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Crimes Against the Cubists’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

In the June 16th issue of The New York Review, Mr. John Richardson contributed an article entitled “Crimes Against the Cubists.” I am unacquainted with Mr. Richardson. I admit to some curiosity regarding his age. Rather a sizable span of time must elapse from this present to include an intimacy with Braque, cursory contact with Picasso and a personal viewing of the paintings inherited by Ms. Toklas in their Stein housing. I find Mr. Richardson’s remarks unfortunate. Unfortunate because they offer the reader a medley of truths, half-truths and untruths, all delivered with an equal amount of didactic authority. I presume Mr. Richardson to be a connoisseur of cubism, sensitively concerned with the accurate presentation of this particular style. He is, however, not very knowledgeable regarding materials which compose paintings and not at all familiar with the processes of competent conservation. He blows his top as indiscriminately as a tornado.

I was born in 1908 and have spent my adult life working in various aspects of artifact conservation. My personal competence is in the preservation of Modern paintings and of American Folk Art paintings. They have qualities in common. Both categories offer examples where non-traditional materials have been combined to create a picture. Folk Art paintings have been executed on sandpaper; Folk Art paintings exist where painted surfaces abut photographs, news clippings and other memorabilia. Granted the above constitute a minute portion of Folk Art, nevertheless, they offer the restorer/conservator similar preservation headaches to those faced with cubist paintings described by Mr. Richardson. I doubt Folk Artists were aware that they were making “the surface the subject” whereas I quite agree with Richardson, that a large number of cubist painters consciously constructed their paintings with this intent.

Not all painters are interested in whether their pictures will last. Few artists have an understanding of the predictable behavior of the substances they choose to employ. Some mean it when they say they don’t care; others change their tune as soon as their assemblages begin to sell. An aspiring painter no longer serves a Dogsboy apprenticeship in a Master’s studio, preparing the fundamentals of a crafted product. Art schools changed all that. The artist lost his intimacy with the materials of his trade. Art schools encouraged the amateur along with the serious student to paint with prepared materials on prepared materials, everything manufactured by an industry. Here and there during the last hundred years or so, painters have spasmodically evidenced attention to the elements of their craft. But those among them who concerned themselves with the state in which their work may survive are a unique group.

Contrary to casual observation paintings are not static. Inside and out, they are a perpetually busy struggle of wills by more or less unobserved forces. Pictorial laminates are not friendly, they do not want to stick together. As an endearing Venetian restorer1 of the late eighteenth century put it: the heterogeneous substances in paintings are artificially held together contrary to their natural affinities. Many a restorer/conservator working to mitigate the damages caused by these warring factions, not to mention those caused by the careless hands of man, has wished there were less accuracy in this acute observation. Preservation of paintings is a constant challenge and a never ending responsibility for those willing to accept the burden. Owners, from the beginning of art appreciation, have assigned to restorers the task of making the dreams of artists last for longer enjoyment. Restorers, just like doctors, can be guilty of excessive concentration in their treatment of the deterioration at the expense of vulnerable idiosyncrasies in their patient, and inadvertently, invite death. It is possible to overlook the precise factor which should not have been overlooked. When this happens in the course of conservation, and it sometimes has, actions undertaken with intent to preserve have indeed diminished or falsified an artist’s dream. Under such horrifying and bitter circumstance, Mr. Richardson may rightly claim the result of a restorer’s effort can be a dead thing, embalmed.

None of this is black-and-white simple. No restorer/conservator ever willfully damages a work of art. Post facto, it is easy to say what should and should not have been done. Admitting that errors have been made in the treatment of cubist paintings, I see excuses for their occurrence. The restorer was not alone in lacking the special comprehension needed to retain cubist textural values inviolate. Knowledge of this particular exigency does not seem to have been prevalent among dealers, curators, art historians or owners. There is blame but it is not one-sided.

Mr. Richardson accuses picture varnish of unwarranted evils and where he gained his information is beyond me. There are old picture varnishes, copal, oil varnish and even mastic, which can harden into near insolubility and become very very difficult to remove from paint surfaces. There are also varnishes not intended for use on the surface of a painting, such as floor varnish, boat varnish, automobile varnish. The uninformed have used these from time to time with disastrous result. As a rule, damar and the different groups of specially formulated synthetic varnishes are planned for precise use and equally precise removal. They may be applied by brush or spray, matte or glossy finish, and are reversible without risk to painted surfaces. Application of an appreciable varnish cover does produce color saturation and provide an even reflectance of light. The majority of varnish films applied today are not applied to serve those purposes, rather they are applied as barricades against air-borne dirt and pollutants. Varnish may be counted on to catch and hold a mess of particles, preventing those particles from etching exposed paint or embedding themselves in brushwork. For those rare textures that even a faint spray of matte varnish might alter, the alternative as Richardson says is to cover them with glass. Such fragile textures should never be exposed unprotected except in a completely air-filtered environment. There have been instances of impropriety in varnish applications but neither as habitual nor as extensive as implied.

Today’s generation of professional conservators is competent to identify materials, analyze combinations of substances employed, estimate degrees of deterioration and propose a choice of methods for the physical prolongment of a work of art. No conservator wants to increase alteration of appearance from the original concept of its artist, wear and tear and time have already altered paintings far too much. When the artist is no longer present to clarify what was or was not the intent of a painting, or when the original intent was never communicated, interpretation as to the nature of the initial quality becomes highly subjective. In common with all other forms of matter, art is governed by the laws of deterioration. However art forms in addition to their material content possess a non-material content, variously described as emotional, intellectual, spiritual, propagandistic. Interpretation of this quality changes with time and places and tends periodically to be refashioned. By itself, it is the single potent factor in determining our basic standard for the practice of professional conservation: every method must be reversible, do nothing which cannot be undone.

We accept the burden of shifting concepts on aesthetic qualifications along with our acceptance of responsibility to help make art forms last longer. Conservators constantly try to enlarge their repertoire of treatments. In July of this year, a selection of private and museum painting conservators will meet for an entire week to review demonstrations and explore recent developments in lining techniques.2 These will be examined along with such time-tested standbys as wax-resin. There are no panaceas, no superior systems for treating special paintings. Every painting is special, and every special painting determines the procedures which may be used to preserve it. The painting makes the rules for its own treatment, its “specialness” defines and limits what can and cannot be done to make it last longer. In a restorer/conservator a painting acquires an intimate friend, one who after examining its structure with every available scientific assist, dedicates head, hands and heart to that painting’s optimum welfare. Tender, loving care becomes an individually tailored bridge to the future.

The majority of collectors do not find a topping of dust enhances the artistic image. Nor for that matter do all painters. I can name two artists with totally different tonal and work styles, Edwin Dickinson and Georgia O’Keeffe, each of whom was adamant in desire to have accumulations of dirt removed from the faces of their work. Mr. Dickinson held that he painted with full range palette and bitterly disliked having his subtle gradations of color rendered nearly monochromatic via a veil of smoke and dust. He delighted in “cleaned” surfaces and once called on his wife, Pat, to notice how much a painting I had just cleaned resembled the way it had looked when he had completed it. Once when I was removing a layer of blackened filth from a crisp scene of New York under Miss O’Keeffe’s sharp observation, I showed her where my swab came away with a trace of cadmium yellow as well as dirt. Go right ahead, she directed, the area was pure color and she far preferred to lose a top skin of yellow rather than permit her painting to be seen all spotted with soot. Not every painting may safely be cleaned. For those which may, artists and owners, even some critics, have found the resulting revelation a satisfaction.

Restorer/conservators try to do the right thing in the right degree at the right time and in the right way. There is so much to learn and the learning can never stop. If Mr. Richardson believes our operations to be casual affairs, he should spend a few hours in a conservation laboratory. We care every bit as much as he does. Perhaps more, for I cannot view his fondness for benign neglect as a healthy attachment. To observant eyes, a dried out canvas painting often shows lifting of the paint segments, an indication that parts are separating. With every increase in vulnerability, loss of original surface follows, slowly at first and then with an inevitable speed as the fragile whole disintegrates. I do not think future art lovers will be grateful for rejection of professional care. I strongly advise advocates of benign neglect not to let their collections travel: transit is replete with mechanical and man-made shocks. As for Mr. Richardson I cannot help but feel he is making his paintings pay for his prejudices.

Caroline K. (Mrs. Sheldon) Keck

Cooperstown, New York

To the Editors:

As a paintings restorer, I must support John Richardson’s contention that many Cubist paintings have been ill-served by so-called conservation processes. The viewing public often fails to understand that paintings from the mid-1870s onward are especially vulnerable to the attention of the restorer, who can radically alter and misrepresent the artists’ intentions. Pissarro, Van Gogh, Monet, Cézanne, and Seurat are among the earlier victims and, as John Richardson states, the Cubist painters have been badly hit.

The reason lies not only in the fact that these paintings look glossy and polished but also that the unwanted saturation of the paint, caused by the application of varnishes close in refractive index to that of oil, distorts the colors and their relationship with each other. However these varnishes can frequently be removed and the paintings can regain their intended appearance. Reversal is less certain in the case of wax linings, which have penetrated unprimed, or lightly primed canvases. Sadly, I can only agree, having formerly seen them, that however far conservation processes are reversible, the magnificent and eloquent look of Gertrude Stein’s collection, with its slightly surface grimed canvases, sagging somewhat on their cheap stretchers, cannot now be totally regained.

That these malpractices were, and often still are, tolerated points surely to a visual illiteracy that cannot just be blamed on restorers and art publishers. Even with Cubism we have had seventy-five years to get it right. Museum curators and the art trade can also be faulted on this issue.

Herbert Lank

Hamilton Kerr Institute

Cambridge, England

To the Editors:

I was ecstatic to read “Crimes Against the Cubists,” by John Richardson. Such a discussion is long overdue. It is especially timely given the insidious practices of today’s art market. I was only sorry that the author could not deal with the range of horrendous actions being perpetrated upon our painted heritage.

The butchering of paintings in the name of restoration abounds in the modern art market. Even the most cursory of looks by the untrained eye shows that something is fundamentally wrong with the majority of old paintings galleries are offering for sale. As if on cue from the photography industry it seems that one can now choose between mat, glossy, or silk finishes. Any sense of how a painting may have been made, or any concern for its original surface texture is lost to the slick finish, quickly achieved, of commercial restoration fashion.

The parties guilty of this debauchery are easy to determine. They are the dealers of paintings and their so-called restorers. These people are no fools. The talk of the importance of art conservation has extended itself to become a part of the jargon of the commercial art market. It is now promoted as part and parcel of the marketing techniques of the modern dealer in old paintings. Unfortunately the greed surrounding this practice is only resulting in the demise of the art on which it thrives.

Steven Miller

Curator, Museum of the City of New York

New York, New York

To the Editors:

Having had the opportunity in recent years to study a number of excellent exhibitions in which Cubist paintings have figured prominently—including the 1980 Picasso exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and the Essential Cubism exhibition recently mounted at the Tate Gallery—may we endorse John Richardson’s recent petition in your columns that any Cubist paintings that are still unvarnished should be left in the state in which their authors intended them to be seen? Pictures which have, on the whole, suffered most drastically from varnishing are those of the first mature or fully developed phase of analytic Cubism. Fewer works of the subsequent synthetic period have been varnished, though they are equally vulnerable, and many masterpieces of both periods have been flattened and deadened through wax lining.

Many paintings of the analytic period which were included in recent exhibitions have been varnished, and in almost every instance it was possible to spot them immediately on entering the relevant galleries, without even going up to them. With varnishing, tonal contrasts between darks and lights become overemphasized or falsified, and the complex and subtle spatial effects which are a characteristic of the paintings of this phase are to a large extent destroyed.

Oddly enough, although most analytic Cubist paintings by Picasso and Braque are executed in a very restricted palette of browns and grays, the unvarnished paintings often evoke subsidiary coloristic sensations, and all of them give out a lovely, silvery light; these sensations, too, are killed by varnishing. As Richardson suggested, varnished paintings often look quite close to the somewhat unsatisfactory color plates in catalogs; unvarnished ones do not.

John Golding

Royal College of Art, London

Angelica Zander Rudenstine

Princeton, New Jersey

Robert Rosenblum

New York University

John Richardson replies:

Mrs. Keck and I are indeed “unacquainted.” Anyone seriously concerned about the well-being of Cubist paintings was obliged to give Mr. and Mrs. Keck and the clones they trained a wide berth. As for my age, it is as irrelevant to this discussion as hers. However, I would like to put the ill-informed Mrs. Keck right on one point: my contact with Picasso was hardly “cursory”; it was constant and close over ten years. And many is the time I heard the artist inveigh against the iniquities of American restoration at a period when the Kecks were leading the pack.

In any case I am pleased to have drawn Mrs. Keck’s fire (if that is the word for such a rambling retort), since her name stands for the practices that my article deplored. Pleased, even if she confirms my worst fears: out of ignorance or arrogance, Mrs. Keck persists in disregarding the Cubist artists’ avowed intentions: no varnish in any circumstances. As for her methods of cleaning: I would have thought that, on the evidence of her own words, Mrs. Keck might set up shop in a television studio, where her colorful swabs could be shown to scour paint more effectively than “the other brand.” (The scrubbed-linoleum look of many a Georgia O’Keeffe is no longer a mystery.)

My article was specifically concerned with the way certain restorers—some of them trained in the methods the Kecks favored—have damaged Cubist paintings with varnish, wax relining, and other processes, against the very firmly expressed wishes of the artists in question. Instead of facing up to the irreversible “errors” that these methods are apt to cause, Mrs. Keck sees “excuses for their occurrence,” and has the effrontery to try to justify things by citing her “personal competence” in the preservation not just of modern art but of American folk paintings, which “offer the restorer/conservator similar preservation headaches.” The problems (if that is what “preservation headaches” means) involved in a restorer’s approach to Cubist paintings and folk art could hardly be more dissimilar. True, Harnett and Peto—whose work borders on folk art—used some of the same trompe l’oeil techniques to depict some of the same still-life objects as the Cubists. But their technical approach and concepts (especially with regard to surface) are about as close as Scott Joplin’s to Anton Webern’s. For a restorer to approach Cubism in the same spirit as folk art is simplistic to the point of absurdity. So far as I can see, the only purpose served by dragging folk art into this discussion is that it goes some way toward explaining why many Cubist paintings have acquired the crude shine one usually associates with inn signs and other artifacts of that ilk.

Mrs. Keck’s statement that I am “not very knowledgeable regarding materials … and not at all familiar with the processes of competent conservation” might hold up if she had backed these accusations with chapter and verse instead of hot air. Not that her failure surprises me: I had the technicalities in my article checked by the restorer whom I am far from alone in regarding as the most skillful, authoritative, and up-to-date in this country.

Mrs. Keck also questions my condemnation of varnish: “Where he gained his information is beyond me.” It should not be. This information, as my article made very clear, came directly from Picasso and Braque, an artist who (pace Mrs. Keck) had the deepest understanding of “the substances [he chose] to employ.” Their interdiction applied primarily to Cubist paintings, and they expected restorers to abide by it. I never questioned the application of a modicum of varnish to paintings by old masters (or, for that matter, by certain modern ones), but I raised the question—of some interest to scholars and scholarly restorers, more especially since it has been so little studied—of when and why a reaction against varnish set in among progressive artists toward the end of the nineteenth century.

And, lastly, trust Mrs. Keck to invoke that bogus virtue “tender, loving care,” which she quaintly describes as “an individually tailored bridge to the future.” Whenever I hear these sanctimonious words—whether from someone responsible for the condition of old people or old paintings—I discover that the treatment meted out is the reverse of tender, loving, and caring. Sure enough, Mrs. Keck advocates processes that Braque likened to “torture.”

My deepest thanks to the many concerned people in the art world (including the director of the National Gallery, Washington) who have written supportive letters. Aside from these letters, my article has apparently prompted more than one institution to see if anything can be done to correct the kind of practices for which Mrs. Keck is proud to claim responsibility.

  1. 1

    By Senatorial decree, Sept. 3rd, 1778, Pietro Edwards directed the restorations on the pictorial treasures of Venice until the end of that Republic.

  2. 2

    Frequent “refreshers” are undertaken for the membership of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works as part of “continuing education” on a professional basis.

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