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Themes, Approaches, Issues, and Questions

Charles Rhyne
Reed College

History of Restoration of Ancient Stone Sculptures
Papers delivered at a Symposium Organized by the Departments of
Antiquities and Antiquities Conservation of the J. Paul Getty Museum
and held at the Museum 25-27 October 2001

Ed. Janet Burnett Grossman, Jerry Podany, and Marion True
Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003. Pp. 265-270.


This symposium has been a more than worthy successor to previous symposia on marble and small bronze sculptures organized by the Museum, as well as symposia organized jointly with the Conservation Institute on the conservation of archaeological sites and of ancient and historical metals. I am delighted that these papers are here published in another symposium volume in what is already one of the distinguished series in the field. After such instructive papers and some of the most rewarding discussions I have heard at any professional conference, it is a pleasure to reflect on the diverse approaches and some of the recurring issues.

       It has been refreshing to see such careful looking at objects, to see to what extent the history of restoration of individual objects can be reconstructed by careful, trained looking, as exemplified by many speakers including Elizabeth Bartman and Samantha Sportun for works in the Inca Blundell collection and by Giovanni Martellotti for three examples in Rome. As many of you were speaking, I desperately wished that my students, not to mention some of my colleagues, could have been here to witness what one can learn from such informed looking. I was especially pleased to see photographs, especially the exemplary slides shown by Brigitte Bourgeois, which allowed us to see exactly what was being described. So often speakers show slides which serve only to identify the works of art about which they are speaking, but which do not allow one to test what is being said against the visual evidence. One must either take what is being said on faith or suspend judgment. I have long espoused the importance of high quality photographic images as evidence in professional publications and was delighted to see so much of this as an integral part of these papers.

       For those of us who are not professional conservators, it was a treat to see how, in the discussions, participants were able to stay with a technical subject until all that had been learned from examination of documents and objects had been shared. I am remembering for example our discussion of different types of artificial patination: wax, tree resin, tobacco leaves, coffee, and lamp back, not to mention boiled urine. Details of sculpting technique were illustrated by Amanda Claridge, while Brigitte Bourgeois and Peter Rockwell investigated the history of restoration techniques.

       As an art historian, I was reassured to see the in-depth archival research conducted. Papers, such as those of Angela Gallottini and Nancy Ramage, drew not only on inventories, catalogues, correspondence and diaries, but also on lists of expenses, invoices, receipts, and wills. These helped to disentangle relationships among artists, restorers, dealers, agents, collectors, and other actors in the marketplace, and to clarify more fully the role and functioning of workshops.

       We heard from Angela Gallottini, Edmund Southworth, Marcus Trunk and others about the formation of important collections and their unique conservation histories. Andreas Scholl describing the unique interplay of architecture, display and restoration for the famous collection of ancient sculpture in the Rotunda of the Altes Museum.

       I want now to attempt to extract from this rich series of papers and the stimulating discussions what have emerged as a few key issues, not only for the restoration of ancient stone sculpture but potentially for the conservation of all works of art. These issues could form the basis for a series of position papers, comparable perhaps to the useful Getty Kouros volume, but focused this time not on a specific work of art but on essential conservation issues. I regularly assign the Kouros volume in my classes and it has never failed to stimulate a most rewarding class discussion; forcing students to recognize the complexity of physical evidence, the validity of conflicting judgments even among leading scholars, and the option of suspended judgment. How wonderful it would be to have comparable volumes on the issues raised in this symposium.

       Which of these issues might we choose for such a series? One, I should hope, would be the fascinating question that surfaced at various times during the symposium of the relation of restoration practice to other aspects of culture. As Jerry Podany pointed out in his introduction, restorers are formed by ideas of their time. One aspect that appears especially promising to follow up is the idea, voiced by Peter Rockwell and others, that restorations have recognizable styles and that these might easily have been influenced by artistic styles at the time. I understand that Jane Fejfer is studying the role of artists in influencing restoration in antiquity. Elizabeth Bartman tells us that, in his restorations, Albacini responded to the extreme whiteness of Canova’s marbles and their clean linearity. It was suggested that the stripped down, minimalist character of the current Aegina pediment restoration was influenced by the post-Second World War German rejection of both nineteenth century decoration and Nazi neo-classical associations. In a sense, how could this be otherwise, since restorers are part of the social fabric like the rest of us. Today, there can be no doubt that technical developments, also characteristic of contemporary art, are transforming many aspects of conservation. Likewise, the restoration of African and other indigenous art is being transformed by our increased understanding of and concern for cultural diversity.

       This is really part of a much larger topic, which has been present throughout the symposium, the history of restoration. As a pioneer in the field, Seymour Howard provided us with a wide-ranging review of the entire history of ancient sculpture restoration, emphasizing the interplay of ideas and practice. In thinking of our own role in this history, we recognize ourselves as participants in an ongoing process and are beginning to wonder, as suggested by Tony Sigel, Orietta Rossi Pinelli, and others, how we shall be seen one hundred years, perhaps twenty or even ten years, from now. Surely, among other things, later generations will see us as the first to engage in detailed documentation of our own conservation projects, among the first to organize into regional, national, and international professional associations, and the first to have available advanced forms of technical analysis and digital imaging. Maybe, if we are lucky, they will also see us as the first generation to give priority to preventive conservation, and, if we are very lucky, as the first to question not only our procedures but our motives, ourselves.

       Perhaps also it will be recognized, as this symposium has so beautifully demonstrated, that art conservation and art history are beginning to find common ground. For it is not only the history of conservation that we need to study but what we might call “the physical history of objects.” For years I have been attempting to persuade curators to take out their object report forms, to find the section titled “Condition’ (which they would turn over to their conservator to fill in), asking the curators to scratch out the word “Condition” and to write in “Physical history of the object” (which they could then fill in jointly with their conservator colleague). We need to know not only the work’s present “condition,” but as much as we can about its entire physical history from the moment the stone was quarried, and we need to think of its present condition as only one stage in this ongoing process.

       The history of conservation is one of the most promising areas for future research, as faculty, students and others discover the wealth of unanswered questions and untapped resources for answering them. Witness Markus Trunk’s discovery and study of the amazing mid-sixteenth century restoration time capsule at the Casa de Pilatos. Of course, most so-called “discoveries” are known to exist by local inhabitants. It is the recognition of their uniqueness and significance that brings them to the attention of the world at large. Following Seymour Howard’s lead, we are beginning to see doctoral theses on the history of conservation in art history departments, some written by established conservators who have gone back to universities to train themselves more thoroughly in the history of art. Correspondingly, at least one scholar with a doctorate in art history has completed a graduate program in conservation.

       A number of speakers have pointed out, though I think largely in conversation, that it is now standard practice for them to confer with their colleagues; curators, conservators and conservation scientists sharing expertise and ideas. Not too many years ago, when examining paintings with museum conservators, I would occasionally suggest that the relevant curator might be interested. Sometimes I felt as if I were introducing the two, in spite of both having been at the museum several years. Happily, this would now be a rare exception. Jerry Podany has even suggested that it is time for curators and conservators to publish as co-authors. In a few cases, we have already seen the rewards of such collaboration.

       In this proposed series of position papers, we will certainly need a volume discussing terms. I am sure I have missed some but I’ve jotted down: original, collaboration, copy, pastiche, interpretation, falsification, conscious deception, fake, fragment, aggregation, assemblage, intervention, reintegration, reconstitution, reconstruction, repair, re-carving, recreation, conservation, restoration, partial restoration, de-restoration, re-restoration, re-use, and creative interpretation. We have all recognized the problems with these terms. Early in our symposium, Peter Rockwell urged that we need better definitions. Surely he is right, but I am not sure this is the central problem. Is not the essential problem the practice of putting treatments, even objects, into oversimplified categories, whereas most treatments are a combination of approaches, which over the years are cumulative? We need to understand how the various physical changes in each sculpture have resulted from its own unique, complex history. Many speakers, including Miranda Marvin and Edmund Southworth, have provided model cases of how to do this.

       I want to conclude by attempting to clarify one of the key terms in our discussions, a word with potent associations, “authenticity.” If we read through the critical literature on authenticity, we find that every definition is flawed by the confusion of authenticity with values. Every discussion incorporates in the concept of authenticity whatever the author values. I would like to suggest that we separate the two.

       If we ask “Is the Marcus Aurelius from the Pergamon museum authentic? Are the Landsdown Herakles, the Los Angeles Apoxyomenos, the Borghese Gladiator, the Aegina pediments, the Ince Diana and Bust of a Young Man, the reliefs of the Ara Pacis, the Ny Carlsberg Antinous, the Laocoon, yes even the Ludovisi Eros and Psyche, authentic? Are any of these, in there present states, authentic?” The answer in every case is “yes”. Each is a sculpture, quarried at a certain time and place, carved by a certain artist and/or workshop. Each has gone through a variety of physical changes, some drastically changing the original form and meaning. These changes were done for many different reasons. This is what each object is. The key concept, the liberating concept, is that everything is an authentic something. Therefore, difficult as it may be for us to say the sentence, “a fake is an authentic fake.” In separating the concept of authenticity from the concept of value, our first job is to reconstruct and describe as dispassionately as possible what the object is, in all of its complexity, initially resisting our own judgements of value. Then, separately, we must identify what we choose to value and why. Note Elizabeth Bartman’s comment about the Ince Diana, purchase as an ancient statue but provably an eighteenth century composite of 127 ancient and modern fragments, its form unlike any work in antiquity: “Instead of demoting the statue . . . I celebrate it for its virtuoso skill in sculpting and piecing marble. Technically the statue is a tour-de-force without parallel in the eighteenth century.”

       Speakers at this symposium have described a wide variety of values determining the treatment of different works of art. In many cases the representation of certain content has been paramount. In others a complete, visually coherent form, or, alternately, the fragmentary nature of the sculpture. Sometimes the original material or some unique characteristic has been especially valued or a work as it existed at a particular moment in history. Practical values having to do with structure and stability and, increasingly, concern for the sculpture’s future care have been important. We must clarify these choices for ourselves and record them for our professional colleagues.

       Do we also have the responsibility of making this information available to the interested public? Exhibitions organized around the making of works of art, their physical histories and restorations, have been immensely popular, as is the exhibition accompanying this symposium, displaying the restored Pergamon Marcus Aurelius with explanatory labels, diagrams and video. But what of normal museum display of work of art. Do not viewers have a right to know what they are looking at?” Are we not underestimating the “public” when we exclude such information not only from museum labels but also from museum publications except scholarly catalogues? Are we not failing to recognize the thousands of student and highly educated adults from all walks of life who visit museums? It is often said that providing the public with information about the physical changes to works of art will call attention to the work of restorers instead of the original artist and will detract from the experience of the art. Perhaps so when changes are minor or do not significantly alter our experience of the art. But often they do. As Giovanni Mertellotti writes: “whoever looks at the Ara Pacis without taking into consideration the eighteenth century restorations runs the risk of forming a significantly mistaken idea of Roman art in the Augustan era as being strongly neoclassical in nature.” Recognizing this, some museums are exploring ways to make such information available in their galleries, easily available to interested viewers without imposing of those who, quite justifiably, wish only to look.

       These approaches, issues and questions overlap and intermingle in ways specific to each situation. We cannot avoid the fact that some of these values are in conflict. Some are even mutually exclusive. In diagrams, lectures and publications we may suggest alternative restorations, but with the work of art itself we can only have it one way at one time, and it is not usually practical or desirable to revisit a restoration often. It is incumbent upon us to decide, through extensive consultation, the particular complex of values on which we are basing each treatment, and to document these carefully for future generations. Note for example Mette Moltesen’s informative account of the rationale for the de-restoration and re-restoration of each of six ancient sculptures at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. The key is in clarifying our own motives and values whenever we treat a work of art. It has been a revelation at this symposium to see how well this can be done.

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