Restoring old works of art can prove a divisive activity – even when done well and with the best intentions.
Some argue that paintings and objects should be allowed to age gracefully, even if it means they look dirty or damaged. Others say that there is a duty to clean and restore aging art to its former glory. For example, the Sistine Chapel underwent a major restoration for nine years from 1980, costing millions of dollars. As Ross King points out in Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling: “Such a comprehensive restoration of one of the great landmarks of Western civilisation did not proceed without criticism, especially since the removal of five centuries of scum revealed such unexpectedly bright colours that the Vatican’s restorers were accused by their detractors of having created a ‘Benetton Michelangelo’… The restorers, on the other hand, argued that these darker tones were the accident of both airborne pollutants and the obscuring varnishes of incompetent restorations.”
Whichever stance art experts take, few would disagree that a recent attempt to ‘restore’ several Qing Dynasty frescos constituted an act of vandalism.
The restoration in question occurred at the Yunjie Buddhist temple in the northeastern city of Chaoyang. The act came to light over the October holiday week when Liu Tuo, a young man from Beijing, took a group of friends to the temple to show them the paintings. But to his horror he discovered they had been painted over with what looked like a brightly coloured cartoon.
“To call this redrawing is to insult the term ‘redraw’….. a piece of history has been completely erased, I am furious,” Liu wrote on his weibo. His posts went viral and the local authorities soon sacked the two officials with responsibility for the temple, the oldest part of which dates back about 1,000 years.
State news agency Xinhua was horrified too. It described the new frescos as “a series of garish and sloppily drawn modern paintings”, reporting that the local authorities had failed to get the necessary permission to carry out the work and that they had hired “substandard” contractors to do it.
The officials at fault were also fined Rmb50,000 ($8,199). Many netizens were appalled that the sum was so low. “A billion renminbi wouldn’t be enough of a punishment for what they did,” wrote one.
Others suggested the fault lay elsewhere, with temples getting relatively little funding from the government.
“Temples are businesses now. And don’t expect authenticity if you put a businessman in charge of a religious place,” wrote another.
The incident reminded many of another fresco fiasco in Spain last year, when an image of Christ, bound and crowned with thorns, was disfigured by a well-meaning pensioner.
Cecilia Gimenez, 82, used to gaze at the image as she prayed in her church in the village of Borja in northeastern Spain.
But when the fresco began to disintegrate due to damp she decided to restore it herself. The result was awful. To give an idea how bad: it drew comparisons with a hairy monkey or a potato.
Which makes one think that God might indeed work in mysterious ways. That’s because Gimenez’s botched fresco is now a huge tourist attraction, earning the church tens of thousands of dollars a year.
Officials at Yunjie might now be hoping for a similar bonanza. But for the sake of China’s artistic heritage, we should hope that their restorative barbarism isn’t rewarded with a similar influx of visitors. Otherwise, hundreds of local governments might be tempted to resort to a little crayon-and-glitter work of their own.
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