Crimes Against the Cubists

Cubist Painting
Cubist Painting; drawing by David Levine

In an article on the great Picasso retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (The New York Review, July 17, 1980) I complained about the way restorers have unwittingly ruined the surfaces of Cubist paintings. Since these objections are apparently shared by others in the field, I would like to investigate the matter more fully in the hope that familiarity with the artists’ expressed intentions will prevent restorers and their clients from committing further abuses, and not just of Cubist works.

When I complimented William Rubin of the Museum of Modern Art on the brilliant choice of Cubist works in the Picasso show and praised his museum for possessing the most comprehensive collection of Cubist art in the world, I felt obliged to hint that pride in these great holdings should be tinged with shame, for MOMA was killing its Cubist paintings with the wrong sort of kindness. The varnished surface of one masterpiece after another testified more to a desire to embellish than to any understanding of what Picasso intended. Not that MOMA was the only offender. Many other paintings belonging to American museums and private collectors had had their surfaces irreparably jazzed up by well-intentioned but historically ignorant restoration. True, a number of paintings from European sources showed similar signs of maquillage, but they were in a minority, for Europeans are apt to leave well alone, especially if this involves saving money. “To subject these delicate grounds to wax relining and, worse, a shine,” I concluded, “is as much of a solecism as frying a peach.”

Much to my relief, William Rubin agreed with these strictures. Many of MOMA’s paintings, he readily admitted, had suffered from overzealous restoration, but this had taken place before his time, and before his eyes had been opened to these abuses by no less an authority than Picasso. Interestingly enough, Rubin said that this revelation had come about apropos the varnish on a Cézanne—which MOMA contemplated exchanging with Picasso—and not on a Cubist work. After pointing out the error of varnishing a Cézanne, Picasso took the opportunity of insisting that Cubist paintings were even more vulnerable in this respect. Indeed the artist maintained—not altogether truthfully—that he refused to sign any canvas that had been polished up with varnish. Rubin, who has always shown the greatest concern for this problem, says that he is doing everything in his power to redress the—irreversible?—damage that has been done in the past, and that nothing of the kind can ever recur under his auspices.

The other institution that I cited in my article was the National Gallery in Washington, which had just purchased Picasso’s historic Nude Woman, painted in Cadaques in 1910. I singled out this painting for special comment on the grounds that it had acquired a meretricious sheen. The gallery’s twentieth-century curator, E.A. Carmean, disclaimed all responsibility for this. The varnish, he said, had been applied…

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