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Airbrushing our art and architecture

A visit to the beautiful capital city of France is a visit that many people have undertaken in their lives: and if they have not yet, they hope to do so in the future. There is something about Paris that pleases everyone. The city is undeniably charming with its magnificent history, reputed works of art, and diverse architecture that make it one of the most visually impressive places to visit in the world; so much so that there is a certain level of expectation for tourists who visit Paris. Everyone wants to marvel at the graceful white buildings that line the Seine, sitting on a roof-top bar eating macaroons. Everyone wants to get a picture with the Mona Lisa, buy a book at Shakespeare & company, and practice a few lines of broken French at a ‘typically French’ bistro on the Champs-Élysées. As charming as it may be to spend a romantic week at the ‘capital city of love’, this is a largely idealised misconception of not only Paris as a city, but French lifestyle as a whole. 

Parisians have been aware of this for many years however. The idealisation of Parisian and French culture is something that many have long recognised as a way of selling overpriced merchandise to eager tourists. Yet increasingly, this idealisation of French culture has begun to leave a deep imprint on social mentality within the capital, particularly in relation to art and architecture. There is no better example of this than the unnecessary laser-cleaning of ancient buildings which is becoming increasingly common in France and in other countries across Europe. 

One of the first laser cleaning projects was conducted in Italy on the portal of the cathedral of Cremona at the start of the 1980s. Since then, it has been frequently used to help clear up unintelligible ancient documents and paintings, though the risk of damage remains an ever present problem. The use of such cleaning methods on historic buildings was at first reserved simply for those most badly damaged by centuries of pollution. One recent example are the magnificent stained-glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. The restoration work took seven years from start to finish and was completed on time for the 800th anniversary of the birth of King Louis IX. The stained-glass panes, that had previously been covered in a layer of traffic pollution, were restored to their previous conditions and their colours were once more distinguishable.

For 12th century works of art (though already restored numerous times throughout the ages) that had been on the point of being lost to the world for good, laser cleaning was a much-needed treatment. Yet it seems that besides a few necessary cases, the French have begun to take laser-cleaning to an entirely new level. Laser cleaning is now to be the fate of an increasing amount of historical buildings across the capital. The supposed intent: to restore these architectural works to their ‘previous splendour’. The Pantheon for example, at the heart of Paris’ Latin Quarter, has been cluttered with scaffolding for a number of years. That which has emerged from this thorough cleaning process has been transformed from a sandy grey to a beautiful beige colour, clean and undeniably aesthetically appealing. But to what extent is this truly what the Pantheon looked like originally? And how much has it really been redesigned by an increasing desire to mould Paris fittingly to the expectations of a touristic culture?

Yet Paris is not the only area of France experiencing the effects of this deeply saddening modern perception of architectural beauty.  France is famously dotted with some of the world’s greatest gothic architectural masterpieces ever made. Often mingled into the ordinary French landscape, many of these vast gothic cathedrals tower over their native French villages and towns. The French however, have decided that an extensive laser-cleaning project of many of these old delicate works is appropriate even to such structures that are not in any need of cleaning. With the intention of ‘restoring the buildings to their intended appearance’, what they wish to do is transform these aged, medieval structures into polished, dazzling white monuments that fulfil tourist expectations and increasingly, their own expectations of what great art should look like.

Nantes Cathedral, an example of this new cleaning-mania, is an elegant white building in the historic centre of Nantes. Though very beautiful, the cathedral is confusing to anyone with the slightest knowledge on architecture. The building gives the appearance of being entirely new; as if construction was finished only yesterday. In the name of ‘restoring’ the building (which was in reality only completed at the end of the nineteenth century), the extensive laser-cleaning it underwent for a number of years has as a consequence wiped away a layer of the original surface. Many, in an attempt to justify these actions, have claimed that Nantes cathedral amongst other significant architectural masterpieces, was covered in a layer of soot and dirt which had to be removed to attain the work’s original appearance. But why do the French (and at this point it is necessary to add that the French are not the only country to have adopted excessive laser-cleaning) think that restoring a building to its ‘original’ appearance, makes it the ‘right’ appearance? Is a work of art only a work of art in its original birth state? A building has a life, and removing layers of supposed ‘dirt’ or colouring, is removing valuable layers of its history and its life. 

The huge controversy over Duveen’s cleaning of the Elgin Marbles in London, after the Second World War, brought to light some very important issues on the matter. The curators at the British Museum at the time were quite happy to turn a blind eye to Duveen’s ‘cleaning’ of the Elgin Marbles because they knew the outcome would fulfil their idealised perception of what classical sculpture should look like: pure and flawlessly white. The press and the majority of people, then as now, were outraged at this shocking removal of the surface of the ancient Parthenon sculptures. Yet there is not a huge difference between this supposed ‘horrifying cleaning’ of the Elgin Marbles, and the present-day laser cleaning of already perfectly satisfactory historical structures. 

Indeed both have removed layers of supposed ‘dirt’. Both fulfil our modern societies’ expectations of a ‘beautiful’ work of art, without the necessary regard for the work’s history. Both have rendered the works a product, no longer of the past, but of the present. 

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