Really, REALLY Bad Art Restoration

If you thought that infamous art “restoration” in Spain was bad, wait until you see this one.  This time, the victim is not a small church in active use, where one wonders why no one noticed what the woman was up to for so long, but rather a large, semi-abandoned church in Russia, or rather a part of Russia which was once part of Germany.  If there is to be a prize for horrible conservation this year, surely this is to be the undisputed winner.

People often forget that Germany, like Italy, Spain, etc., didn’t always exist in the form we know it today.  In fact one can argue that “Germany” didn’t even exist until 1871, when most of the German states united into a single confederation.  As a result of subsequent wars, treaties, invasions, and so forth, some parts of Central and Eastern Europe that were once considered “Germany”, now belong to other states.

One example of this is the Baltic port city of Kalingrad, formerly known as Königsberg, which today is part of Russia.  I won’t go into all of the historical back-and-forth of who owned it and when, but suffice to say that since its founding in the Middle Ages, it was part of Germanic territory for a long time, and boasted a substantial German population.  Most of that population was forcibly removed by the Soviets after World War II, and the city was repopulated with Russians.

Following the collapse of communism and the explosive growth of the Russian Orthodox church over the past twenty years, we have seen a great deal of church restoration and new construction to meet the needs of Russian Christians.  This is of course great news for Christianity.  Unfortunately, some avoidable cultural losses are being suffered by the local populations as a result.

A report yesterday in The Art Newspaper indicates that the 14th-century church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, near Kalingrad, has now lost almost all of its medieval frescoes.  Originally a Catholic church built by the local German population, after the Reformation the building was taken over by the Protestants, who whitewashed over all of the frescoes.  The frescoes were subsequently re-discovered in the last century and revealed, but they were severely damaged during bombing in World War II.  When the Soviets took over, the church was converted into a museum and storage depo, which obviously didn’t help with what was left.

In 2010, the building was given to the Russian Orthodox church, to meet their growing need for more worship spaces.  Unfortunately, according to art experts, the remaining frescoes in St. Catherine’s are now all but gone.  They have been covered over with some cement-like covering which, unlike the whitewash slathered on centuries earlier by the Protestants, cannot be removed.  With just 2-3% of the wall art remaining, conservation is possible, but the rest is lost to history.

In the case of St. Catherine’s, we are dealing with a slightly different situation to that in Spain.  Whereas the suffering Christ in the latter church was relatively new and could be easily restored, here the paintings were so far gone as to be little more than fragments.  Thus, the wall paintings here, beautiful though they once were, never had a chance of returning to that relatively pristine state they enjoyed before the ravages of World War II.

That being said, those who understand culture and history appreciate that these things come with certain requirements.  It’s certainly understandable why the local Orthodox diocese, when it took over the building, would want to work on making it a place where religious services could be held again.  Unfortunately, they seem to have forgotten that preservation of objects from the past, while not essential to the practice of Christianity, is something that should be attempted whenever possible.

Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria (XIV Century) Rodniki (Arnau), Russia

Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria (XIV Century)
Rodniki (Arnau), Russia

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You Own It, But Should You Photograph It?

freshly-pressed-rectangle

If I came over to your house and started rearranging your furniture, or fiddling with the pictures on the walls, you’d probably be more than a little bit put out.  No one likes people touching their “stuff” without permission.  However when it comes to art museums, there’s often a tension between those who approach them while maintaining a respectful distance, and those who want to do the equivalent of putting their shod feet on the coffee table.  An example of this tension can be seen in the very current issue of public photography in this, the age of the selfie on social media.

News this week that London’s National Gallery will now allow personal, non-commercial photography of their collection reversed a very long-held policy.  Even though other London institutions such as the British Museum, Tate Britain, and Tate Modern have all permitted photography for years, the National Gallery was a hold-out.  There’s been a fair amount of division in the art press as to whether this was a good decision, with some raising the question of ,”Whose art is it, anyway?” – given that the National Gallery is paid for by British taxpayers.  Others decried what they see as a lowering of standards, and the turning of a formerly hushed place of learning into a noisy free-for-all.

Museums differ widely when it comes to this issue, and surprisingly there’s no universally accepted standard.  A survey by The Art Newspaper earlier this year of some of the most popular art museums around the world showed that not only are there differing rules, but flip-flopping of those rules occurs periodically as well.  Recently for example, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam reversed its policy permitting photography in the galleries, thanks to amateur photographers making the place something like a rugby scrimmage.

Here’s a rundown on the current positions of several major art institutions:

  • Louvre: Allowed
  • Metropolitan: Allowed
  • National Gallery (US): Allowed
  • Orsay: Banned (was allowed until 2011)
  • Vatican Museums: Allowed in the galleries; banned in the Sistine Chapel

There are numerous reasons why museums may ban photography, the most obvious of which is the preservation of the art itself.  Even those which do allow public photography almost always ban flash photography.  Repeated exposure to bursts of artificial light can damage the art, particularly objects such as fragile paintings, drawings, or textiles.  Yet an even more practical reason for the ban has to do with basic human clumsiness.

As a species, humans tend to fall over a lot more often than others do, and we don’t always land elegantly on our feet with no collateral damage, as a cat does.  Understandably, many institutions worry that when non-professional photographers try to maneuver to get a close-up, take a group shot, or even snap the dreaded “selfie” with some piece from the collection, they might accidentally stumble, and as a consequence jostle the art object, or worse.  This is why even those museums which permit photography insist that the visitor stay a certain distance away from the art.  Should you happen to visit the National Gallery here in Washington, for example, get too close to an object on display and you’re going to get a sharp word of warning from the guard watching you.

The debate over members of the public photographing public collections however, creates a more complex sort of problem.  On one hand, it seems only fair that art which taxpayers have funded, and which is held in trust on the public’s behalf, should be accessible.  On the other, because of the concomitant duty of the institutions housing these collections to preserve the art and educate the public about it, curators and museum staff have to walk a very fine line between allowing too much access and not allowing enough.

From my point of view, I’d rather purchase a book with professionally photographed images of art anyway, since a good photographer can create a far better image than I.  At the same time, I can understand why others feel it’s only right that they be allowed to capture images of publicly funded objects for themselves, to share on social media with family and friends.  So I’ll confess, while I recognize the existence of the issue, I don’t know that I’ve formed a fixed opinion about it: and given how opinionated I often am, gentle reader, that is quite an unusual development indeed.

What do you think? Is public photography a good or a bad thing in museums?  The comments section is open and waiting for your contributions.

The Louvre Mona Lisa Photographers

 

Through the Online Looking-Glass

I’m going to share a piece of information with you, which I suspect most of my readers will not care about at all, or at least not very much.  On this day back in 1642, the great Italian Baroque painter Guido Reni died, in the city of Bologna. For those of you not hugely interested in art history, this event may not seem to be of any great importance.  However it gives me the chance to do something rare these days, and that is appreciate, rather than criticize, what a great teaching tool the internet can be.

Last night after dinner I was checking up on some headlines in the art world, and came across a mention that it was the birthday of Francesco Albani, another Italian Baroque painter, who was born in Bologna in 1578.  Albani was one of the chief rivals of Guido Reni for major fresco commissions, but while Albani was very decorative, Reni was often the more sensitive painter, as his intense portrait of his mother, reproduced below, shows us.  The stark image, not at all colorful like many of Reni’s other works, puts me in mind of the Queen of Hearts from “Alice in Wonderland”; falling down the internet rabbit hole began soon thereafter.

Reading more about Albani and Reni, I came across a reference to Reni’s ceiling fresco for the Basilica of St. Dominic in Bologna, the church where the founder of the Dominican Order is buried. The church has gone through many changes over the past 800 years, including extensive remodelling during the pontificate of Benedict XIII (1650-1730), who was himself a Dominican.  Not knowing anything about Benedict XIII, I read up on him, and learned about someone else I knew nothing about, Cardinal Scipione Rebiba (1504-1577).

It seems this particular Pope Benedict consecrated a huge number of bishops during his pontificate, approximately 159, from all corners of the world. These bishops then went on to consecrate bishops in their respective home countries.  Tracing back the lineage of who consecrated whom gets us to Cardinal Rebiba.  Because of the huge number of bishops consecrated by Benedict XIII, the vast majority of bishops and Popes since his time are “descended” from him, including the present incumbent, Pope Francis.  Only about 5% of current bishops can trace their consecration through someone other than Cardinal Rebiba, so finding a bishop who is not in this line must feel something like a “Where’s Waldo” adventure for those who are deeply interested in episcopal matters.

Now, is any of this material of particular importance to someone who is not a researcher or historian? To be honest, it’s probably not.  And yet, if you love knowledge, this is exactly the sort of educational jumping-off point which the internet is really good at providing.

All of the preceding information came from a single, online mention of someone I did not know anything about.  I then let my brain and my fingers take me on an exploration through history, and learned a number of interesting new things as a result.  The entire process gave me immense pleasure, and fed my mind with something more significant than funny cat videos – although I freely admit that such things have their place, as well.  The curious fact that today is the anniversary of Guido Reni’s death, is something that might have passed me by had I not fed my brain the information I did last evening.  Now I find myself interested to learn about the artistic and political heritage of Bologna, during the heyday of these two painters.

What, if anything, such knowledge will lead to, I do not know.  Yet exploring your natural curiosity and building upon the knowledge you have is something that all humans should be doing, regardless of age or whether we are still in school.  I find there is always great joy to be had, pursuing new areas of knowledge about the world in which you live, and the interesting and surprising things you may not already know about it.  And whatever its faults, the wealth of information available online to do exactly that, is one of the reasons why we should be making the effort to become smarter, and more aware of our shared history and culture.

Detail of"Portrait of the Artist's Mother" by Guido Reni  (1612) Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna

Detail of “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” by Guido Reni (1612)
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna