IN APRIL 2018, it was reported that a self-portrait by the Flemish master Pieter-Paul Rubens had returned to the painter’s old atelier in the Rubenshuis in Antwerp (Flanders, Belgium) after a year of restoration by Marie-Annelle Mouffe from the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage. As part of that process, Mouffe had removed several layers of varnish, and multiple additional layers of paint, of a painting that was for 75 percent painted over. Many accents had been added to the original painting over time. The restoration also revealed that the painting had existed in different formats: it had been enlarged, for example, and even been turned from a rectangular into an oval shape, the trace of which is faintly visible in the restored original. Such material changes are related to changes in ownership. Those who owned the painting also left a material mark on it.
It is interesting to consider the different kinds of changes that are listed here, from changing the shape of the painting to adding accents to the painting, or even painting over parts of it. The value of the Rubens painting was, of course, never in doubt. Nevertheless, the painting had—until now—only been showing about 25 percent of its original paint. It was considered an original Rubens, even if many others had also had a hand in it. Because it was a Rubens, the painting received the expensive restoration that revealed this. But it raises questions about many of the other paintings we see in museums as well: to what extent are they, too, painted over, and many layers removed from their original state? To what extent have they, too, had accents added, a layer of varnish added, or their format changed? To what extent do they, too, show, in their material history, the traces of their private owners, before they ended up as public property in the museum? To what extent do these material histories, these unexceptionalizing accounts of masterpieces, undermine the exceptionalist attachment to the original that structures Western museums today?
To what extent, finally, do such material histories place Western art in close proximity to the classical or ancient Chinese art that Byung-Chul Han describes, a proximity that the art market would rather wish to deny?
And given that such a denial rests on a denial of painting, of the very worldly practice through which even a masterpiece such as Rubens’s portrait came about, isn’t it interesting that Rubens presents himself in the painting as a nobleman rather than a painter—that he did not want to be known as a painter—as if he was dissimulating the very worldly craft that was so obviously on display in this portrait of the master by his own hand? By wanting to be recognized as a nobleman, Rubens contributed to the institution of exceptionalist art, a development that the painting’s material history unworks, all the way into the painting’s original layer (which the museum’s director in an interesting turn of phrase described as being close to Rubens’s “skin”—showing a kind of bare or naked Rubens, in other words). Far from confirming the exceptionalist status of art, and Rubens’s status as a nobleman, the painting’s restoration draws out something utterly unexceptional about the painting, uncovering the painter underneath the nobleman, and reminding all of us through the painting’s material history (which is also the history of its ownership) of how unexceptional, in the end, art really is.