When the story of the unfortunate restoration of a 16th century wooden figure of St. George from a church in Estella in Northern Spain began to appear in newspapers (see as an example “Botched Restoration of a Statue in Spain Sets Off a Firestorm” , by Mark A. Walsh, The New York times, June 27, 2018), I thought I would not write about it. After all, every article made the obvious comparison to the 2012 “Beast Jesus” restoration which was also carried out in Spain and suggested that all was not lost as this might end up boosting tourism in the town. But then I thought about how this is the latest wake-up call for the conservation profession. We are not doing enough to educate the owners and guardians of works of art about what conservation is if, in 2018, church authorities will send a complex polychrome sculpture to a fix-it shop rather than to a professional conservator.
On June 11, 2018, The New York Times published an article by James Barron (“Nights at the Museum: When the Met Doubled as a Movie Studio”) which noted the steps that were taken to protect the art while the Metropolitan Museum was being used to film some scenes from the movie “Ocean’s 8”. With this film and with Beyonce and Jay-Z’s recent video in which they and their dancers come ever so close to the “Winged Victory of Samothrace”, Jacques-Louis David’s “Coronation of Napoleon”, and other major monuments of art history in the Louvre (how one envies them a Louvre without hoards of other visitors), it is useful to remind the public that the needs of film crews yield to the well-being of the art.
According to an article in the June 18, 2018 issue of The Wall Street Journal (“The Bats Help Preserve Old Books, But they Drive Librarians, Well…”, by Patricia Kowsmann), the Joanina Library of the University of Coimbra, Portugal has a colony of small bats (less than 1-1/2 inches long) who come out at night and eat the moths and beetles who could destroy the books in the Library’s collection. The bats bring in hoards of tourists whose presence raises the temperature in the Library, leading to more insects. They also produce pounds of guano which can be damaging to books. So are they really, as they have been called , “the library’s unwitting conservationists”?
According to an article by Gaia Pianigiani in the May 26, 2018 issue of The New York Times (“Florence Has Response to Violence from Mafia: A Painting’s Restoration”), twenty-five years after it was torn to shreds in the May 27, 1993 Mafia bombing of the Uffizi Gallery, Bartoloemo Manfredi’s “The Card Players” has been restored as much as possible (from five hundred fragments) and will go on display at the Uffizi in commemoration of the anniversary. Luca Galassi, one of the film makers who are working on a documentary about the destruction and the restoration is quoted as saying. “This is not just a restored painting. It’s a symbol of strength and rebirth of a community still years on.” And Daniela Lippi, the restorer, calls the painting “the living memory of the attack”. While every painting and conservation treatment has meaning, it is a good thing that every treatment does not have to carry quite this weight of meaning.
As does any headline which includes words like “restoration” or “conservation”, the title of obituary for Zhao Kangmin who was a local cultural official when the now famous terracotta warriors were uncovered in Linton County, China in 1974 caught my eye as I was reading the May 25, 2018 issue of The New York Times. It reads “Zhao Kangmin, 81, Restored Ancient Warriors”. The story refers to Zhao as “an archaeologist who pieced together a national treasure”. I have mixed feelings about this. While every opportunity to inform the public about restoration and conservation is good, when it is not made clear that there are people who are specially trained to do this work– i.e. conservators– it is not so good.
According to an article in The New York Times (“$70 Million Painting Damaged Ahead of Christie’s Sale”, by Scott Reyburn, Tuesday May 15, 2018), on Friday May 11, 2018, “Le Marin”, a Picasso painting owned by Steve Wynn was “accidently damaged” at a pre-sale exhibit at Christie’s. As this is the second time a Picasso painting owned by Wynn has been damaged, much is being said about the odds of such a thing happening. The circumstances under which the works were damaged were different– the first painting was damaged by Wynn while in his possession, while the second painting was damaged while under the care of the auction house. However, the lesson of each of the accident is the same—paintings are fragile and vulnerable to damage so one must be careful and vigilant around them.
In an article in the April 6, 2018 issue of Science magazine about the then forthcoming second annual “March for Science” (on April 14th), Jeffrey Mervis mentions a number of outreach activities that were developed after the first march. Among them is the Fleet Science Center’s attempt to demystify science with “Two Scientists Walk Into a bar” . In this program, pairs of scientists speak to patrons in San Diego bars for two hours about whatever topics the patrons bring up. How does two conservators walk into a bar sound ?
According to an article by James Barron in the April 4, 2018 issue of The New York Times (“Met lets in the light”), after postponing it for decades, the Metropolitan Museum Is undertaking a $150 million dollar project to replace the skylights, ducts, pipes, and cables in its European Paintings Galleries. Many of these hidden mechanisms which open and close to allow an ideal amount of light into the galleries have deteriorated to the point where they no longer function, leaving some galleries too dark and others with light levels that are higher than they should be. When the work is complete, the paintings will be exhibited in a soft, diffuse light that simulates the light in which they were painted.
In a review of the exhibit “Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body” at the Met Breuer, published in the April 2, 2018 issue of The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl notes that the ideal of a monochrome surface for sculpture persisted well into modern times and mentions that in the 1960s Clement Greenberg in his capacity as executor of the estate of David Smith had paint removed from a number of Smith’s sculptures. Until reading this, I had been embarrassingly ignorant of Greenberg’s actions. However, I found article by Hilton Kramer in the September 13, 1974 issue of The New York Times (“Altering of Smith Work Stirs Dispute” ) in which Rosalind Krauss is quoted as writing that the trustees had allowed several of Smith’s sculptures to be “deliberately stripped of paint—sandblasted, allowed to rust, then glossily varnished” and that others had been “left outdoors, unprotected over the years; their surfaces are flaking off under the pressures of heat and cold, rain and sun.”
A number of years before his death, Smith had complained about the removal of paint from one of his sculptures in letters to art journals writing, “This willful work of vandalism causes me to deny this work and refuse any future sale to any of those connected with this vandalism. Possibly we should start an action for protective laws.” It took about thirty years for Smith to get his law— the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990.
In the “Arts, Briefly” column of the March 27, 2018 issue of The New York Times, Jori Finkel wrote about the results of the nine year study conducted by the Getty Conservation Institute and the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities which assessed the condition of the frescos in King Tutankhamen’s tomb (“Getty Completes Study at King Tut’s Tomb”). The good news is that the black spots which were believed to be live microorganisms are dead and “the paintings are not in as bad a condition as some have claimed”.