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.