So now we all know what not to do when restoring great works of art. Don't go into a church in Spain and try to touch up a century-old fresco if all your attempts at art so far have ended with people asking you what you're painting. But it turns out that even professionals can screw up horribly when it comes to art restoration.
Here's how art restoration screwups can lead to impromptu nose-jobs, cracked paintings, or sand-blasted sculptures.
An eighty-year-old woman in Spain took the art world by storm when she decided to restore her favorite piece of art using skills that only an art teacher looking to make a fortune off of lessons could love. The result was a Jesus that looked possibly like a monkey, possibly like a lion, but definitely like something that shouldn't have been done on the wall of a church.
But just because someone's paid to restore works of art doesn't mean they can't screw up — especially when seemingly minor mistakes can have major consequences. Let's take a look at the many ways to ruin art restorations.
Cleaning It Up
When the Sistine Chapel underwent a cleaning in order to get centuries of dust and candle soot off its walls and ceiling, the move was railed against by many experts. Some argued that the painting should not be touched for any reason, and that the visible age was part of the art, but others were more concerned by the cleaning process.
A lot of damage is done when people don't know when to stop. Some people shouldn't even begin. The cool white of ancient Greek statues isn't a reflection of the sensibilities of antiquity. It's a reflection of the nineteenth century, when art curators found traces of the garish paint that used to cover them and blasted it away in order to make the statues look more beautiful to them. The 1800s also did a number on David. First he was covered in wax to put a nice white surface on him, and then the wax was removed with hydrochloric acid, along with the original patina of the statue.
Remember that it's hard to distinguish between dirt in the varnish, dirt on the paintings, and actual pigments put on the painting by the artist. And even if you do know it, there's no way to be sure that whatever you pick to clean it will only get the dirt. Two different da Vinci paintings have been damaged by attempts to clean them. One painting at the Louvre got several shades lighter when cleaned, and had the details washed out by extreme soft-focus. It was like the Virgin and Saint Anne, in the painting, wanted to airbrush out their wrinkles. A lost sketch by da Vinci of Orpheus being tormented by the Furies was destroyed when restorers dipped the sketch in alcohol and distilled water which took out the ink.
When Materials Science Goes Wrong
One of the major problems with restoring art is the fact that the materials to do it just aren't around anymore. Few companies crush lapis lazuli in the paint to make it blue, and there aren't too many canvases woven at the full moon by blind virgins drunk on sacramental wine — or whatever they thought was appropriate to back religious paintings way back when. Once the materials are approximately re-created, they have to age the same way the rest of the painting does. When they don't, things can go badly wrong.
A Caravaggio painting, lost for centuries, was nearly ruined by one of the people who who discovered it. The man was a skilled art restorer, but when a delay came and he couldn't import from Italy a backing to the painting that approximated the canvases used in the 1600s, he got a high-quality local canvas. It shrunk, squeezing the paint and cracking it all over. The man had to peel off the just-applied canvas and order a new one.
Bad materials also claimed Egyptian sarcophagi. To be fair, oftentimes a sarcophagus is ruined already. Ruination generally happens when people bury a bunch of precious materials in a hole in the ground, and mark the treasure with an elaborate tomb. One sarcophagus was decorated with a face which had eyes made of alabaster. The precious material was pried off long before it was carted off to European museums in the 1800s. The museums didn't have a lot of alabaster on hand either, and so decided to use a sloppy plaster job. The plaster yellowed over the years, giving the sarcophagus an evil look with yellow eye-whites. Later restorers had to pry the plaster eyes carefully out, and try again.
In the end, there are as many ways to screw up a painting restoration as there are people trying to restore paintings. Every decision is another chance to ruin everything, or at least to have people claim you did. Even the Sistine Chapel restoration, which most people think is an excellent example of restoration, has its critics. Other restorers mention that certain details, or shadows, seem to have been lifted away, sometimes to the point of removing the pupils from the eyes of some of the figures. Since any details that were removed had to have been painted over the fresco, not with the fresco, these criticisms kicked off a big debate over which details Michelangelo painted versus what was painted by other artists or at the insistence of the reigning Pope.
Then there are the intentional screw-ups. A group of restorers managed to save almost all of a mural called The Tree of Fertility. They just left out the tree itself. And that tree happened to be filled with nothing but penises. The penis has had a tough time in art, historically, what with being knocked off statues, over-painted with clothes, and generally hidden from view, and that trend doesn't seem to be abating.
One of the best arguments against any restoration at all, to any painting, is the fact that one factual mistake made at the time of the restoration can totally wipe out centuries of art. All it takes is one moment for experts to make the wrong conclusion, and everything gets ruined. In the 1900s, art historians noticed that two Shakespeare portraits had been altered. One was given a new hairstyle. One was given a bald forehead. Both, they thought, were redone a century after his death and therefore were alterations of an authentic image. They even speculated the original sitter wasn't Shakespeare, just a model to help the artist paint the great man. The over-paints were wiped away in a painstaking process revealing the true face of either Shakespeare or the anonymous sitter. A decade later, historical records showed that both paintings were of Shakespeare, and were actually altered during Shakespeare's lifetime to reflect his changing appearance. The restorations had taken away insights into how Shakespeare really looked at otherwise unexamined periods of his life.
And then there are the straight-up repaints. They might not all be as blatant as Simba Jesus, but sometimes restoring artists simply change a painting around. One painting, Supper at Emmaus, had critics up in arms because the restorer gave a woman a nose job. In the original painting by Veronese, shown in the paragraph above, a woman on the far right of the painting had a pronounced bump at the bridge of her nose and a knob at the end. The restorer smoothed out the bridge and gave her a downturned nose that masked the knob, as shown next to this paragraph. It took many successive attempts to recreate the face that the original painter created.
Admittedly, it takes an amateur to mess up to a certain extent. The pros, though, are no slouches. Maybe we should accept the grime? Or accept that art is more temporary than we like to think it is.