Conservators, look away now.
January 31 2017
Picture: Maaike Dirkx
This unsettling piece of plumbing was spotted in a church in Bucharest by by the Dutch art historian Maaike Dirkx (here on Twitter).
Re-stocking a stately
January 8 2017
Croome Court in Worcestershire is one of the National Trust's more recent additions: the management of the house was taken over by them in 2007. The house did not come with a collection, but now around 1200 items, including a number of pictures, have been returned to the house and will be gradually put on display. More here.
Bowes Museum acquires rare Bouts (ctd.)
January 6 2017
Video: National Gallery
Last year, the Bowes Museum in the UK acquired a panel painting by Dieric Bouts the Elder and his Workshop. In the above video, Rachel Billinge of the National Gallery's conservation department gives the painting a thorough technical assessment to find out how it was made.
£4m Government Indemnity payout for Zoffany
January 4 2017
Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper reports that the UK government will have to pay out £4m to the owners of a painting by Zoffany (above) that was destroyed in the tragic fire at Clandon Park. The payout will be made directly by the Treasury, as the picture (on loan from a private collection) was covered by the Government Indemnity scheme. This allows museums to cover the risk of damage or loss to a painting, without paying an insurance premium. The government - ie, taxpayers - assumes all the risk. The scheme is vital for exhibitions and loans in the UK. The fact that the payout is, as TAN reports, the highest ever made, tells us a great deal about the success of the scheme. For £4m is not really a significant sum, in relation to all the works of art that have been covered over the years.
December 22 2016
Picture: Picasso Museum
Writing in The Art Newspaper, Diana Widmaier Picasso reveals that Picasso sometimes liked to paint with human excrement. He particularly favoured:
[...] excrement produced by his daughter Maya (my mother [above]), then aged three, to make an apple in a Still Life, dated 1938. According to him, excrement from an infant breast-fed by its mother had a unique texture and ochre colour.
Get out of that one, conservators.
Rubens' self-portrait to be restored
December 13 2016
I was glad to discover that one of the Rubenshuis museum's star pictures - his c.1630 self-portrait - is to be restored. At the moment it is rather obscured by a thick and plastic-looking layer of varnish, which in normal viewing conditions has the effect of deadening the painting. The varnish, one of the newer 'synthetic' varnishes, was applied no doubt with good intentions during an earlier restoration, in the hope of avoiding the fate of traditional organic varnishes, which go yellow.
As is so often the case in conservation, every generation of restorer's is convinced they've got the best solution to a problem. But in fact they're just storing up trouble for the next generation of conservators.
The picture will leave the Rubenshuis in January, and be back on display in 2018.
Art history miracles (ctd.)
November 30 2016
A Jeff Koons 'balloon dog' has been damaged at Miami Art Basel. Apparently “it just fell out of the display” , according to a witness. More here.
Louvre reveals St John Baptist clean
November 7 2016
Le Figaro has new photos of the Louvre's St John the Baptist by Leonardo, which has undergone cleaning for the first time in decades. The beginning of the process was met with concerns that the job might be botched. But as the photos (better here) seem to suggest, the picture has only been part cleaned, and many older layers of varnish are still in place. The fact that it's not entirely clear which photo shows the picture before or after conservation is probably a good thing. The picture will go on display on Wednesday.
Vasari's Last Supper rises again
November 7 2016
A Last Supper by Vasari, which was submerged for 12 hours during the terrible flooding in Florence in 1966, has now gone back on display after conservation. This time there is a special gadget to raise the picture, should the Arno break its banks again. More details here.
Musée D'Orsay puts conservation on show
August 16 2016
The New York Times reports on the Musée D'Orsay's decision to let visitors see the cleaning of works such as Auguste-Barthélemy Glaize's 'Women of Gaul'. I'm always in favour of this sort of thing - it not only encourages visitors to look more closely at pictures, but can also help demystify the science of conservation.
Letting the public see the cleaning, however, is not to every conservator's taste:
For the conservators — a profession dominated by women — the attention to such a solitary métier is gratifying. But they were trained to use swabs and tools to thin and swipe away old varnish. Many found it difficult to cope with waves of noise, abrupt public announcements and, sometimes, rapping against the protective glass cube. Not to mention the limits on their use of chemical solvents because of their proximity to the public.
Laurence Didier, who leads the independent team of 13 conservators restoring “The Women of Gaul,” had never worked in public before. She said that it took time to become accustomed to an audience, even though conservators faced the canvas with their backs to visitors.
“Everyone is different and has their own style,” she said. “I need absolute calm, and so I have my headphones playing Baroque music or Vivaldi.”
Cécile Bringuier, who leads the second team on the Courbet restoration, also said she is not a fan of conservators on display. “Would you like to be watched while you work?”
Incidentally, that is an interesting remark that conservators are mostly women: it's true, but I've never stopped to think why, or when that became so. Anyone have any thoughts?
Update - a reader writes:
Update II - another reader writes:
Regarding why more women work in conservation than men: more women study Art History, and therefore there are more women to go into conservation - you usually need an Art History degree before you can do post-graduate studies in conservation. What I found interesting when I studied (which was over a decade ago) was the ratio of men to women - more women were studying art history than men, more women were teaching than men, but more men in the institution were Professors and also more men ran major art institutions and galleries. I don't know if these stats still stand, or are international, but they were the reality when I was a student. The only area wholly dominated by women was Conservation. I know the TV is now spattered with female historians and curators etc. but I don't know how that stacks up in the Art History world, having been out of it for so long. There seem to be limited male art historians on TV (presenting whole series) and they don't seem to be of a Phd level or higher - but journalists, while the women on TV seem to be curators or university tutors/ fellows etc.
These are just my observations as a (now) armchair Art Historian.
Please, don't touch...
August 8 2016
Video: You Tube
The New York Times looks at recent cases of visitors getting too close to museum exhibits, including the above disaster at the National Watch and Clock Museum in the US. The article cites this view as to why such things happen:
Steve Keller, who has worked in museum security since 1979, said the phenomenon of visitors’ defacing exhibits has been going on for years. He linked their actions to mental instability, a lack of appreciation of art or sheer ignorance.
Which sounds harsh, but is probably true.
The last time I was in the Louvre I saw a visitor vigorously rub the impasto on a painting by John Constable, and then compare it with the surface of a Turner hanging nearby. I gave them what for.
Personally, I don't mind pictures being glazed, as long as it's done well. I recently visited the Queen's Gallery here in Edinburgh at Holyrood, to see the excellent exhibition Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer,* where every picture was glazed. But it was done so expertly, with perfect lighting, that it was impossible to tell at a normal viewing angle. If this is the price we have to pay to protect our finest pictures from the mad and the ignorant, then so be it.
*Now at the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
George Stubbs and the use of wax
August 8 2016
The 18th Century animal painter George Stubbs is one of the most fiendishly difficult artists to deal with when it comes to conservation. He often used to mix wax in with his paints, which makes his paintings particularly vulnerable to the sort of solvents restorers usually use. Consequently, many Stubbs pictures are in bad condition. I once heard of a Stubbs that had been accidentally left in front of a sunny window in a New York auction house - parts of it literally melted. When I'm asked about cleaning works by Stubbs my advice is usually to leave things as they are.
Happily, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (owner of Stubbs' Dingo, above) is doing its bit to publicise Stubbs' use of wax at a day long symposium on 14th October. More details here.
Update - a reader writes:
Surely that "Dingo" is a Falklands Wolf, painted by Stubbs in 1772 from a preserved body brought back by Banks when the Endeavor completed its round-the-world trip in 1771.
Perhaps Australia should feel only half bad that they didn't get the paintings after all.
Recreating a lost Degas
August 8 2016
Pictures: NY Times
I've been amazed by the digital recreation (above right) of an over-painted portrait by Degas, made possible by the sort of thing they only discuss at Cern, a particle accelerator. The New York Times has the story:
For decades, a mysterious black stain has been spreading across the face of an anonymous woman in Australia [below]. She is the subject of a painting by Edgar Degas, the French Impressionist painter, and since the 1920s, the oil paints in her portrait have gradually faded, revealing the hints of another, hidden portrait underneath.
Until recently, attempts to capture the image underlying “Portrait of a Woman” with conventional X-ray and infrared techniques have only yielded the shadowy outline of another woman. In a study published on Thursday, however, a team of researchers reports that they have revealed the hidden layer underneath the painting, which hangs in the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia, at a very high resolution. It seems to be a portrait of Emma Dobigny, a model who was a favored subject of Degas. [...]
To get their high-resolution image, the research team used a type of particle accelerator called a synchrotron. Synchrotrons are sources of extremely high-energy light. They work by directing that light, which is a million times brighter than the sun, into an X-ray beam that’s one tenth the diameter of a human hair.
'Wrecked beyond repair'?
June 6 2016
Video: The Fitzwilliam Museum
The Fitzwilliam Museum has restored and put back on display Sebastiano del Piombo's 'Adoration of the Shepherds'. It had been in storage for many years, and was considered unfit for exhibition - indeed, deemed 'wrecked beyond repair'. As you can see in the film above, the picture is in a very damaged state, due to a restorer in the 18th century having the bright idea of transferring it from panel to canvas. As is often the case, those who have done the most damage to paintings have been those charged with the preservation.
But now, however, conservation methods are better than ever. The work was done at the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge - which rightfully has legendary status in the art world - under the leadership of Rupert Featherstone. I was lucky enough to see the painting as the work was being done. Don't be too terrified by the 'stripped down' photographs - although the painting looks at first sight like a complete wreck, actually there was enough to begin a restoration, and as Featherstone explains most of the really crucial areas of the picture were relatively intact. A copy in France allowed most of the losses to be recreated. Featherstone also discusses whether the painting should have been restored in the first place, since many might say that would have been better to leave it in its damaged state. But personally I think the museum was right to embark on the project - surely it would be wrong to let the people who damaged the painting have the last word.
PS - don't adjust your set, the sound quality in the video is terrible.
New Rubens discovery in Russia
June 6 2016
Picture: Hermitage Museum
A painting long called a copy of a Rubens, has been restored and put on display in the Hermitage in St Petersburg as a work by the master himself (reports The Art Newspaper). The painting had been in storage for over 80 years. The subject is the Resurrection of Christ, from about 1610-11. You can zoom into the photograph here, though it's not possible to determine the quality of the painting from the images available. Rubens painted the same subject with very similar figures - and the Christ inverted - in a Triptych now in Antwerp Cathedral.
June 6 2016
A Montargis, les oeuvres d'art du musée Girodet abîmées
Video: France 3
The Louvre looks to be safe, but the Chateau de Chambord has been flooded (drone footage here), and so have the store rooms of the Musée Girodet in Montargis. In the video above, staff can be seem gamely trying to wash the mud from various paintings. More here.
Update - There was no damage at the Chateau de Chambord - they tell me via Twitter - and it is open again. Splendide.
Poor Leonardo (ctd.)
May 8 2016
Here's a curious story on Sky News:
DNA from Leonardo da Vinci's paintings could be used to digitally recreate his face and confirm exactly where he was buried after his death in 1519.
Researchers are going to attempt to recover hairs and flakes of skin from within his paintings and notebooks, which could be used to construct how the Italian polymath's face looked.
They plan to use advanced genetic analysis techniques to determine his eye and hair colour, as well as face shape and skin tone.
They believe they could also discover clues about his lifestyle and states of health during his lifetime. [...]
Their first tests are due to take place on the Adoration of the Magi painting [above], which is being restored in Florence, Italy.
Any DNA recovered from his works will be compared to known living relatives - as well as to DNA recovered from the graves of his parents.
The shape of their skulls will also help the researchers to recreate his face, along with portrait paintings of the artist from his contemporaries.
What pointless nonsense. Who pays for all this stuff?
Irish Guercino cleaned in LA
April 29 2016
Picture: Getty/National Gallery of Ireland
The National Gallery of Ireland has sent its Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph by Guercino to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for conservation. The work will be funded by a group of private donors called The Getty Museum Paintings Council, which is, says the Getty website:
[...] a group of generous individual donors, helps support the study and conservation of major art works from international museums and cultural institutions at the Getty; in exchange, the Getty enjoys the opportunity to display the paintings at the Getty Center for a few months after the completion of treatment.
I didn't know of this body of splendid people before - whoever you are, AHN salutes you.
Dusting the Mona Lisa
April 4 2016
Picture: AHN reader
AHN has often wondered why they never dust pictures at the Louvre. Now, a sharp-eyed reader has sent in this screen grab of a cobweb on the Mona Lisa (seen in Waldemar's Renaissance Unchained series).
Louvre to clean another Leonardo (ctd.)
February 12 2016
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…