Conservators at work. Credit Ivo Hoekstra/Mauritshuis, The Hague
Created by Amanda Urquhart
At first, I wasn’t sure if I was on board with the restoration of art pieces. Would they be ruined? Would they come out better than we had imagined? As I read through the article about the pros, cons, and in-betweens of art restoration, I came to a conclusion. I think that art should be restored for the sole purpose of returning the art to its most original and intended to be seen state. When reading about the cleaning of paintings on page 2, I read the quote, “So if we wish to respect the intent on the old masters, we must show their works the way they painted them”. To me, this quote meant that we should restore the artworks carefully because the restored versions are the ones we were originally intended to see by the old masters. There could be hidden messages and objects that we didn’t know about before that were hidden in the artworks because we could not see them under all of the damage they have gone through. Another quote that stood out to me, relating to this was in the article Why Restore Works of Art? by Yuriko Saito. Saito stated, “The effects of aging, accidental damage, or vandalism on works of art reduce their aesthetic appeal” (6). Obviously the artists behind the art pieces themselves wanted to create something of beauty that were to appreciated by people for hundreds of years and in olden times, they didn’t exactly know how their art would age, so they just made them the best they could. By restoring these art pieces, we are doing what the artists would have wanted us to, by peeling away the layers of age and decay and re-showing them to the world in the light of the artists. Another point made was that yes, some restorations turn out horribly, usually done by under qualified “artists”. But some art pieces turn out wonderfully after being restored, an example being Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.“The condition of this work (The Last Supper)before restoration was such that it was barely recognizable as a representational painting depicting the biblical Last Supper” (8). This quote proved to be the example that people need to read in order for the restoration of artworks to be more normalized. We should restore artworks because they could turn out really well and be unrecognizable and new looking compared to how they had been before because of the aging and damage done to them. This quote was the one that turned me 180 and pointed me in the direction of YES: let's restore art and show the people the true masterpieces they were meant to be shown. But side note, always know who is restoring the art, make sure they have lots of experience and good ratings and referrals, and there shouldn’t be any problems.
Going into the Ethics Day discussion, I was pro-conservation and thought it was unethical to restore art because it was no longer the original artist’s work. However, listening to other speak about the benefits of restoration, I agreed that it was selfish to deprive later generation of these beautiful artworks that we enjoy today. While I do think that all art is temporary, I believe that it is our responsibility to the arts to preserve artworks as long as possible. I think that the main focus of protecting artworks should be conservation over restoration but that is not always possible. In pieces, like Da Vinci’s Last Supper, the paint began to deteriorate almost immediately after he finished it. In cases like this, where a priceless work of art is threatened, it is important to enact restoration efforts to ensure it is not lost. Yet, restoration is extremely risky, and will often be criticized whether it is poorly or perfectly executed. The Ethics discussion helped me realize that restoration is not always a bad thing and become more open-minded. While I still believe in conservation over restoration, I have come to realize that restoration is necessary in certain cases to ensure that art is preserved for generations to come.
While I had very strong convictions going into this ethics discussion, being firmly for professional restoration, the conversations that we had in class made me re-think my stance on this topic. Beforehand, I believed wholeheartedly in restoration, because I believe that art should always be the representation of what the artist was attempting to portray at the time when their work was created. In keeping with this idea, if Leonardo da Vinci had planned on the last supper being bright and vibrant for its entire existence, I would obviously support efforts to restore the image to its original form. However, following the discussion, I began to wonder if that type of restoration could even be done, because the video we were shown of the Italian woman who attempted to restore the painting demonstrated that no one can really know what the artist was thinking about the time. Art, to me, is a reflection of our values and ideals, which have changed consistently throughout time; and because of these changing values restoration can never truly reflect the ideals of the past, because the restoring artist will be influenced by the ideals of their time. This can be seen with the work mentioned in the reading, where the artist took it upon himself to completely alter the facial structure of a woman in the painting he was restoring by giving her a nose job. While he may have cleaned the painting of its original grime and staved off decay for a little longer, he irrevocably prevented the work from representing the ideals of the artist at the time, completely undermining the concept of restoration. One thing that I cannot seem to form an opinion on, however, is the concept of decay contributing to the meaning to a work of art. A few students mentioned in the discussion that the decomposition of the art only adds to its beauty and contributes another layer of meaning to the artwork in question, but I think that this just creates an entirely new work, detached from the original intent of the artist responsible for it. Unless the artist planned on the decay, which is something that I guess we can never know, it creates an entirely new concept. However, I also think that the convoluted understanding of an artist's intention and how it affects the meaning of their art as it decays, is one of the things that makes art an essential piece of the human experience.
I believe that art and architecture should be restored to replicate its original aesthetic intention. I think that “purist” restoration methods should be used until the majority of the visual content in an artwork is at risk of being lost. An artwork should only be subject to “integral” restoration if it is in danger of being lost after attempts at cleaning it have been made. I believe that an artwork should be presented as the artist originally intended for the viewer to see it. The work of the artist is inevitably compromised with such restoration, but if the correct measures are taken to ensure the safety of the original artwork, the restoration is justified. I think that to keep the original appearance of the painting alive, a photo should be taken of an artwork that must undergo an integral restoration. To let an artwork wither away is a selfish act. To take the privilege that we have, away from future generations, would be more of an injustice than to have professional restorers restore the artwork back to its intended glory. I do believe that art is more temporary than many people would like to think it is. As time goes one, every artwork, like every physical thing, deteriorates. Even the most ancient of artworks will eventually crumble, and turn into dust. Humans make successful attempts to save and restore artworks to their original state. These artworks may last for two, or even ten more generations, but eventually everything made will become worn down and damaged. Artworks like “The Last Supper” by Da Vinci, are a testament to the fact that even the most magnificent of artworks are a victim to time. The recent twenty-year restoration brought back much of the shape and visual content that was being lost by decay, but at the cost of taking off much of the original paint and adding new paint to the artwork. As this process continues more, and more of the original painting will be lost, and replaced with a unoriginal copy of where the original once was. This opinion is only regarding the physical state of art. I also believe that the concept of art itself will always exist. Whatever form art takes from culture to culture over the span of history, greatly differs, but the core concept of art will never disappear. The traits of creativity, and expression are in every person, so as long as people exist, art will exist also. I believe that when restoring, the artist’s intent, and not the viewer’s interpretation, should be what is focused on. The whole purpose of restoring, is to restore what once was. What once was, was the original artwork created by the artist, and if capturing what the artist painted is the main priority, then the restoration will more truly capture what the original artwork looked like. It is the artist job to convey the message of their choosing to the viewer. If the viewer could change what they thought should be changed, the original meaning of the artwork is lost.