Cocktail party goodness: art work restoration
Here's an interesting article to help your cocktail party small talk skills: a series of anecdotes on restoring damaged or faded artwork. The author does a fair amount of tut-tutting over the mistakes made by restorers and the artists themselves, making the article even more useful for light conversation.
Money tip: only dolts varnish their Cubist paintings. They're meant to be matte, not glossy.
You'll thank me the next time you're at a loss for a topic of conversation.
I think I know exactly how the restorers at the Fitzwilliam Museum felt as they contemplated the Chinese vases that fell victim to a gentleman's shoelace. In 1966, I was part of an international team of restorers sent on an emergency mission to rescue works of art damaged in the Florence floods. The sight of the scarred and battered paintings and manuscripts was desolating.
Scraps of invaluable pictures had been collected for us to reassemble as best we could. A small, home-made disaster occurred when flakes from the Cimabue Crucifixion placed on a plate were swept back into the mud by a workman who wanted to use the plate for lunch. The library, in the lowest area of the town, was the most seriously affected, with leaves of books plastered across walls and ceilings for specialists from the British Museum to disentangle and dry out.Since then most of the disasters I have confronted have been man-made.
Many are by restorers ancient and modern who have got carried away with so me fashionable technique, such as the synthetic varnishes that have been applied in many a great collection, on the assumption that they won't yellow. They don't: they go grey. Harder to take off than natural resin, their eventual removal risks damaging the picture surface.
Another fashion was for varnishing Cubist paintings, which should be matt. And of course modern restorers are constantly revealing breasts and genitalia on Old Masters that have been prudishly veiled, and not only by the Victorians.
Then there is the damage caused by artists themselves. I had to rejoin fragile swirls of impasto on a Jackson Pollock that had snapped off because his imagination outran his concern for how long his work would endure. I have lost count of the number of paintings by Reynolds, a notorious experimenter with new techniques, where I have struggled to revive faded colours or coax together gaping cracks.
One of the most difficult restorations was Whistler's Mother (currently on view in the "Americans in Paris" exhibition at the National Gallery) which I did some years back for the Louvre. In his hurry to be an instant Old Master, he scarcely primed the canvas, and used paint with the consistency of ink. It looked wonderful for a while - till it began sinking. I spent months in Paris trying to tease out the shadows in that great black skirt.
The philosophy of restoration is hotly debated, even when the objects for treatment are not valuable: I have attended conferences where people have got passionate about the ethical implications of the restoration of old comics, canoes and tractors. The first (and usually neglected) question is whether to do anything.
The answer in the case of the Chinese vases is clear, and it is a relief to know that they can be rescued. To be sexist, I am not surprised that the restorer is a woman. The job will take infinite patience, of which women seem to have a better store, and a readiness to resist the temptation of imposing their own solutions.
The thing that will strike the outsider will be the painstaking, surgical finesse of the operation. That is what a lot of restoration is about. Nearly always conservation is a more laborious business than the original creation. Just as Handel's Messiah requires more time to copy out than it did to write, so it takes far longer to recreate a single worn or damaged original brushstroke with expensive, minute brushes made of sable hairs.
In Florence, I saw Italians putting down vast blisters on panels that had swollen, then shrunk, by shaving the edge of each flake of paint to fit into a smaller space. Restorers today envy the freedom and cavalier attitudes of previous eras, when conservators were often artists themselves, and not only failed ones: Titian worked on the Mantegna paintings at Hampton Court well before they were bought by Charles I.
In the case of the Chinese vases, it is good to know that, after they have been painstakingly pieced together with modern glues, no attempt will be made to disguise the fact that they have been broken. The illusion that the ravages of time and man can invariably be disguised by contemporary science and the "original" faultlessly recreated is a modern myth, which earlier restorers never shared. In the past, valuable broken china was sometimes put together by the simple and unpretentious means of rivets.
Old crafts may have died out but it is not all loss. Apart from the benefits of science as a diagnostic tool (X-rays, infra-red), more effective techniques have been developed. One is joining up tears in paper with individual fibres. I once saw an exquisite Modigliani drawing of a girl that the impoverished artist had done on paper so cheap it had split right across. Strand by strand it was invisibly knitted together.
The same can now be done with tears in canvases, so as to avoid a patch on the back which would eventually change the texture of the front. [...]