George Stolz: Is it possible to make a facsimile of any art work?
Adam Lowe: The simple answer is yes. Every work of art, every object we have been asked to work with, gradually reveals its biography as it is studied. The big question that we ask all the time in Factum is why does something look the way it does? Spending time with objects that have had rich, multi-layered and complex histories is a great privilege. We spend a colossal amount of time musing on why something looks the way it does, and through a deeply materially led study, a forensic study if you like, we end up with an understanding of what it is. It’s never a complete understanding but at least it’s an informed point of view. This is what is involved in making a meaningful facsimile.
My interest is in ensuring that culture stays alive. Everything becomes obscured by time or by fame. Works of art need to be opened up, given a new life. I am always amazed by how little we know, not how much we know. The more time you ponder over high-resolution data (both two and three dimensional, and multispectral if it is available), the more you look at the object as a physical entity constrained by its physical properties, the more it starts to reveal. It reveals aspects of its character that an art historian could never get from looking at a reproduction in a book, or from a visit to a museum. The conditions under which things are studied impose their own constraints on the object. Works of art need to be shared. Their dialogue is active. You need different people with different points of view to be brought into a conversation. It’s during this process that the works themselves become articulate. Or to say it another way – originality is a process and not a state of being. At Factum Arte we study the process.
This is not really a commercial undertaking. You can’t put a value on, or quantify the time you need to spend. Things happen in their own time. Factum Arte is a workshop full of different people with different skills. They come from many walks of life and many parts of the world. This enriches the conversation and results in more articulate facsimiles. I am also involved with the Foundation for Digital Technology in Conservation, which has recently been formed to develop and communicate this way of studying and understanding the importance and relevance of works of art. For example, the work that is currently being carried out to preserve the tombs in the Valley of the Kings is a project started by Zahi Hawass, director general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt which involves the University of Basel, the Friends of the Royal tombs of Egypt (a Swiss foundation), the Foundation for Digital Technology in Conservation and Factum Arte. It’s a project that involves a transfer of technology and skills that will create many jobs both in Spain and Egypt and that will establish a sustainable model for the preservation of one of the world’s most important sites. This work requires political vision and institutional support. The aim is to turn the millions of visitors who go each year to Luxor into a pro-active force assisting in the preservation of our shared cultural heritage – so that it can be passed on to the next generation in the best possible way.
GS: Is the facsimile you made of Veronese’s Wedding at Cana for the Fondazione Giorgio Cini also an example of this way facsimiles can play a role in preservation?
AL: Yes, and the response it provoked has exceeded even our expectations. Last summer over 10,000 people paid 10 euros each to visit the facsimile for one hour and witness a multi-sensory event by Peter Greenaway. He used the high-resolution recordings we used to make the facsimile to create a three-dimensional virtual model of the painting that was projected onto the facsimile. The effects were dramatic and the event was considered to be one of the most thought-provoking at last year’s Venice Biennale. This year the refectory will be open to the public for four hours a day. As a direct result of the extensive media attention that surrounded the unveiling of the facsimile we were first asked to make a facsimile of Leonardo’s Last Supper and we have more recently been asked to create a research centre in the town of Caravaggio devoted to Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio. We have already completed the high-resolution recording of the three great Caravaggio paintings in the church of San Luigi de Francesi in Rome. As soon as people were able to see the facsimile of theWedding at Cana installed in Palladio’s refectory the importance of the work became clear. We were fortunate to have met Pasquale Gagliardi, the energetic and visionary director of the Fondazione Giorgio Cini who proved to be the perfect partner for this project.
GS: So in spawning this facsimile, is the original Wedding at Cana now a matrix?
AL: I never really know what people mean by the word matrix. It has too many meanings and is too subjective to be meaningful. I am sorry if that’s a bit of willful negation of your question.
GS: What I mean is in that it can now give way to multiples.
AL: In a way it’s a matrix but not as the term is normally used in printmaking. For us to make another copy of the Wedding at Cana would take exactly the same amount of work. We would not need to record the painting in the Louvre again but it would be equivalent to giving another performance of the painting. The new version would have subtle differences and the two performances would not be identical. One would start where the other left off. They would probably end up being very similar to one another. Veronese’s painting is a matrix in the sense that it is the source but it’s not a matrix that can produce identical copies.
GS: The source -- in the sense that the matrix is the mother, that from which there is further issue? A womb, let’s say.
AL: If you’re using matrix as a womb, I would then say, the matrix is the pointed end of a cornucopia, and copiousness, the abundance of copies, is what flows from that point.
With the Wedding at Cana, it’s definitely true that the painting in the Louvre is more original than the facsimile we’ve made. It’s also true that many people have started saying that the experience you get in front of the copy is more authentic than the experience you can get in the Louvre. In Paris the painting is hung at the wrong height, framed and heavily restored. In the Louvre there is an orange-brown polished surface to the walls and a uniform zenithal light. The painting is hanging between two doors so the whole composition isn’t focused as it is in Palladio’s refectory. Seeing the facsimile of the painting back in its original setting enables you to understand it in a much deeper way. So do I think the experience of the facsimile, a facsimile of this accuracy – because it is remarkably accurate – in Palladio’s refectory, is more authentic, than the experience of the painting in the Louvre? Yes, I do think that. But I think the painting in the Louvre has allowed it to be seen in different ways – Gericault, Delacroix and Cezanne were all amazed by its freedom of touch and compositional rhetoric. You can’t see the lightness of touch unless you can get close to the surface.
GS: If you were called on to be a consultant and you were asked whether the facsimile should be in Paris and the original in Venice, or vice verse, how would you answer?
AL: I believe the way it is now is the only way it can be. For the original to be in Venice, with the current attitudes towards conservation, you would have to climate-control the refectory, you would have to remove the daylight, and you would have to stop it being an active room in which dinners and other public events are held. So actually to get the original back into Venice, you would have to intrinsically alter Palladio’s architecture.
I like to ask – and these are the kind of thought processes that animate what we do at Factum Arte – if Veronese walked into the Louvre now, what would he think? I’m sure he would be excited that a painting he painted on the wall of a refectory in Venice, which was always going to have limited audience, is now being seen in a different city by nine million people a year. I am sure this would delight and flatter him. But it might also horrify him. The painting certainly doesn’t look like it looked when he finished it. There are similarities, I’m sure, but it is definitely not the painting he signed off in 1563. He was a painter attuned to subtle color harmonies and obsessed with the musical qualities of a painting, he might actually be appalled to see the picture in its current state, in its current venue. For certain he would be sad that the dialogue he’d set up with Palladio was no longer there. The dialogue now is with the little Mona Lisa. Although his painting is many times larger, very few people actually stop and look at what is not only one of the most complex narrative paintings in the Western canon - the greatest and most rhetorical counter-reformation argument - but also the embodiment of the point at which painting (and to some extent music) eclipsed architecture as the dominant art form.
GS: How will the facsimile of the Wedding at Cana age?
AL: It will probably crack a bit. In theory it should age rather like any painting does. The inks we use are not the same composition as the pigments used in the paint so it would be absolutely wrong to say it will age in the same way as the painting. But the canvas, the gesso ground, the color (which has been varnished with two different types of ultraviolet filters) shouldn’t alter much over the next 100 years.
Extending that, how things age with time depends on where they are. It depends on how they’re looked after - just like us. We age in the ways we age, and the ways we age reveal both the way we live and what we think. Our faces are continually in flux and they can alter dramatically at certain times of our lives due to the events we experience. Paintings are very similar.
I do tend to think of paintings as being active, and this conditions my understanding of originality. We need to get away from the many category mistakes that are inherent in Walter Benjamin’s essay, “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Rather than focus on a quasi-religious notion of aura, I try to focus -- and this may be the answer to your matrix question – I try to focus my attention on the fact that originality is a process – a dynamic. Values are both exuded by things and imposed upon them. They can be given or taken away. Think about the history of the Dama De Elche from its discovery, its fame and obscurity in France, its return to Spain in the 1940’s and the iconic status it has achieved since then. If you think about originality both intellectually and physically as a process, I think it opens the whole field up to really understand the relevance and importance not only of the object, but what’s been projected upon it over its life, and the way its been treated, the way its been valued, the way its been restored. These are some of the filtres that condition our perceptions.
GS: The facsimile, the work in Venice now: who is its author?
AL: Factum Arte is its maker. Veronese is its originator. The people who made that painting that is now in Venice all work in Factum Arte.
GS: But its main author is still Veronese?
AL: We always say it’s a performance of a Veronese. A performance made in 2007.
GS: So Factum Arte’s facsimile is also a Veronese in that sense?
AL: I hope the facsimile comes close enough so that question becomes irrelevant. What you’re looking at is this performance of a time-slice of that painting restored to its original setting. It’s the dynamism of the dialogue between Veronese and Palladio that starts to take over. Everybody knows it’s not the painting that Veronese touched but it has some of the meaning and emotional resonance of Veronese’s masterpiece. This emotional resonance is important. When it was unveiled the facsimile caused many people who were there to cry. Talking about an emotional response to a facsimile is fascinating. Emotion and facsimile are not words that are normally associated together. The distance between the knowledge that you’re looking at a copy, and the emotional power of the painting, has been bridged. Paintings can be studied academically, but they also need to be felt. I think this is one of the unique things about what Factum Arte does. We don’t only use technology - we’re not only building new recording systems to record these works - we’re also working as artists striving to understand, respect and intellectually grasp the amazing things that Veronese did when he made that painting. I think it’s the art that lies in the facsimiles that is the thing that makes Factum Arte’s performances so emotional. If this becomes visible, then it’s like Liberace, the performance has become too virtuoso. The performance needs to be humble and sensitive and quiet for the balance between the Wedding at Cana and what we’ve done to really articulate why Veronese’s painting has remained so important for so long. If you end up looking at Factum Arte rather than looking at Veronese, then we have failed.
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