Tuesday, July 7, 2009

When is a painting over cleaned?

Conservation as a distinct profession only really took off after the Second War. Prior to that there were art restorers who had been around for centuries, but they lacked the scientific understanding of the causes of deterioration that now underpins conservation. However that understanding has not stopped the ongoing controversies over how far paintings should be cleaned, particularly Old Masters. I was taught that the Old Masters would always have intended their artworks to have been seen in the bright colours that we now view them, and that the varnish coatings they applied (and which oxidised and darkened to give the gloomy look of many pre cleaned Old Masters) were only meant to protect the surface not darken with age. As with life, the older I get I realize this issue is not quite so black and white.

Two events have reminded me of this recently. One is the publication of Writings in Art Restoration, by David Bomford, ex Senior paintings conservator at the National Gallery in London and now Head of Collections at the Getty in LA. David has probably handled more Old Masters than the rest of us the proverbial hot breakfasts (he is a world expert on Rembrandt), and he has compiled here a fascinating compendium of articles and critiques written over a number of centuries on the subject of paintings restoration. Go no further than this if you want a definitive overview on the subject.

The second is the recent obituary in the Times on Frank Mason. Frank was a New York based artist who championed the cause of the destruction of paintings by over cleaning. As he said "A fine oil painting does not possess a hard impermeable surface, but is comprised of layers of ground pigments, suspended in elastic films of various oils and varnishes which are superimposed, interwoven, and melting into each other in a way which not even the artist can accurately map. In spite of what conservators would have us believe, science cannot objectively scrutinize a painting and accurately enumerate all of its components in a meaningful way: a plain chemical analysis is too crude a tool to measure the ineffable".

Mason led a number of campaigns to stop major galleries such as the Met using what he deemed over harsh methods of conservation, combining with Pietro Annigoni (he of the famous portrait of the Queen) in protesting about the National Gallery, London’s approach. Annigoni took this one stage further in 1970 painting the word ‘murderers’ in capital letters on the doors of the Gallery! But Mason’s most public campaign was against the cleaning of the Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. Mason enlisted the support of some hard hitters on this, and although he was unsuccessful in stopping the project, his campaign did lead to the formation of Artwatch International, which was established to protect the integrity and dignity of works and art and architecture from injurious or falsifying restorations.

I’m a great fan of the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, but I am an even bigger fan of having these types of discussions as only by such debate do we ensure we can get it right more times than we don’t.

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