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Art Restoration: Desperados, Wizards and Mysteries

Art Restoration


For anyone who truly appreciates artwork, art restoration is a story of unsung heroes and, well, a few desperados.

True art restoration experts know the weight of history in their hands. It’s the kind of weight that goes with centuries of admiration, appreciation and awe. When charged with the task of restoring a priceless piece of art, a certain level of courage meets with technique, technology, patience and expertise that puts the word “expert” first.

At Art Force, while we proudly provide artwork reframing and refurbishment services, the examples in this article represent spine tingling stories from the wider world of fine art restoration. In other words, these are the jobs that should make any art aficionado sweat bullets and pull back their collar to release the heat.

Artwork Restoration: Desperados

Picture this. Would you have the confidence to restore a 15th century relic? Could you trust your hand not to shake when touching up an irreplaceable 17th century fresco?

Like most stories worth telling, this story starts with a cautionary tale. This is the tale of a well-meaning desperado. Anyone within the art community (or with an internet connection for that matter) probably knows the story of the Ecce Homo, the nearly century’s old portrait of Jesus Christ from a church in Borja, Spain that was botched in an amateur attempt at restoration.

Ecce Homo

Image Source: The Guardian

From Tragedy to Tourism

The internet gave the 83-year-old amateur painter a viral lashing that needs not be dredged up here. (We’re not in the business of shaming in art, after all.) So let’s just move right into the silver lining that came from this restoration disaster. Silver lining?! Yes, your eyes do not deceive you.

Quite surprisingly, this art restoration disaster proved to be a blessing in disguise for the town that spurned the viral story. In 2014, Doreen Carvajal of the New York Times detailed the rather strange turn of events.

“Grief has turned to gratitude,” writes Carvajal, “for divine intervention – the blessing of free publicity – that has made Borja, a town of just 5,000, a magnet for thousands of curious tourists eager to see her handiwork, resurrecting the local economy.”

Perhaps more interestingly, the botched restoration even resulted in the creation of a comic opera loosely based on the attempt. While this is certainly a fortuitous turn of events – and even more certainly, one that should not be expected in most cases – it would seem that art can work in mysterious ways.

Art Restoration: High Tech Wizardry

This lesser known example will give you a more thorough glimpse into the intricacies of art restoration when things don’t go awry. The Washington Post covered the story of Madonna and Child With Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Sigismund, which underwent art restoration at the National Gallery of Art throughout 2007 and 2008.

The 500 year old painting outranks the Ecce Homo in age by over 400 years. In short, the stakes were high to say the least. What’s interesting in this case is the use of digital technology to complete the painting restoration process and more importantly, what it possibly revealed.

Madonna and Child With Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Sigismund

Image Source: Washington Post

After taking 100 close-up infrared reflectograms with a camera, the technicians created a “monochromatic mosaic” of the piece. Surprisingly, the results revealed Neroccio, who was long believed to be the sole artist behind the piece, likely worked with Francesco di Giorgio based on the techniques clearly visible beneath the layers.

How could they tell? As longtime collaborators, the two artists had means and motive to work together. Add in a mixture of fine lines often attributed to Neroccio, and “bravado strokes,” typical of Giorgio, and you have the basis for this hypothesis posed by senior conservator, Carol Christensen.

Art Restoration: A Time Machine

The remainder of the painting restoration revealed additional insights only a trained eye could detect. For one, it is clear from some blurry areas that Neroccio made minor changes to the Virgin’s elongated hands, lending additional insight into the artist’s process at the time of conception. Moreover, small grid-lines point to the use of reinforcement panels for transport to America sometime in the 19th or 20th century, a practice that has since stopped.

art restorationX-Radiographs were also used to divide the painting into gradients of black and white, where black indicates the absence of pigment. This helped technicians determine that the floor of the painting would need significant “in-painting”. After a long series of additional and equally interesting restorative insights and processes, the painting was rehung in late 2008 and given new life.

While reflecting on the process, it becomes clear how seemingly intimate art restoration can be, even to an outsider. Art restoration technicians have a host of tools that result in a proverbial time machine. In making restorative decisions, art restoration experts learn the technique, craft and imperfections that went into the painting. In essence, they become part of the painting’s storied history.

“Foxing” & Restoration Mysteries

Another aspect of art restoration are seemingly lost causes. One famous case that could use the help of art conservators is the self-portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci with red chalk.

Leonardo da Vinci

Image Source: Huffington Post

According to the Huffington Post, the famous piece underwent “foxing” – marred with marks that don’t belong – possibly while being framed in 1929 for an art exhibition.

The possible culprits: oxidation of the pigments or fungus developing on the paper. The real tragedy here is the size (13.2 by 8.5 inches) and fragility of the piece leaves a big question mark on restoration.

While restorators ponder possible solutions, art lovers everywhere can only hope they find a way to preserve this piece of art history. For more information on the Art Force brand of reframing and art refurbishment, please visit our services page!