A Conversation about Conservation

By Eliot, Alexander | The World and I, June 2000 | Go to article overview
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A Conversation about Conservation


Eliot, Alexander, The World and I


Renoir's The Boating Party, numerous Rembrandts, Michelangelos--all have been irrevocably altered by zealous "restoration." Isn't it time to reconsider the assumptions fueling the art restoration industry?

When I was Time magazine's art editor, I once dropped into Washington's Phillips Collection to revisit an especially beloved image: Renoir's The Boating Party. I found that this sunnily celebratory masterpiece had been moved from its central position to a dark side room, as if in shame, and I could easily understand why. Its blossomy colors appeared dried out, droopy, and half-awry. The seated figure in the foreground had been reduced to corpse gray. Barging angrily into Duncan Phillips' office, I asked for an explanation.

Tears misted the sensitive old gentleman's eyes. "Well," he told me mournfully, "I sent the picture to our mutual friends--you know the restorers I mean. The best in the business, right?"

Mr. Phillips paused to wave away an imaginary fly.

"I'd asked them to iron out a small blister on the surface and then forward the canvas to Paris for a major exhibition at the Louvre. Deciding that my prize acquisition required cleaning, they went ahead with that. The people at the Louvre at first refused to accept the resultant ruin as a Renoir! Fortunately we were able to put them straight because our friends had taken the precaution of filming their work on the canvas. I have a copy of the film, which you're welcome to view. In it you'll notice actual color-stains coming off on the cotton swabs. But please, for God's sake, don't report this tragedy. It's too dreadful."

Not long afterward I spent an instructive weekend at the Worcester, Massachusetts, home of Francis Henry Taylor, who had recently retired from his flamboyant career as director of Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum. My friend Willem deKooning and I happened to have noticed a number of disturbing "hot spots" (as Bill called them) in the Metropolitan's famously extensive Rembrandt holdings. He blamed the artist, but I thought the damage must have come from inept cleaning. So I asked my host to decide the debate between Bill and me. Glancing up at the ceiling in Roman profile while stroking his paunch and swallowing hard, Francis murmured: "Oh, we ruined the Rembrandts ourselves. But let's not talk about it."

I've kept these secrets faithfully for half a century, which seems quite long enough. Meanwhile, not incidentally, a committee of Rembrandt scholars has seen fit to controvert the decisions of equally distinguished but dead colleagues and summarily "de-attribute" dozens upon dozens of Rembrandts--including some at the Metropolitan. "Not genuine," they say. ("No longer recognizable as genuine" would be a more judicious description.) Ten or twenty years from now, I imagine, specialists will get around to re-examining and de-attributing a thousand and one important pictures by Vermeer, Monet, Van Gogh, and so on that have been atrociously "restored" in our time.

Sistine Revelation

My first compelling intuition of the immortality of art (regardless of its physical fate) occurred thirty-some years ago when my partner Jane Winslow and I resided in Rome close by the Ponte Sisto and opposite the Church of Santa Dorotea. Thanks to sponsorship by the American Council of Catholic Bishops, we had been invited to create a fly-on-the-ceiling documentary film of Michelangelo's frescoes on the Sistine Chapel's barrel vault. At our request the maintenance crew in charge of Saint Peter's Basilica put together a slender Tinkertoy tower of narrow aluminum pipes resting on rubber-tired wheels. Looming up through the Chapel's dusty gloom, this flimsy contraption soared no less than sixty feet to within touching distance of the vault itself. Secured by four thin steel cables though it was, our tower did not inspire confidence. I was wandering around the chapel, trying to calm my nerves for the ascent ahead, when a Vatican functionary tapped my shoulder.

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A Conversation about Conservation
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