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Beck '52 leads an ardent campaign against potentially damaging restorations.
Professional conservators disagree.
by Kristin Ohlson/illustrations Bridgeman Art Library/photos
by Al Fuchs
you read this, the Mona Lisa's eyes grow a tiny bit dimmer, her
smile recedes into deeper mystery, and the sky behind her glowers
with increasing gloom. Flecks of color fall in a steady atomized
shower from Giotto's frescoesfrom Jesus, from Mary, and from
Judas the Betrayer and Peter the Rock. Even contemporary art is
beginning to sag, flake, crack, crumple, and discolor as the ravages
of time take their toll.
totally naive to think that art is static!" bellows Albert
Albano, thumping his hand on his dining room table with such brio
that a bottle nearly topples before he catches it and sets it on
the floor. Albano is executive director of the Intermuseum Conser-vation
Association (ICA), a regional art conservation center established
at Oberlin College's Allen Memorial Art Museum in 1952 which provides
conservation treatment and education.
go into an art museum where they see cultural materials and think,
'these pieces looked like this five years ago and will look like
this in another five years when I come back.' That's not the case.
Deterioration is a function of age. That's a law of the globe, and
art is no less subject to that law than you or I."
enough. While the word "timeless"is often applied to great
works of art, they are anything but. When museum visitors admire
the old master paintings, they may assume these works always had
an amber glow. More likely, however, the paintings are encased in
layers of grime and discolored varnishthe latter often applied
by long-dead owners, art dealers, and restorers as protectionand
even color added by other painters or restorers to make up for original
details lost to time.
elements of the original painting may even be hidden completely,
as a disputed evaluation of Leonardo da Vinci's Adoration of
the Magi proved earlier this year. For 10 years, the Uffizi
Gallery in Florence, Italy, had been studying how to restore the
painting and planned to begin the process in the spring of 2001.
However, a group of art scholars, led by controversial art historian
and Columbia University Professor of Art History James Beck '52,
raised an international furor against the restoration, claiming
it might damage the painting. The Uffizi agreed to abide by the
opinion of art diagnostician Maurizio Seracini, who ultimately ruled
that the painting wasn't actively deteriorating and didn't require
restoration. However, his research revealed a tantalizing world
of hidden figures. Using sophisticated techniques to probe beneath
the Adoration's uppermost layers, Seracini discovered images
of men rebuilding a ruined structure, a beautiful woman standing
near one of the magi, and other obscured details that actually change
the interpretation of the painting.
time and grime aren't enough, disasters both natural and manmade
wreak even greater havoc on works of art. The Parthenon tumbled
into pieces after being struck by a bomb in the 17th century. In
1966, a flood damaged thousands of rare and old books in Florence;
10 years later, earthquakes in northern Italy ruined church frescoes
and wooden sculptures. Fires frequently ravage museums, galleries,
and private collections. The most famous fire-damaged painting is
one from Monet's Water Lilies series, which was scorched
during a blaze at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1958 and still
languishes at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine ArtsNew
York University's conservation training program.
as long as people have anguished over damage to artworks, they've
also argued over what to do about it. Throughout the centuries,
the debate has focused mostly on the issue of intervention. One
side insists that we try to reverse the effects of age and disaster
by using the best techniques available to repair or restore works
of art. The other side asserts that we should honor these works
as artistic and historic artifacts by doing only what preserves
their current state. There are many degrees of difference, both
within and outside this spectrum of thought.
concern for the variety of values in a work of art is certainly
not new," says Jerry Podany, president of the American Institute
for Conservation (AIC) and head of antiquities conservation at the
J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He points to the Renaissance
hubbub when Michelangelo was asked to restore an ancient, broken
Hellenistic sculpture that had been recently excavated. Michelangelo
refused, knowing that the technical limitations of the age meant
that he would inflict greater damage on the surface of the sculpture.
the early 19th century, sculptor Antonio Canova offered similar
resistance when asked to restore the Phidias sculptures from the
fallen Parthenon. Many professional conservators like Podany share
this sense of caution, despite believing that intervention is not
only wise but also necessary in many circumstances.
long as people have created material works of any value, other people
have been repairing and restoring them," Podany says. "And
there are certainly restorers who have done a great deal of damage
to cultural propertiesto buildings, to paintings, to sculptures.
At every point in history, there have been techniques and materials
that were intended to help and simply didn't. Sometimes, they only
made things worse."
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