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When we come face to face with a masterpiece in a museum, we may not think about the journey that brought it there. While some are more storied than others (I’m looking at you, Mona Lisa), any painting from hundreds of years ago will have passed through multiple hands and been displayed in numerous contexts. In many cases, this treatment of artworks has degraded them over time, while some were simply not painted with longevity in mind.
The fact that paintings can change over time into something which no longer reflects the artists’ vision poses some interesting questions, not least about the value of preservation. If an artwork is still revered now despite being degraded or damaged, does that speak to the original quality of the artwork, or the qualities it now possesses? And what is the real value of preserving artwork in its original condition, far beyond the life of its artist?
Louvre it or hate it
For the thousands of people who queue everyday to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre – and now get only five minutes to appreciate it – the experience of seeing the painting is likely to be mixed. While many are captivated by the artistry and enigmatic smile, others may leave disappointed by its small size, and failing to be wowed. What few perhaps appreciate is how different the picture looks now to how it did when it was first painted, and how its status has contributed to its current state of repair.
One notable aspect of this is the painting’s famous lack of eyebrows. Rather than being a stylistic choice (or a contemporary fashion statement, as some had claimed), the painting did in fact originally have eyebrows. It’s believed that these and other details were lost due to natural ageing through light and heat, as well as the various restoration efforts which scrubbed, cleaned, varnished and repainted the work.
The Mona Lisa hasn’t always been the world’s most famous artwork, but it has always been appreciated by the intelligentsia, which has led to it being stolen and moved around numerous times. Napoleon claimed it for his own bedroom after defeating Italy, where it hung for four years, and it has since been stolen and vandalised several times. Despite all of this, however, the Mona Lisa is considered to be ‘remarkably well preserved’ for its age, and is far from the worst example of damage and degradation in a famous and beloved work.
It’s art, Jim, but not as we know it
Other artworks have suffered worse fates, and the most notable may be another by Leonardo. The Last Supper remains in its original position on a wall of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, but little else has remained the same. Painted on dry rather than wet plaster, due to Leonardo’s wish to spend more time on details, the painting began to deteriorate within the artist’s own lifetime. Unlike the Mona Lisa, the many restoration attempts only damaged the work further, while wars and occupation of the Convent caused further damage. We only know what it was supposed to look like now due to two surviving copies painted in its early years.
In this case, being painted on an exterior wall left it more susceptible to the elements, with humidity and moisture causing the most damage. This was exacerbated by a curtain that was later used to protect the piece, but actually trapped the moisture and scraped across its surface. Various artists attempted to restore and repaint the piece, while later generations cared little for its value, and deliberately attacked the work by throwing rocks and scratching out faces. Similar actions over history have sabotaged innumerable artworks, from churches and cathedrals in the reformation to art considered tasteless or provocative under certain regimes.
In spite of the painting being ruined before the invention of photography, it retains its iconic status, and has become the definitive depiction of a major religious event. This is only one of a myriad examples where an artwork which has changed significantly over time is now revered despite its changes, having sometimes been disregarded while the artist was alive. While they are much more recent, Vincent van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers are already ‘wilting’, with the pigments darkening significantly over time. It’s not unreasonable to think that van Gogh’s legacy may change over time as his works appear less impressive due to their degrading quality.
There can be no doubt that preservation is a difficult art, but it’s not impossible either. As specialists in art and museum storage, we’ve gone to great lengths to provide these facilities with the highest quality storage equipment that keeps art and artefacts in stasis. Modern climate control allows for artworks to be dynamically regulated, changing the temperature and dehumidifying the space to prevent damage. If controlled from the early life of a work, there’s no reason why modern artworks can’t last for many hundreds or even thousands of years.
Pest control and UV protection are also important aspects of art preservation, as is the means by which an object is stored and accessed. Movement must be friction-free in order to avoid jolts and vibrations which could damage the object, while it must also be secured in a way which keeps it stable without causing damage. Extra consideration must be given to secure storage in areas prone to natural disasters or geological conditions, particularly earthquakes, which could easily destroy much of a gallery’s stock if not accommodated for.
Another approach to maintaining artworks for future generations is digital preservation. Technology has advanced to the point that, more than simply photographing a work, it can be scanned in exorbitant detail, recreating its precise elements in digital form. X-ray scanning has also served to reveal hidden details about many paintings, including that of the Mona Lisa’s eyebrows, and additional details such as a necklace and headdress that were scrubbed out of an earlier draft.
While digital preservation offers many advantages, however, it is not infallible either. As well as being lost when hard drives crash, digital files can become degraded when copied or converted, with fine details being lost in transition. Converting raw music files to MP3s is an example of this process; the music sounds roughly the same, but data is lost to whittle down the filesize, which impacts the quality of the work. Digital artwork can even be lost entirely when the file format it is kept in falls out of use, and can no longer be accessed with modern equipment.
The significance of art is subjective, and changes between eras, but there can be no denying its value to society. As well as providing a historical record of a time and place, artworks create emotions in people that ripple through society, affecting our perceptions and inspiring creativity.
Without taking the time and effort to protect art, this value may be diminished or not realised at all, starving us of the ability to learn from the past, and the impetus we need to create things in the future. Art preservation may go unnoticed, but its importance is without question.
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