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|Artist: Johann Zoffany
Title: Last Supper (1787)
|Before and after treatment|
THE LAST SUPPER REVISITED (KOLKATA, INDIA 2010)
The international value and appreciation of art in India has been growing dramatically, so it was with great pleasure that Renate Kant, a German museums-trained conservator living and working in Singapore, received an invitation to Kolkata, India, to supervise the restoration of the painting “Last Supper” (1787) by Johann Zoffany, hanging in the oldest church in Kolkata, St. John’s Church. The request from Dr. Reimar Volker, Director of the Goethe-Institut (German Cultural Institute), was part of their Culture and Development Initiative in which knowledge transfer, intercultural learning and transcultural dialog is initiated between experts and academics of the host country (India) and from Germany.
Between January and July 2010, five conservators from INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) conducted the conservation of the important historical painting under Renate’s guidance and supervision. Although the artist was German rather than Indian, the skills transfer was the major thrust and most valuable part of the project. She was able to share her 38 years of experience with the young Indian conservators in order to assure the quality of future conservation work in Kolkata as well as to enhance their awareness of the rich cultural heritage of the city and ways to protect its multifaceted history. Renate had already trained numerous apprentices at her conservation studio which she directed in northern Germany for 25 years before moving to the tropics, so this was a natural extension of her outreach.
The artist, Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), lived in India for 6 years in the late 18th century under the British governors and left a legacy hanging in the national museum in Kolkata in addition to the St.John’s Church, as well as at the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery in London and the Uffizi in Florence. Zoffany was a German neoclassical painter born in Frankfurt am Main who became renowned as a portrait painter of the British Royal Family before moving to Kolkata in 1783. He was commissioned by the colonial rulers to paint a depiction of the Last Supper to adorn the newly founded St. John’s Church in 1787.
The conservation of the artwork provided major challenges for the young Indian group, who had never before worked on a painting of this dimension (244 x 160 cm) and with the specific damages involved as well as dealing with undocumented barbaric previous treatment interventions.
A make-shift studio was created in the corner of the church for the duration of the project, and German material and tools were shipped to provide international standards. Renate Kant came to Kolkata five times for work stints, in between which the Indian conservators continued the work and would send photo documentation of the process through the internet so Renate could oversee, advise and encourage.
Before starting the work, the object had been in an extremely decayed condition. In addition to the hot and humid climate of South Asia as well as former impacts from vandalism and handling (cuts and tears up to 43 cm), unprofessional efforts to cover up the destruction and decay of the painting had caused severe disfiguring of the image. Huge sections had been overpainted. Cracks and cuts had been haphazardly filled in with uneven, oversized, embrittled and hardened putty.
After the painting had been dismantled, the specific damages had to be assessed and documented in text and video. A damage cartography was drawn and extensive assessment was conducted before the discoloured non-original coatings could be removed layer-by-layer. Deep consolidation had to follow; only then could the overpainted layers and infill material be leveled.
Yes, at first the fragile substance needed a lot of structural support by securing paint layers, reattaching delaminating canvasses, and relining new tacking edges. The process of opening windows into the past through varnish removals had to be reversed, and integrating retouching was the first hurdle for the group due to the amount of missing original substance and the introduction of new techniques and European materials. All this created a challenge for the INTACH team, and they took on the task with dedication, concentration and persistence.
All gashes and holes needed new inlays and putty. At the very end of this complex process the affected areas were retouched in a minimalistic, detailed manner in resinous media newly introduced to the Indian team.
Renate’s earlier professional career was filled with work stints in churches, medieval monasteries and synagogues throughout Germany, doing research on paint layers dating back to medieval times and then deciding on the best conservation approach in conjunction with the German National Heritage Board. So to work again on sacred grounds created a meaningful familiarity for her.
Looking back into history, we know that since paintings were created, the wish and pressure to keep their value for artistic or historic reasons arose. As early as 1629, Peter Paul Rubens, the famous Flemish painter known for his Counter-Reformation subjects and his numerous altarpieces, restored a huge amount of artworks which were brought to him due to severe decay while he was an envoy to Spain. This was one of the first instances of skills transfer, as he gave advice and taught how to increase the lifespan of paintings, now continued with this project in Kolkata sponsored by the Goethe-Institut.
The reasons that paintings became victims of deterioration were theft, fire, negligence, climate conditions and vandalism. In the case of Zoffany’s painting, the main damages might have been caused by the hands of vandalism. Due to his social critical interpretation of the biblical theme Last Supper by depicting controversial public personalities as the disciples, the local reception was outrage, the people were provoked, and protestors slashed, cut and dramatically ripped through the canvas.
At least two major attempts at restoration had been performed, one immediately after the vandalism, and the other 100 years later, documented in 1888. The Indian conservators imagined how the people doing the early repair attempts must have struggled with the magnitude of the damages as well as with the size of the work while attaching a second relining canvas with starch and water.
The previous interventions were not modest and were often not easily reversible with oversized putty and extremely hard structure, as ethics of conservation had not yet matured. Layers and layers of tinted coatings were used to hide the disaster of not being able to responsibly fill in the missing parts of the work with non-invasive, reversible techniques, a task that trained conservators would know how to perform nowadays.
When Renate and the team first saw in daylight the heritage of trials and errors and the best attempts to save this important work lying now demounted and placed on the work table, the task seemed insurmountable.
Imagine: 60% of the project’s time went into de-restoration and stabilisation - meaning the removal of all the previous additions of material which changed the composition to uncover the authenticity of the image.
This shocked the visitors when they came to observe the process at the make-shift studio and saw the team with scalpels and piercing tools doing archeological hands-on digging under the epidermis of all the non-original coating layers on opaque over-paint and infill which had to be carefully removed.
The five month process was successfully choreographed with Renate’s supervision and the restored painting was ceremoniously unveiled on the 4th of July by Kolkata artist Ramanda Bandopadhyay, a veteran of the Bengal school of painting who for 50 years has painted works based on indigenous heritage, popular artistry and natural designs and patterns. It was a festive celebration with speeches, orchestral music and the opening of the photo and video exhibition in the church documenting the entire process. It is a great gift for the city of Kolkata as a marker for high standards in the preservation of artworks of heritage value. Dignitaries from the local government participated at the event, and the generous support of the project from the Goethe-Institut Max Mueller Bhavan and INTACH was heartfully acknowleged.
Admirers of the painting need to understand that even with the most skilled responsible conservation, a work of art can never be restored to its original complete state in which it was when created. Conservators can only integrate the present state of deterioration. The artwork’s traces of the impact of time can never be completely eliminated, as conservation is not beautification. Interventive conservation can only support the lifespan to an indefinite future. Conservators abide by the ethical principle that all material must be documented and reversible.
The painting can be seen now by all visitors to St.John’s Church in all its glory protected against the city’s pollution with an acrylic glazing. This oldest church of Kolkata with its impressive renovated mausoleum is always open to the public for its historical significance and as a place of worship.
Bob Feldman, July 2010
|Renate Kant (left)|