Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Dear Louvre, please clean these pictures...

Leonardo Virgin of the Rocks, with dust. Picture: MS
Leonardo Virgin of the Rocks, with dust. Picture: MS
I was at the Louvre last week, and some of the pictures are filthy. I wasn't disturbed by discoloured varnish or darkened pigments. No, the problem was simply dust. No expensive campaign of technical restoration is needed; a feather duster will do the job. Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks, recently returned from exhibition in London, is especially bad, with a thick layer of accumulated dust at the base and a good covering of dust over much of the surface.

I've often noticed dirty glass and dusty exhibits recently. It's always irritating, but it's especially outrageous in museums that spend millions on restoration projects that are supposedly vital to enable us to see pictures properly, but then don't bother with basic routine cleaning that makes at least as much of a difference to what we can see, without any associated risk of damaging the pictures. There is a problem of inverted priorities here. 

Here is a Pisanello with a thick layer of dust:
Picture: MS
The Louvre has historically been cautious about cleaning pictures, and the wisdom of their approach is evident when you see how much better preserved their pictures are than those in more aggressive British and American galleries. But there can be no controversy about dusting pictures. It's hard enough to see anything through the throngs of people at the Louvre. Now you need X-ray vision to see through the dirt when you do get through the crowds.

Many of the glazed pictures are also disfigured with fingerprints - sometimes dozens of them, which makes me fear for the preservation of the un-glazed pictures. Here is a Piero della Francesca covered in greasy fingerprints. They don't photograph well, but you can see the marks in the dark background; there are many more over the face too:
Ironically the Louvre is becoming more aggressive about restoring its pictures as it becomes less fastidious about basic maintenance. Its recent cleaning of Leonardo's Madonna and Child with St Anne was a disaster, and one hopes they will learn from this terrible error. A simple solution would be to equip the conservators who worked on the Leonardo with feather dusters, and have them dust the galleries rather than clean the pictures. That will contribute to the preservation of the Louvre's collection and make it more accessible and visible to its visitors.

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