On 9th April, 1787, the 54-year old Johann Zoffany gifted his ‘Last Supper’, completed in a record 10 days, to the newly built St. Johns’ Church -the first church built by the British in Calcutta. It had been commissioned to serve as altar piece by invoking da Vinci’s eponymous painting. As was wont to Zoffany’s larger oeuvre, this painting too was replete with mischievous visual annotations, enough to ruffle quite a few feathers at that time. The resemblance of Jesus and some of the apostles, to contemporary figures-both British and native-earned the ire of a sizeable section and became one of the main causes for the vandalisation of the painting more than once. Particularly controversial, was the figure seated beside Jesus, bearing an uncanny likeness to a local prostitute, and opinion around it swinging between St. John and Mary Magdalene.
On 4th July, 2010, INTACH headed by Renate Kant and her devoted team of art-restorers, in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut, Calcutta, gifted the painting back to the city in its original frame -after a harrowing 6 months, fully recuperated from the ravages-both natural and man-made- of over two centuries. At the unveiling, Mrs. Kant spoke of how 60% of the restoration had consisted of de-restoration; to painstakingly undo previous restoration attempts that had been both incomplete and often half-hearted.
Allaying unrealistic expectations, Mrs. Kant made clear that the task of a restorer was not that of a “beautician” who could take an art work back to its exact original form; helping only in supporting its lifespan upto an indefinite future. This is perhaps why she rued the provisional lack of a UV acrylic guard that might have extended the longevity of the artwork. The rendition of Mozart and Haydn’s music by the Calcutta School of Music and the Kolkata Music Academy created just the right ambience for such a special day.
-- Paroma Maiti
(Images courtesy of rightful owners)