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 before the painting arrived in Washington. Since the work in question came from a dealer, Ernst Beyeler of Basel, whose solicitude for the surface of paintings distinguishes him from many of his competitors (indeed the rumor that Beyeler pays a premium for unvarnished works is thought to have saved many a painting’s face), one can only conclude that the refurbishing occurred at some previous stop-off in the market place. Reassuring as it is that the National Gallery is blameless in this case, is it not sad that a great institution in search of twentieth-century landmarks is obliged to purchase a painting whose surface is the reverse of what the artist intended?

For it cannot be too strongly and too often emphasized that both Picasso and Braque were adamant that the surface of Cubist paintings be left matte and never in any circumstances varnished. In the case of Braque this interdiction applied not merely to his Cubist paintings but also to all his subsequent work. If a shiny passage was required—and it often was—the artist could always use a lacquer or a glossy house paint like Ripolin, or add varnish to his pigment to point up that specific passage. In this way the artist could differentiate, through texture as well as through the use of color, between surfaces that were intended to be shiny—for instance, a china jug—and surfaces intended to be matte—for instance, a newspaper.

Later in his career, when Braque became more “metaphysical” (his word) in his attitude toward reality, he carried this process a stage further and played arbitrary games with the identities of objects by deliberately sending out confusing signals: making something shiny that should be matte, something opaque that should be transparent, and vice versa. All this he did with a view to invoking mystery and establishing those equivocal pictorial rapports that he identified with “poésie.” It goes without saying that these subtle but crucial contrasts count for nothing if an ignorant collector or a dealer out to dress up his wares has a painting defiled with varnish.


Given the extent to which these contrasts are being obliterated in the name of bogus science, the artists in question would have more reason than most to be appalled, since for them the two-dimensional surface of a painting and its finish were sacrosanct. The illusory depths which varnish enabled traditionally trained artists to amplify were anathema to the Cubists, indeed to most other progressive artists from the 1880s onward. For instead of using eye-fooling devices to make things recede as far as possible from the onlooker, the Cubists were out to bring things as far as possible back within reach: they wanted to make the picture surface the equivalent of reality, not a representation of it. Thus the surface of a Cubist painting is the subject—all the more reason to respect every detail of that surface. In the circumstances it helps to think of Cubist paintings as objects rather than illusionistic images; only then will people realize that slapping varnish on a Cubist still life is as crass as French-polishing not just the veneer but the leather top and ormolu mounts of a bureau plat.

However, varnish is not the only danger to Cubist paintings. Wax relining—a process that most restorers have at one time or another used and far too many still consider mandatory—has done even greater harm. By impregnating the canvas from the back with what amounts to an embalming agent, the restorer effects a complete transformation not only of the paint surface but of the entire painting structure. The intention is to preserve the painting from present or future disintegration, but the result is a waxwork, a dead thing. The tragedy is that wax relining, like varnishing, is a virtually irreversible process. Complete removal of wax from infused material is technically impossible, and catastrophic changes often result from heating, infusing, and pressing the paint, ground, and canvas. (Paintings with a lot of impasto are especially vulnerable. More than one rugose Van Gogh has ended up as sleek as a formica table top.)

What then should be done to protect Cubist paintings (and for that matter any other paintings) from deterioration, or to minimize damage that has already taken place? My own somewhat extremist view—one, incidentally, that was shared by Picasso and Braque, who would rather have had a painting disintegrate than see it undergo plastic surgery—is the absolute minimum. In view of the pollution problem, paintings of this delicacy should ideally be exhibited in a controlled environment, or, if that is impossible, under glass. (I know this makes for a shine but at least it is easily removable and, unlike varnish, protective.) Relining should be limited to cases of dire necessity, and then only if one of the new alternatives to wax relining is used.1

Here I should perhaps emphasize that my strictures had the blessing of the artists in question with whom I occasionally discussed these matters. Braque was especially forthcoming: all his life he remained passionately interested in problems of paint, and he continued to stretch and prime most of his own canvases and grind some of his own pigment. Picasso, on the other hand, took less and less interest in paint per se. He had little patience with the artisanal chores in which Braque took such pride, and would simply have his Parisian color merchant make regular deliveries of already primed, standard-sized canvases by the hundred as well as tubes of standard-colored paints in industrial quantities.

However, for all their divergences in later years, the two artists continued to share a healthy horror of varnish and virtually all forms of restoration. If an early painting developed a craquelure, Braque would be resigned and philosophical, as was his nature, whereas Picasso would relish it: wasn’t this proof that he had endowed his work with a volition of its own? If more serious damage developed: “Tant pis!” Likewise if he discovered an ink or paint that was liable to deteriorate, Picasso would appreciate the defect for the malicious fun it afforded. He could then present tiresome admirers with graphic dédicaces, secure in the knowledge that they would ultimately fade and with luck—what a tease on future restorers—even vanish.

Braque’s obsession with pigment partly derived from his being the son of a house painter. Apprenticed at the age of seventeen to a confrère of his father’s, he was subsequently packed off to Paris to study for a craftsman’s diploma under a master decorator. Hence his skill at wood graining and marbling, lettering and stenciling—vital factors in the development of Cubism. Hence, too, Braque’s ability to do highly unconventional things to the hitherto sacrosanct medium of oil paint. By adding sand, tobacco, sawdust, coffee grounds, metal filings, and plaster, he came up with a new range of textural effects. In this respect Braque probably had a greater understanding of his materials than any other major artist of this century. I will always remember the pride he took in solving a problem that had baffled restorers: one of his paintings had turned black from being walled up during the war. “Don’t let anyone touch it,” Braque told the owner. “Just leave it out in the sun.” And sure enough the painting regained its original color. Nor will I forget how he inveighed against the institution of the vernissage: “a redundant process, a redundant rite,” he called it. Odd that almost no attention has been paid to the reaction against varnish and the significance of the matte surface in the history of modern painting.


Without a working knowledge of the history of the movement, a restorer would be unwise to tackle a Cubist painting. For instance, it is crucial to understand the Cubists’ idiosyncratic approach to color: why they fought shy of it during the early years of “Analytical Cubism,” in the belief (to quote Braque) “it could give rise to sensations that would interfere with their new conception of space”; and how they subsequently managed to reconcile it with their work when Braque saw how to use texture to represent local color by varying his paint surfaces with foreign substances and exploiting his repertory of decorators’ effects (wood graining, etc.). Lastly the restorer should understand how the invention of papier collé resolved the Cubists’ coloristic problems once and for all by making it possible to depict the form of an object and its local color “simultaneously and independently of one another” without offending against the two-dimensionality of the picture surface.

Picasso’s genius subsequently led him in many different directions, but for Braque the equation of color with texture remained a lifelong obsession. And he would illustrate his theories by dropping a piece of velvet and a piece of calico into the same pot of color in order to show how different the results could be. He would also demonstrate how the same color could vary in value according to whether it was opaque or translucent, a lacquer or an earth color. “These are differences that every painter should learn to respect,” he would say. And every restorer, one might add. It follows that anything a restorer does to blur his or any other artist’s carefully contrived distinctions—Cubist or post-Cubist—is tantamount to altering the color and tonality of a painting; as much of a betrayal of an artist’s work as the substitution by a conductor of a fortissimo for a pianissimo.2

The danger of all this was brought home to me on a visit to Braque’s studio, when a painting of a guitar that had formerly been signed on the back—as was the Cubists’ habit—arrived from America to be signed all over again on the front, now that wax relining had obliterated the original signature. The artist’s horror at the condition of his recently restored painting was painful to observe. “Look how the blacks jump out at you,” he gasped. And indeed the black lines that had formerly served as a discreet scaffolding stood out—thanks to glossy varnish—like newly painted iron railings. Jarringly out of tone! No less upsetting to the artist was the awful tautness caused by an aluminum support that stretched the canvas tight as a drum. “Why subject it to this racklike torture?” he asked. Why indeed, since it was quite redundant, and the canvas—of almost linenlike fineness, as is usual with Cubist works—looked as if it were about to pop.

“Restorers are amazing,” said Braque. “They have transformed my guitar into a tambourine,” and he gave the taut oval a disconsolate tap with his paintbrush as he re-signed it.

This incident took place some thirty years ago, but the disfiguration of Braque’s Cubist work has not abated. In recent months one of the finest untouched Braques—the property of an illustrious institution—has fallen victim to a restorer’s irrepressible urge to varnish, despite a specific request from a leading expert in the field to do no such thing. “The varnish is invisible,” the restorer said by way of justification. But these new so-called invisible varnishes, made from synthetic resins, inevitably form a membrane between one’s eye and the picture, and their application seals the fate of a painting by establishing the eventual need for their removal and replacement. Furthermore, their long-term effect is totally unpredictable.

To return to the Picasso retrospective that was my starting point: by confronting so many overpolished works with what I can only describe as virgin paintings—paintings whose surfaces had never been subjected to the restorer’s improving hand—the exhibition unwittingly drew attention to the evils of ignorant and insensitive restoration. For instance, how tawdry the victims of American beauty parlors looked compared to the paintings from the Kramar bequest in Prague’s National Gallery, or the two great compositions with fresh, frescolike surfaces that recently came to light in Picasso’s private collection. What testimony to the value of benign—or malign?—neglect! Seventy years after they were painted, these works still looked as pristine as they must have done on the artist’s easel; and just as Picasso intended, they made one long to reach out in imagination and caress their peachlike bloom.

Benign neglect also explained why paintings in that other great repository of Cubist art—the Russian state collections—shared in the pristine freshness of the Prague pictures. Alas, no longer. Russian restorers seem to be aping some of their Western counterparts in that they have recently subjected a few of their Picassos to drastic varnishing. Unfortunately Russian loans to the MOMA show were canceled at the last moment—thanks to international froideur—so it was impossible to judge how bad Russian methods differed from bad Western ones.

The MOMA show did, however, include a group of paintings that exemplified in a highly ironical way the points I have been making. I mean the group of paintings that had been acquired en bloc from the heirs of Gertrude Stein by MOMA, acting on behalf of a group of private collectors who were either trustees or benefactors of the museum. The writer’s relatives, it will be remembered, had removed the collection from the custody of Alice B. Toklas (who had inherited a life interest in them) on the grounds that the old lady was not sufficiently solicitous of the Stein family treasures. True, the Stein dogs had never been great respecters of Picasso’s work, some of which hung much nearer the floor than the ceiling; true again, Miss Toklas’s health and sight were failing. Still I can testify that, with the exception of a dilapidated Juan Gris collage, the Stein pictures looked in far better shape—a bit dusty perhaps, but otherwise wonderfully fresh—when they hung in Miss Toklas’s apartment than when they reappeared on the walls of some of New York’s more prestigious collectors, enhanced in some cases with the specious glow of a transparency held up to the light.

Yet, when all is said and done, what can one expect when publishers of art books have corrupted the public’s eye by accustoming it to ultra-glossy reproductions—reproductions that bear the same relationship to the originals that magazine advertisements of technicolor desserts do to the real thing? The fault is to some extent Albert Skira’s. In 1948 this enterprising Swiss publisher brought out an album devoted to Picasso’s pottery, and in order to simulate the sheen of ceramics he had the bright idea of giving the plates a high glossy finish. Such was the success of this album that Skira used a similar look—now more or less standard, I fear—for the plates of his three-volume History of Modern Painting, a history that helped to form the taste of a generation of students. Since many of the plates in Skira’s History reproduced paintings that hung in a house where I once lived, I was in a position to register the effect that the originals had on eyes queered by reproductions. Face after face would cloud over with disappointment. Where were those gorgeous coach-work colors, those plastic blacks in which you could not quite see your face? A silly student even asked whether these really were the originals.

Eyes jaded by shiny reproductions have a parallel in ears jaded by souped-up recordings. At a concert a few weeks ago, I overheard two people complaining about the performance. The sound, they agreed, had been a bit thin: it lacked the resonance of a recent record—a record that I had found resonant to the point of schmaltziness. The excesses committed in the mendacious name of hi-fi, I concluded, were not limited to music. Like record companies and art-book publishers, restorers should stop tampering with our perceptions and betraying the works entrusted to their care.

This Issue

June 16, 1983