Sunday, August 17, 2014

Restoration/Renovation (Chartres encore)

Once and future vaults
With all the galavanting about to Brittany and then Chartres, we've had a slower-paced couple of days. (Saturday market; then Mac took off to see Kumbh Mela (click on "bande-annonce" for the trailer), the incredible documentary film based on the once-every-12-years pilgrimage that happens at the confluence of three rivers (two actual, one mythical) and then met up with a graduate student for coffee - lots to go on there!; and last night, Oliver and I plunged back into La Défense to see Guardians of the Galaxy which was really pretty good - the best part being in an enormous, fully packed screening room with so many French cinéphiles who laughed and cheered, and realizing (again) that American movies are insanely grandiose and fully entertaining). All this to say that this clears a little bit of room to jot down some notes on the work at Chartres. And ask questions of fellow medieval art historians. Briefly put, the restorations are so extensive as to defy the term.  I have walked into more cathedrals bedecked by scaffolding than I can recount, but there's much more than that going on here. This shot of the westernmost vaults gives you a first sensation of the radicality of the restoration (the Passion window is at the "top" of the photograph and you're seeing scaffolding at the "bottom"). What had been the color of stone, of ancient geological provenance and 13th-century manipulation, is now plastered over and white-washed.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres : immersion... by culture-gouv

 The 12 minute video from the restoration web site reveals much. It's super quiet with no monologue or dialogue, but I found myself exclaiming out loud while watching it. I understand (at 4:45m) injecting fissures in the columns with something binding, but the wholesale plastering of all the columns? Is what's going on as of 9:10m ok? Are those medieval designs? Are they 19th century designs? Reading the excellent PDFs of the restoration reports, it's clear that there's a lot of the 18th century (when the eastern end and choir underwent work) and the 19th (specifically the keystone painting of the chapel of Notre-Dame du Pilier on the north side near the transept). The restoration of the marble work in the choir is pretty intense - the colors are really, shall we say, bright. Ok, garish, to me. And the white-washed columns just make no sense. Yes, there's that marvelous quote from a letter written by Kipling (fascinating choice if you ask me) at the head of the restoration website, but is this medieval Chartres? Maybe it's not meant to be. Maybe it's meant to be medieval, 18th and 19th century Chartres.

Why does a photograph taken on playful iPhone settings
 look more like the Chartres I think I know?
What am I holding on to here? Why would a 21st-century viewer be so disoriented about a 13th-century site to which she has access primarily through the 19th and 20th centuries, as to get a sense of "wrong," of something "off"? Mac took this terrific photograph of southern transept statues by playing with settings on the iPhone. I saw this and realized, "This is the Chartres I'm missing." The Chartres that really spoke stone, that displayed its age (good Lord, am I an antiquarian all of a sudden?). Why am I begrudging the cathedral its restoration? I like the medieval-modern conversation. It's good to know that a site is alive with people's creativity and care, it's amazing that the French government is putting 13 million euros ($17.42 million into the cathedral). And yet, here I sit completely reliving my disorientation even as I write this. I think very much of Janet Marquardt's brilliant work with the aesthetic created for Romanesque Art (almost single-handedly) by the monks behind the Zodiaque book series, specifically in their decision to have the books illustrated with a particular type of photography (it gets complicated, that photographic style itself is kind of high modernist, but it absolutely anchors Romanesque architecture and sculpture in a hue of heavy, stony grays). ALL THE MORE EXCITEMENT for her book, Zodiaque: Making Medieval Modern, 1951-2001, due out next year from Penn State Press.

Funnily enough, the stained glass restoration feels absolutely like a restoration - like a return to the 13th century (as if I could possibly truly know what that was like!). What is happening that I feel so absolutely not the same way about the stone of the cathedral? What would Adolf Katzenellebogen say? (For the north transept is completely restored and those sculptures shine so, so brightly). This is no longer the Chartres of Henry Adams. Am I really going to align myself with those guys? Am I going to say, "this is no longer my Chartres?" What on earth would that mean? As if the cathedral could belong to someone. Well, lest we get into issues of patrimoine and possession (ever since the French Revolution, church properties belong to the government, and it is my understanding that the Catholic Church leases them - in perpetuity, but still), I'm going to stop here. The Chartres whose every stone and sculpture, and whose every pane of glass I studied for months and months twenty years ago is transforming before my eyes. The point, of course, is not simply to dichotomize this metamorphosis into "good," or "bad" - the point will be to live and teach this new Chartres, but I don't yet have the terms.

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