Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Restoration of Oil Paintings: An Ethical Perspective

            The before-after photograph is often the best tool that art conservators have to truly show the true, and if I may so, magical, nature of the work they do. The dramatic tension between the images; with the before image damaged, yellowed, and in a generally poor shape, and the after image, with the painting pristine, with colours bright and shimmering; make a clear case for the role of the conservator and the restorer in the world of the plastic arts. However, this magical, and in some cases, even surreal transformation comes in with its caveats. This piece is an exploration of these caveats, and how practising conservators and restorers deal with them.

            When I am asked by folks about what I do, the answer that I am an art conservator never really does much. Conservation is what you do for endangered plants and tigers, right? So I draw upon a somewhat trite metaphor, and say that the art conservator is for a painting or a sculpture, as a mechanic is for a car or a motorcycle. While this is true to a fair degree, what with the stress on working with the hands, and understanding the mechanics  of the original materiel, what is often ignored  is the creative aspect in the trade of conservation and restoration. While for the most part, conservation is all about getting the object in a stable state, and performing all its functions, a very important part is the restoration, and retouching.

            Retouching is the area where the fine line between the conservator as a preserver, and the conservator as a creative agent comes in. Imagine you are a conservator in London in the late 1980's, and you see a piece by Da Vinci come in. It has pieces missing, because someone shot it with a shotgun. You are tasked with preserving this piece of cultural heritage. What would you do with the pieces that were missing, annihilated by the pellets of the shotgun shell? Would you leave them as is, so the piece is riddled with holes, or would you paint them in?

            For your reference, this quandary did emerge, and the restorer replaced 60-odd fragments of paper some of which were one-half inch long and some that were down to an eighth of an inch, by them one by one. Later, the restorer, working with a magnifying glass and surgical instruments, re-established the texture of the drawing's surface by filling in the gaps where paper is missing with paper fibre pulp and retouching them with charcoal and white chalk, Leonardo's original materials. No attempt was made to match Leonardo's strokes. [1]

            On the other hand, what would you do with a painting of Barnett Newman that got slashed with a knife? Would you stitch up the canvas and leave the cuts as is, or would you paint over the cuts? You might want to think about your answer, because the restoration of the Newman painting became a major cleaning controversy.[2] The question to ask is not what choices make a restoration controversial, but why can certain choices can make the restoration controversial.

            These conservation controversies are a reflection on the conflict that is central to art to the modern age, that is , is art for the cognoscenti, or is art made for the consumption for the people? Would a restored painting be better appreciated if it was restored to the state it was  when it left the artist's studio, or would it be better that it reflected the time's passage, and the momentous occasions that it lived through?

            These statements might seem like demagoguery, but a cursory study of art history reveals otherwise. Most art that we know we know and love since the renaissance was made for the wealthy patrons. Van Gough was possibly the first artist to fit the mould of the romantic artist we ascribe to today, wherein the artist's art is an expression of his creative genius, rather than having an at-least minor inducement from the patron-client. Similar trends were evident in art restoration, with most early restorers being practising artists.[3]

            This is an important point to take note, because the early restorers restored according to the demands of the clients and the patrons, whose demands were modulated to the changing perceptions of art over time. While this is the case even now, as I shall describe later in this paper, there are opposing theories, which as Andrea Rothe said “provide strict guidelines that should be followed to achieve an “honest” result. Unfortunately, well intentioned practices can be totally foreign to the nature of painting. By calling attention to themselves, these techniques compete with the artist’s original intention[4]

            Of course, the obvious question arises of the artist's intention. How does one know it? Unless the artist is present, and willing to co-operate with the restoration team, the original intent can only be extrapolated from a collection of writings about the work, and if lucky, good colour photographs. But that in itself is a problematic notion, because it puts forward the idea of a “preferred state” where the painting ought to exist, and this preferred state is conjectural. This is where Cesare Brandi comes in.
As Miraz states “Brandi is recognised as one of the exponents of phenomenological approach in Italian aesthetics. He developed the concept of astanza as a presence that is disconnected from time, and discussed about art as a presented reality in which the present that gave it origin is reactivated ad infinitum; art is an extra-temporal present. Brandi attempted to offer an explanation of the essence and existence of the work of art with a phenomenological approach. The need to configure this system compelled him to explore, and then to overcome, philosophical trends of his time proposing an aesthetics from which his theory of restoration could be later deduced.[5]

            Brandi's core belief, shorn of continental philosophy, was that conservation and restoration should preserve and recover aesthetic integrity while preserving the integrity of the historical traces on the object. Of course, keeping aesthetic integrity while keeping traces of history is an example of trying to have the cake and eat it at the same time. This is one of the reason techniques such as trattegio were developed.

            The premise behind trattegio  and other such techniques is philological in nature, whereby the losses are filled in, in such a manner to maintain a semblance of aesthetic completeness, while still keeping the sense of aesthetic and historical 'trueness'. The issue with this approach is raised by Muños Viñas, who states that

            “Since its very inception, conservation processes have been modifying objects and these modifications have presumably been made for the sake of authenticity. However… the modifications that have been made to bring the objects to a preferred condition cannot make them any more authentic then they are at present. The belief that the preferred condition of an object is its authentic condition, that some change is performed upon a real object can make it more real, is an important flaw...” (emphasis mine)[6]
            Over time, I have created a simplified theoretical model for art restoration, which tries to incorporate many of the theories of Salvador Muños Viñas, a Spanish paper conservator, who published The Contemporary Theory of Conservation in 2005. This model is broad, and does not dictate any interventions, rather, it leaves them at the discretion of the conservator and the restorer. The primary aim of this model is to analyse not just the aesthetic value, as Brandi suggests, but also to look at the intangible qualities that paintings accrue over time. I call these qualities utilities, and posit that while any act of conservation and restoration will damage certain utilities of a painting, the main intent should be to actually maximise the positive qualities, whereby the act of conservation becomes a utilitarian calculus.

            To restore, is to return to an earlier state of functionality and purpose. The important part here is the question of function, and how to bring an object to a state of optimal functionality. Thus, when you go out to get your shoe mended, you are getting it restored, because it helps you walk better. Similarly, when classic cars are restored, they are brought back to the state they were when they rolled out of the factory; i.e. when they were as fresh and efficient as they were going to be. A similar aim comes in when we look at the restoration of art and built heritage. The aim is to  regain optimal functionality. 

            The optimal functionality of cultural objects, however, is not as easily gauged as the optimal functionality of a mass produced good, such as a car. For one, the object is usually not mass produced. In addition, there is a cultural and historical meaning that the object has gained over time. Thus to restore functionality, the aim would not only to make the object visually and aesthetically functional again, but to also become culturally and historically functional. Herein lies the problem for the restorer; how to restore in a manner that the object regains original function, while also keeping in aspects that help the object retain the cultural and historical meanings it has gained over time.

            It is pertinent to remember that optimal functionality is not predicated on an absolute truth, but rather on the concept of utility. Truth is just one of the factors that comes in when looking at optimal functionality, which is why this approach is different from classical approaches to conservation. Also pertinent here would be note that the aim that divides restoration and conservation is evident in the name. While Restoration aims to bring back optimal functionality, conservation aims at keeping the object at a state of functionality where it was found. In this manner, it is assumed that at a later time, when the methodology is more appropriate, the object can be restored i.e. brought back to optimal functionality. 
            We can divide the various functions that the object into three large categories -Structural, Aesthetic, and Cultural. The intent in demarcating these functions is not to make a check-list that needs to be ticked off, but to delineate the various kinds of areas where interventions can be made. Often interventions in one aspect will harm the other aspects, and here comes in the need for a properly trained, and conscientious restorer. 

            The structural function an object is the easiest to deal with. The very nature of an object is to be an tangible thing. This tangibility needs to be kept to a state where its 'completeness' is not at risk. (The very concept of completeness is in itself a very problematic notion, but here it is used in the sense of being not at risk of losing its very tangibility or structural stability.) Interventions such as patching a hole in a canvas, or addressing flaking in the paint layer using a vacuum suction table and localised consolidation of the flakes with sturgeon glue would be a good example of structural conservation.

            The question comes however, that can structural restoration actually harm other functionalities? Absolutely so. John Richardson, in his seminal essay Crimes Against Cubists talks about the trend of wax -resin relining of cubist paintings, which was in line with the views on conservation at the time. However, Richardson described the effect it had on the painted surface, with the colours altered, and the impasto flattened. More important was the artist's reaction on seeing a varnished and relined painting. Braque referred to the paintings state in horror, with its “ awful tautness… that stretched the canvas tight as a drum”[7] This case would be structural conservation that affects other functionalities, and should not be done.

            The next functionality we have to come to terms with is aesthetic. All objects have a certain aesthetic function that is associated with them, whether de facto or post facto. Thus a restoration has to take into the consideration the aesthetic values that were in vogue when the structure was constructed, with due deference to cultural associations made over time. The aesthetic sensibility to be restored is not the one that is preferred today, but was of the time. In this manner, repairs done should be unobtrusive, so as to not draw attention to them, but to the aesthetic whole. 

            Questions of aesthetics, of course, are subjective. Indeed, what might be a superior work of art in eyes of one, might be kitsch in the eyes of the other. However, it is expected that the restorer exhibit keen aesthetic sensitivity to a painting, for without it, the work will invariably be hindered. Imagine, as a restorer, that you are presented with large amounts discoloured varnish and later additions by restorers. The standard answer would be to remove the varnish, and add new varnish which would be in line with Brandi's philological approach, and would leave the painting as a fragment, in its supposed historical state. However, as Rothe suggests, that would not be the ideal course of action. 

            The topmost layer of the painting can be referred to as the epidermis of the painting. It is always ideal to leave it as intact as possible not only for conceptual reasons (removing the hand of the artist will not do), but also for aesthetic reasons, for it is common knowledge that in stripping varnishes, many a time, glazes can be lost. Rothe quotes Phillipot and Mora's dictum that The wear of the patina causes a discontinuity of the surface, which alters... the depth of tones and the spiritual unity of the image.[8]

            The final aspect of the functionality of the object is the hardest to put the finger down on, because it flits between many meanings. It is also the most challenging for the restorer, as the cultural value, an intangible concept, can-not be ‘worked on’ by the  restorer, but is altered  by the tangible functionalities mentioned earlier. The intangible nature of socio-cultural associations makes it so that many aspects of the object's very nature are valuable.           

            In this case, any restoration should aim at maintaining full expression of these intangible utilities. The aim thus is maximizing the utilities while doing least harm to the functionalities. It so becomes that every intervention becomes a cost benefit analysis, where the restorer has to evaluate the positive and negative externalities of an action. The aim, however, (and this is where even the greatest fall), is to give the pleasure of the three optimised functionalities to the maximum number of people.
            Lest we forget, as conservators and restorers, we are but stewards of cultural objects, and they truly do belong to the people. As such, the aim should not be handing down treatments like divine writs, but to have a collaborative discourse with all stakeholders in the object, and provide the maximum good. 

            It would serve us well to consider the object as a document, and our responsibility to maximize the legibility of this document. Thus the intent should be to provide all the nuances to the 'reader'. This is also pertinent in our role as preservationists. While we preserve the objects so that they can be of good to the maximum people in present, one eye should always be on the future.  As Pevsner presciently said

            “The Victorian restorers removed 'original' features, Perpendicular and later, and especially Gregorian, and we tell them they were vandals. What they put instead a hundred years ago, should not that now be as sacrosanct as the Gregorian pieces a hundred years ago when they removed them? Should we not watch that we don't become the incorrigible vandals a century from today[9]        

            While Pevsner makes a point about imposing our own aesthetic standards on things of the past, he also raises a point about the role of the future in restoration. The interventions should be such as to not deprive the future generations of objects that still retain maximal functional utility. Attitudes and tastes change, but interventions are absolute. Something like varnish removal or cleaning might increase the 'legibility' of the object now, but can't be undone later. As Muños Viñas states “in the negotiation that modern conservation theory calls for, future generation have to play a role, and most likely, it will be the experts who will have to speak for them[10]

            This is the responsibility that we have. To maximise the Functionalities of an object, not just for ourselves, but for the future generations. This requires a collaborative approach involving not just the 'experts', but all stakeholders in the object.
            So how does retouching and restoration , and the theory behind it come into practice in India? For this purpose, I visited Gigi Jacob and Nagamurthi Pareet, both conservators at INTACH Delhi. Over the span of conversation  it was evident that there is startling accord between the views about conservation painfully learned in the west, and the approach used by classically trained painters and restorers.

            For the longest time in the west there was a constant to and fro between approaches to retouching that verged on completion, often acting like the restorer extrapolating and imposing his own views on the art , as could be seen in the work of most pre-19th century restorers; to restoration of the mid 20th century, which was so obsessed with the 'truthfulness' of the painting that all prior restorations were removed, leaving the objects bare and denuded.  Obviously, extremes in either are not optimal, and the current happy medium  reached is retouching and restoration, where the painting has a completeness visually, yet an reversibility that can only be achieved using high-tech materials developed in the last half of the 20th century.

            This approach  mirrors what was told to me by Jacob and Pareet, both of which were originally painters before they became conservators. This education as a painter is important, according to Jacob, as it gives a conception of artistic completeness witin an artist's style. As Jacobs says, talking about the restoring the work of Raja Ravi Varma, who's style he has studied in depth "When I look at the damaged Ravi Varma painting, I don't even have to think, because the work emerges in front of me. It is instinctive."
            The question of artistic instinct is important when looking at the creative role of the conservator. As I have said before, the maximisation of functionalities is dependent on the actions the restorer takes. The process is not mechanical, but instead is based on the dialogue between the restorer and the painting, and the possibilities are endless on the various permutations of cleaning, repair and retouching that can be done on the painting. Creative insight is a valuable resource to have for a art restorer, especially when backed by scientific data and tests done on the painting.  It is with the combination of the above that Jacob can  so confidently say that his work comes from instinct, but it is instinct born from training and experience

            This statement is intriguing, because in this day and age, we finally have the ability and resources to have a conservator- restorer who is actually a man of both the past and present. Pareet and Jacob's classical training as painters means that given the need, they are perfectly capable of making their own paints and painting in the same technique as Ravi Varma or Souza. At the same time, they are comfortable with science, and frequently refer to technology to aid their work, whether it be using teas charts to find the best solvent mixture for cleaning, or using IR and UV photography for investigation in photographs. This means that not only is the arsenal of their techniques full of tricks of the trade learned in the academy of arts, passed down from teacher to student over time, but also the algorithmic approach of the sciences.

            Being over dependent on the science however, is not the optimal solution, according to both Jacob and Pareet. What the scientific tools provide is valuable information, that compounds what they can intuit by sight, feel and touch. The role of the arts in the work of  a practicing conservator is major, and a major part of their work is based on an keenly developed aesthetic sensitivity, which invariably results when you work with paintings day in and day out. Take the case of retouching in oil paintings. Both Pareet and Jacob insist that the retouching is done according to what the client demands, ranging from complete retouching, which is almost invisible, to retouching done according to the old museum standards of philological truth, such as trattegio, astrazone chromatica, and integrazione chromatica[11], however they prefer complete retouching, as in their opinion, artistic completion is paramount.

            Indeed, as Pareet states "no matter what we do, in the end, it is the perception of the viewer that makes the painting as they see it. Whether you do trattegio or invisible retouching, the painting is still the same painting". While this might sound flippant, this is surprisingly similar to what Muñoz Viñas says about preferred states previously in this paper. A major part of contemporary restoration theories, not only in restoration of oil paintings, but also in conservation in general talks about the necessity of including all the stakeholders, be it owners, researchers, historians and art lovers, into the collaborative decision making.

            This might seem like a call for restoring with wild abandon, however, that is not the case. Instead, the conservator acts as a mediator between the voices. It is a reality of the time that a conservator spends more time with a painting than any other person in the art world, and has a greater insight into the make-up of the images. Thus the conservator is places in a unique position where he can effect a role as not only a bridge between disparate sources, but also an amanuensis, speaking for the artist and for the history in the middle.

            Much like David Bomford said in his seminar, The Conservator as a Narrator,  today, conservation is about not only bringing back the painting to its best appeal and function, but also about creating new dialogues and narratives that encompass the previous history and social role that the object of art has created around it. To quote Bomford "The difference with our younger selves is that we are more and more conscious of the complex historical narratives of these paintings we care for. It is both inevitable and understood that everything we do,... or everything we do not do... is, to quote Brandi again, an act of critical interpretation." [12] I am sure Pareet and Jacob would agree wholeheartedly.

[1]     Rule, Sheila. “Restoring a Leonardo Drawing That Was Hit by a Shotgun Blast.”The New York Times, 8 Nov. 1988,
[2]     Kimmelman, Michael. “Restoration of a Painting Worries Dutch Art Experts.”The New York Times, 16 Dec. 1991,
[3]     For a greater insight into this topic, Jukka Jokilehto's doctoral thesis A history of Architectural Conservation is a valuable read, as is Allessandro Conti's History of Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art.    
[4]     Rothe, Andrea. "Corce E Delizia." Ed. Mark Leonard. Personal Viewpoints: Thoughts about Paintings Conservation: A Seminar Organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Research Institute at the Getty Center, Los Angeles, June 21-22, 2001. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2003. 13-26. Print.
[5]     Meraz, Fidel A.  2008 , Conservation Philosophy: Cesare Brandi and the Place and Time of Human Existence. Term Paper. School of Arts and Humanities; University Campus Suffolk, Suffolk.
[6]     Viñas, Salvador Muñoz. 2005 Contemporary Theory of Conservation. Oxford: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann,  Print.
[7]     Richardson, John. "Crimes Against the Cubists." Editorial. New York Review of Books 16 June 1983: The New York Review of Books. Web.
[8]     Rothe, Andrea. "Corce E Delizia." Ed. Mark Leonard. Personal Viewpoints: Thoughts about Paintings Conservation: A Seminar Organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Research Institute at the Getty Center, Los Angeles, June 21-22, 2001. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2003. 13-26. Print.
[9]     Pevsner, Nikolaus, and Jane Fawcett. 1976.The Future of the Past: Attitudes to Conservation, 1174-1974. New York: Whitney Library of Design, Web
[10]   Viñas, Salvador Muñoz. 2005 Contemporary Theory of Conservation. Oxford: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann,  Print.
[11]   Trattegio  is a technique where vertical colour matching brush strokes are used to fill losses. Astrazione cromatica fills in losses with abstract combinations of colour, and Integrazione chromatica fills in losses by following the dynamics of the brushstrokes
[12]   Bomford, David. "The Conservator as Narrator: Changed Perspectives in the Conservation of Paintings." Ed. Mark Leonard. Personal Viewpoints: Thoughts about Paintings Conservation: A Seminar Organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Research Institute at the Getty Center, Los Angeles, June 21-22, 2001. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2003. 1-13. Print.

No comments: