Change and decay (again)

Perhaps the most thought-provoking section of Rothko: The Late Series, the catalogue of Tate Modern’s eponymous exhibition, is the one that discusses the media in which Rothko’s later works were executed.

Rothko, it turns out, was what might generously be called ‘creative’ not only in his use of slubby cotton duck awning-fabric in place of canvas, but also in his methods of priming surfaces, and in his choices and layering of pigments and glazes. Traditional oil colours were layered with still-experimental ‘Magna’ acrylic paints (diluted with turpentine), acrylic resin sandwiched with egg and oil, dry pigment sometimes sprinkled directly onto wet paint or animal glue, matte and gloss surfaces built up and then buried under yet another all-but-imperceptible layer of thinned-down colour.

The result, of course, for anyone who actually bothers to look at it, is at once a self-evident reproach to purblind ‘a child could do that’ dismissals — the experimentation, stubborn persistence and unsparing self-criticism that went into producing these intensely man-made paintings remains perhaps their least debatable attribute — and also, at the same time, a sort of triumphant reduction of what an artist and his materials can achieve in concert, with nothing else much interfering. ‘Silence is so accurate,’ as Rothko put it, acknowledging as he did so the frequent failure of language — his own as well as his critics’ — in the face of his art.

Unfortunately, however, the result is also intrinsically unstable. The fragility of Rothko’s paintings in the face of environmental threats has long been understood — although, as this 1988 New York Times piece concerning the sad state of his Harvard murals suggests, understanding might fruitfully have come earlier — yet their inherent self-destructiveness remains the subject of research. ‘The Substance of Things’ (Leslie Carlyle, Jaap Boon, Mary Bustin and Patricia Smithen), the essay in the Tate Britain catalogue that deals with this point, makes clear that several of the paintings in the present exhibition are experiencing various degrees of not only of colour loss, but of actual chemical degradation, possibly as a consquence of this integration of natural media with synthetic ones. The Seagram murals are not yet half a century old, but already, with each passing year, the paintings are slowly dying — slipping away as ineluctably as the lost world for which they were first produced.

Well, for those of us whose innate response to Rothko’s late work, for better or for worse, instinctively aligns it with an older tradition of Romantic and indeed often explicitly nationalistic landscape painting, the ironies here are, at the very least, bittersweet ones. No wonder it’s so easy, when confronted with the full elegiac, dark magnificence of Seagram murals, to produce exactly the response that Rothko claimed that he wanted. Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt, as someone else once said, looking at murals, contemplating the demands of change, loss and the future that follows on from both.

Back, however, to practical matters. Does this discovery imply a programme of thoroughgoing conservation and perhaps even restoration for the Seagram series? Having examined at the exhibited Seagram murals under the microscope, photographed the result and analysed the data in a variety of ways, the authors of the catalogue essay are clear that it does not:

The present trend in conservation is to understand, accept and monitor such change where possible rather than to take action to eliminate its effects. Therefore there are no plans to remove or adjust the haze on TO1165 [i.e. Red on Maroon, Mural Section 4] (nor on the other paintings where it is visible), since this would mean removing or covering an original layer of paint, albeit degraded, which would not leave us with an original surface. Replacing Rothko’s glaze, even using the same materials, could never reproduce the exact colour, sheen and distribution of pigmented glaze that he applied.

Left with a choice between competing modes of ‘distortion of the original’ — the natural ageing and consequent deterioration of Rothko’s original surface, versus external interventions meant to ‘restore’ that surface — the authors of the essay seem almost willing to accept time itself as just one more of the artist’s ecclectic, unstable working media. Sic transit gloria mundi. These works won’t be travelling much longer. It’s certainly worth visiting Tate Modern to see them while we can.

All of which brings us, not much more circuitously than usual, to a news item from today’s Independent. Apparently, another very famous painting, Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch, is due to return to the Uffizi after ten long years of ‘restoration’.

The Madonna of the Goldfinch (Madonna del Cardellino) — a beautiful and much-copied depiction of the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ, St John the Baptist and a small goldfinch — has not had an easy time since Raphael painted it in 1506, when he was 23 years old, as a wedding present for his friend Lorenzo Nasi, a Florentine wool merchant. Not least, in 1547, only about 40 years after the work was created, the house in which it hung was destroyed by an earthquake, smashing the panel itself into 17 separate pieces. The painting was subsequently nailed back together again, but since Raphael had died young in 1520, his distinguished contemporary Ridolfo di Ghirlandaio was drafted in to restore the considerable losses.

And then came all the usual travails of re-touching, re-varnishing, exposure to smoke and grime, extremes of temperature and humidity, plus a great deal of mundane bashing-about, presumably culminating in the 1993 car bomb attack on the Uffizi, huge explosions not really suiting fragile, panel-based works. Decade-old photos of the work show the evidence of all of this on its surface — the obvious mends, the darkened surface, the patina of five centuries of material persistence. It looked, in other words, like what it was, which was an old, important if also rather damaged painting.

Eventually, perhaps even inevitability, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure — Italy’s esteemed state-run restoration and conservation body — was approached about, as the Independent puts it, ‘the possibility of restoring the picture to its original splendour’. (Are you thinking of the late Professor James Beck right now? I know I am — and missing him, too.)

After considering the matter for a leisurely two years, the OPD accepted the challenge. The restorer leading the project Patrizia Riitano. Heading a team of 50 experts (‘including wood specialists and photography technicians’) it would appear that she lacks neither staff support, resources or — perhaps even most crucially — certezza. Here’s the Independent again:

The painting has been her life for years. “I am just a technician but I probably know this painting almost better than Raphael,” she said. “He looked at it of course, but all these years I have been looking at it through a microscope.”

Ten years on, the results of this ‘restoration’ are now apparent. (If you’re interested, click on the ‘before and after’ makeover images in the Independent piece in order to enlarge them.)

The Independent describes the process thus: ‘The grime obscuring the picture’s beautifully balanced golds, reds and blues has been meticulously stripped away.’ Also stripped away, however — at least on the evidence of these photographs — is much that gave definition, depth and spacial plausibility to the landscape in which the Madonna is seated. The modelling of Christ’s engagingly pudgy left arm, and the Baptist’s left leg, is much altered, as is tilt of Christ’s head. One could go on — indeed, I very much hope that ArtWatch might. More to the point, though, the painting has acquired the modish bluish coldness that is apparently now compulsory for major Italian renaissance restorations, as well as the cookie-cutter outlines of the figures. It is, in other words, effectively a new and different painting.

The new painting is clearer, obviously, than its predecessor, the colours more sharp and obvious, the image probably that much more eye-catching when placed on a web-page, or scanned at speed by the passing and disengaged tourist. It looks bright, and clean, and young. What’s lost, however, is warmth, patina, and resonance, perhaps some of the inter-relatedness of the figures, certainly the contours of the landscape. And then there’s the small matter of the history of the painting itself, stripped away like so much yellowed old varnish, the physical evidence leading us from today back to 1506, the signs of all the other understandings of this painting before the present, apparently terminal re-invention of it.

For today’s Madonna of the Goldfinch isn’t, it simply cannot be, a ‘restoration’ of the painting Raphael created back in 1506 — it’s an interpretation of what the restorers think Raphael must have painted, which isn’t quite the same thing. Like Ghirlandaio’s repainting, or the re-touchings by countless hacks, ham-fisted or talented, in the years that followed, it’s just another layer of intervention, subjective and quite possibly culpably dated, in Raphael’s autograph work. The only difference is the radicalism of the intervention, the irreversability of those removals, the destruction of previous layers of history, the high-handed arrogance of knowing better than anyone else what this compromised scrap of Raphael’s original intentions might, or indeed perhaps should, have been.

Of course the parallel with Rothko’s late paintings is hardly an exact one. Rothko’s murals, after all, began to destroy themselves almost from the moment they were painted. Their destruction now reads as inherent in the facts of their creation. What’s wrong with the Madonna of the Goldfinch, in contrast, has much more to do with five centuries of survival and, in a sense, adaptation. Yet at the same time, the conscious act of allowing Rothko’s paintings to decay constitutes as clear a statement regarding their essential nature — tragic, timeless yet somehow very human and doomed — as the successive re-imagingings of this Raphael panel do regarding its essential nature — beautiful, timeless and ideal, yet at the same time prey to each generation’s notion of what constitutes timeless, ideal beauty.

This is, in other words, criticism carried out with microscope, chemical bath, sable brush and press release. All of which means that there’s scope here for critical disagreement, as well as the usual creative self-discovery in the face of someone else’s certainties.

Does my own preference for leaving Rothkos and Raphaels alone, for instance, stem from an academic background grounded in history as opposed to aesthetics, or from some more basic conflation of conservatism and casually syncretic ancestor-worship with an innate, easily-reinforced and probably ineradicable pessimism? Alternatively, doesn’t this desire on the part of others to meddle with these works, to re-form them, reversing and erasing the assaults of the past, imply a marvellous capacity to see change not as decay, but as the opportunity for progress, improvement and never-ending constructive revision? Wouldn’t it be exciting to want to make history, rather than jealously conserving the history with which we’ve so long been burdened? Isn’t hope, at the very least, a more useful fiction than most of the likely alternatives?

Quite possibly so. All the same, however, if, like the Seagram murals, the Madonna of the Goldfinch someday moves me to tears, I somehow doubt that a sense of loss will be absent from the equation.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Change and decay (again)

  1. I can’t believe no one has jumped in on this… As a collections technician (meaning the preparation, mount fabrication, & installation of artworks, not conservation) I couldn’t agree with you more concerning modern work. There has also been discussion & a small show at the Guggenheim concerning the fragility of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings. Much modern & contemporary work suffers from the experimental use of both old & new materials, but (at least in the great pieces) that is part of what contributes to their beauty; the richness, texture & pure surface-allure of the work. One has to have seen a Rothko in person to truly appreciate this.

    The Raphael is a slightly different story. While I agree that it appears, to my eye as well, to have been over-cleaned; I can’t say that the original ~ mucked about with as it was ~ provided a satisfying viewing experience. As for the coloration, I wonder (& could very well be wrong here) if the perceived “coolness” of the restored work (these painters all worked in natural north light which is cool in tone) might just be a reaction to having become accustomed to seeing these works for so many years, over-warmed by their soot infused yellowed varnish. This may also be a problematic example simply because of the severe damage done to the painting & the extensive repairs. The second photo was actually painful to look at. However I do think you have a valid point… This specific painting may, indeed, have become a reconstruction of a Raphael, rather than an original. I guess I’m thinking of reaching a compromise between the somewhat romanticized muddy-brown patinated state & the over-scrubbed one.

    Thanks for, as always, a thoughtful post.

  2. fugitive ink

    …. and thanks, as ever, for a thoughtful, thought-provoking comment.

    In a sense, it’s silly of me even to try to comment on the Raphael, as I haven’t seen it in ‘real life’, only in photos — and I can well imagine that whoever produced the photos may have played around with various aspects of them in order to clarify, or perhaps even enhance, the ‘before and after’ contrast. (Nor would I criticise anyone for doing this — it’s hard enough to get the mainstream media interested in art, especially art that is neither shocking or for sale, at the best of times.)

    And I probably should also have pointed out, obvious though this ought to be, that notwithstanding my criticisms in specific instances, conservators and restorers have an absolutely vital role to play, not only in the rather subjective business of making pictures look better, but indeed in making their survival possible. I’ve got enormous respect for the work they do, great and small — removing the distraction of foxing from a twentieth century etching, for instance, just as much as ensuring that the thugs who bombed the Uffizi remained frustated in at least some of their destructive ends.

    Quite possibly, in this case, the Raphael really did benefit from their interventions. At some level it comes down to whether one wants to see that panel as the ideal painting Raphael created — an image susceptible to re-imagination — or, alternatively, as a devotional object decayed with changing mores into an historic artefact, shaped as much by what’s happened to it as by the initial facts of its creation. All of which is, again, pretty obvious.

    So the point that remains, after all that, is, I suppose, a typically muddled one about loss as a quality in art, a feature of the work embraced or rejected — by the viewer as much as the creator — with varying degrees of defiance, resignation or, conversely, pleasure — this latter perhaps residually Romantic, temperamentally melancholic, pointlessly nihilistic, or indeed something else altogether. Which is to say, err, different people like different things. Who knew??

    Again, though, thanks both for reading and for writing.