A series of spectacularly bad restorations by Spanish amateurs is creating a new art movement.
Art restoration is one of the great skills of our time, a painstaking and fascinating process that can only be achieved by a select, talented few who will work fastidiously on damaged paintings and other artworks to bring them back to their former glory. it’s something that intrigues a lot of us, so much so that one of the BBC’s most popular shows right now is The Repair Shop, where members of the public can take beloved objects that they own to be restored (a cynic might question why, if these objects were so ‘beloved’, they have been shoved in attics, broken and forgotten until the opportunity for a free repair and a TV appearance arose – but that’s by the by). The rare skills and talents of the art restorer have possibly never been as appreciated as they are now.
Unless you are in Spain, that is, in which case it’s a free-for-all apparently. Spain’s devil may care approach to restoration began in 2012 with the infamous case of Cecilia Giménez and her enthusiastic but unsuccessful attempt to tidy up a battered fresco, Elías García Martínez’s Ecce Homo, in her local church in Borja. The results, as you may recall, were not great.
Yet we can now look back at Giménez’s effort and see it less as a botched violation of a classic work of art and more the beginning of a new art movement, based around the reinvention of older, more old-fashioned religious pieces. Destruction and rebirth, perhaps. Certainly, it seems to have started a trend for cack-handed violation, often involving a certain minimalisation of the facial features. Perhaps, as Mrs R (who is Spanish and so should know) states, they all just want to be Picasso. It’s in the blood.
Certainly, a cynic might look at what happened to Borja’s tourist trade after Giménez’s novel restoration and feel inspired, especially if you are in a small town or village wanting some of that tourism cash. Over 150,000 people have been to see Ecce Homo – a lot more than came to see it before the restoration – so possibly Giménez is having the last laugh, even though she was apparently mortified by the whole thing at the time. Whatever the reason, ever since her efforts became a global news story and tourist draw, there have been several other similarly crass amateur restorations in other towns and villages. It might be worth sacrificing an old piece that – in the grand scheme of things – isn’t hugely important for the greater good. Who knows?
In any case, the staggering failure of Giménez to restore the piece to its former glory doesn’t seem to have put others in Spain off. In 2018, the Church of San Miguel de Estella in Navarre wanted to restore their statue of St. George and – as you do – passed on hiring an actual professional in favour of the local school teacher. The results rather look as though the teacher had been on the San Miguel and Estrella himself, adding a vivid, Disneyesque colour scheme to the previously monochrome statue. “The restoration leaves much to be desired,” said the local Mayor in a moment of considerable understatement.
The same year, a statue of the Virgin Mary in Asturias was given an even more vivid reinterpretation. The piece had been restored already some fifteen years earlier, but what it was clearly missing was a splash of cartoonish colour. Step forward local tobacconist María Luisa Menéndez and her box of paints. She claimed the locals – all sixteen of them – approved, but Genaro Alonso, the regional minister for culture and education, was perhaps more on the ball when he described the work as “more a vengeance than a restoration.”
In June of 2020, the Virgin Mary was subjected to even more indignities, when Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s The Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables was sent for sprucing up by its (understandably) anonymous private owner. When you own a valuable and important piece by a 17th century artist, you only want to send it to the very best for restoration, of course, which is no doubt why the owner sent it to a local furniture restorer. Presumably, the restorer simply whipped out the turps and got to work despite his obviously lack of expertise in art restoration, and the results were… well, you can see for yourself. Given that the job had cost €1200, the results must have been disappointing to the owner, so the restorer gamefully had another go. This did not improve matters.
And now, Artnet News reports on yet another hilarious botched reconstruction, this time of a less important (indeed, unidentified) sculpture in Palencia. Here, some unknown creative has taken a beaten but decent wall carving and reworked it into what appears to be a surrealist tribute to Donald Trump. The resulting work looks like something from Eyes Without A Face, a ghoulish mask covering the original face as though – and I hesitate to give away trade secrets here – someone had just plastered over the original in cement and then drawn a nightmarish cartoon face where they thought the face should be.
Perhaps we should embrace this new art form. Instead of tearing down statues, maybe we should be allowing passing window cleaners or scaffolders the chance to reconstruct them into something new, a statement on the modern world as much as the original was of its time. Art needs democratising – it’s still, by and large, the domain of the privileged. Outsider art is always more intriguing, and this accidental strand – which almost feels like an identifiable style at this point – perhaps should be celebrated as something new and authentic. It is, after all, as honest, sincere and referential as the original work, if not more so. I’m sure that Spain is not the only place where this is happening (and you have to wonder how many of these things happen and are then spirited away, unnoticed by the rest of the world) but the country should own its new status as the centre of outsider art reinvention. An exhibition is long overdue.
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