Episode 36: Behold The Monkey
[Saturday Night Live, 2012. Applause]
KATE McKINNON as CECILIA GIMÉNEZ: Buenas tardes, Seth! Everybody love my painting!
SETH MEYERS: Well, now, I will admit your painting has been a hit. Tourists from all over the world are coming to see it, making the church tens of thousands of dollars, but most people would say that you ruined it.
KATE McKINNON as CECILIA GIMÉNEZ: Why everybody so mad at me? Everybody’s so angry. They’re my church. It’s Jesus, he old. He fall apart, I fix!
SETH MEYERS: Okay, so I have to ask, did someone give you permission to try and fix this painting in the first place?
KATE McKINNON as CECILIA GIMÉNEZ: Of course, Seth! I have permission from Jesus!
SETH MEYERS: Wait, you got permission from Jesus?
KATE McKINNON as CECILIA GIMÉNEZ: Yes. Jesus, he came to me in a dream. And Jesus, he look at me with his enormous round monkey face…
SETH MEYERS: Alright, so you’re saying Jesus looks like your painting.
KATE McKINNON as CECILIA GIMÉNEZ: Yes. Oh, Seth. He was so beautiful. He had a beautiful hair. And it became a scarf. It was a scarf made of hair that wrap around his little brown expressionless face. And then he look at me with a dead black eye. I say, ‘Jesus, why you look like a shark?’ And Jesus say, ‘I think it look cool.’ I say, ‘okay. They’re going to say I’m a bad painter, but okay.’
VOICE 1: This creature looks like something from a nightmare. But a funny nightmare.
VOICE 2: It must be said, it’s not, like, unreminiscent of a howler monkey.
VOICE 3: It looks a little bit like the screaming guy in [Edvard Munch’s] The Scream, if that screaming guy was also a sock monkey
VOICE 4: [laughs] It totally looks like a sock monkey!
VOICE 5: A…portrait of a very warmly dressed matryoshka doll that is stuck to the bottom of an empty sardine can. [cracks up] …sorry.
VOICE 5: I knew beforehand that this was some kind of restoration gone wrong, but this is even worse than I thought. [laughs] I don’t know what else to say. It’s just awful.
VOICE 6: It is…awful. It’s just awful. Uh, so the crown of thorns has been replaced with what looks like this peach fuzz hair…
VOICE 7: I can’t quite tell if the hair on his head…ends? Or if it continues around to become a beard, or a scarf? It’s a little bit hard to tell.
VOICE 8: The hair seems to go around the entire face. It doesn’t seem to have a beginning or an end. Maybe that’s a religious reference, we don’t know.
VOICE 9: It’s just this amazing afro that just swooshes into an incredible neck beard. I mean, it’s like an Eskimo with a chin strap.
VOICE 6: …and it blends into a neck that is just as thick as the head.
VOICE 10: It’s like if Chewbacca was one of those lifeless American doll girls or something.
VOICE 7: It kind of looks like what you might see in a junior high or high school art class, that a high school student did their best to copy. [laughs] It looks a little warped.
VOICE 11: A face that kind of looks like what happened in the X Files after aliens tried to burn off their face.
VOICE 6: There’s an incompleteness to the mouth that feels like a horror film, like where someone is imagining their mouth sewn shut.
VOICE 11: If you’re just interpreting it as a figure and not as a, like, a destroyed picture of Christ, you would still think that this person’s in pain, that this person is suffering, or this person is looking to heaven for help. If you just walked by it in a museum you might think it was some kind of weird, semi-conceptual modern take on Christian art.
VOICE 6: It makes me feel really uncomfortable.
VOICE 10: It’s…most of my nightmares sort of come true, so thanks for that.
VOICE 2: I don’t – it doesn’t make me uncomfortable at all, I actually find it really charming.
VOICE 8: Whoever created this is honestly a hero of mine. I love this piece of art so much. The funniest jokes to myself, my family and friends, because of the SNL skit: ‘Jesus, you have eyes like a shark.’
VOICE 8: The fact that someone could look at the original drawing and then produce this and not see anything wrong I think is a triumph in itself.
VOICE 3: I guess, compared to the original image, I just have to say… nailed it.
VOICE 4: [laughs]
Every art historian has his or her own where-were-you-when-Kennedy-was-shot, where-were-you-when-the-towers-fell moment. That moment where you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when you got the news. To be honest, I wish my story was better – I was sitting in my cubicle, as I do pretty much every weekday morning for the last nine years, sipping my Starbucks and perusing my social media. And that was when I was first introduced to this atrocity.
It started out as a text from a friend from grad school. Have you seen this Ecce Homo restoration, it said. Oh my God. Google it immediately. I did, I snarfed my coffee, and immediately sent it to another former classmate. It was a joyous inside joke between art historians, and we don’t get too many of those, so we were excited about it. But as the day went on, it became clear that this wasn’t a joke that we had the exclusive rights to. In no time at all, the news spread across the internet like wildfire. And we were kind of sidelined. Nobody even cared that the Ecce Homo is a somewhat common motif in Christian art, or that the words, “ecce homo,” translate to “behold the man.” Not that many people know that these words were spoken by Pontius Pilate in the moment when he presents a bound Jesus Christ, wearing the crown of thorns, to a hostile crowd in the moments before his crucifixion. It’s a deeply powerful and disturbing moment in the narrative: the alienated savior depicted either alone or surrounded by his oppressors, suffering, abandoned, and appealing to our humanity. And how and where in the narrative the artist chooses to depict the sensitivity of the moment is no less significant than how and where the restorer, centuries later, chooses the moment to which a work of art should be restored. It’s an art, really, picking the how and when that will have the most impact for the audience. We art historians knew this, but we’re trained to know this, and we’re a pretty small population, relatively speaking. So you can imagine how unexpected it was to see these issues – aesthetics, divinity, restoration – thrust into the pop culture spotlight as a meme, as a punchline. You guys won’t believe how much some random lady fucked up this random painting. Google it immediately.
[Reuters news clip music]
REUTERS REPORTER: What once looked like this, now looks like this. It was a rare 19th century fresco known as Ecce Homo, painted by Spanish artist Elias Garcia Martinez, and depicting the image of Jesus Christ. An amateur art restorer in her eighties, Cecilia Giménez, decided it needed some work.
[Giménez in Spanish; English voiceover]
GIMÉNEZ We saw that everything was falling down and we fixed it!
INTERVIEWER: Did you do it secretly?
GIMÉNEZ No, of course not! Everyone who came into the church could see me as I was painting. I didn’t do anything secretly.
REUTERS REPORTER: The artist’s granddaughter, Theresa Garcia, donated the fresco, which was exhibited in a church in the Spanish city of Borja.
[Garcia in Spanish; English voiceover]
GARCIA: The problem started when she painted the head as well. Because she has destroyed this painting.
REUTERS REPORTER: The work had little financial value, but was treasured by the community. The town council plans to bring in experts to try to fix it, but said considering the painting was done in oils, direct onto a wall, they face a tough task.
Of course, it makes complete sense that this is how an art fiasco goes viral. The general public might not know squat about relatively esoteric Christian art motifs, but they’ve almost all been in an art museum at one time or another, where the most fundamental of principles is: you’re not supposed to touch the art. Often times, you’re not even supposed to take pictures of it. And maybe it’s not said as often as it should: you’re not supposed to attempt your own restoration of it. And here is a seemingly clear-cut, baffling, glorious example of someone who DGAF wholly transgressing that invisible line.
So what happened here? Well, let’s start at the beginning. To borrow the words of Jack Ross from A Few Good Men, the facts of the case are these, and they are undisputed: in 2012, a little-known piece of religious art depicting the Ecce Homo, gifted to the community by a minor 19th century Spanish artist and professor named Elias Garcia Martinez, had been living happily in obscurity on the wall of a Roman Catholic church in a town called Borja when it garnered international attention because an 80-year-old parishioner with zero artistic or art historical credentials named Cecilia Giménez took it upon herself to restore it. This restoration, was, in the eyes of the world, shall we say, untrained. Or, in the words of the press, “a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic,” “a Christ with shrimpy black eyes, a melting face, and a shrub-like toupee,” “an updated monkey Christ with a freakish new power all its own,” or, if you’re into that whole brevity thing, “Beast Jesus,” “Potato Jesus,” “Ecce Mono” (a Latin Spanish hybrid that translates as ‘behold the monkey’) and, according to the New York Times, quite simply, “the worst art restoration of all time.”
Now, in her defense, when Giménez was asked just what in the hell she was thinking, she had some pretty compelling arguments teed up: first, it was her favorite local representation of Jesus and it wasn’t being properly cared form, to the point where much of it was beginning to flake off the wall, so why did it matter who did it as long as it was getting the attention it deserved? No one else was going to do it. Secondly, as you heard in the news clip, she did it in broad daylight, and the priest knew what she was doing. And thirdly, her intentions were entirely in good faith, even when she realized that the image had in her words, “gotten out of hand.” She also maintains that her restoration is unfinished – what we see and mock is only the base that she was going to paint more accurate detail on top of, but she went out of town, this version was discovered, and the rest is internet history.
But whether or not you buy her defense, you have to admit that, with this fresco, Cecilia Giménez tapped into some pretty fundamental truths about art restoration, inadvertent iconoclasm, art’s inherent exclusivity, and the role of outsider art – that is, art by untrained artists. Outsider art occupies a curious little pocket of the art world because it’s so varied and idiosyncratic, and presents a particularly sticky wicket when it comes to religious art, which you would think should not only be created by those moved to create it, but should be as accessible as possible. These are a slate of deeply important issues in art history, and while we’re supposed to shame this whackadoo vandal for turning Christ’s crown of thorns into a furry hatscarf that bandages an old-timey toothache, I would also argue that we also owe her a debt of a gratitude as well. Yes, her restoration of this fresco is basically unsalvageable, especially when we compare it to the original, which is the bare minimum of what any trained art conservator needs to do. But she’s correct in her assessment that this painting wasn’t getting much attention by those trained conservators, and almost no attention from the greater public. I mean, come on: how many of you had even heard of Elias Garcia Martinez, or even the Spanish town of Borja, before this? I showed the image to an older friend who immediately clutched her pearls, appalled that a beautiful work of art could be so grotesquely botched. And while I totally get where she’s coming from, I also think it’s pretty rich to shed a tear for a painting she didn’t even know existed until I showed it to her two minutes earlier.
Because this lack of attention, both from us and from the art establishment, matters. It’s of course unrealistic to expect everyone to be familiar with every one of the world’s artworks, and it’s equally unrealistic to expect a one-to-one art historian-to-object ratio to make sure every artwork in the world is appropriately maintained. But even if there isn’t a trained professional around to protect it, the object itself can still carry an aura, a forcefield, swatting away your boorish, untrained hand. And if you’re a devout lover of that object, and you feel a sense of ownership, it can be a little off-putting to feel like an “expert” has put up an invisible velvet rope – even though they’ve already declared it an “obscure” fresco by a “minor” 19th c. artist that therefore isn’t worth their time. Is the alternative to let the object quietly die because no art historians care enough about it to keep it alive? Or are you allowed to make the determination that look, this object matters to me. It’s the property of my own little community, not some art history textbook, and moreover, it’s a sacred religious icon, more comforting and personal than the secular, academic art historical world could ever fully understand. Religious faith, and even artmaking in general, is an experience that can move anyone, not just the professionals. And it’s worth mentioning that both Martinez and Giménez talked about being spiritually compelled by this Ecce Homo image – Martinez writing that this original fresco “is the result of two hours of devotion to the Virgin of Mercy,” and Giménez calling the painting her favorite local representation of Jesus and wanting it salvaged for her devotional use. And while the discipline of art history is built on research and connoisseurship, and therefore necessarily prides itself on being the influencer that determines that Martinez is a good artist and Giménez is a bad one, it would be pretty arrogant to think that the urge that compels them both to create comes from two different places.
But I digress. The irony is, of course, that people now care a lot about the Ecce Homo – both this object in particular and the motif in general – more than they ever would have otherwise. And if we assume that all artworks, like all babies, are beautiful to at least someone, the question then becomes, what happens when an object finally gets the attention it deserves, but this attention isn’t necessarily for the “right reasons”? Is it okay for something as highbrow as fine art to be more infamous than famous? I mean, by all conventional metrics, this painting is hugely successful. In 2016 alone, annual tourists to the town increased from 6000 to 57,000, donating around 50,000 euro to the church. But of course, at least 90% of these visitors came ironically. The meme has become a sort of calling card, a way for slightly-more-intellectual-than-average Millennials to wordlessly nod to one another. It’s been one of my social media avatars for a while – I honestly can’t get enough of it. But it’s not like I’m experiencing elusive Stendhal Effect, that dizzying ecstasy that overwhelms people when they swoon in front of a great work of art – I just think it’s really ridiculously funny. I love that smooshy face. And is it any less legitimate as a piece of culture now that it’s gone from being a forgotten fresco to a popular meme, even if that wasn’t the original artist’s original intention?
Clearly, it depends who you ask. And not just because the intention of the artist already plays a slippery role in art making and art viewing – after all, no artist will be around to protect his or her work forever – but because people come to this story from many different perspectives. I probably have a pretty different view of this situation than Martinez would have, and certainly than his living descendants do. In fact, the ironic cherry atop this whole tragic sundae is the botched restoration came to light in the first place because those very descendants came to the fresco to finally do something about its disintegration and came upon this desecration. But as they say, too late, hot plate. In art and in life, the people who care the most tend to shape the narrative.
And I want to go back to this idea of the “right reasons” for an object’s fame. What if we’re talking about a universally-beloved piece of fine art? Take the Mona Lisa, for example. Did I wait in line for an hour in 90 degree heat to then get trampled and squished while still a full 20 feet away from her for the right reasons? Did any of the people who trampled and squished me? Or did we all just want to participate in a larger pop cultural moment? And besides, it’s ludicrous to think that those tasked with facilitating the experience, the proprietors of these objects, don’t benefit from their fame. We don’t like to think about art museums in this way, but they’re businesses too. The amount of money that the Louvre would lose if it somehow lost the Mona Lisa, even with the million plus other objects in its collection is incalculable. Likewise, the tiny European towns that house these objects in their obscure churches still have local economies that are inextricably tied to tourism. Communities depend on people coming to see their inherited cultural artifacts, for any reason. So if tourists come to see a meme, not an art historian-sanctioned piece of fine art, what difference does it really make? Time doesn’t stop just because art historians declare an object timeless.
So okay, to sum up: whether or not this object, in the grand scheme of things, has been ruined, is clearly up for debate. Art historians and conservators say yes, unquestionably, she painted over a fresco in oils directly onto the wall, for God’s sake, while pop culture says hell no, it’s only just been born, and slaps it on a tee-shirt. But even more interesting than coming down definitively on one side or another, I think, is understanding the value of seeing this restoration, for better or for worse, as simply the latest chapter in this artwork’s lifespan.
This idea – that objects even have lifespans, that they accumulate experiences that we are meant to see – is pretty controversial in the museum world, and one not at all limited to this fresco. As I’ve talked about before, we have a really hard time thinking about artworks as having a past. It’s kind of like the unspoken understanding you and your partner have about previous lovers – you just don’t want to think about what came before you. When you encounter a really, really old painting or sculpture, it’s unsettling to think about how long it’s been on the planet; it's just the way we’re wired when it comes to processing vast expanses of time. And this willful lack of awareness is only compounded by the fact that you’re invited to stand eye-to-eye with the art in a pristine, temperature-controlled museum gallery that blurs out any real sense of the object’s original context, that places thousands of years of aesthetic evolution only rooms apart. But let’s be real, of course these objects have a past. And, as we discussed at length in episode 19 when we looked at the sumptuous golden Song Dynasty Bodhisattva, it’s the job of a trained and thoughtful restorer to decide exactly when in that past an object should be restored to. Don’t forget that when the Bodhisattva arrived at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, it was painted white, the last act in over a thousand years of Chinese religious ritual. But the MFA curators and restorers determined it should be restored to its polychromatic glory as a means of better conveying its larger story, and maybe just to be more appealing to visitors. And I should reiterate: there’s really no judgment here, no right or wrong answer – it’s just a decision being made.
There are plenty of examples, though, that fly in the face of this kinds of determinations, that challenge the idea that any object could be plucked out of its own timeline and placed under glass. To this end, you might sometimes hear a curator talking about patina. Patina itself is that greenish, brownish film that forms on the burnished surfaces of precious metals, the result of a long period of oxidation. If you’ve ever polished up tarnished jewelry or flatware to its shine, it’s the patina that you’re getting rid of. But for the purposes of art history, think about the role patina can play, both physically and metaphorically. When an object exists over a long period of time, it’s going to witness some stuff. It’s going to accumulate gray hair and wrinkles. And for every conservator who considers his or her job to be right there with the hair dye and botox, preserving these objects in their prime, telling an accurate story of why this object mattered to its contemporary audiences at the time of its creation, there’s another arguing that maybe a more accurate story is that the lifespan of the object in its entirety, thus far, is itself worth celebrating.
One of my favorite examples of this sits outside the Cleveland Museum of Art. It’s an original casting of Rodin’s The Thinker from 1880-81, one of the most iconic sculptures in Western art. And it’s a big deal for the museum to have this sculpture – fewer than ten were originally cast under Rodin’s direct supervision – and it chose to celebrate the acquisition by honoring the tradition of placing this extremely valuable sculpture outside. It is, after all, a symbol of freedom and knowledge, and eternally free access to precious cultural artifacts is one of the CMA’s founding principles. And because it was outside, it was an open target for a radical political group, who, at 1am on March 24, 1970, possibly as a commentary against the Vietnam War, detonated a bomb on the pedestal. No one was hurt, but the lower legs of the statue, and the base, were destroyed, while the rest of the lower sections were blown out in a brilliant, billowing metal plume. And the CMA, as it recovered, realized it had a choice to make. It could replace the sculpture entirely with an unblemished, but inauthentic, reproduction. It could replace the blown off parts, which would be enormously tricky given the distortions from the blast, and equally inauthentic to the original. Or, it could leave it as it was, its feet blown off, its base atwirl, and, in words of the museum, “bearing vivid witness to a period of political unrest in the United States during the Vietnam War.” And this was what they chose to do. Equally a world apart from the intentions of the artist, but no less an extraordinarily valuable byproduct of the history it lived through.
And this lived history, and more specifically, this deliberate act of vandalism, brings us to one final point. I said before that one of the issues that Giménez tapped into was inadvertent iconoclasm. And people talk a lot about the Ecce Homo restoration as an act of iconoclasm – I mean, she ruined it, that’s the first thing that everyone says, and what is iconoclasm if not the willful destruction of a work of art? There’s a long and storied history of iconoclasm throughout the history of art, be it cutting off the nose of the Great Sphinx of Giza in the 1300s, or the 2001 Taliban bombing the Bamiyan buddahs in Afghanistan, or the time Rembrandt’s “The Nightwatch,” was attacked with a bread knife, or that other time it was attacked with acid, or even the entirety of the Nazi Degenerate Art Exhibition that we discussed in episode 9. People will say they have their political and personal and emotional reasons for attacking art, and they almost all boil down to the need to deface something that either makes them feel too much – a kind of perverse reaction to the Stendhal Effect – or because they know how much it will hurt the community who loves it. And what’s fascinating is that acts of iconoclasm have deeply ironic repercussions. They intend to diminish the object’s individual power, but by doing so, identify and activate the tremendous cultural power they’re trying to destroy. It’s true that if you ever want to really hit a city or a culture where it hurts, deface its art. But then, amazingly, watch how much it backfires, how that city bands together in solidarity over this devastating hit to their shared cultural pride. You rarely see a city sheepishly sweep the attack under the rug, or even run to replace the art like it never happened. Instead, it adopts the attack as a badge of honor. Think about the frames that once held half a billion dollars’ worth of canvas that now sit empty in the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston, and all the people who come to see them. Think about my Cleveland-born husband, then boyfriend, who took me to the CMA the first time I went to the city to meet his family, the first stop being his beloved Rodin sculpture.
And all of this proves the following three points to me:
First, when the invisible boundary between the art and the viewer is transgressed, when people do the unthinkable and touch the art, paint over the art, blow up the art, something extraordinary happens. Rather than an attack proving that this inert piece of canvas and pigment is fallible, it instead activates the object’s incredible power. It gets everyone’s attention, and specifically the attention of the people who really, really care about it. Second, let’s think about why people would care so much about this artwork in the first place. When you think about an object not just as a timeless piece of art but as a historical record, you get to participate in that history, you embrace it with your community, you become its custodian. It becomes something incredibly meaningful to you, and you are amazed at the lengths that you’d go to to protect it, like those moms who lift cars off their kids. So then thirdly, let’s reconsider the case of accused iconoclast and noted fresco-ruiner and meme-generator Cecilia Giménez. Maybe the actual inadvertant iconoclasm on display here wasn’t her taking an untrained paintbrush to a fresco, but that the fresco, which meant so much to her and to her community, was allowed to deteriorate so much in the first place. Maybe her good intentions really are the point here. She never meant to destroy this image. She meant to save it.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that if you’re a descendant of Martinez, or a scholar of 19th century Spanish painting, or resident of Borja and thousands of hipsters are streaming through your town to take selfies with your civic embarrassment, you don’t have the right to be pissed. But it’s not like Giménez didn’t pay. She talks about the anxiety attacks she’s suffered by having her named dragged into the spotlight, by knowing that her own life will probably end before the life of this meme does – and I’m not absolving myself for participating in its longevity – and that her good, devotional intentions will always, for better or for worse, amount to how much some random lady fucked up this random painting. But she seems like she’s doing okay these days, seven years later. The money and notoriety that this meme has pumped into her town has done an incredible amount of good. It’s raised money for professional restorers to do their jobs, and for a slate of other civic improvements throughout Borja. It’s even produced an award-winning wine. And Giménez has said in recent interviews that the internet love she gets now has done a lot to erase the internet hate. And as far as old Monkey Christ goes, she doesn’t regret it. The Guardian recently quoted her as saying that when she looks at the Ecce Homo now, she sees “a handsome face; a face that I love.”
So there you have it, art establishment. It’s kind of an all’s well that ends well.You know, that problematic Shakespeare play that no one can quite decide if it’s a comedy or a tragedy. Google it immediately.
Special thanks first and foremost to all my Patreon patrons who made this episode happen thanks to their generous support in the Second Annual Patreon Year-End Listener Challenge. Thanks as well to Tracie Potochnick, whom you’re hearing right now, the friends and family I forced to stare beast jesus in the face and tell me what they saw: Evan, Ellie, Mom, Wade, Matt, Bridget, Charles, Jamie, Mike, Zach, and Lucas. Not all heroes wear capes.
For more information and past episodes, go to theLonelyPalette.com, or you can follow us on Twitter @lonelypalette, or follow us on Instagram @thelonelypalette, or like us on facebook, and there’s nothing better in the world than leaving a rating and review on apple podcasts, except maybe supporting the show on Patreon, which, as you can tell by this episode alone, has its fringe benefits besides some already pretty cool mugs. Learn more at www.patreon.com/lonelypalette.
And speaking of which, today’s patron of the day is a good friend and stand-up dude who is always willing to put us up when we go to San Francisco, even if all we want to do is drive over the Golden Gate Bridge a million times like total tourists. Ryan Stever, thank you so much for your support.
The Lonely Palette is a proud founding member of Hub & Spoke, a collective of Boston-centric, idea-driven podcasts. And one of your top ten Simpsons episodes, like mine, is the one with the Monorail, then you’ll truly enjoy both episodes of Wade Roush’s Soonish that tell the tale of the steampunk utopia that could have been – the original episode from January 2017, and the follow-up from this past November. Listen to them both at soonishpodcast.org, and before you want out, remember: the world needs laughter.