Guernica by Pablo Picasso: Restoration efforts began with infrared photography scan

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Guernica by Pablo Picasso (© Paul White/AP Images)

Pablo Picasso’s historic painting, Guernica, has been undergoing examination using a new infrared photographic device that compiles detailed information about the masterpiece. The painting’s curator hopes to use the information to focus their restoration efforts and minimize disruption to the painting, as this year marks the 75th anniversary of its creation. Sadly, the history of art restoration is filled with stories of works that suffered due to restoration efforts. Helping you explore more deeply, Questia offers an impressive collection of books and articles on art history and restoration.


Spanish telecommunications company Telefonica, with input from Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum where Guernica resides, created the machine that was used to scan the 11-foot by 25.6-foot painting. Dubbed Pablito, the device uses advanced infrared and ultraviolet photography to scan and record details of a painting. Pablito was designed to run on a track positioned in front of the canvas. It moves across the stationary canvas to gather data. For its scan, Guernica, which had logged thousands of travel miles since its creation in 1937, did not have to be moved.

Fox News Latino reported on the breakthrough technique in an article titled, “Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ Undergoes Robot Medical Checkup.” The scanning activity took place throughout the night while the museum is closed.

“It can be programmed to take the camera lenses closer or farther away from the painting depending on the shot needed and has a precision of movement of 25 microns, or 25 thousandths of a millimeter, allowing analysts to see even air bubbles and scratches undetectable by the human eye,” the article said.

It was the years of travel that had experts concerned about Guernica‘s state of health. It is their hope that the detailed images obtained by Pablito will help to focus restoration efforts where they are most needed.

Unhappy endings

Not all restoration projects have had happy endings. Former Time magazine art editor Alexander Eliot states in his article, “A Conversation about Conservation,” that it’s time for the art world to review its assumptions about the art restoration industry. His main complaint is that restoration is being used to make old art look new again. This, he maintains is an impossibility and any attempt to do so denies the “ever-changing organic” nature of the artwork.

Eliot named names by describing botched restorations that ruined Renoir’s The Boating Party and Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. According to Eliot, much of art conservation work being done today is a direct attempt to reverse the errors of previous restorers.

The argument against restorations

Why should art and antiques be restored at all? Why isn’t it enough to take the piece as you find it with all the evidence of its many decades of life? These questions were pondered in a lens created by Stazjia on Squidoo titled, “Should Art & Antiques be Restored or Not?

Stazjia referred to comments made by Richard Philip, owner of the Richard Philip Gallery. Philip pointed out that art dealers often commission restorations in order to make a piece more marketable to rich private customers who will put the item in their homes. Others specialize in selling restored art and antiques.

Ancient works unscathed

Some art goes unscathed, however. Philip noted that creations dating prior to the medieval period such as ancient Roman, Greek and Egyptian, are not usually subjected to restoration. But anything after the medieval period is seen as fair game for restoration.

Stazjia said, “Richard Philip asks why do we have to sanitise, cleanse and reinvent paintings and drawings? He argues that 18th and 19th century rebuilding of antique sculpture is now stripped away to reveal the original work so why should we deal differently with ‘flat’ art?”

Critics of art restoration argue that the predominant approach to restoration is based on the assumption that we can make art more beautiful. It is a kind of hubris that seems to negate the creative skill of the original artist. Like any living thing, art ages. There is nothing wrong in embracing that fact. As Alexander Eliot advises, “Old is beautiful.”

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