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There’s almost nothing as exciting as a look behind-the-scenes. It's a chance to see something in process that is normally left unseen by the public. We love watching movies, for example, but if we have the chance to witness a scene being filmed, we’re even more thrilled than when we are actually watching the movie itself. Getting to see something happening behind the scenes is just a rarer, and more unique, experience. And if this wasn’t true, then backstage passes to concerts wouldn't be such a high-dollar, high-value commodity. Behind the scenes, really, is where we feel that the magic happens.
And believe it or not, some museums have their own versions of these behind-the-scenes experiences that keep the crowds coming. The most enthralling of these is the conservation lab. In recent years, a few museums have transformed their conservation departments- an area typically hidden away in the bowels of an institution- Into tourist attractions unto themselves. For example, the team that supports both the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum opened a new laboratory, the Lunder Conservation Center, in 2006. And the biggest change was that the behind-the-scenes was moved front and center, with a large, new workspace with floor to ceiling windows, allowing the public to literally walk up and see what happens when the museum's paintings and sculptures are out of the gallery for some much-needed TLC. And I can vouch for the level of excitement that people have for watching conservators in action. In addition to bringing conservation labs out into the open, there has been a spike in exhibitions on and about conservation arts in the past few years, including at my own institution, the North Carolina Museum of Art. Conservators. They’re these incredible, behind-the-scenes superheroes, and people love them. And I do, too.
Then why is it that conservation has been at the center of some of the biggest art historical controversies of the last fifty years? What does a conservator really do, and what happens when conservation goes too far?
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those can be paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Art History is full of murder, intrigue, feisty women, rebellious men, crime, insanity, and so much more. And today, in the final segment of our “bigger picture” series, we’re looking at the pros, the cons, and the crazy arguments inspired by art conservation and restoration. Exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History, this is the ArtCurious Podcast. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
Today’s show is the last in our “Bigger Picture” series, which looks at issues in art that aren't specific to any artist, time period, or style. And the concept of art conservation is one that is integral to practically all works of art. Even contemporary art-- pieces that are being created right now, in our time-- are still beholden to conservation standards and questions. So, what is art conservation? And what does a conservator do?
In the most basic definition, an art conservator is an individual who is responsible for the care and long-term preservation of works of art. And this can take many different forms, depending on the individual and the individual work of art. For example, a conservator can be charged with re-framing or re-matting a fragile work of art that’s been displayed badly in the past. They can be tasked with removing a harmful and dirty layer of varnish or attempting to remove a stain. They can repair a fair in a piece of paper, or a crack n a marble bust. And on top of all that, conservators also provide a valuable service in analyzing every work of art that comes in as a potential acquisition in an art museum. And of course there are conservators who work out in the public realm too. Will that painting you are hoping to buy last long enough to become an heirloom for your grandchildren? Ask a conservator.
A lot of people out there conflate the idea of art conservation with that of art restoration. What’s the difference between these two concepts? I’ll admit that even I didn't know the difference for the longest time. Restoration, as it is generally discussed today, is more concerned with returning an object to the form that is deemed closest to how it was meant to be seen and experienced when it was originally created. That sounds all well and good, but it could also be potentially harmful, because some restorations can, and have, taken drastic measures in the service of making something basically look good. And trying to get something to look like it might have done originally just really brings up even more questions: Because how do you decide who gets to declare that a work of art looks as close to its original state as possible? And, even more importantly, where is the line that separates a restorative effort and a destructive one?
It is these kind of questions that help us realize why conservation, rather than restoration, has become the name of the game. Conservation, in the past few decades, has developed with a goal of preserving the work of art for the future both near and far, and with much less of a focus on making it look pristine or quote-unquote original. That’s an easy, though probably reductive, cheat sheet for you: restoration looks back to the past, and conservation looks forward to the future, always under the guidance of a “less is more” tenet, and making sure that whatever is done can be reversible, just in case.
Some of the best examples of this concept of conservation versus restoration come from ancient art. Think about the Parthenon, that awesome Greek temple at the center of the Acropolis complex in Athens. Today, it’s this shining beacon of white marble set atop a hill. But paint fragments found on Acropolis sculptures tell us that over two thousand years ago, when the Parthenon and other similar Greek buildings were brand-new, they were probably bright and colorful. They weren’t these stark places we experience today. But imagine if someone came in with the intention of restoring it to its original state. Sure, being able to visualize the Parthenon as this multi-hued behemoth would be one thing, but it would essentially destroy our collective concept of what the Parthenon is and what it should look like-- and that's not even taking into consideration how painting the Parthenon would affect, or most likely harm, the building’s materials in today’s environment.
Okay. So now we’ve established what conservation actually is, and how it has grown in favor over the concept of restoration. But still another question arises: Why even bother to do any treatment of any kind on a work of art if there is even a tiny risk involved? Wouldn't it be safer just to leave it alone and not touch it, especially if there isn't a stain to remove or a tear to fix? Well, yes, but remember that one of the main goals is to make sure that a work of art is going to last for an indefinite and long-term future. So like any other object, you can expect some degradation over time-- and depending on the object, it can range from being a small amount of damage, or some severe warping. Say you have a manuscript that you have in your possession-- a family heirloom Bible, for example. Over time, the paper will turn yellow, or brown, it will become dry and brittle, or the binding could crack. If left long enough, it could basically start separating and crumbling before your very eyes. And if you ever want to open that manuscript to actually read it, forget about it. Just by the nature of time and usage, all objects need some love. Conservators make sure that a work of art-- whether it be a black and white photograph or a marble sculpture-- will be protected against anything harmful that might naturally come its way.
And then there’s the unnatural reasons that a work of art might need to be conserved. We’ve done two episodes so far on the ArtCurious Podcast on the topic of vandalism-- episode 11, "Art Attack!," and then episode 15, about serial vandal Hans Bohlmann. If a painting is slashed, or burned, or even shot at by a gun, the conservators are these superheroes who can come in and repair as much of that damage as possible, and in some cases, they can do such an incredible job that it is practically impossible to see the fixed portion. Who wouldn’t love that? Well, of course there are contrarians who don’t.
There are those who would argue that repairing a work of art that has been damaged or even vandalized isn’t a good idea. One of the arguments against conservation is that the cleaning or repairing of a work of art essentially erases part of its history. If you remove a red wine stain on a canvas, or repair a piece of ripped textile, you’re taking away evidence of something that occurred in the object’s long life that had a profound influence on it. Every object has its story, they say, and destruction or damage is a part of that story. I understand this concept. But I don’t necessarily agree with it. To me, it sounds kind of like you’d be saying, “Yeah, you’re right, I have this broken arm, but I don’t want it to heal because otherwise it’s like my arm was never injured.” Okay, so that’s not a perfect example, but you get my point. Why not fix something if it is broken? Why not repair a work of art, which not only solves a problem but then takes it back closer to that original state, per the artist’s intention?
Ooh. See what we did there? We moved back towards the theory behind art restoration. And in truth, it seems like a slippery slope. For some conservators, especially those who fall under the umbrella of the Originalist-slash-Intentionist schools of conservation, it’s all about trying your hardest to locate the middle ground between preserving and protecting the artwork, and bringing it, aesthetically, back to its original state as much as possible. But this is the problem--in most cases, the artist is no longer living to tell us what his or her intention was for the work of art, so it’s a matter of an educated guess and personal opinion. And one conservator’s middle ground may not match up with another’s. Ugh. My head hurts just thinking about it.
It is these kinds of issues have spurred an intense debate about art conservation over the past fifty years, which culminated in the 1980s with an all-out war of opinion and pitted art historian against art historian, and conservator against conservator, as they battled it out over one of the most important works of Western art history. Beginning in the 1970s, the concept of art restoration seemed to reach a fever pitch, with large museums all over the world-- beginning with London’s National Gallery and spreading to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, the Uffizi, and elsewhere-- undergoing an overhaul of their collections in favor of cleaning, repairing, repainting, and well, basically just FIXING. The reason for the vast majority of these changes, at this early stage, weren’t for the protection and preservation of the artworks, like they do today. It was more to make them look nice. Remember, this was restoration, not conservation, that was all the rage at the time. And then, art restoration hit the big time with one of the most major projects of the 20th century: the cleaning, repair, and preservation of the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, especially Michelangelo’s famed ceiling.
And all hell broke loose.
Let’s back up for a minute to talk about the Chapel itself. It was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV at the Vatican and was completed around 1480. Its walls were frescoed by incredibly famous artists right at the outset: Ghirlandaio, Perugino, and Botticelli, among others. But as any tourist who has ever been to Rome can tell you, it’s the ceiling which really takes the cake. Originally painted a fairly standard blue embellished with gold stars, the ceiling was improved upon under the vision of Pope Julius II, who took the reins of the papacy about 30 years later. He commissioned Michelangelo, the greatest artist of the time, to paint the ceiling with incredibly detailed scenes from the Old Testament, flanked by prophets, sibyls, and other figures. It took Michelangelo four years to complete, working tirelessly between 1508 and 1512. And in the ensuing five hundred years, Michelangelo’s frescoes have been subjected to air pollution, candle smoke, and the evaporated sweat of millions of visitors who have barreled through the Vatican doors, just to name a few of the environmental hazards. And on top of all that, fresco is a tricky medium, and it can easily be damaged by the elements, let alone by time itself, and those little flaws had been treated (or suffered, really) under the hands of quote-unquote restorers since the sixteenth century. It was dirty, dark, and cracked in some places.
Ostensibly, the conservation team, headed by Gianluigi Colalucci, who had the rather unwieldy title of--wait for it--Head Restorer at the Laboratory for the Restoration of Paintings for Papal Monuments, Museums and Galleries-- whew-- they went to work with the intention of repairing past damages both natural and manmade, revealing details that had been lost due to grime and and warping, and only performing actions that were thought not only to be safe and not harmful, but also reversible. So, really, the intent was basically a combination between conservation and restoration. When the project was announced in 1980, the press had a true field day, and through its completion in 1994 and even beyond to today, there have been thousands of articles, think-pieces and op-eds written about it, with historians and critics aiming to determine whether it was ultimately a good or a bad thing. The most vocal critic of the restoration was James Beck, an art historian from the organization ArtWatch International, who issued warnings from the very beginning about possible damage that the restoration could inflict upon the sensitive artwork that had already been marred in the past by previous efforts. As he wrote in one of his op eds, quote, “It's like having a facelift. How many times can people go through one without their poor faces looking like an orange peel?” And many others in the art world agreed with Beck. In fact, a New York art dealer began a petition that was signed by many famous individuals, including artists like Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Christo, requesting that the restoration be stopped. But, of course, it didn’t.
When it was completed, the Sistine Chapel restoration project was most notable for what it revealed: not only those hoped-for details, but an intensely bright color palette. To some, the result was nothing less than shocking. That may seem like a strong word to use when it comes to something like art history, but think about it: if you had only known and experienced a Sistine Chapel ceiling that was dulled by soot, candle wax, darkened varnishes, and dust, then the muted tones were your baseline for understanding Michelangelo and his greatest paintings. (Incidentally, as a related topic, this was considered further evidence by art historians that the line-- or the drawing or design of a work of art-- was most important to artists working in Florence and Rome during the Renaissance, as opposed to Venice, where color reigned supreme. We touched on this idea briefly in episode #17). All of a sudden, though, it seemed that the narrative about Michelangelo was completely wrong. Here he was-- an incredible colorist! Curator Fabrizio Mancinelli wrote that the restoration uncovered a quote “new Michelangelo,” and art scholar John Osborne from the University of Victoria noted, quote, “Every book on Michelangelo will have to be rewritten.” Some viewers were so overwhelmed by the colors that they cried in the chapel, not imagining that the iconic work could get even more beautiful and vibrant to their eyes. Cardinal Edmund Szoka, then the governor of Vatican City, said, quote, "This restoration and the expertise of the restorers allows us to contemplate the paintings as if we had been given the chance of being present when they were first shown." In other words, he was an originalist who was in favor of the update.
And others cried, too, but not for happy reasons. They cried, instead, because they were convinced that one of the high points of art history had just been destroyed. Artist Peter Layne Arguimbau asked and answered his own rhetorical question, saying, quote, “Have you ever felt that some things never fade and remain an inspiration for all time? That WAS the Sistine Chapel, now chemically stripped down of divine inspiration and looking shockingly out of place.” To critics like James Beck and others, the vast, stark brightness of the colors that the renovation revealed was evidence that the conservation team had gone too far-- removing not only the grime of the centuries, but also Michelangelo’s own techniques for adding depth, shadow, and heft to his figures. Some artists and historians have theorized that in order to bring his subjects a supreme three-dimensionality, Michelangelo used a mixture of glue and carbon black, which he then strategically applied to his frescoes. But the restorers, it was said, were unable to differentiate the carbon black from, well, dirt. So it was removed entirely. And to some, the effect was devastating, flattening the images and causing them to lose weight and depth. Subtleties were gone. And that equals a diminished sense of drama and intensity than what Michelangelo may have originally intended. In addition, it is even feared that while the lightened tones caused by the removal of soot revealed some new details, the equal removal of carbon black depleted others. All of this brings us to yet another couple of questions: do the gains and losses even each other out? And, in essence, was it all worth it?
Controversies in the realm of conservation-slash-restoration still occur with some frequency today. In 2015, Artnet.com reported on the claims of hysteria surrounding the restoration of the frescoes at the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy. These frescoes, which are priceless examples of late medieval and early Renaissance art and include handiwork by the great master Giotto, were claimed quote “lost forever,” according to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. But the director of the conservation project for the basilica claims that the efforts were simple ongoing maintenance and nothing severe. Let’s face it: nowhere is filled with hyperbole more than the art world (except maybe Hollywood), and fears about conservation may truly be overblown. But at the same time, past restoration efforts from hundreds of years ago have been known to have irreversibly damaged or destroyed works of art. Who's to say that, in two hundred years from now, we won’t have changed our minds about the effectiveness or safety of our current conservation plans and materials? And what if something we do, in good faith, is really and truly permanent? It’s enough to make your head spin.
And it’s also something that, on occasion, can provide a good laugh. In 2012, an elderly woman in Borja, Spain named Cecilia Gimenez, who was not trained in the fine art of conservation, tried her hand at restoring a fresco by the 19th century Spanish artist Elias Garcia Martinez in the local church. This fresco portrayed Jesus in a very typical style, wearing a crown of thorns and with his head tipped to the side, sorrowfully gazing off into the distance. To be fair, there was some paint flaking and loss of pigment because, remember, those darn frescoes are super tricky. So, the elderly woman thought she could help, and without seeking permission of the church, she snuck in and, with the best of intentions, began repainting. And she kinda got carried away. You undoubtedly remember this, right? What was once a recognizable representation of Jesus morphed into a featureless, hairy, dark-eyed… what? An alien? An animal? The restoration was so bad that it became incredibly popular, surging around the world on social media and becoming a new meme. Today, it is lovingly referred to as “Beast Jesus,” and it has transformed Borja into a tourist destination, against all odds. And in 2016, the town took it to a whole new level, inaugurating a new arts center to commemorate their viral icon. And there’s a sweet little surprise, too, for poor Ms. Gimenez, who was only trying to help. It’s been reported that the amateur art restorer, who is now 86 years old, receives a cut of the proceeds from all merchandise sales. Even I have to admit that that's a wonderful example of using lemons to make lemonade. So maybe we should look at it like this: sometimes, even in cases of bad conservation, a happy ending is still possible-- and as long as people keep their brushes away from the big, big works of art, maybe everyone will be at least somewhat content.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast, a proud member of the Modest Pod Network. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal. Research assistance is provided by the wonderful Stephanie Pryor. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki Creative. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at K-A-B-double O-N-K-I dot com.
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