Imagine you have a beautiful work of art on your wall. This work of art was created long before you were born, and so bears the passage of time on its surface; dirty and frayed at the edges, but still valuable and full of sentimental worth. Seeing this, you decide to get it cleaned up and restored. Your mate tells you they’re interested in doing the job for you, and you know they took a GCSE in art, so you go for it. Two weeks pass and you get back your work of art but- and this is a big but- it is now completely unrecognisable. Ruined, even. You’re understandably upset and realise you probably should have gone to a professional conservator or restorer if you wanted your work of art to come out unscathed.
As many of you are probably aware, botched restoration attempts have been increasingly brought to international attention in recent years. From paintings and frescoes to wooden sculptures, we have seen how artworks have been transformed by unpractised hands (often with good intentions) into something completely different from their original appearance. Reactions vary, with some finding the botched attempts hilarious whilst others declare their sadness at a piece of history being lost. However, as an art historian, I must ask how these restoration attempts have impacted the artworks’ status as art. In restoring these artworks in such a way that is impactful on society, it can be argued that they are successful in bringing new life to the art object. In other words, does the restoration, through establishing a new relevance to the present, facilitate the growth of a new form of art? One which is more inclusive of the commercial public?
Most of these well-known conservation catastrophes come from Spain, where anyone is able to undertake conservation work. The first major example of failed restoration reached us in 2012, with the ‘Ecce Homo’ fresco in Borja. The fresco was painted around 1930 by Elías García Martínez, and the restoration was undertaken by Cecilia Giménez, an elderly parishioner. The results were dubbed a ‘disfigurement’ by many news publications, whilst the public took to calling the new depiction of Jesus ‘The Monkey Christ.’
The second incident to gain traction was a restoration of a sixteenth century wooden statue of Saint George. In 2018, a local teacher in Estella undertook the task of restoring the Saint George statue, transforming the once dirt-covered artwork into a brightly coloured tin man with rosy cheeks. As with ‘Monkey Christ’, many found humour in the situation, comparing the new Saint George to the cartoon characters Tintin and Noddy due to its new colour palette.
The most recent to hit headlines was the restoration of‘The Immaculate Conception of El Escorial’ in Valencia. Whilst the artwork itself was a copy of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s painting of the same name, the collector of the piece spent over £1000 on the hiring of a local furniture restorer to clean the painting. Two attempts were made to restore the work, but both attempts ended rather badly.
The reason why such restorations have been able to occur is because Spain currently has no laws in place to prevent people from restoring artworks. This means that anyone, regardless of their skills or credentials, has a free pass to work on historical artworks. As such, many conservation-restoration professionals have had a lack of opportunities to practice their profession, as many localities try to go through their community in the hopes of finding free labour.
A consequence of this is that botched restorations, including ‘Monkey Christ’, ‘Saint Tintin’, and ‘Flat-Faced Mary’, have become much more common and talked about on social media- and most people aren’t happy. Art history students from the University of Warwick agreed that events such as these were detrimental to preserving history and culture, with one student saying: “Only professionals and qualified restorers should be able to work on these paintings.” From various responses on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, it is safe to say that the general public were just as upset.
While these incidents are often treated as tragic events, responsible for the demolition of local history, many have also found humour. The nicknames and likenesses drawn to cartoon characters show how some people saw comedy in these events, taking them as light-hearted accidents. In the case of Monkey Christ, these botched restorations have also become a cause for increased tourism and a means for boosting local economies.
Borja is a prime example of how these botched conservation artworks have had success amongst the general public. Initially a quiet town known for its wine manufacture, Borja has since become a tourist attraction revolving around the creation of Monkey Christ. Whilst numbers have dropped since the news of the botched conservation spread in 2012, Borja is reported to still receive around 16,000 visitors a year– more than four times the number that visited before 2012. The increased levels of tourism in Borja have also facilitated economic prosperity and provided jobs for its community, as well as aided funding for its local care home. When considering these factors, the value of each artwork comes into question; despite the damage done to their historical significance, they have developed value on levels of community commercialism and public interest.
Considering this, these restoration mishaps have the ability to breathe life into artworks by giving them meaning in a new, contemporary setting. They are now recognisable across global platforms and more accessible to the public than before; where they were once isolated in their local settings, they now have a global audience which they can appeal to through a humorous-tragic-botched accident. In other words, each artwork can be seen to have developed a greater relation to the present than the past.
However, even though these failed restoration attempts have gained inadvertent success, the same cannot necessarily be said if the original artwork in question were more famous. Do these “restorations” only do well because the original artwork was by a less well-known artists? Because each of the artworks discussed in this article were not considered nationally or internationally famous, or were copies of originals, it is more likely that less people would be invested in their preservation. These artworks only became part of a recognisable hype and visual culture once they became botched.
How would people react if the artwork in question were an internationally famous piece, such as the ‘Mona Lisa’ or ‘Starry Night’? It becomes easy to imagine the outrage this would cause amongst the public, with widespread anger and calls for legal action. Artworks such as these are considered treasures, even to those who don’t necessarily know much about art. They are images which have been so vastly reproduced that they have come to form a large part of our visual culture and collective imagination.
In this case, would we still laugh at the state of a botched conservation? Think back to the Notre Dame fire, for example, when videos of people crying on the streets of Paris circulated media outlets for days following the incident and millions of dollars were immediately pledged to the rebuilding of the cathedral. Notre Dame has an unshakable place in Paris’ visual make-up, becoming a visual staple which has defined the cityscape for hundreds of years. When considering this, it becomes clearer that lesser known artworks produce a noticeably distinct lack of upset when accidentally destroyed.
Which brings us back to the question: what makes these artworks in Spain different? A point to consider is that the original artworks do not have a defining level of importance in the canon of art history. Without the historical impact and quality of more famous artworks, the new identity formed through restoration errors gives the botched artworks a degree of merit in their own right. In other words, we can get away with instilling a new and valid identity. Additionally, the commercial success which followed each botched conservation could potentially facilitate a new form of art- one that is founded on the reactions of the public and based on their direct appeal to the viewers’ sense of humour. They demonstrate the work of an average person who has, without any training, brought a whole new meaning to the phrase “I could have painted that.” As an audience, we can relate to the story and setting of these artworks more directly because they have a background and context that is set within our own time. Additionally, these conservation efforts, although alarming, embody a great deal of sincerity. Witnessing what was likely a heartfelt attempt at restoration go so unimaginably wrong and finding humour from this is an example of making the best out of a bad situation. In essentially creating a new artwork, something which is unrecognisable from its original state, can we say that we are witnessing a new form of art- one that is born from accident? They are formed by accident, but nonetheless the object still retains its status as a piece of art. As such, these botched conservation pieces create a public-based artwork whose success is dependent on spectacle, humour, and the amateur’s engagement.
Botching the original elements of realism in an artwork could also be considered to lead them into abstraction; in the case of Murillo’s Mary, some have taken to comparing her new face to the various women in Pablo Picasso’s paintings. In the early twentieth century, when Picasso’s Cubism was just beginning, forms of abstraction may have not been compatible with institutional interest- rather, it was the public who began to see in this approach a new Avant Garde. In revolutionising how we see art and how we can make it, the required realism of depiction was no longer needed. Considering this, could botched conservation pieces, regardless of accident and intention, become a new strand of Avant Garde?
A final viewpoint to consider is that of the professional conservator, whose reputation is arguably damaged by these supposed “restorations”. With amateurs claiming to be able to do the job of trained conservators who have spent years studying and learning their profession, to call these pieces “restorations” can be seen as rather insulting. It enforces the idea that anyone can restore an artwork; a notion which we have seen time and again is definitely not the case. Whilst the products of these mishaps may be considered art in their own right, many conservators would argue that these mistakes should not be happening at all- a notion which was emphasised back in 2014 when the burial mask of Tutankhamen was damaged in a hasty repair job at the Egyptian Museum of Cairo. The curators responsible for the “clean up” were eventually sent to trial in 2016 for “gross negligence”. Therefore, as products of carelessness which destroy documents of heritage, the popularisation of artworks like ‘Monkey Christ’ through viral trends only serve to encourage others without experience or credentials to follow suit- a decision which in some cases has more negative than positive consequences.
With these factors in mind, do we place the events in Spain under the title of artworks or accidents? Let us know what you think: do botched restoration pieces constitute a new form of art, or should they remain in the category of a humorously tragic accident?