Politics of Conservation archives
PARADOX OF CONSERVATION
Not to Act is to Act, or Is It?
Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan
impulse to save and conserve artwork – particularly older
art - might seem beyond question (witness worldwide outrage
of the Taliban’s
destruction of art [ArtsJournal.com]).
Yet art conservation has increasingly become a set of interlocking
paradoxes, unanticipated consequences, and counter-intuitive
procedures that defy easy understanding or simple defense.
surprises and occasionally acrimonious disputes like these provide
public glimpses of the state of mind of a discipline whose self-examination
just now is wide, deep, and intense. At the risk of gross oversimplification,
that self-examination centers on two major issues.
it fair to say that Leonardo’s Last Supper still
exists after an expensive 20-year restoration? The
images are still so faded out [U
of Chicago Press] and the dim conditions under
which they can be seen in person so uncomfortable, that
the painting scarcely resembles what Leonardo must have
the Louvre restored a prominent painting by Veronese last
expert despaired [The Times (London)]
at what had been done: "Clothes that were originally red were now green.
The whole spatial and wonderful chromatic harmony is distorted.
When you look at the painting . . . black, red and blue
colors seem to be floating among other colors like pieces
of a broken puzzle. The light is now a cold, artificial,
- India's Ajanta paintings, which easily rank among the world’s most precious
heritage sites, are
being restored [The Art Newspaper].
But a leading expert warns that "the cleaning methods
employed at the caves and the level of skills of the workers
engaged in the cleaning have seriously damaged the Ajanta
paintings and led to a demonstrable loss of pigment."
- When the Vatican's St. Peter's got a facelift two years ago, restoring some
original color to the façade, critics decried the job
as a post-modern hash, born out of a “desire to transform
everything into a movie set."
year a minor scandal of sorts erupted at the British Museum
it was revealed [The Art Newspaper]
that when the museum’s experts cleaned the Elgin marbles
back in the 1930s they irreparably damaged them.
the matters that conservators disagree about is who
should be regarded as a conservator in the first place
[The Telegraph]. In Italy, despite
a decades-old law to the contrary, “any Italian citizen can
be registered as a restorer, and get working on ‘improving’
a supreme work of art—whether he or she has had any training
or not,” according to distinguished (and distressed) art historian
and restorer Bruno Zanardi. The result: Italy, with the world’s
greatest concentration of master works in need of conservation
and with a comparably large pool of conservation expertise,
is a scene of conservation chaos.
disagreement scarcely stops at the question of credentials
and qualifications. When five
conservators met for a conversation [Getty
Conservation Newsletter] about surface cleaning sponsored
by the Getty Conservation Institute, the results were revealing.
What counts as best practice in Old Masters painting conservation
may not be so regarded in antiquities conservation.
a conservator of fine furniture may draw the line between
restoration and preservation very differently than do his
colleagues either in antiquities or in painting. (Getty
Conservation Institute Newsletter).
layman may assume that in a painting soil is the top layer,
shellac or varnish the middle layer(s), and paint the bottom
layer(s), but scientific cross-section studies by Richard
clear and sobering layer-to-layer vertical migration [Getty].
It might not be possible, then, to remove the shellac without
removing some of the paint.
though dirt may have no rights, shellac does. The older the
work, the more art-historical information is to be recovered
from whatever may have been applied to its surface in the
past. Patinas and glazes have a story to tell, in short,
and paintings that show signs of conservation are less valuable,
other things equal, than those that show none.
research science of conservation clearly complicates rather
than simplifies the lives of working conservators. Research
chemists told a meeting Ananova]
of the American Chemical Society that the solvents which many
collectors and curators use to clean paintings often damage
the paint, first softening and deforming it, then—when the
solvent dries—rendering it more brittle and fragile. The
chemists proposed using sophisticated computer models to predict
paint behavior under cleaning.
how many museums can afford computer modeling, and where does
this process end? The science of “art defense,” like the
science of military defense, makes everything more expensive,
so much so that at least a few voices have begun to ask about
bang for the buck.
Scrovegni Chapel recently unveiled its restored Giotto frescoes,
but they sit climate-controlled, under glass while strictly
monitored visitors struggle to get a glimpse. The
Atlantic’s Francine Prose described such an unpleasant
experience trying to see the art that she wondered: “Maybe
we should at least consider the radical notion that masterpieces—like
so much else in this mutable world—have a life-span, and ask
ourselves if preserving them is worth making it so unpleasant
to experience them.”
Leonardo’s Last Supper, though officially restored
and open again to the public, should be spoken of in the past
tense. Essentially, the work no longer exists, and reading
a learned account of its restoration in a sumptuous
of Chicago Press] may well be more rewarding than squinting
at the depressing little that remains of the thing itself
in the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery
Bruno Zanardi raises an adjacent objection: Heavy expenditure
on tourist attractions like the Last Supper and the
Scrovegni Chapel, some of it made necessary by the tourists
themselves, is robbing thousands of off-the-beaten-track masterpieces
of the pennies that would make basic maintenance possible.
“There’s no [Italian government] interest at all,” he laments,
“in the thousands of buildings and churches that are quietly
crumbling, along with the objects inside them, in the centers
of Italy’s ancient cities” [The Telegraph].
meditation on the virtually embalmed frescoes reminds one
of the school of thought that says that endangered species
should not be kept in zoos but left in their natural habitat
and that humans should be content to view them on film or
an alternative to the quasi-taxidermy of the Scrovegni Chapel,
she reports “talk of erecting a facsimile of the chapel and
the frescoes—rather like the faux version of the cave paintings
at Lascaux—that tourists could visit in lieu of the real thing.
But why would anyone want to? Wouldn’t
most people prefer just to stay home [The
Atlantic] and contemplate, at their leisure, reproductions
of the frescoes in an art book or on a computer screen?”
question. But what serious art lover would suggest that a
poster or book or computer-screen representation of a work
of art compares to experiencing the original? Just how many
tourists would visit a full-size Scrovegni Chapel facsimile
remains to be seen. Perhaps a great many would.
park operators such as Disney have made billions proving there
is a vast audience for places that are supposed to be other
places. Such recreations, architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable
out, often seek to recreate an experience that probably
never existed – instead substituting our imaginings of what
an idealized place or thing might have been.
Worse, the theme-park mentality as applied to conservation
can be downright dangerous. “Restoration” of sites such as
Ephesus in Turkey, old Samarkand,
and now Old Bukhara [CNN]
risks turning them into little more than walkabout fantasies
for the tourist trade, in the process destroying the historical
(as distinct from artistic) value of what was originally there.
more contemporary example is the perpetually cash-strapped
Barnes Collection outside Philadelphia. One proposal to revive
the Barnes’ fortunes is to recreate it downtown in a more
tourist-friendly location. That,
it has been pointed out, [Philadelphia
Inquirer] might be good for the bottom line, but the
distinctive experience of the Barnes as directed by its founder
would most certainly be lost.
the other hand, the case for facsimiles may be strong for
books and precious manuscripts. While the technology for
the preservation of, for example, J.S. Bach autographs is
progressing dramatically [CNN],
so is digital photography that can sometimes “see” more than
the naked eye can. CD-ROM facsimiles provide, on the one
hand, a uniquely private and functional experience of rare
books or manuscripts and, on the other, minimize damage to
fragile works that, uniquely, cannot be seen without being
however, the very iconization of original objects, monuments
and buildings which makes them valued objects of restoration
can subvert their intended effect. Celebrating the creation
of the Last Supper is one thing; fetishizing its ghostly
shadow is something else. No wonder some of the best minds
in the art world are discovering the tao of conservation—cultivated
skepticism about their own best efforts.
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