Writers on Art: James Beck

An American leading specialist in Italian Renaissance art, James Beck was a true connoisseur of his field.  He wrote numerous books and articles, with the focus on famous artists of that time period, devoting particular attention to Michelangelo.  It was during the 1980s that extensive restoration on the Sistine Chapel frescoes began; this initiated his vigorous critique of conservation of art. Beck argued that Michelangelo’s frescoes were dramatically over cleaned and left exposed to pollution.  In his 1994 book, Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal he rejected the belief of “restoration circles and many museums” that frescoes, pictures or sculptures could be brought back to their original condition.  He proposed that there be a “system of checks and balances” installed leading to the creation of ArtWatch International.

Beck’s ideas on restoration were influenced by Cesare Brandi, an Italian art historian and critic.  Brandi was one of the first art critics to diverge from the past.  Before Brandi the conservator’s goal was to destroy the races of time, to reconstruct/recreate a work of art, and to obtain the artwork’s “original condition.”   Brandi argues that a restoration should remove the cause of the deterioration and if that fails then the restoration is useless and ineffective.  Moreover, the reworking of the art should be minimal.  Paul Philippot, a Belgian art historian, administrator, and university teacher, influenced Beck in his belief that he entire history of a work of art should be considered.  Philippot takes the stance that a work of art is of historical significance and that all the changes to the work should not be erased.  Brandi agrees with Philippot that the changes of  an art work should not be erased, however Brandi believes that aesthetic alteration are acceptable as are the removal of “inappropriate” alternations.  Where Brandi tends to place more emphasis on aesthetic alteration, Beck sides with Philippot and believes the history of an artwork is more important.

The controversy that surrounded the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling erupted almost from the beginning and focuses on a single point: did Michelangelo modify and add to his frescoes after the application of the buon fresco layer with secco fresco, such as glue-based painting, or not?   His argument, which he discuss in  Art Restoration, reflect the direct influences of Brandi and Morelli,  Beck believes that Michelangelo did modify his fresco after the application of the buon fresco layer and thus the “restoration” done of the Sistine Chapel has falsified Michelangelo’s work.  When images were released to the public, Michelangelo was immediately praised for being a “brilliant colorist.”  If he had been then biographers and followers from previous centuries surely would have mentioned it.  In fact, as Beck states, Michelangelo was praised for the modeling of figures.  Beck insists that Michelangelo built up modeling in terms of light and shade by adding a layer of toning over paint on top of the buon fresco layer, thus reducing the color.   The restorers counterargued that Michelangelo would not have modified or darkened the vivid colors they exposed.

Additionally, Beck had an issue with the chemical used for cleaning the frescoes.  The solvent used to clan the frescoes was an experimental solvent.  Using an experimental solvent or technique is widely prohibited against when used on an important piece of art, such as the Sistine Chapel.  The new solvent, AB57, was previously used to dissolve the calcium build-up in marble, and recommended for the frescoes since the surface of fresco is chemically identical to that of marble.   Questions arose of what the long-term consequences of using AB57 would be and if it would have any damaging affects on the fresco.  Beck views this as “a serious departure from good restoration practice.”

Lastly, Beck, in deviation from Brandi, describes not only the problems of the restorations but the sources of the problem: the “restoration establishment.”  According to Beck the degree of training for restorers should emphasize the history and making of art, and have less reliance on scientific analysis (where the use of diagnostic tools, photographic testing and structures of colors are heavily relied upon.)   The restoration establishment is extensive, including all who are involved with the process of restoration.  Starting with those who sell art: the dealers, the galleries, art collectors, and the action houses to all those who sustain the market.  There are the companies who are involved with producing the products used for the restoration.  The large museums typically have conservation departments and also do restorations for smaller museums, public galleries and individuals.  The art publishing and bookselling industry document the restorations.  Lastly art scholars and critics strongly influence the public’s opinion of the artwork being restored or being considered for restoration.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Apollo and Daphne

The narrative of Apollo and Daphne comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid was a Roman poet who lived from the end of the 1st century BC to the beginning of the 1st century CE.  His epic poem Metamorphoses is derived from Greek mythology and accounts for bodies changing into new forms, such as Daphne who turns into a laurel tree.

A Summary of Apollo and Daphne:

The myth of Apollo and Daphne is an etiological myth, in that it explains how the laurel tree came to be.  According the Ovid’s Metamorphoses Apollo began to ridicule Cupid for his tiny arrows and boasted how his arrows were of no match to any of the arrows the other gods possessed including himself.  The angered Cupid took one of his arrows dipped in gold and shot Apollo with it causing him to fall madly in love with a nymph, Daphne, and with another arrow dipped in lead Cupid shot Daphne causing her to be impervious to any lover.  Apollo chases Daphne follows throughout the woodlands, until they reach the banks of her father’s river, the Peneus.  Daphne prays to her father to save her and as Apollo begins to rest his hand upon her body she begins to transform; her soft body into bark, her feet turn into roots, and her hair and fingertips sprout leaves, until she is finally she is a laurel tree.

The myth of Apollo and Daphne is an etiological myth, in that it explains how the laurel tree came to be.  When taking a class on Greek mythology I had a chance to read Ovid’s story on Apollo and Daphne.  Before that I had come across this story many times, not in the written form but in the visual form of Bernini’s sculpture Apollo and Daphne. 

In 1622, Bernini inspired by two texts, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Giambattista Marino’s reinterpretation of Apollo and Daphne in his 1620CE poem Dafne, began his sculpture of Apollo and Daphne.  The poem Dafne puts an emphasis on the flight and immobility of the nymph, which builds up to the moment of her transformation. This emphasis on flight and immobility as well as Daphne’s transformation is captured by Bernini.  The sculpture captures the moment of Daphne in mid-transformation as the result of Apollo’s touch. 

Another work of art, found in the fourteenth century French translation of Metamorphoses, Ovide moralité, is a loose translation.  Ovid has an enormous impact during this time period; however the material of the stories were not appropriate for a Christian audience, for they contained stories of rape and adultery.  By Christianizing these myths, such as that of Apollo and Daphne, the focus shifts from a semi-erotic story of love to a story between a virgin and her divine suitor.   The illustrations adapted to this in their representation of Daphne and Apollo, for they are no longer youthful or nude, but dressed and the ecstasy of Apollo’s erotic love and Daphne’s flight is lost.  The illustrations were Christianized in order to teach Christian morals through pagan symbols.




Joseph H. Hirshhorn (1899-1981)

A self made man, Joseph H. Hirshhorn, gained his wealth in the oil, gold and uranium industries.  With the money that he accumulated over the years, he used to purchase art.  When buying he focused on American paintings from about 1870 on and European and American sculpture from the middle of the nineteenth century on.  He had a particular interest in modern art; he felt it to be a liberating experience, which touched him deeply and produced aesthetic experiences that was previously unbeknownst to him from inquires into past art.   His career as an art collector spans a period of more than forty years, in which he acquired roughly 12,000 works, half of which he donated to the United States.  This donation of 6,502 pieces was given to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in the 1970s, built for the purpose of holding solely from his collection.  The museum is situated in the Mall of the United States Capital.  It is still enjoyed today by art enthusiasts, tourist and Washingtonians alike for not only its quantity but quality of sculptural works.