L’ultimo post nel blog del «Burlington Magazine» riassume uno dei dibattiti più interessanti ospitati, nel corso del ‘900, sulle pagine della celebre rivista inglese. Una discussione che vide coinvolti Brandi, Gombrich, Kurz, Rees Jones e Plesters e costrinse tutti a confrontarsi con i problemi fondamentali del restauro.
Il restauro è il momento di conservazione di opere che ci sono state tramandate o segna piuttosto un loro adattamento a nuovi usi, ad un nuovo gusto, ad un nuovo contesto e ad assuefazioni diverse da quelle che lo hanno visto nascere? Questa era la domanda che spingeva nel 1988 Alessandro Conti a raccogliere per il pubblico italiano i testi della discussione anglosassone introducendoli con un saggio oggi fondamentale per la storia del restauro (E.H. Gombrich, O. Kurz, S. Rees Jones, J. Plesters, Sul restauro, a cura di A. Conti, Einaudi, Torino 1988).
Peccato che questo volume manchi, forse perché scritto nell’italica favella, tra le numerose referenze del post menzionato. Un articolo comunque meritevole per l’impegno e che, tutto sommato, potrebbe risultare un’utile segnalazione dell’argomento per lettori web-addicted, se non fosse qui e là poco accurato (per es. presentare Cesare Brandi come «restorer»).
Between 1940 and 1965 The Burlington Magazine published in its pages one of the most complex and long lasting controversies in its history.
The controversy regarded the conservation of oil paintings, and especially the different methodologies, practical and theoretical, on how to approach the cleaning of pictures.
The characters involved were of the highest calibre: the National Gallery in London, the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro (I.C.R.) in Rome and Ernst Gombrich, who in 1959 had been appointed Director of the Warburg Institute.
Between 1936 and 1946 a large number of National Gallery paintings were cleaned by nine different restores, among whom the best known was Helmut Ruhemann. Over seventy newly-cleaned paintings, among which Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (illustrated here), were included in the 1947 National Gallery exhibition, simply titled Cleaned Pictures.
The accompanying exhibition catalogue addressed many of the controversial issues surrounding conservation. For instance, the National Gallery Director at the time, Philip Hendy, stated in the catalogue introduction: ‘However safe the method, however correct the principle, there will still be a margin for legitimate discussion concerning the finished product. Much of the criticism comes from those who best know and most love the pictures, in the ownership of which they have a share. Their criticism may help those who are responsible never to forget the extent of their responsibilities and to be always examining their principles and methods.’
However, the exhibition did not allay public criticism and consequently a Standing Committee of Enquiry (known as the Weaver Committee) was appointed to investigate the Gallery’s conservation work. The Weaver Committee Report stressed the importance of a scientific approach to conservation, and led to the establishment of a Chemical Laboratory, staffed by a Chemist and a Scientific Assistant. The in-house Conservation Department had already been established in 1946, consisting of a Consultant Restorer [Helmut Ruhemann], a Restorer and a Craftsman.
The Weaver Report concluded that no damage was found to have resulted from the recent cleaning.
The opinion of the Weaver Report was not shared by all. In 1949 the Italian restorer Cesare Brandi wrote a heated article in the Burlington Magazine, explaining concepts such as patina, varnish and glazes, which, he believed, needed careful methods of conservation and preservation. Brandi was vehemently against the cleaning methods employed by the National Gallery. Brandi claimed that in the past artists applied all sort of finishes – varnishes and glazes – to temper the vivid tints of their works. These resulted in a softening, darker effect, known as patina. Brandi believed that leaving the pictures with their patina was closer to the artist’s original intention. Brandi stated that ‘the last refugee of the upholders of total cleaning is the hypothesis that dirt, varnishes accumulated over the centuries and so forth, are being palmed off as patina.’ He explained that what today was called patina, was nothing more than glazes or tinted varnished, and he stated that to remove those would mean remove a significant part of the painting.
Following Brandi’s article, the Burlington published a reply from Neil Maclaren (Deputy Keeper) and Anthony Werner (Research Chemist) at the National Gallery. Maclaren and Werner admitted that the controversy had some beneficial effects on the investigation of the problems surrounding conservation methods but they, understandably, defended the National Gallery’s modus operandi. They opined that paintings had gone under restoration and cleaning since the antiquity, and many of them did not carry anymore the original glaze or varnish. They emphasized that the early cleanings ruined the paintings, but not the latest.
The debate was then based largely on disagreements on terminology and technical procedures, but the Burlington had claimed that ‘taste’ and ways of seeing permeated the debate already since its 1947 Editorial. This aspect took further momentum in the early 1960s, when in February 1962 a Burlington article, ‘Dark Varnishes: Variations on a Theme from Pliny’, was written by Ernst Gombrich. The focus of the dispute shifted then on aesthetical considerations supported by primary evidence. In fact, Gombrich approached the controversy using Classical sources. He referred to the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder and his writings about Apelles’ painting techniques in the Naturalis Historia.
Gombrich reported this passage from Pliny as witness for the existence of opaque glazes: ‘He [Apelles] used to give his pictures when finished a dark coating so thinly spread that, by reflecting, it enhanced the brilliance of the colour while, at the same time, it afforded protection from dust and dirt and was not itself visible except at close quarters.one main purpose was to prevent the brilliance of the colours from offending the eye, since it gave the impression as if the beholder were seeing them through a window of talc, so that he gave from a distance an imperceptible touch of severity to excessively rich colours.’
In his 1960 book Art and Illusion, Gombrich had already written about the cleaning controversy in the chapter about light and visual attitude. There he opined that the need for brighter colours on old master paintings is mainly due to our culture’s aesthetics, especially after the success and dissemination of Impressionist painting.
Put it in simple words, we now like brighter colours.
In his Burlington article of February 1962, Gombrich asserted that assuming that all the finest painters used a glaze as a finish it would be wrong, if not in very few occasions such as to ‘remedy some accidental mishap’ to remove it. He also underlined that there was a vast contingent of artists, art historians and art professionals who disagreed with the National Gallery’s restorations. In fact, he stated severely that ‘Surely when many independent observers agree that certain paintings now look stripped, harsh or incoherent after ‘cleaning’ it is not sufficient to reply or imply that since none of the original pigments can be shown to have been removed these critics must obviously be enamoured of dirt.’ Gombrich then criticised the governmental ‘committee culture’ and added that ‘Official bias will always favour ‘objective’ rules of procedure which exempt the restorer and his employers from the responsibility of agonizing decisions.’
In the same issue of the Burlington, Otto Kurz, then Librarian of the Warburg Institute, followed the lead of Gombrich in his article ‘Varnishes, Tinted Varnished, and Patina’. Kurz analysed theoretically the differences between varnishes and tinted varnishes, through the documents, notes and recipes left by the artists.
In his last article about the Cleaning Controversy, Controversial Methods and Methods of Controversy, published in the Burlington in March 1963, Gombrich, perhaps in a desire of finding some reconciliation, stated the importance of scientific analysis, and he wrote: ‘I hope I do not underrate the importance of scientific evidence for understanding of painting techniques and the problem of restauration.’ Nevertheless, in an official Report of the National Gallery, it was stated that his intervention fomented the controversy. »continua…
The Burlington Magazine and the National Gallery Cleaning Controversy (1947–1963) | The Burlington Magazine Index Blog