Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Conservation Disaster

In the previous post I briefly mentioned the quote by Stevens on retouching of paintings.
"To have a master's picture retouched is a crime that ought to be severely punished by law."
Recently on Facebook there was a posting by Jeremy Lipking of one of the worst retouched paintings I have seen in a while. I have seen a few, but this one is something. It is a painting by William Bouguereau, technically one of the best painters to have lived. Look closely at the top photo, an older version, then at the terrible retouches in the one below it. Namely, the angel's eye, painted in a different perspective, the ear, and mouth, both over rendered, and the fingers outlined with inky darks. Now, I realize that the lower photo is a bit sharper, but that does not answer for the heinous drawing.

I have no idea why someone would do this, or allow this to be done.
It is being sold by M.A. Rau Antiques. Interestingly they make no mention of the bad conservation. They have another Bouguereau (the girl with the flower) that I find questionable as well. Seems a bit shady, though to bring this up would effect the value, and that is bad for business. This story is going around, and lots of artists are in an uproar. Interesting thing is that the gallery's site seems to be having issues, and a lot of the links are not working, probably due to the high traffic visiting to see the train wreck.

The lesson here is that conservationists rarely, if ever, are trained painters, and should stay away from doing this kind of work. My teacher once told me a story of a conservator in Boston years ago that joked about this very fact, saying that the paintings come to him roses, and go out lilies. This was a museum curator. It seems to be about ego and forcing themselves into others work- in addition to an inability to fix the hand of a master due to lack of knowledge.
Of course I am of the opinion that the restoration of the Sistine Chapel was an absolute disaster.


BeatricCaldwell said...

What's really odd is that if you use the first photo to zoom in you'll see your comparison shot. If you click on the first photo of the girl clasping her hands you'll see the "inky darks" gone. An artifact of bringing the jpeg into Flash?

Jennifer said...

Richard, over the last few months I have read your blog and found many of your criticisms to be justified. You criticism of conservation though, is outlandish. You are correct to criticize a conservator that does not perform a restoration conservatively, one that over inpaints or as you say can turn a rose into a lily. Believe me I have seen an extraordinary amount of poorly done restorations. However, many conservators are classically trained and utilize this training in conservation and there is even a further group that are so conservative that they dare not inpaint to replicate the artists original hand they simply use a series of dots and hash marks to disguise blank spaces where holes or tears may have been. These lines allow the viewer to find the damage and the restoration but also will allow them to enjoy what remains of the original without distraction. Certainly conservation and restoration can be controversial. Everyone should accept the premise though that it is necessary. Unfortunately many great works have been left to the ravages of time and without conservation they will not be able to be seen or enjoyed by future generations. I suggest exploring further the work of true professionals, to better understand what conservation is and how it should be done and then maybe you will be able to appreciate the skilled professionals that will allow every master work to survive for our children.
Jennifer Burt
Business Manager/Conservator
Wiebold Studio

Visit an excellent site to learn about conservative conservation

Richard J. Luschek II said...

Thanks for the comments. I tend to complain in extremes. I like to hit the nail on the head with a sledge hammer. Yes, I know there is great work being done in conservation. I know of classically trained painters that are doing this work, but there seems to be a lot of ravages being done on works of art by more than just time.
Amazing conservation work has been done on art damaged in the wars, in floods or in food fights, but having seen multiple, local paintings that have been "skinned" in poor restorations starts to wear on a person, especially being a painter that appreciates the hard work and skill needed to do it the first place.
I would also say, the lack of praise for great conservation, is because it is so good that no one knows that it has been touched. It looks as if it was done by the hand of the Master, only cleaner and smelling fresh.
That leaves me to criticize disasters like the example I posted. So, I apologize for criticizing the entire profession, but there have been so many bad examples it is hard not to get up on a soap box. Velasquez after Velasquez have been permanently altered by so called professional, museum conservationists. I would rather look at a masterpiece through a bit a crazing and dirt than have a clean painting with some of the master’s final and subtle touches forever removed. .
Let me add that I could not name 5 professional painters in the tri-state area that I have the skills needed to inpaint a Duveneck- maybe only 1 (Carl Samson).
I will check out the link and should stop out to visit your shop for a tour- if you will have me.
Did this help dig me out of any holes or am I in deeper?

Jennifer said...

We would love to have you and thank you for your sincerity.

Anonymous said...

I studied with an 88 year old painter 30 years ago who knew many of the paintings in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts - BEFORE they were irreparably harmed by unscrupulous conservators. We would walk through and he'd point to a Gilbert Stuart portrait that once had gold buttons down the front of it - which today are mostly gone. A famously stunning portrait by Dennis Miller Bunker lost considerable subtlety at the hands of someone far less skilled. I even read recently the DaVinci's Mona Lisa originally had eyebrows!

That being said, they are superb conservators out there. They are often the ones who at one point or another have sat down with trained painters to discuss the extreme difficulty of re-modeling form in a subtle passage and the wisdom of a lighter touch. We are fortunate to have very competent restorers and conservators in the Cincinnati area.

Carl Samson

Anonymous said...

Comparing the two makes for some interesting lessons in the importance of using warms and cools, and complements, and edges correctly. What a shame :(

Anonymous said...

9 times out of 10 the really scary treatments were done in the 50's when very little was actually known about conservation. Most treatments done today do not have inpainting unless a curator (or owner) tells a conservator to touch up areas of loss. In my personal opinion a painting should never be inpainted and should only be stabilized. But then again I have have to treatment many of pieces that had damage caused by past treatments.