Day-Glo Disaster: Another Botched Art Restoration In Spain Raises Questions

Once again, Spain has found itself the laughingstock of the international art world.

As you may have seen in the news, there’s been another art “restoration” incident, this time in the village church at Rañadorio, located in the NW Spanish region of Asturias. The proprietress of the local tobacco shop, who fancies herself something of an artist, apparently got permission from the local parish priest to paint several 15th century wooden sculptures on display in the church. The end result is, well…


Regular readers are aware that this is not the first time I’ve told you about this sort of thing. There was that incident earlier this summer involving a statue of St. George and the Dragon, for example. And then there was that infamous “Beast Jesus” from a few years back, which was so bad as to have created a meme that is still kicking around the interwebz.

As with the previous stories, this latest diaster raises a number of questions. Did the priest really sign off on what this woman did? Was he aware of the age and significance of the pieces? If so, why did he feel it was appropriate for an admitted amateur, rather than a professional art restorer, to paint these objects, particularly when they had been treated by a professional conservator only 15 years earlier? Did he consult with his superiors in the diocese before granting permission for the statues to be taken down and painted?

My Spanish readers will have to weigh in on this, but there appears to be a significant lack of consistent cultural oversight policy at an institutional level throughout the Church in Spain. If these botched restorations had taken place in a single geographic area, I’d be tempted to say that the fault lies with the local chancery. However, these incidents occurred in different dioceses spread across Spain, all of which are part of significantly larger archdioceses: this most recent disaster occurred in the Archdiocese of Oviedo, the Saint George incident took place in the Archdiocese of Navarra, and the “Beast Jesus” came to light in the Archdiocese of Zaragoza.

It doesn’t appear to me to be unreasonable to expect that a parish priest knows, or ought to know, that both the building and the objects contained within it which he and his parishioners make use of are, in many cases, historic or artistically and culturally significant. If he thinks that a painting needs a cleaning or a sculpture needs a touch-up, that should not be solely his decision to make, for the simple reason that these things are not his personal property to dispose of as he chooses. I would think it only appropriate that the local pastor would need to apply to the local archdiocese for permission on such matters, rather than act sua sponte.

While the “restorer” in this latest incident says that she was given permission by the parish priest, and other people in the village like what she did – more fools they – those factors by themselves are immaterial to the question of whether the work should have been done in the first place. One does not go into the Louvre and attach a head to the Winged Nike of Samothrace because one thinks it would look better, even if one’s friends and the security guard agree. Moreover, an adult Catholic who runs her own business ought to have had more personal humility than to play about with things which were clearly beyond her competence, while her pastor ought to have had the common sense to seek permission from his bishop before turning over these objects to someone else to monkey about with.

Given the significant cultural patrimony held by the Catholic Church in Spain, which includes not only architecture, but also works of fine and decorative art, there should be some kind of overarching system put in place to prevent further cowboy restoration disasters such as this. Until such time as the Church gets its act together, then, the civil authorities will have to do their job cleaning up the mess. Hopefully this woman and the priest who signed off on her work get the book thrown at them, so as to deter this kind of disaster from happening again.

Thought-Pourri: Take A Seat Edition

As the weather improves and things become more busy both professionally and socially, it becomes increasingly more difficult for me – and, I daresay, for you – to find some time to sit back, relax, and enjoy an interesting meander through things that we do purely for pleasure, rather than because we have to do them. So with that in mind, take a few minutes when you can, and have a flick through some of the art news stories below. They won’t clear up your calendar for you, but at least they will (hopefully) provide you with something of a break.

Easy, Chair

One of my favorite periods in decorative art is the style known as “William and Mary”, corresponding roughly to the reign of William III and Mary II of England. It was popular in Britain, Holland, and their respective colonies in the first quarter of the 18th century, and you see a lot of it in places like Boston or Colonial Williamsburg. Characteristically very architectural, furniture in this style often features carved elements such heavily crested rails, or playful barley twists, reproducing on a domestic scale the heraldic pediments and twisted columns that were popular during the Baroque era of architecture. Although it enjoyed a brief revival in this country during the late 19th and early 20th centuries – along with, it should be said, virtually every other historical design style – it’s never been quite as popular as some of the other styles that came before and after it, due to the perception that it is rather too dark and uber-masculine.

Now, following years of painstaking research, the Philadelphia Museum of Art may be about to change how we think about this period of American decorative art. Known as the “Emerson Easy Chair” because it had been owned by ancestors of the American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, the newly-restored William and Mary armchair shown below should dispel any notion that everything about this period of design was oppressively heavy. This fascinating article in Antiques by the restorers who worked on the piece describes how they went about bringing this piece of furniture back to its formerly sumptuous appearance, complete with vibrant crimson upholstery and intricate gold trimmings. The end result is a piece of historical design that really makes you sit up and take notice.


New Director, Same Old Met

After a long search, a new Director will be taking his seat at the (to my mind) troubled Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose travails I’ve written about before, both here and for The Federalist. The new head of America’s largest art museum is Max Hollein, an Austrian who is currently the director of San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums; he previously served stints at museums in Frankfurt and at the Guggenheim in New York. So far reaction in the art press has been largely positive, mostly because Hollein brings a reputation for embracing Contemporary Art and raising lots of money, both of which are important to the leadership of The Met, if not to those of us who wonder whether The Met hasn’t become something of a lost soul in recent years. As Marion Maneker commented yesterday in Art Market Monitor, “[t]hat this directorship was also the focus of hopes and demands about diversity and representation within museums is only confirmation that the role of the museum in 21st Century society has changed dramatically.” None of this sounds like much of an improvement, frankly.


Supposedly Shifting Sands

Since his assent to the position of man behind the throne in Saudi Arabia this past June, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been gaining a reputation for being something of a reformer and maverick, at least comparatively speaking. Women can now drive in his country, for example, and he had a hand in the extraordinary sale of Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”. Now news comes that the Saudis have reached out to the French to help them establish cultural institutions which the country currently lacks, including a symphony orchestra and an opera; the French are also being called on to do archaeological work at the major Nabatean site of Hegra, a location which I’ve told you about previously, in the hope of drawing foreign tourists to visit the remote site.

Of course if you’re a Catholic – and there are more than 1.5 million of them in Saudi Arabia – you can’t openly practice your faith. There are no churches in the country, and if you want to attend some type of service you must do so in a private home, but since the Saudi government does not allow non-Muslim clergy to enter the country in order to perform religious services, you can imagine how that goes. Moreover, if you convert to Catholicism from Islam, or if as a Catholic you try to evangelize others, you can be executed. So forgive me if I’m not particularly impressed by His Royal Highness’ so-called “reforms”.


Art Agonies: Politics Over Preservation

At present we live in a climate in which lovers of great art must put up with the strangely tortured and often ill-informed opinions of others. From nonsensical tweets about the nature of art by celebrity astrophysicists incapable of dressing themselves properly, to lowest common denominator garbage from princes of the Church who have been inexplicably tasked with matters of culture, it’s enough to make this writer want to throw up his hands and just walk away from all of it. I would probably have much more fun simply interviewing and highlighting the work of creative friends and acquaintances – painters, cosplayers, musicians, chefs, writers, etc. It tires me to read about risky decisions being made about art for the sake of political popularity.

A perfect example of this may be found in a recent interview with Françoise Nyssen, France’s Minister of Culture, given on Thursday to Europe 1 Radio. Mme. Nyssen floated the idea of sending the most famous painting in the world, Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa”, out on tour in order to combat what the Minister calls “cultural segregation”. If any of my readers can explain how a work of art is “culturally segregated”, when it is on display to everyone in a public museum, by all means do your best in the comments section. As an aside, I shudder to think what the insurance premiums would be on moving and displaying such an important object, which for decades The Louvre has not even dared to attempt cleaning.

This is not the only half-baked idea to come from the government of France’s greatest aficionado of sheer cover foundation, President Emmanuel Macron. Another ill-conceived project is to send the Bayeux Tapestry, which commemorates the Norman Invasion of Britain and the ensuing Battle of Hastings, across the English Channel to be displayed in a British museum. Like the “Mona Lisa”, the Bayeux Tapestry is an incredibly fragile object, arguably the most famous of its type in the world, and has not left its home in France for many years. Many French historians, preservation specialists, and locals are appalled at the notion of even attempting to move the Tapestry off-site, let alone send it out of the country, but for political reasons Monsieur Maquillage seems determined to proceed with this idea.

Exhibitions which allow works of art to travel from one institution to another are not bad things in and of themselves. When handled properly, they can bring to new audiences objects which they might never be able to visit otherwise. Consideration of the state of preservation of such objects, particularly when of significant age, fragility, or difficulty in transport, must be given absolute priority: Michelangelo’s “David” is never going to leave Florence to go on tour, for example.

However, placing irrational, politically-motivated thinking ahead of issues such as preservation and integrity (and yes, Your Holiness, appropriateness) is morally reprehensible. It plays Russian roulette with the ability of future generations to see, appreciate, and learn from these objects, all for the sake of temporary political popularity. Those who engage in such games by putting at risk the cultural patrimony under their temporary care should be publicly criticized and called to account.