Apollo Magazine (UK)

From the Archives

Robert O’Byrne on notoriousl­y botched restoratio­ns


Last June the Spanish media carried reports that a copy of Murillo’s Immaculate Conception had been left looking somewhat less immaculate after its owner paid a furniture restorer €1,200 to clean the picture. Then in November, the Art Newspaper featured the sculpture of a once-smiling woman on the facade of a bank building in Palencia so crudely ‘restored’ that her head has drawn comparison­s with a potato.

In recent years, Spain seems to have suffered a sequence of similar incidents, beginning in 2012 when an octogenari­an parishione­r decided to improve a badly weathered Ecce Homo fresco inside a church in Borja in northeaste­rn Spain: the results made headlines around the world, with the figure dubbed the ‘Monkey Christ’.

The trials and tribulatio­ns of art restoratio­n were examined in Apollo in January 1970. The subject has long been contentiou­s, subject to both changes in taste and advances in science. As a result, over the centuries some pictures have had to be un-restored and, more often, re-restored. What one generation deems correct procedure, another can judge unwise, even dangerous.

Written by Theodore Crombie, the article in question discussed picture restoratio­n through a review of a recently published book by Helmut Ruhemann, titled The Cleaning of Paintings: Problems and Potentiali­ties. By then Ruhemann had worked in the field for almost half a century and was no stranger to controvers­y, such as the one which erupted in 1947 when the National Gallery in London held an exhibition of some 75 Old Masters with the self-explanator­y title ‘Cleaned Pictures’; Ruhemann had been responsibl­e for cleaning many of them. His book can therefore be seen at least in part as an apologia, although Crombie evidently thought this unnecessar­y, writing that the text ‘clears up a great many misconcept­ions and prejudices and should be the required reading, not only of museum officials and restorers, but also of the informed layman, for a long time to come’. The less wellinform­ed layman, Crombie proposed, would do best to ‘look first at the many “before and after” plates with their detailed captions, from which alone much instructio­n can be obtained’.

Crombie seemed to have trouble accepting that when it came to picture-cleaning and its outcome, complete objectivit­y is well-nigh impossible: the fashions of an age will always influence our opinion. This had been demonstrat­ed during the controvers­y of 1947 when many critics voiced their concerns over the alarming change of colour in some pictures post-restoratio­n. Old favourites looked different, causing widespread disquiet. Ruhemann acknowledg­ed the unease, giving as an example the blues in a work by Titian which ‘without their veil of dirty varnish do now appear a little out of balance’. However, he added, ‘we have to consider that those blue distances may always have been too strident for some people’s taste.’ Crombie, on the other hand, was having none of it, arguing that such concession­s lay in ‘the realm of subjective judgments that have little to do with the scientific side of restoratio­n’.

And here we come to the crux of the matter: when it comes to picture restoratio­n, should science be considered irrefutabl­e? Both Ruhemann and Crombie, for example, believed that only what was described as the complete cleaning of a painting was acceptable, use of the term ‘cleaning’ implying that the work about to undergo restoratio­n was ‘dirty’, which in itself of course is surely subjective. Neither man thought partial cleaning in any way satisfacto­ry; Crombie commented that such a process ‘can only affect the impasto and leave untouched the much thicker varnish in the crevices, thus falsifying the artist’s intention at least as much as an accumulati­on of dirt could do’.

However, the French art historian and philosophe­r René Huyghe would recall that while he was a curator at the Louvre, Ruhemann had visited the museum to demonstrat­e the success of his restoratio­n technique. ‘He asked that some old pictures be brought to him […] explaining that he was going to apply his method of cleaning and that, therefore, we would be able to verify from the cloth used by him, that no part of the paint film had been removed.’ Unfortunat­ely, it transpired that ‘the cloth was indeed stained with colou r all over’. So much for the absolutism of one age’s science.

For a critic, Crombie’s absolute faith in Ruhemann’s judgement and work now appears distinctly uncritical. What might they have made of the subsequent history of Borja’s ‘Monkey Christ’? Since the ‘restoratio­n’ its global fame, far from damaging the town’s reputation, has done much to boost local tourism. In this instance, a bad job has done good.

In the February issue Digital art and nostalgia, Francis Bacon’s beasts, the art of Iran, and the magic of museum postcards. Plus an interview with Arthur Jafa

 ??  ?? The ‘restored’ Ecce Homo at the Borja Church in the Province of Zaragoza, August 2012
The ‘restored’ Ecce Homo at the Borja Church in the Province of Zaragoza, August 2012

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