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6. Painting, Drawing, and Calligraphy
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6. Painting, Drawing, and Calligraphy

One might at first believe that critical editions of paintings (as opposed
to writings about the textual histories of paintings) would be extremely
rare, since editorial emendations would alter the unique art objects, forc-
ing viewers in each instance to look at the emended text, and it alone.
Such results, one might imagine, would not often be permitted by own-
ers of paintings. (An editor could of course make alterations on a photo-
graphic or other reproduction of a painting rather than on the original,
or alternatively could make a photographic record of the appearance of
the original before beginning editorial work, but either way one or more
of the versions would simply be reproductions, not the work expressed
in the materials intended by the painter.) To some extent, this surmised
rarity of scholarly editions of paintings is correct, for even when permis-
sion to edit is given, there can be only one edition at any one time: each
successive edition would obliterate the one that went before (except in
the form of a photographic or digital record). The freedom of editors to
create new editions is inevitably restricted in the case of works in tangible
media—certainly as compared with the theoretically unlimited freedom
editors have to edit works in intangible media, where documentary evi-
dence need not be destroyed in the process.

In another sense, however, there have been many more scholarly
editions of paintings than might have been expected, for cleanings and
"restorations" now routinely take place in museums. The technology for
analyzing the underlying layers and chemical makeup of paintings (in-
cluding infrared reflectography, Raman microspectrometry, and digital
imaging) and the skill of the restorers who remove substances from, and
add them to, paintings have become so sophisticated that museum cura-
tors feel justified in allowing the editing of paintings to take place. Such
editions often have a more dramatic effect on the text than occurs in edi-


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tions of works in intangible media: a cleaning, after all, affects the entire
text, every square inch of it. Despite the impressive expertise that now
generally underlies these operations, there are grounds for raising disqui-
eting questions about them.

In the first place, the goal of both cleaning and other kinds of restora-
tion is normally final authorial intention—to bring the text of a painting
back to what it was when the painter considered it finished. But this is not
the only moment in the history of a painting that is of interest, and some
would argue that it is not the moment of the greatest interest. However
one feels about this matter, the fact remains that every painting, simply
because it is a physical object, inevitably undergoes alterations over the
years resulting from the atmospheric conditions under which it has been
kept, and sometimes from accidental damage as well. The present state of
each painting is a summation of all that has gone before and is the base on
which its future evolution will rest. Unless the painting is recent, it surely
will not look as it did when it left the painter's hands; but it probably has
not looked that way for a considerable time, and many viewers will have
responded to intermediate states. Any old painting that has been the sub-
ject of commentary over the years will have presented a different appear-
ance to different writers. Since modern technology allows the recovery
of a great deal of the evidence that lies beneath the top layer of dirt and
paint, textual critics can write accounts of the evolution of a painting and
can offer illustrative reproductions of various stages in its history without
taking any intrusive action that affects the physical object itself. Some
people would therefore say that the editing of paintings should not take
place at all (except perhaps to stop physical deterioration), leaving the
body of evidence embedded in the object to remain untouched for future
textual critics to examine, perhaps using even more advanced technology,
and in any case perhaps arriving at different conclusions.

This position values the physical evidence of the object and the con-
stantly changing appearance of the work over the text of the painting as
intended (at some point) by its creator. But the interest in artistic intention
is great enough to cause many people to feel that the recovery of intended
forms of paintings is worth the price of losing some of the accumulated
evidence reflecting the history of the object. In instances where this view
is dominant, there is still room for disagreement about the precise goal
and about whether that goal has been achieved. An artist's intentions may
change, not only during the process of original painting but also at a later
time (after the painting was considered "finished"), and the layers of paint
reflecting these changing intentions may be recoverable. Only one stage
can be selected; and even if agreement were reached as to which is the
most appropriate, there would probably still be disagreements as to how
much needs to be removed from the present surface in order to reach


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the level that represents the desired stage. Was a given layer of paint, for
example, applied by the original painter, perhaps overpainting a previ-
ous "final" layer, or was it added by a later painter in order to make the
painting conform better to a later taste? Can one tell the difference be-
tween atmospheric contamination and the residue of the artist's method
of obtaining a particular color or finish?

These uncertainties are analogous to those attaching to critical edi-
tions in every field, since any text that emerges from acts of judgment,
however learned they may be, can be questioned by equally informed
persons who would have made different judgments. Uncertainty, in other
words, is unavoidable and has not prevented restoration projects from
being undertaken for major works. One of the best known examples is
the Vatican's long and painstaking program (beginning in 1980) of clean-
ing Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. The idea of removing the
candle soot and other pollutants that have darkened these paintings
may sound admirable in the abstract; but only the naïve could imagine
that the process would not be problematic, and there have in fact been
serious criticisms made by James Beck, Tuti Scialoja, and others. They
have raised points that relate both to the long-term effects of the clean-
ing and to the determination of artistic intention. They say, for example,
that the surface dirt and wax may have served as a preservative and that
removing them may expose the paints to potentially destructive modern
pollutants. There is also the possibility that Michelangelo himself used
candle soot and animal fat as darkening agents to create shadowy effects.
Furthermore, arguments have been made that removing paint added af-
ter the plaster was dry, as if it were overpainting by another hand, may at
some points destroy Michelangelo's final touches, since he may sometimes
have regarded the paint he placed on the wet plaster as a first draft. Thus
the restorer's every act of alteration is an act of judgment; but unlike the
rejection of a reading in a literary text, it cannot be reversed. (Two of the
many instances of the Times coverage of the controversy over the Sistine
restoration are articles by Douglas C. McGill on 6 November 1986 and
by Mary Davis Suro on 4 January 1987.)

If these problems illustrate some of the issues inevitably raised by criti-
cal editing, another kind of problem—not inevitable—has also come up
in connection with part of the Sistine work: lack of coherence in formulat-
ing the goal of the restoration. Over the years, various forms of drapery
were painted on forty nude bodies in the Last Judgment; but only the sev-
enteen coverings added after 1750 were removed in the restoration. In
defense of this retention of some of the coverings, Kathleen Brandt has
said that the drapery was added "at the request of the patron, namely
the papacy," and that it constitutes "a chart of notions of decorum over
time." (See John Tagliabue's article, 9 April 1994.) But this reasoning


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would logically lead to preserving all forty of the additions. Even if one
were to find a better justification for the significance of the 1750 state of
the work, there would still be the inconsistency between the handling of
this fresco and the others (in which the artist's final intention is the aim).
One cannot—in a painted work or a printed text—simultaneously re-
flect authorial intention and the accretions that emerged from later social

The current reputations of artists have a great deal to do with which
accretions to paintings get preserved. No one would be likely to raise
great objection to the removal of any of the added draperies in the Last
, since they are by lesser painters than Michelangelo, nor would
anyone wish Michelangelo's work to be removed in order to reveal the
frescoes of Perugino that lie beneath. When the National Gallery in Lon
don undertook to restore Bellini's The Feast of the Gods, completed in 1514,
it decided to concentrate on the painting's appearance in 1529, since
Titian made major additions to it at that time, and the idea of removing
work by Titian could not be contemplated. Preserving the 1529 form of
the work can be justified not simply on the grounds of Titian's stature but
because it also keeps the portions of Dosso Dossi's intermediate revisions
that were not covered over by Titian and thus reveals the social attitude
toward painting texts in the sixteenth century, when an owner of a paint-
ing was less concerned with maintaining its integrity as the work of a
particular artist than with causing it to evolve in conformity with current
taste. But of course the work that illustrates this important historical point
cannot be regarded as a work by Bellini. The National Gallery's 1990 ex-
hibition of the restored Feast admirably showed how modern technology
allows some knowledge of a painting's textual history by displaying X-ray,
infrared, and ultraviolet photographs of the underlying images along-
side the presumed 1529 state of the oil. (On this exhibition, see Michael
Kimmelman's 21 January 1990 piece.)

One of the Louvre's great possessions, Veronese's Marriage at Cana,
can serve as an epitome of the concerns and occurrences attendant on
cleaning and restoration. The recent cleaning (1990–92) removed yellowed
varnish, revealing bright colors not seen by viewers and commentators
for a very long time. The restorers, using information obtained by X-ray
and chemical tests, removed paint that they considered had been added
by a different painter, thereby arousing a storm of protest from a group
of artists. The most controversial decision was to change the color of the
coat worn by a major figure in the foreground: the red layer was taken
away, exposing the green one underneath. Critics argued that only the
lower part of the red coat showed brushwork uncharacteristic of Veronese
and that this area had been subjected to earlier repair; they also noted
that the coat is red in the earliest known copy, made in 1607 (nineteen


Page 23
years after the artist's death). If the red was indeed Veronese's, part of his
intended text is now lost, whereas evidence of his earlier extensive altera-
tions, moving and inserting figures, is safe by being on a lower level and
has been made visible by X-ray pictures. The X-ray investigation also
made clear some of the vicissitudes endured by the physical object, for
it has many repaired nail-holes, and it retains the signs of having been
unstitched horizontally (to form two sections for ease of hanging) and
then—fifty years later— of having been stitched back. As if to continue
the punishment, an accident occurred when the canvas was being rehung
in June 1992, resulting in several gashes, three of them about three feet
long. An unexpected job of restoration was then required, in which the
cut threads were individually glued together and retouched. (See Marlise
Simons, 17 November 1992.) The object therefore tells the story of acci-
dental and intentional mutilations, of the artist's changing intentions, and
of several restorations. If the story is particularly dramatic in this case, the
combination of elements that make it up is not at all uncommon as the
underpinning of the texts of paintings that we now see.

We are by now accustomed to significant textual revelations being
brought about by modern technology applied to paintings. Even in the
absence of surviving preliminary studies, we are beginning to have for
some paintings the kind of evidence of revisions that literary scholars
have long had for verbal works in the form of rough-draft holographs.
(The same technology is of course being used in the literary field to un-
cover words invisible or illegible to the naked eye.) Fortunately, museum
exhibitions are also increasingly paying attention to the textual criticism
of paintings, as in the Bellini and Veronese instances—or in the 2004
exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, showing that under the surface
of Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 is evidence not only of his
extensive revisions of figures and colors but also of his brush work, which
originally consisted of conventional strokes, not pointillist dots. (See the
report by Holland Cotter, 20 August 2004.)

More discoveries will come, relating not only to oil paintings but also
to works in watercolor, tempera, charcoal, and other media capable of
covering up earlier drafts. Revisions in some media, like ink or pencil,
may be more likely to involve erasure than cover-up, but such evidence
as there is will be uncovered in those cases as well. Textual criticism of
calligraphic art must also take into account the linguistic text formed by
the characters, just as if the work were a concrete poem, which in some
ways it is. Regardless of the amount of textual evidence available, all
visual works that consist of the actual surfaces on which the artist made
marks are ontologically the same and thus pose the same problems for
textual criticism and scholarly editing.


Page 24

Since these works are so often presented in frames, it is perhaps worth
adding that the same observations apply to frames as to the visual ele-
ments in the presentation of tangible verbal texts: they very often have
an effect on audience response, but they are not always intended as parts
of the works. Frames, even if designed or selected by the creators of the
works they enclose, may not be regarded by those creators as textual ele-
ments in the works, though they must be taken into account in analyzing
the history of responses to the works. And many of them are deserving of
study as works of art in their own right.