In “defense” of a hack-job restoration

Elías García Martínez, “Ecce Homo” (c. 1890)
Santuario de N.S. de la Misericordia, Borja, Spain
(Before, during, and after “restoration”)

It is unlikely that there is someone in the art world who has not yet heard this story (indeed, anyone who pays attention to the news has probably heard it, now that this has gone international), but I will still recap: an elderly woman in the town of Borja, Spain, with the permission of her parish, was working around the church to fix things up a bit and took it upon herself to “restore” a 120-year old fresco by local artist Elías García Martínez. “Ecce Homo,” which means “behold the man,” depicts the moment before Jesus was crucified. The fresco was flaking and in desperate need of restoration, so over the course of two years (in full view of others), she scraped off the loose paint and repainted the missing areas. The result is illustrated above, and clearly, things did not turn out so well.

Mr. Bean’s restoration of “Whistler’s Mother” (from the movie “Bean”)

I first read this story from a fellow WordPress blogger, Blog of the Courtier (if you click on the Source link under the picture above, you can check out the original post). It was a beautifully sympathetic perspective on how this woman did not know that she was doing something “wrong” in taking on this “restoration” by herself without any formal training, and that everyone makes mistakes. Other stories I have read since then, such as this one on CNN, are more comical and rather harsh: CNN journalists Brad Lendon and Mariano Castillo likened her work to that of the titular character in the movie Bean when he tried to repair “Whistler’s Mother” after using turpentine to clean up the remnants of a sneeze. I have since read– in another post that was also on Blog of the Courtier– that the poor woman has since suffered numerous anxiety attacks due to all of the media coverage, which has mostly been just like CNN’s. Because of my past experience in art conservation, current work in collections management/registration, and scholarly work in art history, I believe that there there are multiple ways that this story can be objectively analyzed that go beyond laughing at what she did to this fresco.

I will confess that when I first saw the picture of what happened to the “Ecce Homo” fresco, my museum studies-rooted instincts moaned in agony. Regardless of the relative value of this fresco (it is not a particularly well-known example of a painting depicting Jesus), it is now all kinds of damaged: she not only scraped off original material, but she also repainted it with paint that is likely irreversible (although I read in Yahoo! that she is working with conservators to identify the materials she used so that they can try to clean off what she did). Furthermore, the “restoration” looks, well, absolutely silly. The field of art conservation has a lot of ethical concerns, but three of the biggest ones revolve around minimally intervening in the restoration of the piece (i.e. one must try to keep as much of the original material as possible and don’t let your work be obviously different from the artist’s), using materials and methods that can be reversed in the event of future restorations and usage, and documenting everything before, during, and after conservation/restoration (and I’m actually mildly amused that this latter requirement has more or less been fulfilled by the media). Because I only ever worked in art conservation at a pre-graduate school internship level, I can only speculate on what the proposed treatment would have originally been; however, I can almost guarantee that it would have involved consolidating the existing paint to prevent further flaking/maintain its original integrity and using conservation-grade reversible pigments to fill in the areas of loss.

Behold the Chewie

Obviously, this woman was not a conservator. She did not know any of the aforementioned guidelines, nor the damaging consequences of what she did. And the result of her handiwork has now become an international forum for mockery and condemnation. According to The Denver Post, local authorities are even considering taking legal action against her. I don’t know if it was the sympathetic take at Blog of the Courtier that swayed my opinions or my expanding knowledge of the more abstract field of art history (as opposed to the scientific, analytical nature of conservation and museum studies), but I genuinely feel worse for the woman than I do for the artwork. I am not saying that I condone what she did, but upon further consideration of the nature of the piece, I think that people are being entirely too hard on her, even if what the general population is paying attention to most is how funny Jesus looks while the art and religious communities consider what she did as essentially vandalism (albeit of an unintentional nature).

Restoration has come a long way over the centuries. There was once a time when people used to clean frescoes with wine or egg yolk. Wine eventually stained the fresco, and egg yolk crystallized before causing the plaster to blister because of the crystals’ exposure to fluctuating levels of humidity (at least that’s what happened in Italy). People didn’t know they were damaging the art, they thought they were helping it. Today, the conservation world is not keen on widely acknowledging that conservators can make mistakes too– though these mistakes are well-documented so that others may learn from them– but there are a few stories I heard in recent years that stand out in my mind. One involves a Van Gogh painting, in which an Italian conservator, who did not have her glues properly labeled, ended up applying fish glue– one of the strongest glues out there– instead of rabbit skin glue– which is water soluble and comparatively one of the weakest glues– to the surface of the painting. Needless to say, she destroyed the painting, and if I remember correctly, she also lost her license. I also heard a story about a woman (whose professional level I can’t recall) who put an old New York Yankees jersey into a bath before adequately testing the solubility of the blue dye, which then got drawn into the water and ruined the jersey. And I don’t think a lot of people will ever forget the controversy surrounding the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, in which some of the eyes of the figures were lost due to over-cleaning, among other issues. I would like to also point out that the Sistine Chapel was “vandalized” during the Counter-Reformation: Michelangelo’s nude figures had cloths painted over their genitalia, and during the recent restoration, conservators only removed half of these cloths because, though they were not original to Michelangelo’s vision, they were a testament to a specific period of time in art history. But I digress: while a good conservator would not have done anything like what this elderly Spanish woman did to this painting, the point is that everyone can make mistakes, even when they have nothing but the best intentions.

Chris Ofili, “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996)

“Ecce Homo” meant a lot to this woman. She reportedly told a Spanish television station that this was her favorite local representation of Jesus. She cared about her parish, and all she wanted to do was help fix it up. Religious imagery has the power to evoke strong feelings in many. For example, when the exhibition “Sensation” came to the Brooklyn Museum in the late ’90s, a lot of people were automatically up-in-arms over a (black) representation of the Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili, which featured numerous cut-outs of genitalia from porn magazines as well as real elephant dung on the surface of the painting. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani in particular was very outspoken in his condemnation of the piece. However, the outrage that people felt– and their unwillingness to listen– marked a level of cultural and artistic ignorance: the elephant dung was an African symbol of spiritual empowerment, imbuing the artwork with another level of holiness, and inclusion of genitalia are a trademark of Ofili’s work. All people saw was a representation of the Holy Virgin covered in sex and shit. (Side note: this painting was also vandalized).

This 81-year-old woman may have done a hack-job restoration that may or may not have destroyed the original painting, but she does not deserve to be looked at as a vandal and she certainly doesn’t deserve to have charges pressed against her. She cared about this painting, and while her love for it was a little misguided in its execution, she didn’t know she was damaging it or that she was doing something “wrong.” The holy nature of the painting and her attachment to it compelled her to try to fix it. It’s not like the jackass in Texas who spray-painted a Picasso, which was, in his view, an act of honor towards the artist. That instance was truly an act of vandalism and disrespect.

In fact, her love for this painting demonstrates something to me that I don’t always see in my line of work. Over the years– which are admittedly rather limited, as I have only been seriously working with art since 2006 at various levels of professionalism– I have seen a lot of instances of neglect of art. Unfortunately a lot of this neglect stems from sheer ignorance in regards to the proper care of art, but a lot of it also stems from frugality. Once when I was interning in conservation, I saw a man bring a heavily damaged giclee to the conservator’s studio. It was cracked all over– so cracked that I likened it to examining skin cells on the back of one’s hand– exposing the white of the canvas underneath. It had been hung near a swamp cooler, which meant that it was regularly exposed to sporadic high levels of humidity in an extraordinarily dry environment (a.k.a. the state of Colorado). When the conservator gave him an estimate for how much it would cost to attempt to just fill in the cracks– which cost much more than the giclee was even worth– he dejectedly replied, “So I basically destroyed my artwork.” This may be a rather extraordinary case of ignorance in art care– honestly I think he completely lacked common sense, but I may have art care practices so ingrained in me that it’s as easy as breathing– but there are lots of people out there who don’t think that putting their watercolor painting right next to a regular window might result in light damage, or that matting a drawing with a pretty-colored mat from Michael’s may result in acid burn because the mat is not archival. On the frugal side, I’ve seen a lot of instances of people using cheap crates or other subpar methods of packing for their artwork, which can sometimes result in damage to the art. It can be both amusing and offensive when they get upset that their artwork showed up damaged, as though they never expected that anything of the sort could ever happen– like money means nothing in regards to art, or that art isn’t vulnerable.

And that’s what a lot of this really comes down to: not thinking and not caring about an investment in culture. People all too often look at art as nothing but a commodity, or as something to be used and then disposed of when it has lost its purpose, but I disagree. Art is a testament to humanity and to the history of the world. It needs to be cared for, and I even sometimes think that neglect is a worse example of crappy art practice than a bad restoration. Perhaps one of the best things I read in regards to this botched restoration was a Tweet that was recounted on AOL: “This could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. This person has highlighted a problem that many churches in Spain are having– not having enough resources to maintain these historic frescoes. Maybe this will raise awareness and and an effort will be made to address the issue.” Did our elderly Spanish woman make a mistake? Yes. But at least she cared– indeed, what she did speaks to the power of art on humanity. And at least she is now trying to help others fix it. She is embarrassed, ashamed, and could even be compromising her health from all of the stress caused by a worldwide flurry of media coverage. So let’s all cut her a break, shall we? How about we focus on truly stupid things other people have done this week?

I’m looking at you, Todd Akin. 

Addendum: There is apparently now a campaign to actually save the botched restoration. Check out this article (I would also like to highlight my favorite quote from that article from The Guardian‘s Jonathan Jones: “Many true masterpieces are starved of the global attention this second-rate Ecce Homo has now got.”)

6 thoughts on “In “defense” of a hack-job restoration

  1. Pingback: This Week « Bricks + Mortar

  2. NPR did a story on the aftermath of this “restoration” this morning. Apparently, tourists are now flocking to the church, which is charging admission to see the painting. The church is making so much money that the elderly woman who “restored” it has contracted lawyers to find out if she should be getting a cut of the profits!

    • Thank you for the update! I actually hadn’t heard that yet, and I am glad to find out that people aren’t being so hard on her anymore. Once I saw the AOL story that the painting had developed something of an Internet cult following, I had a feeling it would become a tourist-pilgrimage site.

      • You were right! And I would imagine that the church will use some of the funds to help maintain other art in their collection and their building, just as you predicted in your original piece.

        I’m curious to see if the “artist” (hehe) will receive any of the profits.

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