In the latest instalment of the greatest genre of art news – and I write that as a lover of art – another restoration has gone awry. The word “awry” is being generous.
This is the revelation that a private collector, based in Valencia, paid €1,200 (£1,070) for a restoration job on baroque painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables. It is no longer immaculate. It now looks like an e-fit issued by a local police force, with those thin eyebrows popular in the 90s. What’s more, the restorer (who it turns out was a furniture restorer by trade) made two attempts – the second significantly worse than the first. That one, the e-fit one, has the Virgin Mary staring straight ahead, which isn’t even the same position as the original, which has Mary looking to the heavens.
Fernando Carrera, a professor at the Galician School for the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, referring to the latest artwork to be botched in Spain, told the Guardian: “I don’t think this guy – or these people – should be referred to as restorers. Let’s be honest: they’re bodgers who botch things up. They destroy things.”
If there is one saving grace, though I doubt the owner would agree, the painting was Murillo’s copy of an earlier painting of his in oil, created sometime between 1660 and 1665.
There’s now a call for a change in the law to prevent non-trained restorers attempting such cleanup jobs. But Spain isn’t the only nation to suffer similar accidents, despite being home to the greatest one of all time. Here are some of the best worst restorations in art.
Ecce Homo fresco
I mentioned the best one of all time, and it is impossible not to begin with it. In 2012, 81-year-old Cecilia Giménez, with the best of intentions, trashed a fresco painted in about 1930 by Elías García Martínez, entitled Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), in a church in Borja, Spain.
The fresco became known as Behold the Monkey, and Monkey Christ, because of its newly simian features. Jesus’s crown of thorns had also been transformed into what resembled a Russian ushanka hat, with an added vibe of Van Gogh’s Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear. Plus an added border to look like a scroll, a little like an early Microsoft Word feature.
Giménez maintains she had permission from the priest to get her brushes out, but that is disputed by others. She has always insisted that it was only because she went on holiday mid-job, and the painting wasn’t finished, that it looks as it does. Brutally, her granddaughter threw her under the bus saying: “She had just painted the tunic. The problem started when she painted on the head as well. She has destroyed this painting.”
The disfigurement is hilarious in its awfulness, but invasive press scrutiny took a toll on Giménez’s health. Now, however, Giménez says when she looks at her work she sees only positives. It continues to bring others joy too; the botched Ecce Homo is now one of Borja’s main tourist attractions, thought to have brought in close to 200,000 visitors. It has raised tens of thousands of euros for the church and also for charity, and spawned a documentary, Fresco Fiasco, as well as a multitude of merchandise. So much so that Giménez has called for a slice of the profits. Her own work also sells for higher sums than before.
In 2001, Damien Hirst, already famous for his formaldehyde works, opened a new exhibition at London’s Eyestorm gallery, Painting-by-Numbers. This included an array of half-empty beer bottles and coffee cups, overflowing ashtrays and old newspapers arranged – but looking strewn – across the gallery.
That is until cleaner Emmanuel Asare cleared it all away, thinking it was detritus from the launch party the night before. Asare said: “As soon as I clapped eyes on it I sighed because there was so much mess. I didn’t think for a second that it was a work of art – it didn’t look much like art to me. So I cleared it all into bin bags and dumped it.”
Gallery staff scoured through the rubbish and saved, well, the rubbish, and “restored” the installation from photographs. Hirst, for his part, found the whole thing amusing, calling it “fantastic” and “very funny”. Happily, Asare faced no repercussions.
Then-editor of the art newspaper the Jackdaw, though, said that: “If it doesn’t look like a work of art, you can’t blame people for getting rid of it. It is actually not difficult to replace it. Anything of seriously lasting value would be irreplaceable.”
But Hirst’s work was estimated to have sold for a six-figure sum. Next up, possibly: someone tries to make Tracey Emin’s My Bed.
St George effigy
Spain again, where a 500-year-old wooden effigy of St George was, um, improved upon, in a church in the town of Estella. The result was something along the lines of a character who wouldn’t look out of place in a Noddy cartoon. Who was also stoned.
The restorer has never officially been identified, but the mayor of Estella said that the council of the region was not consulted beforehand and he was unimpressed, tweeting: “Estella isn’t in the news because of its spectacular historical, artistic, architectural or cultural heritage.” Accompanying the tweet was a picture from the local paper headlined: “Navarra’s own Ecce Homo”.
Eventually, the government’s cultural department stepped in and the council paid €34,000 to have a professional restoration of the restoration job, using the traditional methods of x-rays and research from photographs. The original botchers were fined €6,000 for their efforts.
Cristiano Ronaldo statue
I suppose setting out to sculpt a statue of someone as vain as the Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo is always going to be a hiding to nothing, but Emanuel Santo’s 2017 effort to garnish Madeira airport – newly renamed after the star – was … quite something. That something was widely ridiculed (which, again, it would be nice if this could somehow be done in a kinder way than outright abuse). With its goofy, lopsided smile and loopy eyes, the bust looked nothing like Ronaldo, and even more so, looked entirely unhinged.
Both Ronaldo himself and Portugal’s president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, were present at the grand and unintentionally hilarious unveiling. Ronaldo himself had apparently been happy with the bust, but had asked for some wrinkles to be removed around his (mad) eyes.
Responding to the rest to the criticism, Santo said: “It is impossible to please the Greeks and Trojans. Neither did Jesus please everyone.”
Still, Santo accepted a challenge from the football website Bleacher Report to give the much maligned bust a do-over a year later. But unfortunately by this time people had become fond of kooky Ronaldo and the update, while still looking nothing whatsoever like Ronaldo, was boring with zero personality and the consensus was that the first was better.
“Look, they are both bad sculptures,” Eddy Frankel wrote in the Guardian. “The first one is ludicrous, the second one is bland. But at least the first one is an honest representation of the artist’s intentions.”
Virgin and Child, the Virgin and Child with St Anne, and St Peter
Three butcherings for the price of one! You probably don’t need me to tell you the name of the country where these 2018 masterly transformations occurred of a trinity of late 15th-century statues. But I will say that the region was called Asturias, and the village itself Rañadoiro.
As you can see, the outcome of this particular “freshening up” was the kind of makeup slathered on in a dark club mirror before emerging, blinking into the light, looking like the filling of a Victoria sponge.
Frustratingly, the statues had been lovingly – and importantly, professionally – restored 15 years prior. Luis Suárez Saro, who did that job, gave his opinion of the update: “They’ve used the kind of industrial enamel paint they sell for painting anything and absolutely garish and absurd colours. The result is just staggering. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
The dab hand or not so dab hand who elicited that reaction was María Luisa Menéndez, a tobacco shop owner who was again good-intentioned and thought the statues looked dull.
“I painted them as best I could using what I thought were the right colours. The neighbours liked them too. Ask around here and you’ll find out.”
“I’m not a professional painter,” she confirmed, unnecessarily.
Ocakli Ada castle and Matrera castle
Not strictly works of art, but they certainly became them after their restorations. A doubly whammy of castles, just like the trips your mum dragged you on. The first, the 2,000-year-old Ocakli Ada castle, in Şile near Istanbul, Turkey, became a social media sensation in 2015 when its restoration left it a dead ringer for the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants. It’s unclear whether this was the original intention, but one strongly suspects not. It was even criticised by the opposition party in the Turkish parliament.
Back in, you guessed it, Spain, the Matrera Castle in Villamartín was restored by architect Carlos Quevedo Rojas for hundreds of thousands of euros. The only problem was that the crumbling edifice ended up looking like an Ikea Billy bookcase. It was variously described as “a barbarity” , “truly lamentable” and “a massacre of Spanish heritage”. Which, as reviews go, aren’t great. But hey, at least it elicited a (horrified) response.
Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus
To end with, another laugh-out-loud effort. This time courtesy of Ontario, Canada. The head of a statue of baby Jesus which was apparently often lopped off and left “rolling around on the ground” was stolen by vandals in 2015 (no, I’m not sure why either). But local artist Heather Wise stepped in with a generous offer to restore the decapitated statue, which stood outside the Ste Anne des Pins Catholic church.
Wise said she had never worked with stone before, but had studied sculpture at a local college. “To do a statue of baby Jesus for a church is like an honour of my entire art career,” she said. Unfortunately, the results were … surprising. An entirely random terracotta head, which many likened to Maggie Simpson, but also looked a bit like a gremlin, was added, and which soon started melting away in the rain.
A kind commenter on a news site remarked: “Since nobody knows what Jesus looked like, what difference does it make?” Others were not so keen. Brilliantly, after the new head was unveiled, the thief even returned the original head. By this time, however, the parish priest had grown fond of what has also been described as a “demonic hedgehog”. It was returned to Wise, though, who said she wanted it back because it had become her “most famous piece of art”. You can certainly see why.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010