music seems to have been a wise although not a calculated decision…Whatever his motivation, Frick paid Knoedler $26,000 for the Vermeer, a high price when compared to the amounts his contemporaries had spent for their Vermeers about this time. As was the common practice, the Girl Interrupted at Her Music, which had been in a private collection in Britain for almost a half century, was thoroughly cleaned shortly before it was sold. As a result, a violin hanging on the back wall, described in the 1810 auction catalogue, was removed by the restorer, who judged it a later addition. The birdcage to the right of the window, which may not be original to the painting either, was left intact. Although Frick probably was not aware of the fact, the Girl Interrupted at Her Music was only the fourth authentic Vermeer to come to America.”[7]

Only three years after the acquisition, Frick allowed Girl Interrupted at Her Music to be placed on loan for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904.5 Considering the ill-repute the canvas already held on its entering the collection, it is difficult to say the traveling and handling involved with the St. Louis Expo would not have heaped even more damages. It was again lent in 1909 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Hudson-Fulton Celebration, another grand, city-wide affair honoring an anniversary in U.S. history.[8] Unfortunately, the catalogue from the 1909 exhibition only reproduces the picture with overly-enhanced areas of contrast so that the level of detail in the picture disappears.

2013-12-29 - Vermeer Girl Interrupted at Her Music Burlington Magazine

Girl Interrupted at Her Music from Kenyon Cox’s 1910 publication. Photo: The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs (Jan. 1910).

As is evident from Kenyon Cox’s reproduced image of the painting in The Burlington Magazine of that same year, Girl Interrupted shows a few thick areas of shadow around the lower portion of the man’s upper lip and neck, which no longer appear today. Cox remarks in his short essay, that Girl Interrupted (listed as Music Lesson) is “difficult to classify.” He goes on to remark that, while the painting shows “exquisite passages” and “characteristic lighting,” it still “does not seem quite to hang together. The composition and the values are confused. There has evidently been some retouching needed, and the work of the restorer may account for the puzzling effect.”[9]  Other critics after Cox also remark upon the awkward treatment of light and shadow.  For example, Philip Hale suggests in 1913 that the “ridiculous folds” of the girl’s dress “may have been repainted by some clumsier hand than Vermeer’s.”  Furthermore, as with Cox, Hale also takes issue with the execution of light that fails to fall across the figures in the way Vermeer typically demonstrates.[10]

So what, then, would be the point in bringing “restoration” to a painting that has already been handled by supposed “restorers” and has come out damaged on the other side? Just how did those in charge of Frick’s collection see any possibility of bringing out the “true” Vermeer Girl Interrupted? It is the myth of the profession of paintings conservators that a hand skilled in minutiae and a mind steeped in chemistry can heal blemishes that occurred in the name of conservation in the first place. The loan of Girl Interrupted in its early years in Frick’s collection resulted in the damage one might assume from travel wear.  As a result, some minor work was performed on the canvas stretcher and surface. However, by the late 1930s enough concern arose to recommend a complete overhaul of the painting’s appearance in order to attempt a recovery from centuries of abrasion and poor past restoration efforts.

 

2013-12-29 - William Suhr conservator Berlin studio

Suhr (center) in his Berlin Studio, ca. 1920. Photo: Allison Stewart.

The conservator who would complete a full conservation treatment on Girl Interrupted was the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s very own William Suhr. Suhr has been examined by ArtWatch UK as the fateful “restorer” of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights at the Clark Institute. This treatment met an unfortunate end in the disappearance of a second steamboat; meanwhile, the trustees presented the final product as an “effectively new picture.” Indeed it was.  The Clark Turner was a case of re-restoration, just as the Frick’s Girl Interrupted. In both cases, we are left with muddled or flattened canvases that confuse the eye and disrupt the original artist’s hand.

Suhr’s background at the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, later work under William R. Valentiner (then-Director of the Detroit Institute of Art) in the 1920s, and performance for private collectors on both coasts of the U.S. eventually led him to a great appointment to restore Frick’s Polish Rider by Rembrandt.  His approach to treating Frick’s Girl Interrupted in 1949 was quite typical, but not revelatory in results: he removed the poor inpainting from former restorers, and in so doing was forced to remove old varnish, uncovered an even more abraded and stripped canvas (an image of which ArtWatch is prevented from publication at the request of The Frick Collection), and then proceeded to retouch Vermeer’s original brushstrokes and cover with a final revarnish.

2013-12-29 - Vermeer Girl Interrupted at Her Music

Girl Interrupted, as appears in Blankert’s 1975 publication. Photo: Albert Blankert, 1975.

A post-cleaning image of Girl Interrupted is reproduced in Albert Blankert’s Johannes Vermeer van Delft, 1632-1675 (1975).  Here, one sees that Suhr had attempted to fix the “ridiculous folds” of the girl’s hood.  He has repainted the hood so that it now appears with less-defined folds on the side. Also altered is the area where her red jacket meets her blue skirt and the sheet music she is holding. Now, it appears her jacket comes to a point at where it hadn’t before.[11] 

2013-12-29 - Johannes Vermeer Girl Interrupted at Her Music

Girl Interrupted, 1910 (detail, pre-restoration)

2013-12-29 - Johannes Vermeer Girl Interrupted at Her Music restoration

Girl Interrupted, 1975 (detail, post-restoration)

Suhr’s treatment, the most extensive conservation work recorded on the painting while at the Frick, quickly fell into disfavor with examinations in the following decades. What followed is exactly what is to be expected: yet more minor retouching and revarnishing performed.   Restorations done over in the span of only three decades do not bode well for the health of the canvas. ArtWatch UK has produced bountiful evidence on the damage of re-restoration on a Vermeer at the National Gallery in London.  ArtWatch UK Director Michael Daley is right in asserting that conservators’ hands have as much to do with the current handed-down appearance of a painting as do the abrasions and wear that Museum displays and exhibitions tend to emphasize.  In the case of Girl Interrupted, one sees this in the Frick’s website’s mention of inconsistencies due to bad restorations pre-Frick’s ownership.

It is astounding to think that, while Suhr was certainly considered one of the top conservators in his day, his treatments just a few decades later received major criticism, and rightly so.  Suhr’s work attempted to recover what others before him had failed to fix. Come 1981, Arthur Wheelock addresses lingering issues in Girl Interrupted: “Unfortunately, this painting is in very bad condition. Only the still-life area preserves something of its original surface qualities.”2   Just as Suhr’s work on the Clark’s Turner was gone over again by David Bull a few decades later, so too did his pass at Girl Interrupted prove to be unsatisfactory for restorers in the 1980s. Does this not provide a clear warning as to the abilities (or lack thereof) of the conservation profession in restoring truly damaged paintings?

 

While over-restoration has clearly proven of no assistance to this picture, is it possible the canvas has been so dismantled over the years that it now lacks significant trace of Vermeer’s original hand?  Photographic record only goes back to the late nineteenth-century and the author has been unable to turn up any illustration from the 1810 auction catalogue (its first illustrated appearance, which is cited by de Groot in the 1908).  Additionally, various elements in the painting tell of the portmanteau compositions churned out by forgers in great numbers at the turn-of-the-century, just when this painting first arrived in publication and exhibition. For instance, several pieces of this canvas relate quite closely to Vermeer’s Glass of Wine (National Gallery, Washington): the angle of the chair by the window with lion’s-head finials, the painting of Cupid in the same spot on the back wall, the composition and placement of the two main figures, and finally, the angled position of the stringed instrument on the table.  Admittedly, the chairs, window, and musical instrument are also all elements that Vermeer carries throughout other canvases (The Girl with the Wine Glass at the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Baraunschweig, Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, National Gallery, London, and The Music Lesson, Royal Collection, London, among others). The Frick has also permitted Girl Interrupted and their other two Vermeers for several forms of scientific analysis that would prove it originates in the proper time and place for it to be considered a Vermeer. Still, the small, now much weakened, canvas is unable to stand on its own without a series of explanations as to its excessive damage and overworked surface.

 

What strikes the eye when viewing Girl Interrupted is indeed the sheer flatness of the picture, lacking the detail of more delicate light and shadow. In cleaning, Suhr’s attempt to adjust previous conservators’ over-painting and marks of abrasion only resulted in a picture stripped of its dimensional qualities. Whatever mistakes were made by nineteenth-century restorers, Suhr’s treatment, along with other pressures on the canvas from travel, only made what was already bad a little bit worse. It is understandable that one would want to do whatever was possible to improve upon a $26,000 investment. However, the evidence presented 100 years after Frick’s purchase shows touching and retouching a painting does not always do the trick.

2013-12-29 - The Frick Collection Vermeer South Hall

The Frick Collection’s 3 Vermeers as they appeared in a 2008 display in the South Hall. Photo: Art and Living.

Today, Girl Interrupted at Her Music appears above a French tapestry-covered chair in the Frick’s South Hall, balanced at the other end of the room with a quite different-looking Vermeer canvas entitled Officer and Laughing Girl (c. 1657).  While these two paintings are spaced a good deal apart, the eye cannot lie. The varying shades of light and color, as well as the surface texture (or lack thereof) relates to the viewer the canvases divergent restoration histories. As we have stated in a previous post, Vermeer paintings in New York collections appear as if they were composed by completely different artists. Similar issues exist in works by Vermeer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which will be discussed in a later post.

 

 


[1] Jørgen Wadum, René Hoppenbrouwers, and Luuk Struick van der Loeff, Vermeer Illuminated: A Report on the View of Delft and The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer. (The Hague: V+K Publishing/Inmerc, 1994) 18-23.

[2] Vermeer Illuminated, 22.

[3] “Girl Interrupted at Her Music by Johannes Vermeer,” Essential Vermeer. http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/girl_interrupted_in_her_music.html (last accessed 22 November 2013).

[4] C. P. Hofstede de Groot, with W.R. Valentiner. Translated and edited by Edward G. Hawke, Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most eminent Dutch painters of the Seventeenth Century. Vol. 1 (London: MacMillan and Co., Limited, 1908). Listed in de Groot as “A Gentleman and a Young Lady.”

[5] Martin Bailey, Vermeer. (Phiadon Incorporated Limited: London, 1995).

[6] “Girl Interrupted in her Music by Johannes Vermeer,” Essential Vermeer. http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/girl_interrupted_in_her_music.html (last visited 20 September 2013)

[7] Esmée Quodbach, Assistant to the Director of the Center for the History of Collecting in America, “Frick’s Vermeers Reunited,” 2008. The Frick Collection: Exhibitions. http://www.frick.org/sites/default/files/archivedsite/exhibitions/vermeer/frick.htm (last accessed 17 November 2013).

[8] Wilhelm R Valentiner, Curator of Decoartive Arts, Catalogue of Painting by Old Dutch Masters, Hudson-Fulton Exhibition, Catalogue of a loan exhibition of paintings by old Dutch Masters held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in connection with the Hudson-Celebration, September-November 1909 (Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York, 1910) p. 139 (no. 138)

[9] Kenyon Cox, “Dutch Pictures in the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition-II,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 16, No. 82 (Jan. 1910) 246.

[10] Philip Hale, Jan Vermeer of Delft. (Boston, 1913), 254-55.

[11] Albert Blankert, Johannes Vermeer van Delft, 1632-1675. (Utrecth: Spectrum, 1975) 201.

2013-12-14 - Isenheim Altarpiece Colmar France

The Isenheim Altarpiece: Yet Another Tale of Unauthorized Restoration in Colmar, France.

Ruth Osborne

 

2013-12-14 - Isenheim Altarpiece Chapel Musée d'Unterlinden Colmar France

Isenheim Altarpiece installed in Chapel of Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar, France.

In 2011, the sixteenth-century Isenheim Altarpiece by German artist Mathis Gothart-Nithart underwent restoration. However, a  report last month in The Art Newspaper describes the treatment as both unauthorized and performed in an “unorthodox” manner.[1] This, as well as the events leading up to the altarpiece’s restoration, have recently revealed controversy and division rife within the ranks of the French restoration establishment and government-sponsored conservation efforts.

 

 

 

It all begins with a familiar story – an old building with a bad roof. The chapel at the Musée Unterlinden in Colmar, which previously housed the altarpiece, required serious attention; the state-supported museum was then enforced with the removal of the altarpiece by Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France (C2RMF), all in the interest of safety during the roof repairs. What followed was an unexpected restoration, the controversial nature of which stems from the fact that neither the government officials nor the scientists involved saw it as necessary.  The Schongauer Society, the private Alsatian organization of civil society volunteers that operates the museum, gave the green light for the stripping of old varnish and subsequent revarnishing of the work.

 

What is most startling about the stripping of the Isenheim Altarpiece is that it took a mere six days to remove the varnish on one section of the rather large altarpiece.This was then followed by a “test” removal of the varnish on another portion of the work. In stark contrast is the span of 1-2 years it took Louvre conservators to lighten the varnish on Rembrandt’s Supper at Emmaus and Da Vinci’s Saint Anne. According to The Art Newspaper, “no specific scientific examination or evaluation was conducted before or during the 2011 intervention.”[2]

 

The disturbingly rash “conservation” treatment produced an appropriately troubled response from the public brought to the attention of French culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand. Mitterrand and his colleagues at the C2RMF (Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France), France’s main body of art conservators and restorers, have thus far observed the rapid, one might consider careless, work on the altarpiece. The yellowed varnish, found to be from 1946, has been mostly removed from the surface, and the C2RMF has exhibited fears that the solvent used could move towards the top layers of the paint. The Isenheim Altarpiece will now go before the C2RMF for a more thorough judgment. They are soon slated to issue a report on the current condition of the work, as well as recommendations for future treatment and preservation procedures only now necessary because of its recent stripping.

 

2013-12-14 - Isenheim Altarpiece Colmar France

Portion of Isenheim Altarpiece handled by staff after being moved for transport.

Unfortunately, the story of the Isenheim Altarpiece has become a familiar occurrence; ArtWatch reported on the unauthorized “conservation” treatment of eighteenth-century Qing Dynasty frescos (see here) in the Chinese province of Chaoyung earlier this year, while last year the world was stunned by the “restorative” work of Cecilia Gimenez (see here). According to our news source, there are two separated camps surrounding this restoration: “those who think restoration should be based on scientific studies and the old school, who have faith in experience and resent the criticism of their colleagues by the media. The French authorities have never managed to provide a technical framework or protocol for restoration in museums, but with tensions running high on all fronts, the Isenheim project is unlikely to bring this any closer.”[3]  If anything, the quick work of the conservators’ hands, behind the back of the CDRMF’s authority, relates the explicit need for greater strictures on works considered for treatment.  If there is no specific framework, set out by the scientific guidelines conservators so claim to rely on and benefit from, then how many works will suffer from half-done ill-performed treatments?

 

 


[1] Vincent Noce, “French fall-out over restoration: Museum’s treatment of Isenheim Altarpiece exposes rifts in French attitudes towards the care of the country’s cultural treasures,” The Art Newspaper. Issue 252, December 2013. http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/French-fallout-over-restoration/31094 (last accessed 7 December 2013)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

 

2013-10-23 - Yenji temple before and after
,

Qing Fresco “Restoration” Yields Disastrous Results

Ruth Osborne
2013-10-23 - Qing Dynasty fresco Yenji temple

Original Qing Dynasty fresco at Yenji temple. Courtesy: AFP/ Getty Images.

Following last year’s famous botched restoration of the nineteenth-century Ecce Homo fresco by Cecilia Gimenez (Read the ArtWatch UK article here), this month brings an interesting, and equally disturbing, development in the Chinese province of Liaoning.

 

Earlier in October, images leaked online revealing the destructive outcome of an unauthorized “restoration” of 270 year-old frescoes from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) on the walls of the Yenji temple in Chaoyang. The new, and completely-unrelated, cartoons of Taoist mythical figures that now cover the original frescoes were carried out by a reportedly unqualified restoration company.  Following the temple abbot’s denied application for restoration permits, local authorities of the Pheonix Mountain scenic area  decided to go on with the project anyway.[1] According to BBC News, this indignity was uncovered by a Chinese blogger “Wujiaofeng;” Weibo users in China (similar to Twitter) responded accordingly: “Ignorance is horrible!”; “I feel some people’s brains were kicked by a donkey.”[2]

2013-10-23 - Yenji temple mural restoration

“Restored” mural at Yenji temple.

In considering these under-the-radar restoration blunders, Alasdair Palmer of The Telegraph also calls into account the irreversible harm that can come as a result of professional treatments: “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.”[3] While photos of the original seventeenth-century frescoes reveal they were indeed faded and weathered by time, how is it that this condition merited a complete invasion of the temple’s visual aesthetic? The obtrusively noticeable loss of the original artist’s work at the Yenji temple sets an extreme example for just how much “restoration” can cause utterly irreversible damage.

2013-10-23 - Yenji temple before and after

Original 17th century Qing Dynasty fresco and its 21st century replacement.

Authorities of Henan’s Culture Relics Bureau have showed great concern for the irreversible restoration work that has forever destroyed the original frescoes, as was evinced in 1990 after the Sistine chapel cleanings (Read the ArtWatch UK article here). As with the cleaning of Michelangelo’s frescoes, the damages in China occur even under the watchful eyes of the public. Henan archeologist Li Zhanyang states: “They just use the name ‘restoration’ for a new project.”  Furthermore, there are disturbing lingering reports that “restoration” damages like this occur throughout China every year. Two local officials in Chaoyang, the chief of Yenji temple affairs and the head of city’s cultural heritage monitoring team, have since been fired. For those with a keen eye for improving awareness of similar damages, the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre considers incidents at other historic architectural sites. The Centre’s founder, He Shuzhong, comments on issues of harmful over-restoration at the Forbidden City and Great Wall, among other sites. He relates a two-fold issue: the public desires “dazzling, new, high, big things,” while experts and officials often place efficiency over thorough research and preparation.[4]

 


[1] Oscar Lopez, “Chinese Temple ‘Restored’ By painting Over Ancient Qing Dyansty Fresco Wall Artwork Prompting Outrage.” 22 October 2013. Latin Times. http://www.latintimes.com/articles/9495/20131022/chinese-temple-restored-painting-over-ancient-qing.htm#.Umfn4SioflO (last visited 23 October 2013).

[2] “China sackings over ruined ancient Buddhist frescos,” 22 October 2013. BBC News. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-24625277 (last visited 23 October 2013).

[3] Alasdair Palmer, “Restoration Tragedies,” 26 August 2012. Telegraph UK. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/9498877/Restoration-tragedies.html (last visited 23 October 2013).

[4] Tania Branigan, “Chinese Temple’s Garish Restoration Prompts Outrage,” 22 October 2013. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/22/chinese-temple-restoration-qing-dynatsy-china (last visited 23 October 2013).

2013-10-23 - Mauritshuis restorer Girl with a Pearl Earring

Old Dutch Masters in New York: Mottled Vermeers in Manhattan Collections

Ruth Osborne
2013-10-22 - Vermeer Girl With a Pearl Earring Mauritshuis

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675)
Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665
Oil on canvas 44.5 x 39 cm
Courtesy: Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Paintingfrom the Mauritshuis  
(Oct. 22, 2013 – Jan. 19, 2014)

This week, The Frick Collection in New York is set to open their exhibition of Dutch master paintings from the Mauritshuis collection. For the final leg of its American tour these objects will now have traveled over 3,000 miles from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague to line the walls of the late Frick’s home through mid-January.[1]

 

What most of the (inevitably) millions of visitors will fail to take into account when viewing infamous canvases like The Girl with a Pearl Earring, is the history of the collection and its treatment. One must consider the pollutants and poor climate of the Picture Gallery throughout the nineteenth-century, as well as, most importantly, changing approaches to cleaning that impacted restoration treatments throughout its two-hundred year-old history. Under one director in the 1840s, for instance, there was invasive relining and heavy-handed varnishing that forever worsened several important paintings.[2]

 

It is particularly crucial to lay out a history of treatment and alteration for the works of an artist like Vermeer, studied for centuries as inimitable in his use of natural light and tone. While conservators purportedly work towards a closer vision of the original Dutch master’s hand, this is precisely what has now, as a result, become forever altered. What happens when this hand appears different in two paintings labeled “Vermeer” hanging side-by-side on museum walls?  What happens when one no longer sees visual consistency across his canvases?

 

2013-10-23 - Mauritshuis restorer Girl with a Pearl Earring

Mauritshuis restorer J.C. Traas restoring Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1960.

Vermeers in New York collections also carry varied histories of conservation, as can be expected from an artist whose works have survived nearly four centuries, They each have individual stories, which for us today means they are now nearly as varied as paintings by completely different artists. As art historian Erik Larsen states on the Met’s Woman with a Lute: “We have here a much skinned and damaged painting…Very little in this work seems to indicate Vermeer’s original technique, brush stroke, and savoir faire.”Larsen can only infer “the composition seems to belong to Vermeer…” This is not very reassuring. [3]

What concerns ArtWatch is how these paintings are now being presented to and perceived by the public who views them on the gallery walls, without understanding of their treatment history. We hope this review of Vermeers in New York collections will open up a new and better understanding of how the Dutch master has, in a rather muddied demeanor, entered into our modern consciousness.

 

 

 

 


[1] “Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis October 22, 2013, through January 19, 2014.” The Frick Collection, New York. Press Image List; “Masterpieces from the Mauritshuis to travel in 2012 to the United States. First Major U.S. Tour in nearly thirty years.” The Hague, January 27, 2011. Press Release. Mauritsuis, The Royal Picture Gallery. http://www.mauritshuis.nl/index.aspx?ChapterID=9011&ContentID=42604 (last visited 18 October 2013).

[2]   Preserving Our Heritage: Conservation, Restoration, and Technical Research at the Mauritshuis. 19-33.

[3] Erik Larsen, “Jan Vermeer,” Master Artists Library Series. Ed. Antonio Paolucci, 1998.

2013-10-15 - MoMA conservator Jennifer Hick Pollock Number 1A 1948

Update: Pollock Restorations at MoMA Draw to a Close & Corporate America Steps In

Ruth Osborne
2013-10-15 - MoMA conservators Jackson Pollock One Number 31

Conservators at MoMA laying down Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950.

Last December, ArtWatch posted on three major works by Jackson Pollock then undergoing restoration at MoMA and the Seattle Museum of Art.

This was not to be the first time these canvases had been under a restorer’s hand; Sea Change (1947) was varnished in 1970,[1] One (1950) underwent overpainting in the 1960s[2], and Echo (1951) has experienced yellowing over the decades.[3] The museums’ conservators set out to remove the poorly-executed treatments of decades past and bring the canvases back to their original state in Pollock’s studio.

While One and Echo have completed their treatments and are now on view, work at MoMA has recently begun on Number 1A, 1948. This work of Pollock’s comes with a “condition and treatment history” that is “arguably the most complex” of all three.[4] According to Museum records, the last major conservation in 1959 attempted to restore the canvas from “heat and smoke exposure” as a result of a fire in the galleries the year before. MoMA admits this treatment in ‘59 has now resulted in the painting’s discolored and disfigured appearance today.[5] However, current treatment on Number 1A, 1948 would not have been able to continue without generous funding from the Bank of America’s Global Art Conservation Project.

Coddington states in a video on the project posted on the Forbes website, that MoMA would likely not have undergone treatment for Number1A if Bank of America had not stepped in with funding. The endeavor originally began as an in-house conservation project (see Einav Zamir’s November 2012 post). And yet, the Bank’s Conservation Project website proudly lists all three Pollocks at MoMA among those fortunate enough to have received funding this year. All three.

2013-10-15 - MoMA conservator Jennifer Hick Pollock Number 1A 1948

Jennifer Hick, MoMA Conservator, at work on Number 1A, 1948. Courtesy: Forbes / Will Sanderson.

A recent Forbes article, aptly titled “How Bank of America Uses Fine Art to Make You Like Them,” takes an curious and criticizing eye to Bank of America’s involvement in the process: “Surveys have found that customers who say they care about the arts rate the bank higher in terms of satisfaction.”[6] As ArtWatch pointed out in a post last month, ulterior motives often behind restoration treatments are simple painted over with a thin layer of support for the arts. These corporate funding projects are not in existence for the benefit of the works of art themselves. As Zamir points out, it is not unthinkable that pieces are selected for their high profile status in order to gain more press coverage.  What need was there to suddenly begin restorations on Pollock’s oeuvre? To use the artist’s name as a branding tool to sell the charitable façade of public corporations.


[1] “Pollack Restoration at Seattle Museum of Art is Coming Along,” Nov. 28, 2012. AFA News. http://www.afanews.com/home/item/1424-pollack-restoration-at-seattle-museum-of-art-is-coming-along#.UlzNOiioflM (last visited 15 October 2013).

[2] James Coddington and Jennifer Hickey, “MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Conservation Project: Wrapping Up Treatment of One: Number 31, 1950.” May 29, 2013. MoMA INSIDE/OUT. http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2013/05/29/momas-jackson-pollock-conservation-project-wrapping-up-treatment-of-one-number-31-1950/ (last visited 15 October 2013).

[3] Hickey, “MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Conservation Project, Post 3: Documentation and Treatment.” 2 October 2011. MoMA INSIDE/OUT. http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/10/02/momas-jackson-pollock-conservation-project-post-3-documentation-and-treatment (last visited 15 October 2013).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Hickey and Coddington, “MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Conservation Project: Number 1A, 1948,” 18 July 2013. MoMA INSIDE/OUT. http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2013/07/18/momas-jackson-pollock-conservation-project-number-1a-1948 (last visited 15 October 2013).

[6] Samantha Sharf, “Jackson Pollock Brand Ambassador? How Bank of America Uses Fine Art to Make You Like Them,” 8 October 2013. Forbes. http://www.forbes.com/sites/samanthasharf/2013/10/08/jackson-pollock-brand-ambassador-how-bank-of-america-uses-fine-art-to-make-you-like-them/ (last visited 15 October 2013).

2013-09-11 - Bank of America Art Conservation Project

Conservation Funding and Corporate Interest – A Look at the Bank of America Art Conservation Project

Ruth Osborne
2013-09-11 - Bank of America Art Conservation Project

Bank of America: The Art Conservation Project.

The price tag on conservation for a major work of art is rather steep. The funding of such a project allows a global corporation such as the Bank of America to exhibit its benevolent side to the public. Bank of America’s website for its Merrill Lynch Global Art Conservation Project boasts that it has provided grant funding for “museums in 25 countries for 57 conservation projects” since it began in 2010.[i]

One must also consider that they were one of several U.S. banks to receive billions of dollars from federal bailout in 2008-9, and suffered accusations of fraud and downsizing the very same year the Conservation Project began. The act of doling out millions of dollars to arts non-profits around the world is not without ulterior motive, and support offered to collections on six continents will not go unnoticed by public opinion. This year, Bank of America sets out to fund conservation on many masterpieces in collections around the world, including the following:

Museum of Modern Art, New York City: Jackson Pollock, Number 1A, 1948 (1948); One: Number 31, 1950 (1950); Echo: Number 25, 1951 (1951)                                                                                * Read the Dec. 2012 ArtWatch article on MoMA’s Pollock restoration by Einav Zamir

New Bedford Free Public Library, Massachusetts: Alfred Bierstadt, Sunset Light (1861), Salt Lick in Sunset Glow (c. 1886), Mount Sir Donald (1889)

National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin: Daniel Maclise, The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (1854)

National Portrait Gallery, London: Pheonix and Armada portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (c. 1575 and c. 1588); Portraits of Edward VI and Edward VI and the Pope (c. 1542 and c. 1570)

National Gallery, Prague: Rembrandt van Rijn, Scholar in His Study, 1635

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna: Titian, Ecce Homo, 1543

Musée d’Orsay, Paris: Gustave Courbet, L’Atelier du peintre (1854-55)

 

This project places Bank of America’s funding behind the promotion of culturally and aesthetically revered works of art on six continents. It has promoted, in the case of conservation at the National Gallery of Ireland, a series of study videos examining the themes and artistry behind the paintings. In this video, the Arts and Culture Manager for Bank of America in Ireland explains the financial corporation’s generous desire to improve and “redeem” artistic heritage “for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Their selection process takes into account works of significant cultural importance; a way to ensure their name remains at the forefront of art research and publication. Conservation treatment on the portraits of Queen Elizabeth I in London, for instance, is “fittingly coincident with the celebrations of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II 60 years ago.”[ii] Condition reports on restoration needs include canvas stabilization, yellowed synthetic varnish, pigment fading, flaked paint, and surface abrasion.[iii]  A section on the Bank of America’s project website is devoted to showing the public works of art in the process of restoration: http://museums.bankofamerica.com/arts/Conservation/Detail.

Detailed images and ultraviolet photographs reveal the work of the conservators and curators as it is being done, allowing the curious public a privileged behind-the-scenes view.[iv]  These also control the way audiences perceive restoration efforts and encourage them to understand the necessity of treatment. Rather than bringing conservators to greater accountability for alterations made to a painting, their work serves to captivate the public and convince them of the importance of the profession.

 

Conservator at National Gallery of Ireland with Maclise canvas.

Another set of research images  and conservation videos available on the National Gallery of Ireland’s website shows conservation specialists meeting the challenges of restoration: http://www.nationalgallery.ie/Home/Conservation/Strongbow_and_Aoife.                                Taken together, these glimpses make the public aware of all possible changes undergone by the painting over the course of restoration; convenient in case anything is done to significantly alter the painting from its former state.

 

 

2013-09-11 - Rembrandt Scholar in His Study National Gallery Prague

Rembrandt, The Scholar in His Study, 1635. Courtesy: National Gallery, Prague.

According to the National Gallery of Prague’s press release concerning Rembrandt’s The Scholar in His Study, this will be both a restoration and research project set to unveil “anticipated new findings about the painting’s technical aspects.” These discoveries will then be suitable for publication in book format as well as on a new international Rembrandt Database: http://www.rembrandtdatabase.org/Rembrandt/.

The project anticipates and promises breakthroughs that will allow the public to learn about a Rembrandt they had never before known.  Furthermore, interested audiences will also be able to watch and track the restoration on a website called “Tracing Rembrandt.” By making these discoveries public, the National Gallery of Prague looks to conservation so that its collection might gain renown and international exposure. Vít Vinas, acting General Director of the National Gallery in Prague, hopes this work will stabilize their Rembrandt so that it may now travel in exhibition.[v]

 

One must understand the different motivations for a painting to undergo conservation. Such treatment forever alters the visual and chemical nature of a work of art, and therefore should not be taken lightly. When a global corporation funds major conservation projects around the world, collections can be poked and prodded at the bequest of eager directors.  Though the powers that be will insist conservation treatments are essential to the wellbeing of their collection, what results is not always the case. For such unfortunate evidence, see ArtWatch UK articles on the cleaning of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party in 1954 (http://artwatchuk.wordpress.com/2011/01/08/8th-january-2011/), and the repainting of Eakins’ The Gross Clinic in 2010 (http://artwatchuk.wordpress.com/tag/thomas-eakins-the-gross-clinic/). We at ArtWatch will certainly be awaiting the results of the upcoming Bank of America-funded conservation treatments.

 


[i] Bank of America Arts & Culture – Art Conservation. http://museums.bankofamerica.com/arts/Conservation (last visited 22 August 2013).

[ii] Arts News – Herald Scotland. June 6, 2013. http://www.heraldscotland.com/arts-ents/visual/arts-news.1370484298 (last visited 22 August 2013).

[iii] National Portrait Gallery – The Pheonix and the Pelican: two portraits of Elizabeth I, c. 1575 http://www.npg.org.uk/research/programmes/making-art-in-tudor-britain/the-phoenix-and-the-pelican-two-portraits-of-elizabeth-i-c.1575.php (last visited 4 September 2013); Steve Urbon, “New Bedford’s priceless paintings get gift of restoration. South Coast Today. SouthCoastToday.com.  18 June 2013. http://www.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20130718/NEWS/307180356 (last visited 22 August 2013); “New Bedford Free Public Library. New Bedford, Massachusetts.” Bank of America Arts & Culture – Art Conservation. http://museums.bankofamerica.com/arts/Conservation (last visited 4 September 2013).

[iv] Bank of America Arts & Culture – Conservation in Detail. http://museums.bankofamerica.com/arts/Conservation/Detail (last visited 22 August 2013).

[v] NG Prague – News – “Tracing Rembrandt: The Famous ‘Scholar in His Study’ Leaves the National Gallery in Prague.” Press release, June 18, 2013. http://www.ngprague.cz/en/128/3667/clanek/tracing-rembrandt-the-famous-scholar-in-his-study-leaves-the-national-gallery-in-prague/ (last visited 4 September 2013).