2013-10-23 - Yenji temple before and after

Qing Fresco “Restoration” Yields Disastrous Results

Ruth Osborne
2013-10-23 - Qing Dynasty fresco Yenji temple

Original Qing Dynasty fresco at Yenji temple. Courtesy: AFP/ Getty Images.

Following last year’s famous botched restoration of the nineteenth-century Ecce Homo fresco by Cecilia Gimenez (Read the ArtWatch UK article here), this month brings an interesting, and equally disturbing, development in the Chinese province of Liaoning.


Earlier in October, images leaked online revealing the destructive outcome of an unauthorized “restoration” of 270 year-old frescoes from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) on the walls of the Yenji temple in Chaoyang. The new, and completely-unrelated, cartoons of Taoist mythical figures that now cover the original frescoes were carried out by a reportedly unqualified restoration company.  Following the temple abbot’s denied application for restoration permits, local authorities of the Pheonix Mountain scenic area  decided to go on with the project anyway.[1] According to BBC News, this indignity was uncovered by a Chinese blogger “Wujiaofeng;” Weibo users in China (similar to Twitter) responded accordingly: “Ignorance is horrible!”; “I feel some people’s brains were kicked by a donkey.”[2]

2013-10-23 - Yenji temple mural restoration

“Restored” mural at Yenji temple.

In considering these under-the-radar restoration blunders, Alasdair Palmer of The Telegraph also calls into account the irreversible harm that can come as a result of professional treatments: “if their interventions do not actually destroy far more important works of art than Martinez’s fresco, there is a growing consensus that they do not always improve them – and on occasion, they may seriously damage them.”[3] While photos of the original seventeenth-century frescoes reveal they were indeed faded and weathered by time, how is it that this condition merited a complete invasion of the temple’s visual aesthetic? The obtrusively noticeable loss of the original artist’s work at the Yenji temple sets an extreme example for just how much “restoration” can cause utterly irreversible damage.

2013-10-23 - Yenji temple before and after

Original 17th century Qing Dynasty fresco and its 21st century replacement.

Authorities of Henan’s Culture Relics Bureau have showed great concern for the irreversible restoration work that has forever destroyed the original frescoes, as was evinced in 1990 after the Sistine chapel cleanings (Read the ArtWatch UK article here). As with the cleaning of Michelangelo’s frescoes, the damages in China occur even under the watchful eyes of the public. Henan archeologist Li Zhanyang states: “They just use the name ‘restoration’ for a new project.”  Furthermore, there are disturbing lingering reports that “restoration” damages like this occur throughout China every year. Two local officials in Chaoyang, the chief of Yenji temple affairs and the head of city’s cultural heritage monitoring team, have since been fired. For those with a keen eye for improving awareness of similar damages, the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre considers incidents at other historic architectural sites. The Centre’s founder, He Shuzhong, comments on issues of harmful over-restoration at the Forbidden City and Great Wall, among other sites. He relates a two-fold issue: the public desires “dazzling, new, high, big things,” while experts and officials often place efficiency over thorough research and preparation.[4]


[1] Oscar Lopez, “Chinese Temple ‘Restored’ By painting Over Ancient Qing Dyansty Fresco Wall Artwork Prompting Outrage.” 22 October 2013. Latin Times. http://www.latintimes.com/articles/9495/20131022/chinese-temple-restored-painting-over-ancient-qing.htm#.Umfn4SioflO (last visited 23 October 2013).

[2] “China sackings over ruined ancient Buddhist frescos,” 22 October 2013. BBC News. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-24625277 (last visited 23 October 2013).

[3] Alasdair Palmer, “Restoration Tragedies,” 26 August 2012. Telegraph UK. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/9498877/Restoration-tragedies.html (last visited 23 October 2013).

[4] Tania Branigan, “Chinese Temple’s Garish Restoration Prompts Outrage,” 22 October 2013. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/22/chinese-temple-restoration-qing-dynatsy-china (last visited 23 October 2013).

2013-10-23 - Mauritshuis restorer Girl with a Pearl Earring

Old Dutch Masters in New York: Mottled Vermeers in Manhattan Collections

Ruth Osborne
2013-10-22 - Vermeer Girl With a Pearl Earring Mauritshuis

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675)
Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665
Oil on canvas 44.5 x 39 cm
Courtesy: Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Paintingfrom the Mauritshuis  
(Oct. 22, 2013 – Jan. 19, 2014)

This week, The Frick Collection in New York is set to open their exhibition of Dutch master paintings from the Mauritshuis collection. For the final leg of its American tour these objects will now have traveled over 3,000 miles from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague to line the walls of the late Frick’s home through mid-January.[1]


What most of the (inevitably) millions of visitors will fail to take into account when viewing infamous canvases like The Girl with a Pearl Earring, is the history of the collection and its treatment. One must consider the pollutants and poor climate of the Picture Gallery throughout the nineteenth-century, as well as, most importantly, changing approaches to cleaning that impacted restoration treatments throughout its two-hundred year-old history. Under one director in the 1840s, for instance, there was invasive relining and heavy-handed varnishing that forever worsened several important paintings.[2]


It is particularly crucial to lay out a history of treatment and alteration for the works of an artist like Vermeer, studied for centuries as inimitable in his use of natural light and tone. While conservators purportedly work towards a closer vision of the original Dutch master’s hand, this is precisely what has now, as a result, become forever altered. What happens when this hand appears different in two paintings labeled “Vermeer” hanging side-by-side on museum walls?  What happens when one no longer sees visual consistency across his canvases?


2013-10-23 - Mauritshuis restorer Girl with a Pearl Earring

Mauritshuis restorer J.C. Traas restoring Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1960.

Vermeers in New York collections also carry varied histories of conservation, as can be expected from an artist whose works have survived nearly four centuries, They each have individual stories, which for us today means they are now nearly as varied as paintings by completely different artists. As art historian Erik Larsen states on the Met’s Woman with a Lute: “We have here a much skinned and damaged painting…Very little in this work seems to indicate Vermeer’s original technique, brush stroke, and savoir faire.”Larsen can only infer “the composition seems to belong to Vermeer…” This is not very reassuring. [3]

What concerns ArtWatch is how these paintings are now being presented to and perceived by the public who views them on the gallery walls, without understanding of their treatment history. We hope this review of Vermeers in New York collections will open up a new and better understanding of how the Dutch master has, in a rather muddied demeanor, entered into our modern consciousness.





[1] “Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis October 22, 2013, through January 19, 2014.” The Frick Collection, New York. Press Image List; “Masterpieces from the Mauritshuis to travel in 2012 to the United States. First Major U.S. Tour in nearly thirty years.” The Hague, January 27, 2011. Press Release. Mauritsuis, The Royal Picture Gallery. http://www.mauritshuis.nl/index.aspx?ChapterID=9011&ContentID=42604 (last visited 18 October 2013).

[2]   Preserving Our Heritage: Conservation, Restoration, and Technical Research at the Mauritshuis. 19-33.

[3] Erik Larsen, “Jan Vermeer,” Master Artists Library Series. Ed. Antonio Paolucci, 1998.

2013-10-15 - MoMA conservator Jennifer Hick Pollock Number 1A 1948

Update: Pollock Restorations at MoMA Draw to a Close & Corporate America Steps In

Ruth Osborne
2013-10-15 - MoMA conservators Jackson Pollock One Number 31

Conservators at MoMA laying down Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950.

Last December, ArtWatch posted on three major works by Jackson Pollock then undergoing restoration at MoMA and the Seattle Museum of Art.

This was not to be the first time these canvases had been under a restorer’s hand; Sea Change (1947) was varnished in 1970,[1] One (1950) underwent overpainting in the 1960s[2], and Echo (1951) has experienced yellowing over the decades.[3] The museums’ conservators set out to remove the poorly-executed treatments of decades past and bring the canvases back to their original state in Pollock’s studio.

While One and Echo have completed their treatments and are now on view, work at MoMA has recently begun on Number 1A, 1948. This work of Pollock’s comes with a “condition and treatment history” that is “arguably the most complex” of all three.[4] According to Museum records, the last major conservation in 1959 attempted to restore the canvas from “heat and smoke exposure” as a result of a fire in the galleries the year before. MoMA admits this treatment in ‘59 has now resulted in the painting’s discolored and disfigured appearance today.[5] However, current treatment on Number 1A, 1948 would not have been able to continue without generous funding from the Bank of America’s Global Art Conservation Project.

Coddington states in a video on the project posted on the Forbes website, that MoMA would likely not have undergone treatment for Number1A if Bank of America had not stepped in with funding. The endeavor originally began as an in-house conservation project (see Einav Zamir’s November 2012 post). And yet, the Bank’s Conservation Project website proudly lists all three Pollocks at MoMA among those fortunate enough to have received funding this year. All three.

2013-10-15 - MoMA conservator Jennifer Hick Pollock Number 1A 1948

Jennifer Hick, MoMA Conservator, at work on Number 1A, 1948. Courtesy: Forbes / Will Sanderson.

A recent Forbes article, aptly titled “How Bank of America Uses Fine Art to Make You Like Them,” takes an curious and criticizing eye to Bank of America’s involvement in the process: “Surveys have found that customers who say they care about the arts rate the bank higher in terms of satisfaction.”[6] As ArtWatch pointed out in a post last month, ulterior motives often behind restoration treatments are simple painted over with a thin layer of support for the arts. These corporate funding projects are not in existence for the benefit of the works of art themselves. As Zamir points out, it is not unthinkable that pieces are selected for their high profile status in order to gain more press coverage.  What need was there to suddenly begin restorations on Pollock’s oeuvre? To use the artist’s name as a branding tool to sell the charitable façade of public corporations.

[1] “Pollack Restoration at Seattle Museum of Art is Coming Along,” Nov. 28, 2012. AFA News. http://www.afanews.com/home/item/1424-pollack-restoration-at-seattle-museum-of-art-is-coming-along#.UlzNOiioflM (last visited 15 October 2013).

[2] James Coddington and Jennifer Hickey, “MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Conservation Project: Wrapping Up Treatment of One: Number 31, 1950.” May 29, 2013. MoMA INSIDE/OUT. http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2013/05/29/momas-jackson-pollock-conservation-project-wrapping-up-treatment-of-one-number-31-1950/ (last visited 15 October 2013).

[3] Hickey, “MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Conservation Project, Post 3: Documentation and Treatment.” 2 October 2011. MoMA INSIDE/OUT. http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/10/02/momas-jackson-pollock-conservation-project-post-3-documentation-and-treatment (last visited 15 October 2013).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Hickey and Coddington, “MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Conservation Project: Number 1A, 1948,” 18 July 2013. MoMA INSIDE/OUT. http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2013/07/18/momas-jackson-pollock-conservation-project-number-1a-1948 (last visited 15 October 2013).

[6] Samantha Sharf, “Jackson Pollock Brand Ambassador? How Bank of America Uses Fine Art to Make You Like Them,” 8 October 2013. Forbes. http://www.forbes.com/sites/samanthasharf/2013/10/08/jackson-pollock-brand-ambassador-how-bank-of-america-uses-fine-art-to-make-you-like-them/ (last visited 15 October 2013).