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Painting As Art

There's been a certain return to the idea of painting as Art, with exhibitions of the work of Mondrian, Seurat, Ellsworth Kelly and the like, in London recently. A sort of reaction to all the non-painterly contemporary manifestations of sharks in embalming fluid, sliced cows, and "installations" of all sorts that are hailed as the last word on the subject. Sorta restores my faith slightly and encourages me to think about doing something with all the unfinished canvases lurking about here

Though I was kinda put off by an article a Monday or two back in the Garudian. It was all about the restoration of Leonardo's "Last Supper", which has kept Brombilla Barcilon occupied ever since 1979, and included a chronology that upset me...

When Leonardo started work in 1495, he was unaware that the humidity in the refectory would cause rapid deterioration of his painting. By 1517 there were reports that the work was "beginning to decay", and Vasari remarks in 1556 that "nothing is visible except a mass of blurs".

A couple of centuries later there was an attempt to "restore" the painting: a couple of jobbing painters, Belotti (1726) and Mazza (1770) painted completely over the picture, imaginatively moving eyes and adding a beard to one of the figures in the process. Then in 1796 Napoleon's troops stable horses in the refectory and amuse themselves by heaving stones at the painting.

The place was flooded in 1800, and suffered a direct hit by an Allied bomb in 1943, so that only the north wall, on which The Last Supper was painted, is left standing. By 1947 the painting is almost invisible under a layer of green mould... which is when Mouro Pellicioli begins the first modern attempt to protect it.

Brombilla Barcilon became involved in 1979, and all the techniques of infra-red and UV photography, and computer reconstitution were called in to dig past the natural decay and depradations of seven previous "restorations" to Leonardo's original work. She hopes to complete the work next year.

There seems to be large dose of Faith in involved here; I think little of Leonardo's art will survive what has become largely an archaeological matter. ■

A couple of years back, that Good Fan and fellow-Mayanologist Chuck Connor sent me a copy of Nat. Geographic mag with an article on the work that had been carried out at the site of Bonampak, renovating the murals that had been discovered there. Been casting around in the studio chaos and miraculously found the mag on my first search.

These Mayan paintings were made long before Leonardo started on his masterpiece. By a stroke of luck the building had been made of limestone, and rain leaking through the walls had deposited a crust of calcite, obscuring but preserving the paintings. The Mexican government, in 1984, began a 3-year programme to clean off this calcite skin and analyse the pigments used.

The Nat. Geographic took colour and infra-red photographs of the cleaned-up murals, and embarked on a computer clean-up/reconstruction of the originals. The article is illustrated by "before" and "after" comparisons, and it's amazing what convincing detail they've been able to recapture.

I don't know how far this work relates to that carried out on the Leonardo renovation, but at least the Mayan researchers have been working on the original paintings. Their work seems in line with much of the archaeological reconstruction of the ruined buildings, and has a greater credibility than the effort to bring back Leonardo in all his glory.

When I hear of the liberties known to have been taken by the 18th-century would-be "restorers" of Leonardo's work, I think Brombilla Barcilon and her team of three helpers have a near-impossible task to get back to the original, compared with the researchers at the Bonampak site. But she's not due to finish her task until next year, so we'll just have to hang on a bit longer... ■

letters to Fran & Brian Varley and Chuck Connor, summer 1997

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