The tricky world of art restoration

There’s big money behind restoring classic artwork, but it’s not a task to be undertaken lightly…

April 16, 2015

When 80-year-old Cecilia Gimenez took it upon herself to retouch a flaking century-old fresco of Jesus in her local church in northeast Spain, the finished result became a global phenomenon and a popular tourist attraction – for all the wrong reasons.

Gimenez’s broad, confident brushstrokes – layered thickly atop the original piece – effectively transformed Christ’s face into a crude, childlike portrait of something resembling a very hairy monkey. Gimenez’s well-intentioned but catastrophic attempt to rework the fresco broke the golden rules of successful art restoration: stay true to the original artist and don’t put your own stamp on the artwork.

“Preserving or repairing a piece of art isn’t about being creative,” says art conservator Michael Bowes. “Restoration is something that happens in the background – it should be subtle and minimal.”

It might be a behind-the-scenes profession but art restoration is also a burgeoning global industry, especially in the Middle East. The UAE is now home to a host of major international art events, has it own design district and plans to open both a Louvre and a Guggenheim museum by the end of 2017.

This is creating huge demand for investment in the art restoration business, bringing significant economic opportunities. Restoration trade fairs allow chemical and other manufacturers to promote their wares while conservation training turns both arts and science degrees into hard job opportunities, in both the public and private sectors.Cecilia Giminez's infamous restoration attempt. It has also become popular for big brands and companies to sponsor art restoration projects. Take Italy as an example: luxury shoe empire Tod’s is funding an ongoing AED 125 million restoration of the Colosseum; Fendi (maker of high-end leather handbags) pledged AED 12 million for the restorations of Rome’s Trevi Fountain and Le Quatro Fontane; and Diesel donated AED 25 million to restore Venice’s iconic Rialto Bridge. Then there’s the Bank of America Art Conservation Project, which provides grants to non-profit museums throughout the world to conserve historically or culturally significant works of art.

Launched in 2010, it has supported 72 projects in 27 countries to date. What do the brands themselves get out of these sponsorships? Sometimes they bring substantial marketing advantages, with advertising billboards appearing on the monuments – but they’re also great for a company’s public image. “When I ask companies why they sponsor projects you always get the same kind of general response: art contributes towards economic stability and understanding different cultures,” says Emily Sharpe, the research and conservation editor at The Art Newspaper. “But it also shows the company’s softer side – they’re not just a hard, corporate company that doesn’t care about anybody.” Of course, art restoration does not happen in a vacuum and there is a lively, centuries-old ethical debate about how far restorers should go. As with most things, the debate usually surfaces when something goes wrong (Cecilia Gimenez, we’re looking at you).

One of the most hotly contested examples of art restoration is Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, which was restored throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Dubbed “arguably the single greatest restoration calamity of the 20th century” by professional artist and restoration critic Michael Daley, most laypeople agreed it looked completely different after it was cleaned. “They irrevocably damaged a well-preserved painting,” says Professor Charles Hope, an art historian and the former director of The Warburg Institute in London. He explains the restoration was largely based on shaky historical assumptions – such as the dubious claim the ceiling had been cleaned many times before. Sistine chapel ceiling. Professor Hope adds that there is a temptation to restore pieces of art in a way that appeals to contemporary taste, meaning that old paintings can sometimes be made to look much brighter and more cheerful than they would have done 100 or more years ago. He cites Botticelli’s Primavera in the Uffizi in Florence (which was restored in 1982, pictured below) as an unfortunate example of this trend: “It’s lost any sense of life – it looks plastic, smooth and dead. It has an unpleasant surface and it doesn’t feel like an old painting. I don’t like it.”

But few people would dispute that old paintings sometimes need outside intervention to survive. Most art historians and critics agree that the best examples of successful restorations are the ones you don’t necessarily notice, such as the restoration of Piero della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross in Arezzo. Unveiled in 2000, this particular restoration was noteworthy for its use of computer recreations and modern chemical technology. Botticelli-primavera  Emily Sharpe points out that today’s restorers are generally reluctant to touch pieces of art unless they absolutely have to. “It’s like surgery – every intervention you make there is the chance that something could go wrong,” she says.

“Most professionals don’t want to mess with something unless there’s no other alternative.” And when there is no other alternative? Professor Hope concedes that restoration is sometimes necessary because works of art are susceptible to damage and dirt. “The thing that makes it complicated is that artworks are often made out of materials – varnishes, paints, pigments – which change over time,” he says. “So the idea you’ll ever get an old master painting back to what it originally looked like is a myth because we don’t actually know what they looked like when they were painted.”

It’s a complex, multi-layered debate but art restoration is an important, lucrative industry and it isn’t going away anytime soon. Just a word of warning to any amateur artists out there: it’s probably best to keep your paintbrushes away from Jesus frescos in old Spanish churches. Unless you like monkeys, that is...