The horror...the HORROR! The National Gallery in London has ripped out my heart, macerated it ruthlessly and spit the shreds out onto the wet pavement of Trafalgar Square. But worse than that, they have destroyed, utterly, irreparably destroyed countless works of art.Why, why would the national conservators of such treasures perpetrate these heinous crimes on the beautiful Botticelli's, Raphael's and countless other masterpieces? All in the name of 'restoration'. But these paintings have not been restored, they have been bleached, blanched and cleansed of countless, painstakingly applied( by the original artists), layers of varnish that just so happened to have collected a lot of dirt of the years. So let's just throw out the baby with the freakin' bath water in the name of cleanliness and a 'modern day asthetic'.These 'restored' paintings are but a white shade of the glory of the originals acheived by the great masters of art.
Oh, oh! I am so aggrieved! As a teen, I spent weeks roaming these galleries,studying, absorbing and imprinting these images on the core of my visual memory. I loved,with all my soul, some of these masterworks of the Early and mid Renaissance.Today,as I started to stroll through the galleries, my initial shock and disbelief soon turned to nausea.After merely an hour (when once I spent entire days at the NG) I fled to stand in Trafalgar Square, smoking a cigarette and choking back tears of anger and despair.
Restoration/conservation has always been a controversial topic in the art world; for the National Gallery, the debate goes back to the 1840's when it's most virulent critic J. Morris Moore wrote scathing letters to The Times under the pseudonym, Verax.More recently Harper magazine published a withering review of modern restorations in the August 2005 issue entitled 'Inglorious Restorations'.
(photo from Harpers August 2005)
I have also had mixed feelings about restoration in principal and in experience. I followed the 10 year (1984-1994) saga of the restoration of the Sistine Chapel closely, and although I reserve judgment until I see the final product with my own eyes and compare it to my earlier viewing in the late 1970's, overall I feel the team managed to 'clean' the frescoes and yet still retain some of the original varnishes.As I wandered through the Louvre in Paris last spring, I had the same feeling of disquiet as I did today in London; paintings I had studied all my life and had nearly prostrated myself in front of in the 1980's, were now eerily bright, white and almost cartoon like in their lack of depth and shadow.But the French restorers were more subtle and light handed than their English counterparts, preferring to peer through countless layers of dirt to capture a master's brushstroke.The Italians fall somewhere between the two, depending on the restorer and conservator in chief.But the Brits have done something vile...in fact it is criminal.In fifty years art historians (backed by the anguished cries of today's critics) will posthumously call for the evisceration and flaying of the fools responsible for the destruction of the finest paintings ever produced by the human species.
And it cannot be undone.We no longer know how to create those delicately flavoured lacquers (ask any luthier or violin expert about this), much less how to apply them as Raphael and Michelangelo did. In the pursuit of 'the original masterpiece', struggling with the knowledge that much of the wonderous detail of the works was obscured by centuries of dirt, the conservators of the National Gallery collection had the temerity and the misplaced confidence in 'science' to CLEAN masterpieces, remove the dirt even if it meant removing the artists' original brushstrokes.
I am sick at heart over this, I cannot return the those galleries I loved and knew so well.I will spend my time at the NG in the Impressionist galleries...for the conservators haven't fucked with them....yet.