I am indebted to Giorgio Bonsanti, Salvador Muñoz Viñas, Susanne Ørum, Ida Haslund and Karen Elise Henningsen for valuable comments and suggestions about the contents of this paper.
1Most conservators would agree that poorly executed, inadequate or unnecessary retouching and reconstruction of pictorial content can seriously affect the viewing experience of wall paintings, often due to the sheer size of the interventions, making them conspicuous, distractive features of the work of art. Bad retouching eradicates beauty and life in a wall painting. Many conservators would also agree that skillfully executed retouching can shift attention away from damages that otherwise would make it difficult for the viewer to comprehend or appreciate a painting. Competent retouching can coax forth life and beauty from a damaged work of art. There have always been advocates for or against aesthetic enhancement, and questions of completion and aesthetic presentation have arguably been among the dominating issues deliberated over in the treatment of wall paintings over many decades. These considerations have given rise to various schools of practice, many of which are strongly anchored in theoretical concepts and notions of ethics. Current solutions span a wide range of possibilities from minimal or no integration to re-creation of lost content based on archival photographic documentation.
2The premise of this paper is that decisions regarding the aesthetic presentation of wall paintings are among the most important and difficult choices made during conservation projects and should be treated on par with technical treatments, such as consolidation or extraction of harmful substances, which focus on the preservation of the physical fabric of the object. It goes without saying that technical procedures must be performed optimally to ensure the preservation of the work for future generations. Developments in the application of scientific methods are decisive for correct diagnosis and treatment. But it is through aesthetic interaction that viewers experience wall paintings. Appreciation and valuation are often strongly linked to appearance, and the survival of a wall painting can depend on the values attributed to them. This does not necessarily mean that all paintings should be retouched. Given the right circumstances, a painting left unretouched can have an equally strong impact as a retouched painting in terms of comprehension and viewing experience.
- 1 Such a division has been the tradition in the treatment of canvas and panel paintings in many coun (...)
3It would be simple to divide conservation treatments into two categories: scientific and non-scientific, with aesthetic treatment considered as non-scientific due to the subjective component of the decisions.1 However, a more modern view is that restoration is part of the concept of conservation, which encompasses all measures and actions aimed at safeguarding tangible cultural heritage while ensuring accessibility to present and future generations (ICOM-CC 2008). Conservation embraces preventive conservation, remedial conservation and restoration. The same level of skills needed to perform technical operations should also be applied to the aesthetic completion. The difficulty is that different skills are required for these treatments. This is a very important aspect of the problem of aesthetic enhancement. Conservators must be skilled in colour matching; but other visual sensibilities are also required in the process of implementation and handling of brushwork, and this is individual and depends much on personal abilities (Roznerska 2005: 361). The crux of the problem is not only that there is subjectivity on the level of individual performance, but that the factors contributing to decision-making are very complex and subject to interpretation. This requires the input of a broader range of conservation specialists in the decision-making process.
4This paper analyzes the dual components that comprise aesthetic treatment – the comprehension of the theoretical issues involved in the decision-making process and performance at the implementation stage. The shortcomings and strengths of various retouching methods and methodologies will be discussed. Technical information pertaining to materials and tools for the execution of aesthetic treatments is not the main focus of this paper, although in some cases, short descriptions will be provided when the execution technique impacts perception.
5Choosing optimal or adequate aesthetic solutions for wall paintings can be complicated due to their monumental format. On the other hand, their intrinsic link with architecture can be taken advantage of as the wall itself provides a suitable support, which can be plastered, limewashed or left bare. Aesthetic treatments can take advantage of the ‘inorganic’, rough look of the setting (in contrast to the ‘smooth’ and homogenous finish of panel paintings). Decisions about completion are often dictated by the condition of the painting, i.e. amount and nature of damages. However, the stylistic characteristics of a particular painting can also form the basis for decisions regarding the treatment of losses. Wall paintings combine with the spatial character of the building, performing a decorative function highlighting some of its features, or even creating illusions. The visual impact of the painted decorations can vary greatly, depending on their style and technique. Thus, already from the start, the point of departure for deliberations on possible visual enhancement weighing condition and appearance is multifaceted.
6The symbolic values and functions that we attribute to wall paintings prior to treatment play a decisive role in decisions regarding their aesthetic treatment (Brajer 2005). Conversely, how a painting has been treated will affect the values it embodies and projects to viewers. For example, a wall painting can be predominantly valued, or treated so it is seen, as a decorative element in an interior, a historical document represented by the non-adulterated physical fabric, or a narrative, transmitted through the pictorial contents (or, indeed something else altogether). Most paintings embody multiple values. The choice of which value or function takes precedence over others is a complex process, often affected by the appearance (style and condition) of the painting, and its authorship and age (identity). The notion of the dichotomous nature of wall paintings as both historic and artistic objects, described by the influential theorist Cesare Brandi in his original publications from 1963 and 1977 (and numerous translations), has been acknowledged by most conservators, and, as a result, the approach to problems of presentation is now informed by both of these points of view. Brandi maintained that an object’s artistic aspects should take precedence over the object’s material aspects, although its historical nature should not be underestimated (Brandi 2005: 49). This leaves room for interpretation. Although Brandi’s theories were written as general and comprehensive, with all works of art in mind, this conviction has been disputed and may not seem to be valid in all situations (Bonsanti 2014). For example, Scandinavian wall paintings are often treated primarily as historical/cultural objects rather than works of art, and this will affect decisions about their completion. In effect, it is the local point of view on the object’s function and impact on cultural history that dictates how wall paintings will be treated; grotto paintings in China are subject to different considerations than Baroque decorations in Catholic churches. Furthermore, our now expanded views on authenticity, expressed in the Nara Document of 1994 (ICOMOS 2004a), legitimize other aspects apart from historicity and artisticity, such as respect for authenticity of form and design (and even an object’s ‘spirit’), which can play a big role in the aesthetic presentation debate (Brajer 2009). In fact, the process of redefining the concept of authenticity in conservation has shown that gaps have grown between the theories and principles addressing the use of materials in restoration and their discernibility, which were presented in the Venice Charter of 1964, and actual practice in the following decades (Szmygin 1996). Thus, looking at the larger picture, not only are there multiple main issues comprising deliberations on aesthetic solutions, but they are also in flux.
7The bureaucratic procedure for decisions pertaining to aesthetics differs from country to country, with varied amount of input from conservators. In many counties, decisions are the fruit of collaboration between art historians and conservators, and this process is usually deemed optimal by the participants. An additional factor, which influences the process now, more than ever in the past, is the increasingly social role the conservation profession has undertaken. This has led to an increase in the number of stakeholders in the decision-making process, with the interested general public having a greater say in the outcome of treatments, particularly in the case of public art (Rainer et al. 2002, Deisser and Suarez 2014).
8Not only is the decision about the extent of an aesthetic intervention complicated, but also the choice of the retouching method is fraught with difficulties. Studies have shown that cognitive biases, such as ‘defaults’, ‘the anchoring effect’, and ‘the asymmetric dominance effect’ that have been noted in other fields, such as the medical profession, also occur in conservation (Marçal et al. 2014). Decisions taken by default might occur when conservators always execute pictorial enhancement according to the method in which they were trained (for example, retouching always done by tratteggio). Similar to decisions taken by default is the ‘anchoring effect’, which is manifested when people do not remember the context of their decisions when they have a long line of similar decisions, but repeat the same decision without deliberating the particular circumstances of a new situation (for example, as commonly practiced in Poland, retouching is usually done with vertical lines on medieval wall paintings and pointillistically on post-medieval works, without deliberating other possibilities or questioning the origins of the established tradition). The ‘asymmetric dominance effect’ occurs when more possibilities are presented. People are less susceptible to make optimal choices, as they become confused and doubt themselves due to the overload of options (this could lead, for example, to implementing the incorrect retouching methodology, such as tratteggio, when it might be better to refrain from retouching altogether).
9The varieties of factors that contribute to decision-making regarding aesthetic presentation result in choices that include both subjective and objective components. This makes the process difficult to systematize. And, as all of these influential aspects can change over time (including some objective features, such as condition and attribution), this impacts established practices. The aesthetic treatment of wall paintings has always been subjected to fashions, which are abandoned only to resurface at a later time, or in a different place. The lack of uniformity in attitudes and practice make this a complex and challenging topic to tackle in a short publication aimed at wide readership.
10It is difficult or, indeed, impossible to establish a set of guidelines for performing aesthetic treatment on wall paintings because the factors influencing the decisions are unique for each particular case. However, examples from the past can serve as positive or negative role models from which we can learn. As a backdrop for discussion, this paper presents case stories and examples from the past few decades, concentrating mostly on wall paintings in Danish churches. Even when narrowing down the discussion to rather similar objects (almost all the examples are from the medieval period), it is interesting to observe the range of solutions that have been applied.
11There are two major, closely related reasons for implementing aesthetic treatment on wall paintings: to minimize the visibility of damage or repairs, and to maximize the comprehension of the pictorial contents. When discussing aesthetic treatments, most conservators associate it with the application of some form of paint with a fine-pointed brush – i.e. retouching. However, when prioritizing historical value, emphasis is placed on the non-adulterated original material, and retouching is avoided. Nevertheless, visual enhancement improving comprehension can be carried out on damaged or fragmentary wall paintings by controlling the colour and surface rendering (texture) of plaster repairs, and the tone of limewash repairs (Fig. 1, Fig. 2). The principles of Gestalt psychology, playing a role in aesthetic treatments on paintings explained by Brandi (1961), are particularly applicable in such cases. These principles continue to interest conservators (Mittone 2010), as explanations of the mechanisms of perception impart an objective dimension to the discourse.
Fig.1 Drawing illustrating the impact of colour on the perception of content
Comprehension of the pictorial content (a series of the letter ‘B’) is enabled by presenting the fragments on a contrasting background; for example, a dark coloured plaster repair.
Drawing: I. Brajer
Fig.2 Drawing illustrating the impact of background colour on perception of content
It is difficult to understand the contents when the fragments are presented on a white background; for example, when the plaster repair was covered with limewash.
Drawing: I. Brajer
12When paintings from two periods were discovered beneath many layers of limewash after a fire destroyed the interior of Gundsømagle Church in 1987, it was clear that the fragmentarily preserved paintings were among the most interesting examples of the Romanesque and Late Romanesque periods in Denmark. Many of the roughly 150 wall paintings from these periods were previously uncovered in the second half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries and subjected to the aesthetic treatment typical for the artist-restorer era, which relied heavily on overpainting; many had undergone re-restorations in the decades since they were first exposed and restored. Here, in Gundsømagle, was a painting ravaged by time, but not by the hands of restorers – an unadulterated source of information on early painting techniques. The painting in the chancel, dated to ca. 1100, was marred by numerous losses ranging from small superficial abrasions in the paint layer revealing the original ochre-coloured rendering to gaping losses in the plaster layer exposing the brickwork. Comprehension of the pictorial contents was greatly enhanced by applying a toned mortar, matching that of the original rendering (yellow sand from a local pit that might have been used in the creation of the paintings comprised the aggregate in the plaster repairs) (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3 Romanesque painting on the north wall of the chancel in Gundsømagle Church
Plaster repairs made with coloured sand improved comprehension of pictorial content.
Photo: R. Fortuna
13Playing an equally important role is the surface finish of the repairs. The surface is completely even, with no trowel marks, and has the characteristic softly nubby, velvety texture of mortar applied in excess and cut down with a spatula, but without leaving traces of the tool, a technique requiring great skill on the part of the conservator when done on large areas. The surface of the repairs does not mimic that of the original plaster (which is polished), but provides a visually neutral surface that diverts attention to the original fragments. Thus, the comprehension of the contents of the painting was markedly improved. The viewer has no problem seeing that the painting depicts a row of apostles bordered by meander friezes. For comparison, a similar effect was not achieved with the plaster repairs on the Late Romanesque wall painting in Hornslet Church when it was restored in 2001 (Fig. 4).
Fig.4 Romanesque wall painting on the north wall in the nave in Hornslet Church
The light grey plaster repairs compete with the original painting for the viewer’s attention.
Photo: R. Fortuna
14Here, the repairs were carried out with commercially available slaked lime mortar, in which grey sand was used as an aggregate. This imparts a cold light grey colour to the plaster repairs, foreign in tone and hue in relation to the painting. As a result, the shapes of the repairs compete for the viewer’s attention with shapes in the painting, and the repairs constitute eye-catching distractions. The Gestalt ‘principle of tonality’ applies to these examples, as the viewing of the painting encompasses both the original fragments and the repairs simultaneously. We are not able to visually separate the two components. As a result, treatments restricted to plaster repairs or limewashed backgrounds influence visual reception of the whole work.
15The case described above shows that even when aesthetic interpretations are kept to an absolute minimum it is almost impossible to refrain from contributing aesthetic effects. The focus here was on repairs that can influence our perception of the pictorial contents. However, the remnants of the paint layer can also adopt an abstract pictorial function. Interest in the aesthetic of decay, particularly in architecture (Fein 2011) and interior design, has grown in recent times. This trend celebrates the inherent beauty found in objects that have lost their original function and appearance – in this case, vestigial wall paintings. The ruinous display of surviving fragments of a painting, so far removed from what it might have looked like originally, can take on a ‘new’ aesthetic – one that emphasizes the deterioration. When presented on the backdrop of a renovated building, the authentic remains may be more reminiscent of theater scenery (Fig. 5).
Fig.5 The painting on the vaulted ceiling of the restaurant The Jane (Antwerp, Belgium)
The fragmentary painting forms the backdrop for the contemporary décor in the restaurant, formerly the church of a military hospital.
Photo: Richard Powers, Courtesy of Piet Boon Studio http://www.yatzer.com/the-jane-antwerp-piet-boon
16Balancing priorities for material authenticity while conceding to demands for comprehension of pictorial content is a very demanding task. The example of the paintings in the chancel in Gundsømagle Church showed how enhanced comprehension was gained alone through the optimal execution of plaster repairs. The next example shows the difficulties one can encounter when actively attempting to integrate damage with retouching in order to tone down the visibility of the damage and improve the comprehension of the image, while still emphasizing the historical value of the painting. The aesthetic treatment in such cases is restricted to the repairs, thus preserving the non-adulterated quality of the original fabric. Opting for retouching greatly increases the subjective factor in our decisions, increasing also the possibility of making incorrect choices.
- 2 Conservators often wrongly refer to any retouching executed with parallel lines as tratteggio, whi (...)
17The Late Romanesque wall paintings in the nave in Gundsømagle Church, dated to ca. 1275, were executed on limewash, and therefore differed in appearance from the paintings in the nave (described above); the limewash ground layer played a prevalent visual role. The degree and nature of the damages were similar to those in the chancel, with numerous larger localized gaps, but with a predominance of fine losses in the paint layer dispersed over the entire surface; the former referred to as ‘compact spots’ and latter as ‘snow’ in the semantics of psychophysics (Kunst 2002). A statistical evaluation of various forms of damage on perception of pictorial content showed that ‘snow’ is less disturbing than ‘compact spots’, and, within the latter category, large gaps with irregular edges (as opposed to simple shapes) were found to be most disturbing (Kunst 2002: 444). This indeed corresponded to the impression created by the limewashed plaster repairs in Gundsømagle; they were perceived as foreign, eye-catching elements in the painting, particularly medium-sized repairs located in the middle of the scenes. This was not only caused by the complex shape of the repair, but also due to the appearance of the surface, which was covered by limewash tinted to match the tone of the medieval limewash, but which seemed too ‘clean’ and uniform. The degree of visual disturbance was assessed individually for each repair, and the most ‘disruptive’ were selected for additional aesthetic treatment. The intention here was to improve the comprehension of the pictorial contents while doing as little as possible. Selected plaster repairs were retouched, choosing a discernable methodology consisting of loosely-painted vertical near-parallel lines applied with watercolours as an overall tone with no attempt to reconstruct lines or shapes (Fig. 6).2
Fig.6 Detail of the Late Romanesque paintings on the south wall in the nave in Gundsømagle Church
Selected repairs were retouched to mitigate the visibility of the losses.
Photo: I. Brajer
18The retouching was discernable for ethical and theoretical reasons, intentionally making a clear differentiation between the original painting and the intervention. Its purpose was to variegate the surface of the repair making it more similar to the deteriorated paint layer, thus making the repair less of a visual distraction. However, as is often the case with stylized repetitive retouching, the vertical lines introduced a feature that was unrelated to the painting, clearly noticeable when viewed from a distance of a few meters.
19One can discuss whether this effort at improving the comprehensibility of the pictorial contents was successful (Fig. 7). The problems start when we want to do as little as possible, but still want to help the viewers. How do we know how much help they need? In the case of deteriorated paintings that have not been retouched, studies have shown that even when viewers are informed of what scenes are depicted, most cannot understand what they are looking at (Fundel et al 2008).
Fig.7 Late Romanesque wall painting depicting the Resurrection on the north wall in the nave in Gundsømagle Church
Condition after treatment.
Photo: R. Fortuna
20The limited retouching in the nave in Gundsømagle might not have been enough to improve comprehension. When making a brochure about the paintings, the architect, who was responsible for the renovation of the building, and who had closely followed the treatment of the wall paintings, was unable to see the forms and interpret the vestiges of paint to make drawings that clearly showed what scenes where depicted (Fig. 8), in contrast to drawings made by the conservator, which were ultimately used in the brochure (Fig. 9).
Fig.8 Drawing of the Resurrection scene on the north wall in the nave in Gundsømagle Church
The drawing, made by the architect, documents his perception of the pictorial contents.
Drawing: Archive of the National Museum of Denmark
Fig.9 Drawing of the Resurrection scene on the north wall in the nave in Gundsømagle Church
The drawing, made by the conservator performing the conservation shows a markedly different understanding of the pictorial contents in relation to the architect’s drawing.
Drawing: Archive of the National Museum of Denmark
21The selection of certain repairs for retouching over others in Gundsømagle was a subjective decision, as was the choice of the retouching methodology. Retouching all the repairs might have been a more consistent approach, but perhaps more retouching would cause more visual disturbance by increasing the so-called ‘rainfall’ effect, created by the vertical direction of the retouching. Perhaps a different retouching method would have been better in this case. On the other hand, since the retouching did not seem to improve comprehension (at least for some viewers), maybe the best solution would have been to refrain from retouching altogether. These questions can be raised now only because we can evaluate and scrutinize the completed aesthetic treatment. Once a conservation project is completed, chances of going back and correcting shortcomings are often so practically inconvenient as to be negligible. This demonstrates how significant decisions are regarding aesthetic presentation: they have a fundamental impact on the reception of the paintings for a long time – at least the next two or three generations of viewers – or until the paintings are re-restored. This is a great responsibility that conservators undertake. In recent times, it is not uncommon for conservators to test the impact of various degrees of visual enhancement prior to implementation by digitally manipulating photographs. Although this is a useful tool in the planning stage, digital reproductions are seldom able to compete with real life perceptions.
22The degree of deterioration and extent of damage sets limits on the possibility of enhancing the pictorial contents. Numerous archival documents from the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century show that the condition of newly uncovered paintings in Danish churches was one of the primary criteria influencing the decision of whether to restore the decorations, or whether to cover them with limewash. The reason for the latter was that the restoration of the pictorial content was considered to be impossible due to the fragmentary or deteriorated condition of the painting. Artistic quality also played a role in the selection of paintings for restoration. However, much of what was considered not attractive enough, or too damaged in the nineteenth century, is viewed differently now. Our goals also differ when approaching aesthetic completion. The most fragmentary or deteriorated paintings were not selected for restoration in the nineteenth century if they could not be brought back to what was considered to be their ‘original’ appearance. Similar paintings are preserved today. There is no attempt to bring them back to their ‘original’ state, and decisions to improve comprehension with careful retouching or plasterwork are a result of deliberate considerations, selectively respecting the effects of the passage of time.
23When the paintings on the west vault of the nave in Faxe Church were uncovered in the 1860s, restoration was not considered to be an option, and they were limewashed again. In 2006, the paintings were uncovered again, and this time, despite their faded and damaged appearance, the paintings were evaluated to be extremely interesting, greatly contributing to our understanding of the Late Gothic period. They are now ranked among the most worthy of preservation of all Danish medieval wall paintings in terms of cultural/historical significance. How we evaluate paintings is a relative process. What was not appreciated in the nineteenth century is looked upon differently today. The figures can be described as rather clumsily drawn, with simplified and stylized facial features. But seen in the context of works of the same painter/workshop and other similar painting from the same period known to us now, the re-discovered paintings in Faxe contribute new information regarding the choice of motifs and use of source material. This was taken into account in the decision regarding the extent of the restoration.
24The second uncovering in Faxe Church exposed evidence of the nineteenth century’s speedy and rough work with the hammer used during the initial uncovering that cut through the surface of the paint layer at regular intervals (Fig. 10).
Fig.10 Detail from the wall painting on the west vault in the nave in Faxe Church
Damage made by hammer used for uncovering in the 1860s.
Photo: I. Haslund
25Such damage is particularly noticeable, and is difficult to leave non-retouched. Our perception of it can be explained by one of the principles of Gestalt psychology – Prägnanz – also known as the Law of Good Gestalt (Koffka 1935). It explains that perceptually, we have a tendency to focus on elements that form patterns, especially when they comprise simple shapes. These patterns are mentally prioritized over spatial relations or complex pictorial content. When given a choice, our minds tend to eliminate extraneous stimuli. Furthermore, in the case of highly-contrasting damage in relation to the painting, as white hammer marks on a coloured surface, we also have a tendency to perceive the damage as positioned in front, while the painting is perceived at a further depth, as if occluded by the damage (known in Gestalt psychology as ‘figure-ground articulation’). Round keymarks on wall paintings are particularly subject to this rule, and elimination of this visual disturbance requires retouching close to or matching that of the surrounding painting. In Faxe Church, the hammer marks were not particularly large or round, but did form a loosely distributed pattern attracting attention. The hammer marks were toned down with watercolours, applying the retouching precisely to the narrow lacuna. Retouching was also carried out on plaster repairs. In contrast to Gundsømagle, the retouching in Fakse does not create a stylized pattern (Fig. 11). The less formalized structure of the retouching creates an effect that is similar to the worn painting, and therefore does not attract attention (Fig. 12). The retouching is not flaunted, but harmonizes with the painting.
Fig.11 Detail from the wall painting on the west vault in Faxe Church
Retouching was carried out on plaster repairs and hammer marks to improve comprehension of the pictorial content.
Photo: R. Fortuna
Fig. 12 Wall painting depicting the Women at the Empty Grave on the west vault in the nave in Faxe Church
Retouching detail seen in fig. 11 is in the lower right hand corner of the image.
Photo: R. Fortuna
- 3 The application of a weak watercolour glaze over the original areas (acqua sporca) is not practice (...)
26This devotion to preserving material authenticity as much as possible while at the same time acknowledging and sustaining or ‘aiding’ the work’s aesthetic and pictorial values is a constant feature of decision-making for contemporary wall painting conservators. There is limited guidance on these issues in conservation theory. The writings of the leading theoretician regarding such matters (Brandi 2005) are difficult to understand for non-Italian readers and many conservators have sufficed with their own interpretations of his ideas. An attempt has been made in modern Danish wall painting restoration to treat the issues of material authenticity and pictorial values equally, particularly in the case of newly uncovered wall paintings. It is not a matter of choosing one side of the coin over the other, but standing the coin upright, and spinning it so that it revolves around its axis, alternately exposing the historical face and the aesthetic face. With very limited exceptions, the aesthetic treatments are carried out on repaired surfaces adjacent to the original parts and strictly separated from them, and therefore are easily removable and, physically, are not a source of contamination.3
27The idea of choosing the style of the retouching to the match the appearance of the original painting and its degree of wear and tear, yet making the integrations clearly recognizable, concurs with Brandi’s notion of restoration as a process, which develops the potential oneness of the work of art (Brandi 1997). ‘Potential oneness’ might be interpreted as a state where the painting is perceived without competition from damage. However, when and how we achieve this state are very subjective and difficult decisions. The road to ‘potential oneness’ is fenced in by ethical restrictions, modern guidelines and principles (no conjecture, no overpainting). Aesthetic treatment, in fact, is like an act of juggling – we are dealing with several issues at the same time: respect for material authenticity; improving comprehension; achieving potential oneness; ensuring removability; maintaining discernibility of the retouching.
28One can discuss how discernable the intervention should be as a document of human activity, as this aspect, in particular, can have a big impact on improving comprehension and achieving potential oneness. The formal retouching methodologies, such as tratteggio, astrazione cromatica and selezione cromatica techniques (Napoleone 2008), developed primarily for integration of Italian frescoes, have not spread much to northern Europe, probably for several reasons, one of which is the sparse number of translations of Italian publications explaining the process of retouching by these methods. This has led to a superficial knowledge of the technical aspects, which are often very decisive for achieving good results, as it can often be difficult to match an original paint layer that has been dampened and altered in the natural process of patination by building up a tone created by layering lines of pure colour. It is possible that poorly executed examples have helped create the impression that these formal techniques may seem unsuitable for many wall paintings, and create interference with the oneness that they were designed to re-establish. Furthermore, conditions do not always allow for the optimal application of these methodologies. Numerous medieval wall paintings in northern Europe are not painted on smooth plaster, but on very uneven surfaces, such as brickwork covered by a thin limewash, where course and pointing are clearly visible, or where surface texture is quite rough due to the striations of the broom left when applying limewash in quick crisscrossing movements. This particular characteristic was, in fact, the inspiration for a short-lived stylized retouching methodology by the Danish conservator, Egmont Lind, in the 1930s. The formal juxtaposition of diagonal lines in opposing directions in a repetitive pattern, called the ‘basket-weave’ method (reminiscent of herringbone weave), had all of the restrictions of formal retouching, and thus was an intrusion in the painting. It was clearly anchored in the theoretical principles calling for discernible aesthetic interventions in works of art that were proposed in the Athens Charter in 1931 (ICOMOS 2004b), and reiterated a few decades later in the Venice Charter of 1964 (ICOMOS 2004c).
29Just as there is a desire to find a balance between a painting’s two entities – the historical and the aesthetic, conservators also aspire to find a balance in the degree of discernibility of retouching, which can be characterized by various degrees of flaunting or concealing. Since the 1990s, retouching by interpolation, also called camouflage or simulative retouching, has been practiced on medieval wall paintings in Denmark (Brajer 2009a, 2009b). Named after the method for numerical analysis in mathematics, interpolation is a process of constructing new data points based on known data points. It is the process by which missing pixels are filled when a digital image is enlarged, supplying the missing data in the intermediate pixels by the colour or shade of the surrounding pixels (also called resampling). The new data in the case of wall paintings is the retouching in a lacuna; the known data is the original painting surrounding the lacuna. Each lacuna must be treated individually, as the character of the encompassing original painting may differ from place to place within a painting. There is no fixed way to achieve interpolation – the type of retouching can vary from one wall painting to another, as the desirable effect can be realized by dots in one case (Fig. 13), cross-hatched lines and dots in another (Fig. 14), depending on the appearance of the painting and, above all, the character of the damage. It is crucial that no stylized, strictly repetitive patterns are formed, but that the random grouping of the dots or lines simulates the wear and tear of the original, which – in most cases – does not produce repetitive patterns.
Fig.13 Detail from the wall painting in Esrum Monastery
An example of retouching by interpolation. The pointillistic technique was chosen to match the effects of damage.
Photo: I. Brajer
Fig.14 Detail of the wall painting on the east wall in the nave in Fjenneslev Church
Retouching by interpolation. Vertically directed cross-hatched lines were clumped together to imitate the condition of the original colour.
Photo: I. Brajer
30The retouching will underscore the overall condition of the painting: a well-preserved painting with local, clearly delineated damage will appear well-preserved after retouching; a faded painting will continue to be regarded as a faded painting after retouching (Fig. 15, Fig. 16), but in both cases, the comprehension of the image will be improved. The retouching is clearly discernable at close distance, but is camouflaged when viewing at the normal viewing distance (anything from one meter for paintings on walls, to several meters for paintings on vaults).
Fig.15 Wall paintings on the vault in the chapel in Nibe Church
Condition prior to retouching.
Photo: I. Brajer
Fig.16 Wall paintings on the vault in the chapel in Nibe Church
Retouching by interpolation was carried out with multiply directed cross-hatched lines, adjusting the intensity of the network according to the surrounding original colour.
Photo: I. Brajer
31This type of integration requires a high degree of artistic sensibility and visualization skills from the conservator. But it is also a quite intuitive and logical process, and the results are easily assessable as the integration proceeds. For example, a denser, more compact paint layer surrounding the lacuna will require additional lines or dots, leaving fewer interstices (Fig. 17, Fig. 18). The retouching paint is mixed to match the original colour as closely as possible, but the hue can be adjusted by adding a layer of dots or lines with another colour.
Fig.17 Pentecost scene on the east vault in Undløse Church
Condition after retouching.
Photo: R. Fortuna
Fig.18 Detail from the Pentecost scene in Undløse Church
Losses in areas of compact colour were retouched by interpolation, matching the density of the network of lines to that of the surrounding original colour.
Photo: R. Fortuna
32Most conservators working with wall paintings in medieval churches in Denmark will have experienced the following scene numerous times: A casual visitor, a parishioner or a member of the church council drops by the church and observes the conservator working on the scaffolding. After a few minutes, the inevitable question is posed, “Skal det males op?” which literally can be translated as “Will it be painted up?” meaning, “Will you make the painting look better?” This may be an expression of what casual viewers expect will happen when a conservation project takes place. Viewers are often curious or concerned whether the careful visual enhancement will be visible from the floor level. In Sanderum church, where retouching of very faint areas matched the low intensity of the original, visitors asked, “Are you sure we will be able to see those faint details from the floor?” (Yes, they were clearly visible. Moreover, we made sure that the viewers understood that it is unethical to overpaint). This attitude, focusing on visual qualities connected to content, was confirmed in a pilot study from 2006/7 examining the values and opinions of the general public regarding the restoration of wall paintings (Brajer 2008). It unequivocally showed that comprehension of the pictorial content was very important to viewers, and that wall paintings in Danish churches were highly esteemed for their narrative value, and less for their historical value. This is interesting, as conservators often are more swayed in their decision-making by historical values than narrative values.
33Missing facial features are particularly noticed by the viewers. There exists a curious example of reconstruction of missing facial features in Mørkøv Church, presumably performed by the parish priest in 1872 (Smalley 1981) (Fig. 19). One can only speculate what drove him to execute this egregious pencil drawing, but this historical intervention, existing over 140 years, has taken on historical value as an example of a conjectural reconstruction from the past, and is additionally a rare case of a unabashed amateur interference. Despite its shortcomings in terms of restoration skills, the decision about the removal of the pencil drawing in a future restoration is not straightforward. Should it be removed, we would not only be erasing part of the painting’s history, but also returning to the viewer figures with empty faces.
Fig.19 Gothic wall paintings on the porch vault in Mørkøv Church
Reconstructed facial features executed in pencil by an amateur in 1872 (probably the parish priest).
Photo: I. Brajer
34In the recently completed re-restoration of the Gothic wall paintings on the vaults in Undløse Church, missing facial features on some of the figures (lost in a poorly executed restoration in 1956) were recreated using the photographic documentation from the time of the uncovering and first restoration (1918 and 1920). The photographs were scanned at high resolution and could be digitally enlarged to near life-size, eliminating guesswork (Fig. 20, Fig. 21). This unusual intervention was chosen as the wall paintings are particularly significant for their artistic value, and lost details were a result of relatively recent reckless human actions, and not the passage of time. It is difficult not to appreciate this input when viewing the paintings in their entirety. It is as if replacing the missing features also impacted the ‘soul’ of the painting.
Fig.20 Detail of a face on the west vault paintings in Undløse Church
The facial features were destroyed when hairline cracks were unnecessarily widened and repaired with mortar in 1956.
Photo: I. Brajer
Fig.21 Detail of a face on the west vault paintings in Undløse Church
The facial features were reconstructed based on photographic documentation from 1918.
Photo: I. Brajer
35Much of our knowledge of the history of wall painting restoration in Denmark comes from the study of photographs and graphic documentation executed in watercolors. Baring a few exceptions, such as Mørkøv, nineteenth century restorations in Danish churches no longer exist because the wall paintings were all re-restored (Ørum and Brajer 2013). One of the effects of a modern conservation education that prioritizes material authenticity was the wave of de-restorations in the 1970s and 80s throughout Europe, where all non-original material was removed, and the paintings were displayed as archaeological objects, preserved in their authentic fragmentary condition (Fig. 22, Fig. 23).
Fig.22 Wall painting on the east wall in the nave of Stenlille Church
Condition in 1982 (prior to de-reconstruction) showing the restoration from 1887.
Photo: K. Trampedach
Fig.23 Wall painting on the east wall in the nave of Stenlille Church
Condition after de-restoration; the pictorial enhancement from the 19th century was removed.
Photo: K. Trampedach
36Within the relatively short time it took to execute the de-restoration, the paintings acquired different values than those embodied prior to treatment, and they also lost part of their historical trajectory in the process. When a de-restoration of the severely salt-damaged, thrice restored wall paintings in Tirsted Church was proposed in 1999 (Brajer and Thillemann 2002), this solution was outright rejected by the members of the church community, who had emotional ties to the painting they had lived with for many decades, and did not want to see it replaced by scattered ‘authentic’ remains displayed on a re-plastered wall. In this case, the pictorial content reconstructed in previous treatments was recreated on new plaster repairs with a monochromatic line drawing, so that the biblical stories could still be easily understood. A similar attitude expressing concern for the preservation of pictorial content was voiced by the church community in Strøby Church in 2011, after the painting on the chancel vault was greatly reduced over the course of three decades because of salt damage in the constantly-heated interior (Fig. 24).
Fig.24 Fragment of the wall painting on the chancel vault in Strøby Church
Condition prior to treatment in 2013.
Photo: I. Brajer
37The solution in this case was – after stabilizing the climate in the chancel – an unprecedented recreation of the painting (not just lost details) with discernible retouching, based on photographic documentation from the previous treatment in 1984, imitating the wear and tear of the painting at that stage with a network of cross-hatched lines of varying density (Fig. 25).
Fig.25 Fragment of the wall painting on the chancel vault in Strøby Church
The heavily damaged pictorial contents were recreated using photographic documentation from the previous treatment in 1984.
Photo: I. Brajer
38The alternative to recreation was to accept the loss of a highly valued painting (the vestiges of paint that remained were mostly loose flakes of colour held in place by spider webs). This intervention was carried out in full realization of its controversial character, but was done to preserve the images, which were assessed to possess highly valuable iconographic content. Viewed from the floor, the reconstructed painting looks – as far as it is possible to judge today – exactly as it did after the restoration in 1984. But now, it mainly consists of modern paint (watercolours and gouache) applied by the conservator – a picture of verisimilitude, and food for many discussions about authenticity.
39This brief overview of restoration practice in Denmark may be interesting for some readers if only as an example of how differently aesthetic problems are tackled in relation to wall paintings in their own countries. This is paradoxical, as much effort has been expended in the last decade to propagate the use of reproducible scientific methods for technical treatments throughout the world, and there is an ongoing process of establishing standards in conservation (for example, the EU CEN/TC project). Conservators are eager to adopt new procedures for cleaning and consolidation, which were introduced in the past few decades, such as the use of sublimating binding media and alcohol dispersions of calcium hydroxide. We are on the threshold of widespread implementation of nanotechnology in the conservation of artworks. Information about new developments is disseminated through publications, conferences, workshops, word of mouth, and even through networking on social media. The world is getting smaller and smaller when it comes to technical treatments. Yet, we know little about how and why aesthetic treatments are performed in various conservation communities. It may be true that the same level of uniformity as in the case of technical treatments can never be achieved in relation to solving aesthetic problems, because issues of values, so intrinsic to the discussions about visual enhancement, are closely tied to cultural heritage valuations on a national (regional) level. However, decisions regarding appearance should be as carefully deliberated as the choice of cleaning or consolidation methods, and the outcome should be weighed with regard to impact on functions and values. Furthermore, adequate time should be allotted for the careful implementation of aesthetic treatment, and the necessary skills needed to execute aesthetic treatments with the same diligence and awareness as technical treatments should be cultivated and developed in conservators.
40The title of this paper presents a dilemma: To retouch or not to retouch? That is the question. But this is not the only question. How to retouch? That’s another, equally important. The essence of this paper is not about providing answers to these questions (that would be naïve and presumptuous). This presentation of deliberations and descriptions of solutions hopefully serves as an illustration of the facet of conservation that is often omitted or mentioned very superficially in reports and publications, probably because these deliberations are very complex and convoluted, and therefore difficult to put to paper. But even if such analyses might never have world-wide impact because of subjective and local influences, this is not necessarily an ineffective or pointless exercise. Even soliloquies can have more impact than one might assume. Take, for example one of the most famous: “To be or not to be, that is the question.....”