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The Burlington Magazine and the National Gallery Cleaning Controversy (1947–1963)


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 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


Cite this article as: Sergio Momesso, The Burlington Magazine and the National Gallery Cleaning Controversy (1947–1963), in "", 9 agosto 2015; accessed 17 agosto 2017.

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