A painting, hanging for hundreds of years in an art gallery, can withstand much. Wars, thefts, misguided amateur restoration attempts; the pigments remain largely intact, and the fabric of a painting can remain, to the casual eye, unchanged. Imagine this same, hypothetical painting, in one of Europe or America’s premier galleries, as a tourist aims their camera towards it, feet away. If the flash is on, it emits a ray of bright light, which, along with an accompanying, barely perceptible amount of heat, hurtles across the room before smashing into the surface of the painting. The short, high energy wavelengths of light that UV and xenon camera flashes produces are adept at breaking down chemical bonds, producing deterioration of the physical aspects of the painting. High energy light radiation causes breakages in the long chains of cellulose which form paper and canvas fibres, a chain events which results in the slow but evident deterioration of the surface of the painting. The light also causes changes and fading in the colours; as they absorb the light energy, chemical reactions are awoken, with hundreds of different permutations. Painting conservators talk of the “light life” of a piece of art, of how much exposure to light it can handle before it starts to deteriorate. Every painting’s light life is different; from a well-varnished oil painting to a delicate watercolour or pen-and-ink sketch on crumbling paper.
It is obvious, then, why flash photography, and indeed much photography is now banned from art galleries. We should preserve art- Greek and Roman frescoes in the same condition they were before the Birth of Jesus. Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus should be protected at all costs, put through a rigorous beauty regime of restoration to keep Venus as radiant as when she emerged from that giant shell, via the Italian’s paintbrush.
Or should we?
I believe art should be allowed to be deteriorated, to be exposed to flash photography, to be exposed to whatever is thrown at it. I believe the production of art does not end when the artist applies the final layer of varnish, or when it is framed and hung up. The Mona Lisa; the best-known, most reproduced painting of all time. A recent project by the French company Lumiere Technology revealed the original colours of the painting, unaged; it is a drastically different painting, lighter, with less sombre tones, revealing details of the Lady’s hair. Yet the accepted, mass-reproduced version of the painting is the one that is known and adored. The recent self-destruction of a Banksy painting that had just been sold at Sotheby’s- another example of why we should let art be altered, let it deteriorate, in some cases destroy or disfigure it. Art is a continuous process; we should allow art to act as cultural caches, to reflect the cultures and conditions they have survived through. A painting, faded and discoloured by flash photography or other unfavourable conditions is not devalued, it is rather a reflection of the society it has lived through, as well as the society in which it was produced.
By Ben Gosling