Destroyed fresco brings mixed reactions from art conservators
Published: Monday, September 3, 2012
Updated: Monday, September 3, 2012 22:09
A woman in her 80s attempted to restore a tattered and flaking painting at a church in Spain a few weeks ago, resulting in a portrait that looked nothing like the original.
The 19th century fresco painting of Jesus by Elías García Martínez was retouched by Cecilia Giménez, who claims to have received permission by the priest of the church, according to a National Public Radio “The World” podcast.
Giménez, who has no training in the field of art conservation, repainted the portrait of Jesus, altering his hair style, facial features and clothing.
Some art conservation professors said this recent incident has brought attention to the importance of their field. The university houses one of four art conservation programs in the U.S. The other three programs are taught at New York University, UCLA Getty and Buffalo State University.
Professor Joyce Hill Stoner, director of the preservation studies doctoral program at the university, stated in an email message that public education about her profession would help people understand art restoration. She said when amateur artists like the woman in Spain try to do professional projects, the results can be detrimental.
“Often these attempts cause far more damage than would have happened if they had been left entirely alone,” Stoner said. “Benign neglect is far preferable.”
Stoner worked at the Winterthur Museum as the chief paintings conservator for four years and as the head of conservation for two years. She said she treats approximately two dozen paintings a year and oversees students’ work on about a dozen more.
“We think public education and advocacy about our profession is one key,” Stoner said. “Even the Antiques Roadshow people often say, ‘Ah, Madame, if you had not cleaned this piece of early American furniture it would have been worth $70,000, now it is worth no more than $700.’”
Art conservation professor Vicki Cassman said she believes conservators should be more accessible to the general public in order to prevent future self-appointed restorations. She said the field of art conservation is not very large so most projects are brought to restoration professionals.
“There aren’t that many of us out there that we’d have to kind of dig up the work,” Cassman said. “So, whether they find conservators that are appropriately trained or not is another question as the Spanish incident shows us.”
Cassman said natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti, are a common reason for conservators to be called upon.
Professional art conservationists are expected to follow a code of ethics, she said. Restoration on every piece is thoroughly documented and the treatment used must be reversible.
“I think in the example of the Spanish disaster that probably neither of those two principles of conservation were held,” Cassman said.
If the woman in Spain used oil paint, it could be difficult to remove without compromising the painting below, according to Stoner.
“One way it could be approached would be to try to remove tiny square millimeters of her paint under the microscope with tiny pointed swabs and then immediately consolidate the lifting flakes below,” she said.