Thanks to an inadvertent iconoclast, a second-rate fresco is now a 'masterpiece'. Turn her loose on artists that deserve attention
|The painting Ecce Homo (L) by 19th-century painter Elias Garcia Martinez, the painting in a damaged state (C) and the 'restored' version by a woman in Spain (R).|
It's all over the internet, it's trending, tweeting, the funniest art joke of all time. You must know it by now. "Masterpiece of Jesus is destroyed after old lady's attempt to restore damage is a less-than-divine intervention", Worst painting restoration work in history", "Elderly woman destroys 19th century fresco with DIY restoration".
A woman said to be in her 80s in Borjanos in Spain took it upon herself to "restore" a fresco in the Sanctuary of Mercy church there. The original painting is an Ecce Homo by Elias Garcia Martinez and dates from the 19th century. But this triptych of photographs shows how totally it has been ruined. It's hilarious to see how the would-be restorer's efforts resulted in a complete reinvention of the painting as a crude image with a face like a neanderthal man's self-portrait. Oh dear. This pious art lover could have a career in slapstick if she wants, for her comic destruction of a work of art bears comparison with Rowan Atkinson giving Whistler's Mother a badly drawn cartoon face in the film Bean.
How did it happen? What was the well-meaning vandal thinking? Reports differ on the meaning of the middle picture in the before-and-after triptych: was this the result of water damage or the self-appointed artist's early effort to prepare the picture for restoration? Picturing how it happened is even funnier than seeing the contrasting versions themselves. Did she, like the Marx Brothers trimming a moustache in Monkey Business, try to fix one bit and then had to do another bit and then another until the whole thing was gone? Was it like Father Ted in the episode of the much-loved clerical comedy where he attempts to mend a car's bodywork with a hammer?
There is only one problem with this story. It doesn't really matter. Martinez is not a great artist and his painting Ecce Homo is not a "masterpiece". It is a minor painting in the dregs of an academic tradition. When it was painted, a boy called Pablo in another Spanish town was learning to paint in this same exhausted 19th-century style. Soon he would shake off the influence of his father the provincial artist Don Jose Ruizy Picasso and start to reinvent art.
Google Martinez and you will find many, many references that have appeared in the last 24 hours to the botched restoration – and not much else. A previously obscure artist has become famous overnight because of the amateur restorer's exploit. A forgotten painting is now known around the world as a "masterpiece", because it was wrecked.
Perhaps this offers a new strategy for those who seek to popularise the Old Masters. What if even older, but far greater, paintings were to get the Mr Bean treatment?
After Rowan Atkinson gave a show-stopping Mr Bean performance as a keyboard player upstaging a Simon Rattle-conducted performance of Chariots of Fire in the Olympic opening ceremony, the composer Michael Nyman took exception to orchestral music being mocked in this way. Where did his sense of humour go? Surely he can see that classical music should use this strategy to popularise itself. We need Mr Bean disrupting performances of Monteverdi and Mahler. That will get the kids into the concert halls.
Similarly, the well-meaning restorer of this obscure Spanish painting should be turned loose on a couple of works that actually matter. Many true masterpieces are starved of the global attention this second-rate Ecce Homo has now got. She could be sent to Italy to see what she can do with the frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara. Revered by art historians, these paintings of the months of the year have never quite made it into popular culture. There are 12 paintings, one for every month, so one could be sacrificed for the good of the whole. A hideously repainted face on one of the lesser months might make their creator the 15th-century genius Francesco del Cossa as famous as the 19th century mediocrity Elias Garcia Martinez has now become.