2:00 P.M. After a bite in the commissary, we catch the trolley to the museum’s annex, where “The Gross Clinic” is the star attraction. There’s a dismayingly large crowd on hand to see Eakins’s bloody study from 1875, which until a few years ago was off-the-beaten trail at the Jefferson Memorial Hospital (where Gross, a celebrated military surgeon during the Civil War, held his classes). There’s a lot of documentation on the walls about the painting’s history and how its subject matter—the surgery to remove a diseased bit of femoral bone, which pre-Gross would have entailed amputation of the leg—revolted audiences in 1876, when it was excluded from the city’s Centennial Exhibition. I hoped there’d be a picture of how it was in fact installed at the time, hanging at the end of an art-meets-life prefab model army hospital tent, neatly and almost hilariously in situ, but no such luck.
The canvas now has far more commodious digs—almost its own mini-chapel, where it’s flanked by Eakins’s other surgical masterpiece, “The Agnew Clinic.” And after the restoration effort, it’s that much clearer just how strange a picture it is. Before, you saw Gross holding his scarlet-flecked scalpel upright like a paintbrush, you made out the scene of the operation, with its attending surgeons wielding their blood-tipped knives like pencils. But so much else was clouded and clotted in a bizarrely blah electrically colored background glare—the tonal registers were just weird, almost fecklessly unresolved. Now you can really pick up the dark clarity of the whole background, including the image of the figure just behind Gross, who’s taking notes and whose grip on his pencil ramifies that of the doctors going after the rotting bone. The sharply foreshortened patient’s fuzzy blue socks jut out at you all that more dramatically and make a clean rhyme against the ether-soaked pillow over his head. And the guy lingering in the hallway—Gross’s son—behind the theater, swallowed in a red haze, is a lot more fiendishly integrated into the scene. I first saw the canvas when it was in the Met’s Eakins retrospective in 2001, and this was like seeing a totally different picture.
When we had dinner a couple of nights earlier with an art historian who has a book coming out on the “pleasure dairies” of the ancién regime (the best known being Marie-Antoinette’s white marble Hameau at Versailles), she complained about the recent exhibition tendency to make a fetish of the tech-wiz conservationist. Philadelphia’s played up its efforts to clean Eakins—a misnomer, since what they did in essence was to add a level of varnish that the old medical hospital canvas doctors stripped away to try and make the gloomy tones brighter, mucking up the balance in the process. They’ve clarified it strangely enough by making it more oblique. In a lot of the press notices, the conservators make a fascinating observation that their restoration process can easily be undone by future generations if viewing tastes should change—what they’ve got now is a painting that is more attuned to the way nineteenth-century viewers looked at canvases, though most nineteenth-century folks couldn’t stand to look at them. Could you do the same thing with literary translation—build in some sort of tacit statement that the new translations of Proust or Tolstoy or Kafka that you’re reading are only provisional, or for that matter, opt to retranslate them backward, into their earlier and less contemporary idioms? I’ve just read a passage in Tom McCarthy’s new novel C where Egyptologists are discussing a dig and talk about the fact that what they drag up aren’t pure artifacts but the record of earlier plunderers, Romans, Arab, even pharoaic. Where the latter-day architects make their historical mistake is in thinking that their own moment is somehow the definitive one. Instead, it’s just another chapter in a long book. I think McCarthy would approve of “The Gross Clinic’s” restoration relativism.”