An examination of current art restoration controversies.
Last year was not kind to ancient art. Along with the destruction of countless villages and towns, Syria was hit by the loss of one of its most treasured cultural monuments after it was taken by the so-called Islamic State. Palmyra, the jewel in the country’s already glittering crown, was seized by ISIS. While the place was already in ruins before the group claimed it as their own, many feared that by being possessed by the group, the site was completely lost to its native heritage. That is, until now. After hitting the headlines as a casualty of the war in Syria, Palmyra became a hot topic in the cultural world and just some months after it was “lost,” groups of art restoration experts were planning its spectacular revival. Not only would the place be brought back to its former glory but, better yet, it would stand even prouder than it had in its heyday, entirely restored thanks to burgeoning 3D technology.
Despite the lofty claims of those behind the art restoration, however, not all have been happy about the proposed renovations. The Syrian director of antiquities has controversially spoken out against the plans, stating that the ancient monument would not “rise again.” Countless others, too, have voiced their opinion against the art restoration proposal, arguing that a renovation with 3D technology at its heart would be inauthentic, fraudulently varnishing the passing of time. With so many voices blurring the lines, the question of Palmyra has taken over the art world and now the right next step seems as confused as ever.
Ruins of the Monumental Arch destroyed by ISIS militants in Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site. Photo by Valery Sharifulin/TASS via Getty Images
Palmyra Arch restoration concept for display in Trafalgar Square, central London
A replica of Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph in Trafalgar Square, central London. Photo by Chris Ratcliffe via Getty Images
For many, acts of destruction upon some of the world’s most lasting heritage and cultural sites are nothing short of terrorism. The breaking down of our cultural past shows an extreme lack of respect toward the heritage that runs through our veins. And yet those attempts at art restoration to restore lost places have been met with dismay from those in the industry. We might have the technology to revive our monuments, but our lack of historical context fails to imbue the places with the atmosphere they so justly deserve.
So much of the art world is linked to the passing of time. How we understand a piece of art or an ancient monument is determined by how we interact with its point in history. Over the passing of the years, our understanding of what happened at any moment in time might warp and change; the further away from an event that we get, the more slanted our perception of it can become. This, however, is by no means a bad thing. Art is not necessarily meant to be viewed as a constant. What might move us one day could mean absolutely nothing to us the next. Similarly, when pieces of art are physically changed by current events, they take on an entirely new meaning. Art becomes no longer merely connected to its origins; art is marked by our own history and carries its scars on its form.
Art becomes no longer merely connected to its origins; art is marked by our own history and carries its scars on its form.
There have been some cases, of course, where the complete preservation of a moment in time has helped us to understand it in greater detail. The freezing in time of Pompeii, for example, and the events that took place thousands of years ago have changed the way many people view ancient history. Locked in time beneath the molten lava of Vesuvius, the bodies of our ancestors who died that day still touch our time across the millennia. The preservation of Pompeii teaches us that, while we might feel removed from those who lived before us, they too were human and felt emotions and suffered hardships we still face today. Pinpointing this moment exactly as it happened has allowed us to understand the historical instant as a singular event, and preventing it from becoming marked by events in our present has kept our interpretation of it “pure.”
Bodies preserved at Pompeii. Photo by David Sutherland via Getty Images
On the other hand, our need to constantly renew places and moments in our past through art restoration has entirely distanced us from the original events, and now it can be hard to say whether or not we can call our version of history true. Take the Lascaux cave paintings as an example. After a group of schoolboys in Southern France discovered caves filled with ancient paintings, the world’s media fell on the rural village. Following tourist groups flocking to the woodland Lascaux caves for years and years, however, the ancient paintings fell victim to the buildup of spores and bacteria, and over time it was our very breath that caused them to rot and erode. The answer to the fading problem was simple and, before long, the local government had commissioned the production of a replica set of caves, painted by modern artists to directly reflect what was found within the original space. If you were to visit the Lascaux caves today, you would see not something that served a purpose all those millennia ago but, rather, an art restoration that was commissioned by a local government. The caves are exact duplicates, yes, but they fail to carry the impact of their historical counterparts.
The paleontologist and prehistorian french Henri Breuil (D 3rd) observes with other archaeologists panel in the room Aurochs Bulls in the Cave of Lascaux in 1948 in the town of Montignac in the Dordogne. Photo by AFP via Getty Images
Artists work on a true-to-life replica of renowned Lascaux’s Stone Age cave paintings at the future International Cave Arts Museum, Lascaux IV, in Montignac, Western France, on February 29, 2016. Photo MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP via Getty Images
When it comes down to it, it’s a question of authenticity. Time lived is a messy process and over the years, we might destroy a great deal more artwork and heritage sites that our ancestors have so lovingly kept in place for us. And yet, the destroyed works speak far more of our cultural present than their art restoration counterparts do, showing the state of the current time much more vividly. We might have to suffer the loss of some of our most beloved pieces over the years, but unfortunately that is part of human history. In their place, we can remember something potent: in this moment, we can shape the world in which we live.
What are your thoughts on art restoration? When is it appropriate, and do you think it can it go too far? Share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments.