The canvas was old and unloved. A dark and gloomy depiction of stormy seas and a terrible shipwreck had become so unpopular that it was regulated to the basement archives where no one could be disturbed by its melancholy message. But the artist had been famous. Celebrated for colourful and brilliant expressions of landscapes which explored the beauty of creation in all its variety and vivacity. Why then this strange exception?
It had become a subject of intense research and many theses had been written to explain the anomaly. Theories were presented which ranged from a period of acute and severe depression to the result of some terrible event which had forced the artist to express his anger through his art. No one could know for sure since the artist had removed himself from public gaze and would not comment on anything. The only recorded interviews were before he had completed this, his last known painting. He had apparently disappeared and the public and experts paid him the disrespect of not really caring. Then, after decades of neglect, it was moved.
The University Art Department had been searching for paintings on which its students could practice their restoration techniques and this was considered good teaching material, much like a corpse donated for anatomical dissection, there was still some useful contribution that it could make to society. So now, Joy Gardener, at the start of her 4th year Restoration Module, was gazing on this dusty, frameless canvas. She had read up on the theory, completed some on-line sessions and watched several experts revive and restore old masters to their original glory. The difference was often nothing short of miraculous. Twenty-first century eyes were now able to admire 400 year old paintings as if the artists had just left the room and the paint was still wet.
Joy had looked forward to trying her hand at restoration because, for her, there was a sense of accomplishment in revealing what was really there under centuries of environmental and accidental damage. Cleaning the image with slow, careful movements mimicked the original brush strokes by which the original was created. Mixing subtle hues to restore missing paint was a delicate task and required an eye for detail. Such a satisfying, if time-consuming task. She needed a lot of practice before she could work on something more valuable than this faded and unwanted picture.
And yet, as she stretched it out on her table she felt a tinge of sadness. More, a sense of something akin to regret. It was as if the painting was ashamed to be exposed to such close examination. Did every restorer feel like this? Did any of them form some cryptic relationship with their subject, just as the artist may have had with theirs? As she continued to gaze over the scene of crashing waves and drowning souls she was drawn in to the anguish and sorrow that the painting represented, not only by depiction but also because of its neglected condition.
She continued to look over the canvas and took some basic measurements for her write-up. She described the piece in formal language with size and shape along with the name of the artist and their approximate age when it was painted. The next step was to get a much more detailed view of the work which included the sub-surface structure using X-rays. This technique had revolutionised Art History and Restoration as it was no longer the face-value interpretation that drove our understanding but the actual developmental techniques and even rearranged subject matter. The provenance and validity of apparently great works of art often depended on this modern facility. Joy prepared the canvas for its imaging and waited for the result to display on her widescreen computer but was not prepared for what appeared.
For the first time she felt completely out of her depth. She was shocked at what she saw. Beneath the dark, tempestuous clouds could be seen the fainter image of a sun rising above a distant horizon. Was she imagining this? Was the painting playing a few illusive tricks on her? She went back to the canvas and tried to reconcile it with the X-ray image. While her eyes could not confirm the underlying presence she once again felt that tinge of discomfort which now felt more like the plaintive call of a prisoner desperate to see the light of day. She decided to take a chance and examine a section of the painting more closely.
She chose an area where the X-ray sun had been rising. Using an illuminating magnifying lens, a pointed scalpel and fine tweezers she began to carefully lift a tiny flake of loose oil from the canvas. She stood back, unbelieving. Looking through the lens again she had to admit that there was something else beneath the grey-black application. Something brighter, richer, and even at this scale, more permanent. Her discovery could no longer be kept to herself. She informed her tutor who also would not believe it until he saw the X-ray for himself and the marks exposing an earlier work.
While she was no longer allowed to work on the canvas herself she was grateful to be present throughout the subsequent restoration so she could see the original surface and shine through in complete antithesis of what was thought to be an Old Master’s greatest error.
At last, the work was finished. An academic paper was written and submitted for peer review, with Joy as one of the main contributors. On publication the unsuspecting Art world was taken by surprise at this incredible find. Joy, while still a student, was invited to participate in conferences and lectures. She also appeared on national news programmes which interrogated her on the validity of this historic claim. She answered every query with increasing confidence, explaining the process which led to the revelation; her growing sense that the picture was trying to tell her something; her tentative exploration of the medium and, not least, that she saw it come to life in her presence. The picture was exhibited in several major cities throughout the world and the reputation of the Artist was gradually restored as text books were re-written and critics submitted to the evidence.
At one event, which Joy attended, she notice a frail, elderly man who had been sat silently gazing at the display for several minutes without moving. She went and sat beside him but did not interrupt his meditation. Eventually he spoke in a whisper,
“It’s so good to see it again”.
Joy’s heart missed a beat. Was he confused and mistaking it for some other sunrise? The old man continued.
”It’s even better than I remember it. The sun seems a little higher, the sky a little bluer and the garden looks much more verdant. I can still hear the birds singing you know”
A million questions filled her mind. Could it be that she was on the verge of another discovery which would transcend the first? His eyes still hadn’t moved from the painting but as she gaped open-mouthed at him she knew he was waiting for her to speak.
“Excuse me,”, she said hesitatingly, “but do you know this painting?” A strange way of putting it she thought afterwards.
“Why, of course I do!”, he said, without a hint of aggravation.
“How?” was all she could manage.
“I am the artist” he said as if he was owning up to something trivial.
“Then why was it overpainted?”, she asked with real emotion this time but maintaining a respectful tone.
“My dear, I’m so glad you have asked me that” he said, with the hint of a smile appearing at the edge of his mouth.
“Go on then”, she said a little bit impatiently, “why bury such a glorious scene with one which is so dark and horrid and … despicable?”
“So, you prefer the original do you? he asked gently.
“Of course I do! Everyone does! It’s now recognised as your greatest work. You should be extremely proud – but the big question is why did you never exhibit it?”
“But I did!”, he said, “It was in my studio window for three years. But the war changed things. Ordinary people had no time for the appreciation of beauty and the good things of life. But even worse, the oppressors thought they could just take the finest things and claim them for their own. Evil hanging the good in its halls without any concept of what true creative passion is. So, I decided to change it; to make it reflect the sadness, the depravity and helplessness of the world that was now on my doorstep. I hung the result there instead and everyone ignored it”.
“But why not just destroy it?” Joy asked.
“Well, I couldn’t let my original be destroyed because it had been corrupted because of the world’s chaos! I knew that one day when the clouds had gone there would be a place for the sunshine again. Someone would hear the birds sing and connect with the original reason for being. I’m glad it was you, my dear. You did not try to analyse and theorise it away. You heard the message and saw for yourself the real picture. Others helped you to uncover it and together you have given it back to the world, and to me!”
“So, what now?” she asked, “what do we do now?”
“I will go back to my studio and sit amongst my easels and paints. There is one more scene I want to complete but don’t ask me what that is. I can’t tell you yet.”
“What about me?”
“Well, you have something else to tell now, don’t you? This will be harder though because people will not take you seriously. They will demand evidence but that’s only an excuse not to believe something that challenges their philosophy and lifestyle”.
“Can’t I persuade you to come with me. We would be much more effective together.”
“Child. I am with you. In the sunrise and the stars. You have seen me and you know that I can bring them into glorious existence. You will see me again, one day. Till then hold on to what I’ve told you and never stop marvelling at what I have created.”
Joy sensed that it was time to move on. She left the old man still gazing at his painting and walked out into the still, night air. The bustling crowds and constant traffic contrasted with the serenity of her recent conversation. Was that real? She felt privileged to have shared a bench with such a gracious man and even more so to have heard him share the story of the painting. Someone so deeply hurt by an ungrateful world yet who cared enough to let his secret be revealed for the sake of a broken humanity. She would share the message of the painting on every platform offered to her – even away from the art world – to whoever would take time to listen.
She would never forget how she found out what restoration really means.