13 October 2007

Destroying restored art vs. restoring destroyed art

More reflections from my art tour of Florence. This 14th or 15th century fresco in San Miniato al Monte (Florence) looks like it has probably had some restoration work done on it over the years, as its colors are so well preserved (I have not touched them up in Photoshop). But also preserved for all eternity (until someone decides to do another restoration on it) are the graffiti of some 20th century vandals (in the lower right corner, on the red patches; click to zoom in on image). It appals me that anybody could be so philistine as to ruin art in a sacred space like this. Fortunately, at not very great expense (certainly not like what it would cost to repair the actual fresco), I can fix the damage pretty well in Photoshop. This illustrates the non-destructive restoration possible in digital media. I can keep a copy of the original, just in case someone doesn't like the kind of touching up I did.

Not so with non-digital art. Case in point: the famous Crucifix by Cimabue, painted to hang above the altar in Santa Croce in Florence. It had been lingering in storage, leaning up against a wall in the refectory, after renovations had replaced it with some other piece. Then it was almost completely destroyed in the great 1966 flood of the Arno River. The controversial restoration by Umberto Baldini used a new technique in which areas where the paint had been completely washed off are approximated with a pixel pattern that only suggests the color and outline of what was there before, but does not recreate brush strokes. Baldini and his team "felt strongly that it was inappropriate to leave this extremely important work as a mere fragment, and yet they were unwilling to deceive the viewer into thinking that the work was undamaged. Chromatic abstraction was their answer to this dilemma. Chromatic abstraction is formulated on the idea that three dominant tones can be abstracted from any painting. These colors, combined in the losses in small strokes that follow the dynamic flow of the image, and in the correct proportions, create the neutral color that blends most perfectly with the painting, making the losses the least distracting without inpainting them imitatively." (Getty Conservation Institute, Painted Wood: History and Conservation, p. 414.) You can see this clearly in the detail of Christ's feet (below, right; click to zoom in on image). Some people have objected to Baldini's restoration because it is not Cimabue's work at all. They claim that the ravages of time and natural disasters are part of the history of art that should be preserved. I am still undecided on this issue. I can't say I liked the restored Crucifix. But it is intriguing from an art historical point of view. You can read more about the restoration debate in this article, and (if you have JSTOR access) in "Art and Its Preservation" by David Carrier (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 43:3 (Spring 1985), pp. 291-300).

With digital art (including digital photography), all of this is moot. The original cannot become degraded over time, or destroyed by a flood or fire, nor can it be vandalized, as long as a backup is made. And as long as it is converted to new media as they are invented and the old ones become obsolete! That latter would be a subject for "a whole 'nother" post (my favorite example of tmesis, a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is inserted into another word, often for humorous effect).

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