Louvre to clean another Leonardo (ctd.)

February 12 2016

Image of Louvre to clean another Leonardo (ctd.)

Picture: Louvre

Last month the Louvre announced that they would clean Leonardo's late work, St John the Baptist. Cue much outrage. Now, Leonardo 'expert' Prof. Carlo Pedretti has waded into the story, saying the Louvre shouldn't touch the picture

Regular readers will know that AHN holds Pedretti in rather low regard (put 'Pedretti' into the search box to see why). The minute he rallies to a cause, I feel myself taking the opposite side. But the case of the St John is a difficult one, and I'm not entirely sure what the answer is. Like the Great Waldemar, speaking about the matter here on BBC Radio 4's Front Row, I am 'conflicted' about whether the restoration should go ahead.

As Waldemar says, this is now a picture so dark you almost cannot see it. And he's right to say the Louvre should spend the money simply fixing the Italian gallery in which it hangs with better lighting (I would also add some feather dusters). But Waldemar says that if we were to clean one picture in that Italian gallery at the Louvre it should probably be this one.

And yet the Louvre's previous Leonardo restoration, of the Virgin with St Anne, was not considered a success. Hence the latest hoo ha. I have been to see that picture since it was cleaned, and it is indeed disappointing.

But the conservation debate has taken a curious turn of late. In my view, I don't think the Virgin with St Anne was 'over-cleaned' a great deal, as everyone says. Rather, the masking qualities of centuries of old varnish and dirt was removed, leaving visible all the damages that were inflicted on the picture in previous campaigns of 'cleaning', from past ages that thought it was ok to scrub pictures with urea, a potato cut in half, a rough sponge, and so on. 

Now, the problem comes because many of today's museum staff, and much punditry, has taken the view that we should leave such damages visible, and that these damages should not be retouched by a competent conservator. In other words, damage to a picture is 'part of its story', and we should just live with it. Consequently, the Virgin with St Anne looked like it had been 'over-cleaned' because suddenly the old damage was much more visible.

But this approach means that we end up celebrating the clods who have damaged pictures as equally as the geniuses that created them. And I don't see why we should do that. If you've done it, as I have, judiciously restoring pictures is actually not impossible. You just need the combined talents of a good conservator and the connoisseurial eye of someone who knows their way around an artist's oeuvre. The former is far more important than the latter of course, but it is best done as a team effort. It's not really that hard to identify the areas where, for example, a dark glaze has been abraded in the past, and to recreate where it went with the use of entirely reversible modern re-touching media.

Some people getting their ethical antenna in a twist about this approach, but it didn't stop Van Dyck happily re-touching damaged Titians. If the alternative, today, is looking at a wrecked picture, or making some effort to understand that a 400 year old picture has inevitably been damaged at some time in its life, and that we ought to be brave enough to aesthetically (but non-permanently) reverse that damage, then why shouldn't we? There is nothing dishonest about it. And if you went around most major museums of the world deliberately removing the efforts of past restorers, you would soon end up with collections in which about 80% of the works looked like they'd been given a good going over with sandpaper. If we wouldn't take that approach retrospectively, then why do it all? 

Update - a reader writes:

With no expertise at all, just as someone who loves looking at great (and not so great) art, I find your reasoning makes sense.  But what do others think, and why?  Preferably without 'anthropologizing' artworks…

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