Is Restoration Right?

Olivia Drage, July 20, 2018

Damaged Paintings and the Art of Restoration

There is a controversial and deeply rooted debate surrounding the art of restoration. Does it de-value art? Who can an artwork really be attributed to after restoration? What are the risks?

The act of restoration is carried out by conservators, who essentially repair damaged and ageing artworks. By adapting the artwork, they attempt to preserve our cultural heritage. However, there have been many examples of restoration calamities, which weaken the argument that restoration is both positive and justified, of which I will discuss the most notable.

The Christ Catastrophe

The case of Cecilia Giminez’s ‘Ecce Homo’ painting is one of the most publicly exposed examples of restoration ruining art. Cecilia set out to return the fresco back to its original state and preserve the history of the artist, however instead she produced a completely unrecognisable work which could only be attributed to herself.

The original fresco was so decayed and damaged that it required the hand of a professional conservator using the upmost precision and skills which Giminez unfortunately lacked. What began as an honourable attempt to preserve a historical representation of Christ, resulted in an unintended mockery of the iconic fresco.

The Night Watch Nightmare

A second example of controversial conservation is Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’.  The paintings present name is due to the nature of the paint used by the artist, which resulted in it darkening over time. This artwork clearly demonstrates another issue with restoration, the difficulty to recreate the exact medium used when the painting was originally produced. The types of materials used by artists such as Rembrandt just aren’t reproducible in their original state and over time their make-up becomes less and less obvious.

The Night Watch was also considerably cropped by restorers in order to comply with the wall space restrictions of the exhibition space of the Town Hall in Amsterdam, removing both space and figures from the composition. The main predicament with restoration is that very difficult (if not impossible), to reverse the effects – hence these discarded figures are irreplaceably lost…

Creative Criminals or Masterpiece Masterminds?

Due to the nature of the ever-expansive art world, the question ‘to restore or not to restore?’ will always remain. However, when we are standing in the Victoria and Albert Museum gazing at a beautiful artwork by Botticelli, we should ask ourselves, is it worth the risk? I do believe that often conservators are not given enough credit as without them we would be in a world lacking art history. Many artworks would be unrecognisable or not exist at all if it not for the hand of such professionals preventing their decay. 

Although such masterpieces are not in their original state and are no longer purely the work of the original creator, they remain as the closest representation of their original presence in the history of art. One final famous example which springs to mind is the Sistine Chapel within the Vatican, which despite its controversy has been widely praised for its successful restoration which occurred in the 20th Century.  Imagine if there was no Leonardo Da Vinci or Michelangelo or Botticelli? Restoration doesn’t necessarily de-value art, it may also preserve it for future generations. 

Written by Olivia Drage - Recruitment Resourcer at Alchemy Recruitment Ltd

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