Restoration or Paint-by-numbers

I’m going to take this opportunity to get back on my high horse about the restoration and conservation of art for posterity’s sake. J. Paul Getty Museum, you’re doing it right!

Maerten van Heemskerck, a 16th century Netherlandish painter, bestowed Ecce Homo upon us, a masterpiece which usually resides in Warsaw, but has travelled all the way to Los Angeles – maybe not the first place I’d go after leaving Warsaw; however, definitely a site to see. A curatorial team and group of scientists have spruced it up, preserved it further, and learned more about it than has been known before. Not only has nothing but good come of this, but it is further ensured to stick around for many, many more years to come.

Two similar artists from this era also deserve equal honour and praise. Think of the many hours, days, months, even years Van Heemskerck, Hieronymus Bosch, and Hans Memling put into their notable and impressive altar pieces. Shouldn’t we, as a world-class, preservationist society make every effort to make sure our children, children’s children, and etc. are able to learn about these works of art and travel around the world to see them in their permanent homes? Personally, I’d be quite keen to see where Bosch created all of his glorious and damning images – though I’m sure that’s nearly impossible considering it was so very long ago and so little is known about his actual life.

Hieronymus Bosch, Terrestrial Paradise and Ascent of the Blessed to the Heavenly Paradise, after 1490.
Oil on panel, each panel: 86.5 x 39.5 cm.
Palazzo Ducale, Venice.

I would be devastated to learn that the beauty and wonder of the Paradise-like afterlife presented here had deteriorated beyond recognition, though I could deal with the authenticity of some fading. More so, I would be distraught at the loss of the pure and virginal women represented in Memling’s Annunciation (below). Forget Black Widow, this Halloween I’m dressing as the angel on the left – perhaps without the book of scripture.

Hans Memling, The Annunciation (exterior shutters of a triptych), 1472.
Oil on panel, shutters each 83.3 x 52.9 cm.
Groeningemuseum, Bruges.

However, is there such a thing as going too far? Do we reach a point of restoration in which the piece no longer projects any part of its original skin, so to speak, and is therefore no longer, the masterpiece it once was? Are we, ultimately, destroying art for art’s sake in an entirely different way, turning it into a paint-by-numbers?

Check out Ecce Homo in its newly restored glory at the J. Paul Getty Museum though 13 January 2013. Also see many more of Memling and Bosch’s masterpieces in these ebook and print editions: Hans Memling and Hieronymus Bosch.

-Le Lorrain Andrews