Does Art Restoration Risk Erasing the Past?

How conservation efforts can end up fictionalizing history

When Paris’s Notre-Dame cathedral became engulfed in flames earlier this year, its flèche (timber spire) split into pieces, sparking a debate about how best to approach its restoration. Pitching his design for a replacement roof, leading British architect Norman Foster noted the building’s long evolutionary history. Originally completed in the 13th century, Notre-Dame was ravaged by fires several times in subsequent centuries, prompting experimental 19th century architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc to design the now-ruined spire in 1844. His version, which shaped the image of the cathedral as we know it today, differed from the original, being taller, sharper, and more decorative. Viollet-le-Duc did not seek to replicate the original; instead, he aimed for, as Foster described it in an interview with the Guardian earlier this year, ‘a combination of the dominant old with the best of the new’. In stark contrast, French architect Roland Castro called for an identical reconstruction of the spire, claiming: ‘Parisians just want it to be the same.’

The argument touches on questions of identity: if an object’s parts are replaced over time, does it remain the same object? If restoration is merely replication, then does it not become an act of enshrining, fictionalizing or even fetishizing the past – a nostalgic theatre of authenticity? Or, rather, in merging the old with the new, can it provide us with a teleological understanding of time, whereby the present improves the past as much as the other way around?

Operation Night Watch, 2019. Courtesy: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Operation Night Watch, 2019. Courtesy: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Popular awareness of restoration has increased significantly over the past few years. In July, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum prominently publicized the restoration of Rembrandt van Rijn’s baroque classic The Night Watch (1642), displaying and livestreaming the painting in a glass cube as it was scanned by researchers, curators and conservators as part of a €3 million project. Using advanced imaging technology to analyze the painting’s pigments and components, the restoration aims to preserve – or bring back? – some of the work’s original quality. But what is it about the process of restoration that’s so beguiling to the public eye?

‘People have shown extraordinary interest in our work recently,’ Babette Hartwieg, the leading restorer from Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, tells me. Last October, alongside an exhibition of paintings by renaissance masters Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini, the Gemäldegalerie presented a show titled ‘Bellini Plus: Research and Restoration’, which provided insights into techniques, object histories and questions of restoration. ‘Our profession is changing,’ Hartwieg adds, standing in front of Mantegna’s Presentation at the Temple (c.1455). ‘New means of analysis allow us to co-operate with curators much more closely today.’ Understanding how paintings were moulded, glazed, textured and restored in past centuries could help draw better conclusions regarding their genesis, she explains, and eventually also their meaning.

Andrea Mantegna, Presentation at the Temple, circa. 1455, tempera on canvas, 69 x 86 cm. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Andrea Mantegna, Presentation at the Temple, circa. 1455, tempera on canvas, 69 x 86 cm. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Hartwieg points towards a floral pattern on the right side of Presentation at the Temple. ‘What you can see here as blue used to be a luminous vermilion, but the colour has blackened over time. All of this can be seen with a microscope – which really is my all-time favourite instrument.’ When I ask if she would ever try to bring back the red colour, Hartwieg seems startled: ‘Of course not. We would have to overpaint! This we cannot do.’ Most of her professional time, she emphasizes, consists of analyzing and conserving, as opposed to actually restoring. ‘We want the works to be heard, but we also try to act as restrained as we possibly can.’

For Katharina Haider, from Bacon Art Conservation Studios in Berlin, the scale of influence in restoring is similarly minimal: ‘Whatever we do should be 100 percent reversible,’ is her golden rule. There are differences, too, though: the many living artists she works with can provide exact information on which materials to use. ‘Sometimes I just quietly roll my eyes when I hear their proposals,’ Haider admits. ‘Often, it’s really just about calming them. This goes for artists, gallerists and collectors alike.’ Haider’s studio looks a lot like a chemical laboratory. She specializes in synthetic materials and hoards whatever sticky, rusty, even yucky things she finds – from leathery coverings to yellowed sheet protectors. Haider’s all-time favourite material is partially gilded glass-fibre reinforced polymer. She shows me some transparent yellowish pieces of it that look like tokens; she used other parts of the same material to restore an outdoor sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle.  

There are significant regional differences in contemporary restoration. Haider recounts how, recently, in Los Angeles, a monochrome artwork by Ellsworth Kelly was completely overpainted. ‘I’m not saying it was bad. The glossiness, the weld seam visibility, the cellulite varnish – all of this was done well. But the work’s aura? Well, it’s just gone.’ Haider recalls Walter Benjamin’s essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1935), in which he famously stated that an artwork’s aura – being tied both to presence and time – couldn’t be replicated. ‘The unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual,’ Benjamin wrote, adding that he saw this ritual as ‘thoroughly alive’. Haider notes: ‘People forget that the aura of an artwork is not just its materials at the time of its making; it’s something ingrown, and growing.’

Naturally, this prompts some questions in relation to artworks whose ephemerality is intentional. Fluxus artists Joseph Beuys and Dieter Roth, for instance, often created pieces to incorporate an element of gradual decay: Beuys’s Fettecke (Fat Corner, 1982) consisted entirely of butter; Roth made sculptures, such as Basel on the Rhine (1969), from chocolate. More recent examples include Michael Sailstorfer’s deteriorating tree installations (e.g. Forst, Forest, 2014). These works arguably unravel the aura, militating against the concept of restoration altogether. ‘The art world is changing,’ observes Haider, who, before she started Bacon Studios, used to curate time-based video installations at Tate in London. ‘Lots of techniques get lost with digitalization. That’s why I’m so fascinated by the Japanese approach to restoration. There, the object being restored is less important than the craft behind it: the craft itself is what actually needs to be preserved.’

The Berlin Palace, circa. 1920. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The Berlin Palace, circa. 1920. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Regarding the reconstruction of Notre-Dame, Hartwieg and Haider are similarly sceptical. ‘The building’s roof is irrevocably lost, so whatever is constructed will never be the same,’ says Hartwieg. ‘You cannot keep everything,’ emphasizes Haider. ‘This might sound like blasphemy but, to some extent, it’s also just the course of history.’ Both recalled the story of the Berlin Palace that, having suffered significant bomb-damage during World War II, was reconstructed in a style which overlooked the building’s complex history in favour of re-creating an emblem of bygone Prussia. As Benjamin wrote: ‘The instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.’

Main image: Operation Night Watch, 2019. Courtesy: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Hanno Hauenstein is a writer and editor based in Berlin, Germany. He is founder and editor of the Hebrew-German arts journal aviv Magazine.

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