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Rembrandt repair sparks debate

In the echoing, gilded galleries of the Hermitage Museum, Yevgeny Gerasimov is a reluctant star. A guide with a party of French tourists points him out and they stop to applaud. A woman selling souvenirs asks him to autograph a brochure. He signs, embarrassed.

Gerasimov, thin, intense and sunlight-starved, wanted to be invisible. He always hoped his 12 years of careful work restoring Rembrandt's masterpiece, the "Danae," after the most savage act of vandalism on a major painting in modern times, would leave as much of Rembrandt and as little of himself on the canvas as possible.But the return of the "Danae" to public view in October 1996 for the first time since it was drenched in sulfuric acid in 1985 has not just dragged Gerasimov into the limelight at home; it has revived a whispering campaign in the West against the controversial restoration practices of the Hermitage, Russia's showcase museum and repository of some of the world's greatest art treasures.

Particularly hurtful is criticism from the Professor Ernst van de Wetering of Amsterdam University's Rembrandt Research Project, who has seen the restored painting and whose approval the Hermitage believed it had won.

"The Hermitage's choice of action seems old-fashioned," he said. "I had a feeling that the Hermitage restorers were not aware of all the possibilities."

A British restoration expert, who asked not to be named, said: "A lot of people are honest but not skillful. And one is concerned, with the Russians, that they might not have the best training and the best equipment, because of finance. Let's say they did what they could in Leningrad, a 10-watt-bulb city."

To the untutored eye, the work of Gerasimov and two other Russian restorers looks like a miracle. After a mentally disturbed Lithuanian, Brunas Maigis, stabbed the canvas twice with a knife and hurled a jar of concentrated sulfuric acid on it on June 15, 1985, the surface of the 17th-century painting turned into a dark, stinking, bubbling mess.

"It was like a surrealistic dream," said Gerasimov, one of the first on the scene. "The head was wobbling and shimmering - so different from the warm, natural features we were used to seeing."

The "Danae" hanging in the Hermitage today has lost much of the richness and life seen in photographs of the original.

Yet it is a remarkable resurrection nonetheless. Gerasimov and his team resisted pressure from powerful state artists and Communist Party officials to repaint the damaged portions as if the attack had never happened, while rejecting the suggestion that the canvas be left as it was as a bitter monument to vandalism.

Instead, they chose a middle way - painting the damaged areas with single tones which, seen from a distance, would blend with the undamaged, Rembrandt-painted parts.

"What was damaged remains damaged and nobody has tried to repaint it," said Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage and son of the director at the time of the attack. "It's far from the masterpiece it was, but it's still a Rembrandt masterpiece."

Western criticism focuses on the Hermitage's reluctance even to consider using modern, synthetic materials or to invite foreign specialists to discuss techniques.

In particular, there is dismay at the museum's early response to the acid attack. Staff removed the painting from its frame, rushed it to the restoration studio and began mopping off the acid with damp cotton pads - apparently in line with best practice.

But an hour later, on the advice of a chemist, they placed the "Danae" vertically and began spraying it with water from their mouths. The acid was diluted and washed away, but in the process dribbled down and damaged a much greater area.

"To have rinsed it with water was wrong because that sends the acid further over the surface," said Denise Cook, a London art restorer. "You should lay the painting flat at once and use materials such as absorbent paper to mop up the acid."

Museum staff, including Piotrovsky and Gerasimov, still say water-rinsing is the right way to treat acid damage.

Throughout the restoration, the Hermitage insisted on using traditional materials rather than the synthetic substitutes now favored in the West. A mixture of sturgeon glue and honey was spread over the "Danae" in the hours after it was first rinsed, and oil paint was used for the toning.

In a recent interview, Dr Hubert von Sonnenburg, former head of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany, and now in charge of restoration at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, said of the restored "Danae": "That painting may not be what it once was, or how we remember it, but the spirit of the artist will still be there, and that is what matters."

Despite reports of his death last year, Brunas Maigis, now 70, is understood to be living in a nursing home in Lithuania. It's still not clear why he attacked the "Danae."

And now Maigis, whose eyes were once so inflamed by the sight of Rembrandt's full, rounded nude, coquettish and fearful as she awaits the god Zeus in the form of a shower of golden rain, is said to be almost blind.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service