As you may have seen, gentle reader, yet another art restoration blunder in Spain has been making international headlines this week.
The owner of a 19th century copy of a painting generally known as “The Immaculate Conception of El Escorial” (c. 1660) by the great Spanish Baroque artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682) decided that he wanted to have the object cleaned and restored. He paid an individual described as a “furniture restorer” in the city of Valencia to do the work, and the individual made a colossal cock-up of it, not once, but TWICE. One wonders why the owner didn’t immediately demand that the painting be returned after he saw the initial damage, which is really rather awful:
I’ve weighed in on this problem of botched interventions in Spain for years now, so it’s nice to see that The Guardian and other publications are starting to catch up with me, I suppose. When I’m in Spain, I spend a decent amount of time visiting art galleries and antiques dealers, and it sometimes causes me to raise an eyebrow when I see a particularly dingy, dodgy establishment advertised as providing art restoration and conservation, in addition to buying and selling. I also suspect that this is a far more widespread problem than just within Spain, but since the 2012 “Beast Jesus” incident became a worldwide phenomenon, stories like these allow readers to be directed back to previously published articles, just as I have done.
That being said, there’s an important distinction to be made between the previous infamies and the current uproar.
In the case of the “Beast Jesus”, or the day-glo painted statues of St. Anne and St. George, the objects in question were not the private property of an individual. Rather they were (broadly speaking) church property, located in parishes in small towns around the country, where there is often really little or no authority considering sacred art other than the opinion of the pastor himself. That lack of coordination and oversight remains an institutional problem, and it needs to be addressed by the country’s bishops.
Here however, the object in question is owned by an individual collector, not by the Church or a public institution. Much as one may lament the fact that the collector was so stupid as to send his painting to a furniture restorer rather than an art conservator, he has every right to dispose of his property as he chooses. One cannot foresee and thereby forestall every possible method by which a fool and his money are parted.
Passage of stricter standards in Spain and elsewhere concerning licensing, certification, and so on, as well as educating the public on the importance of seeking advice and intervention from a properly trained expert will no doubt cut down on the number of those who hold themselves out as being art restorers or conservators. Yet that won’t stop someone from turning their art object over to their brother-in-law or their neighbor’s niece for cleaning or retouching based on some element of good will rather than common sense. It remains the case that the remedy in such situations is not some sort of draconian law concerning the ownership of art objects, but rather the remedies afforded to the owners of such objects in the civil courts.
On a related note, then, do yourself a favor and go subscribe to one of the most fascinating channels on YouTube, Baumgartner Restoration. Chicago-based art restorer and conservator Julian Baumgartner posts videos showing what it takes to properly clean, restore, and preserve all kinds of work, whether it’s an Italian Renaissance altarpiece or an American landscape painting from the turn of the previous century. Sometimes he’s lucky, and the work goes fairly smoothly, but it’s the videos where the work is so damaged, or so filthy, that you can’t even imagine how he’s going to be able to save it, that are perhaps the most interesting viewing. You’ll come away with a greater appreciation, as I did when I had this 17th century painting restored, of just how many hours and hours of work and years of expertise are needed, in order to try to save a work of art that’s falling to pieces before your eyes.
And now, let’s take a look at some other eye-catching stories from the art world this week.
Like something out of a Hollywood screenplay, the thief who recently stole a Van Gogh from a museum in The Netherlands has provided what, in the case of a human kidnapping, we would call “proof of life” evidence. Art historian and art crime expert Arthur Brand contacted authorities when he obtained recent images of “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring” (1884), which seem to indicate that the painting still exists. Mr. Brand has, understandably, not made any other information public, but one assumes that the photos are either part of or prelude to a ransom demand. As the Art Crime blog notes, another possibility may be, given that the newspaper shown features a story about Mr. Brand, that the individual may be “thumbing his nose” at the famous art detective, as if daring him to try to catch him. Stay tuned as this one develops.
The last exhibition I was able to see in person was “Gerhard Richter: Painting After All”, a major retrospective of the Contemporary artist’s work (and rumored to be his final show in America) which opened at the Met Breuer on March 3rd. I saw the show on March 7th, posted some shots of it on Instagram here and here, and was preparing a review for the magazine when everything pretty much went to hell, and the museum was forced to close (along with just about everything else in New York) on March 12th. This week it was announced that the building, which the Metropolitan Museum of Art had leased from the Whitney Museum of American Art, and more importantly the Richter exhibition itself, would not be reopening, as the Met is transferring the lease to the Frick Gallery. The Frick is preparing for a major renovation and expansion, and while the mansion which houses the collection is undergoing construction, objects and operations will be moved to the Breuer Building. The structure, which has been described by people with appalling taste as “a work of art in and of itself”, ought to be demolished once the Frick moves back into its proper HQ – but I suspect that, unfortunately for those who have to live around it, that won’t be happening.
And finally, this week Christie’s opened a special online mini-exhibition titled “Wyeth’s World”, to advertise the private sale (no auction) of nine works by the great American painter Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009). The selection ranges from small, sketchy studies, to large works painted in tempera, one of Wyeth’s preferred mediums. Perhaps the best of the objects on offer is “Lobster Man (Forrest Wall)” (1948), a large watercolor shown in the photograph below. To me, it’s a classic image of Post-War America, and I particularly love the detail of the steam rising from the open thermos and coffee cup lid. No word on the asking price, but it must be somewhere in the six-figure range, I should think. The online exhibition runs through July 17th.