"So do these wonders a most dizzy pain, That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude Wasting of old Time..." Deputy Viewpoint Editor Kate Lau discusses art restoration — should we allow art to give in to the inexorable decay of time or should we scramble to preserve it in its original form through persistent refurbishment?
The title of this article is a fragment from “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” (written by an impassioned John Keats after a visit to the eponymous marbles) that I have shamelessly borrowed, then altered for my own nefarious agenda here. Though instead of commenting on the fraught politics of Lord Elgin’s well-meaning/heinous/irrelevant/sexy plunder of the sculptures — which would quite possibly constitute a more sensational article — I will instead weigh in on the far less contentious question of their potential restoration. Should we attempt to rescue decaying art from the “rude wasting” of Time?
This case study of the classical marbles is, admittedly, an extreme one. The sculptures in question are so old — ancient, really — that the impression of them that persists in humanity’s collective consciousness is, by necessity, post-ruin. More specifically, a conception devoid of colour, weapons and, for the most part, limbs. Since their first discovery in the fifteenth century, ‘classical sculpture’ has been synonymous for “ambiguously cream-coloured marble with various bits missing”. A harmless enough, if inaccurate, misconception? Well. In a grim twist of history, this anodyne artistic muddle would be sinisterly co-opted over the next few centuries to conflate Whiteness with the ideal.
Now, it seems as though we have been given a second chance at things. Our twenty-first century archaeologists have done what fifteenth century excavators could not: identified the colours that used to reside on the crumbling marble. Surely the right thing to do, at this juncture, is to re-paint them, to replace their rightful colours. It would be no different from restoring, say, a Vermeer, or the Mona Lisa herself, and would do more good besides.
Were this to happen, I must admit with some shame, I would be distraught and I’m certain I’m not alone in this. This is simply because we hold the aesthetic myth of bare, fractured statues too dear, an affliction that has plagued the Western artistic consciousness since the High Renaissance. In “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles”, a simultaneously awed and despairing Keats waxes lyrical on the diminished “Grecian grandeur” of the broken sculptures. I am, embarrassingly, inclined to do the same: there is a specific sort of tragic beauty that surrounds ruined things. I see it in the Charioteer of Delphi’s corroded bronze cheeks, in the agonised Laocoön’s half-broken arms, in the jagged fierceness of the headless Winged Victory.
I am, of course, not advocating for ignorance. Ignorance of Art and its history is no less damaging than any other sort. I will merely suggest here, with my very limited authority, that how art appeared once is of equal importance to how it appears now. We should, by all means, educate the new generations on how the Trojan Archer once dazzled in technicolour. But we mustn’t do it the disservice of suggesting it languishes now in a diminished state of ruin: the word “transformed” comes to mind instead. Likewise, I remain hopeful that Pilgrimage to Cythera can one day be enjoyed for the growing cracks in its paint, rather than in spite of them.
Our modern obsession with preservation has gone unchecked for far too long, and we’ve forgotten how art emerges from imperfections and experimentations (that do not necessarily spring from its creator). The Notre-Dame de Paris wouldn’t exist as she does now without centuries’ worth of history making its marks on her. When art bends and yields to the ravages of time, there is a good case for letting it. We already know what it was made to be — and with our digital advancements, so can future generations — why not find out what it could be?
That said, I certainly do not count myself exempt from the long claws of nostalgia, scrabbling to preserve a flower before it wilts, struggling to hold an ephemeral moment still. But sometimes we must endeavour to think of art as a wayward child, who may yet grow into something better (or worse, if you are the pessimistic sort). Instead of thinking of change as the death knell of art, might we recast it as the benign agent of a gradual and natural metamorphosis?
As for the matter of repainting classical statues — with the ghastly spectre of its role in the ideals of white supremacy, there is a real case to be made for its colour restoration (though an equally strong case against). Thus, my parting note on the propriety of restoration is simple, and far more contrarian than it should be: sometimes, but not always.