Today, I find myself thinking about a reasonably good William Petersen TV movie from the early 90's called Keep The Change. In it, Petersen's character (Joe Starling) finds himself returning to his small Western home town to run his late father's cattle ranch for a summer after being fired as a graphic artist in the Big City. When speaking about his career as a serious artist, Starling says that his best painting was something was something he never actually painted. Instead, he notes that it was actually a copy of some lonely hills he saw in a frame in an abandoned house out on the range. By the end of the movie, Starling goes to the house and tries to remove the painting he copied, only to discover that the hills he imagined were only cracks and discolorations in the fading, peeling wallpaper and that the frame hung on the wall empty.
I remembered that movie this morning because I happened to catch the Charleton Heston/Rex Harrison opus The Agony and The Ecstasy. I can't say that Charleton Heston is one my absolutely favorite actors, nor can I say that I say that the film presents the most historically accurate picture of Michelangelo Buonarroti (it dances around his homosexual - though celibate - tendencies completely). It still grabs me somehow though. I think the strongest point of the film is how it shows the physicality of making art, especially something as massive as the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo must have been in hell after spending four years on a scaffolding in order to paint all those frescoes.
Of course, seeing all the recreations of the creation of the ceiling in dark, drab colors simply reminds me of what I learned in high school about Michelangelo and painting in history class. I was told that Michelangelo was most content as a sculptor and resented the commission from Pope Julius II. To show his displeasure while still making a strong artistic statement, he darkened all the colors in the frescoes. This was, of course, in the mid-80's before restoration of the Sistine Chapel proved this theory to probably be completely wrong (just follow the link to see bright, vibrant actual colors).
I happened to look over a few articles discussing the controversy that swirls through the art history and art restoration movements. The arguments boil down to two basic visions of the Sistine Ceiling. Old school art critics and historians say that Michelangelo covered over his colors in plaster with a layer of varnish and/or paint to create the darker colors and additional dimension that 20th Century art critics so loved (a very novel and unusual step for fresco art for which there is no historical proof). Art restorers and preservationists say that this is the ceiling as it was originally meant to be and the earlier characteristics that the critics so loved were due to soot and dirt from candles and oil lamps, cleanings over the centuries with poorly chosen materials (bread and separately wine as well as varnish), and the occasional touch up by an artist currently in vogue to bring some dimension out of the dark images.
In reading about how some artists and critics are profoundly upset that something has been lost in this masterpiece, I can only think back to William Petersen's Joe Starling. Both Starling and the restoration critics may have seen dirt and age as art. In the case of the Joe Starling, the change was a positive one because he recognized that there might be something of a serious artist in him after all. The critics, the historians, and the conoisseurs on the other hand cannot help but be in love with their vision of Michelangelo and are distressed that the old fellow may not have been who they think he was.
As for my own views on the Sistine Ceiling, I like the new colors. I think one comment I read some years ago is one of the most persuasive: living in an age lit by daylight, candles, and oil lamps, why would an artistic genius paint a high ceiling in dark colors, rendering it only visible with the aid of bright lights and binoculars? He would not, and the correctness of the cleaned ceiling is evinced by how easily it can be seen from the Chapel floor. From what I have seen of close up photos of the frescoes, they are still tremendously fluid and vivid in color and form.
Indeed, as one critic I saw this morning noted, Michelangelo may been ahead of his time because his choices in color resonate more with the post-Impressionistic, post-Modern world of today than the dull tones we falsely associate with the past. Art afficionados who can't handle that may just have to take it on the chin and reaccess what they believe. That will be hard -- but they will be the first to tell you that great art often involves going to it as much as it comes to you. I think they just believe that they would never have to go anywhere to appreciate the Sistine Ceiling.
on 2004-05-14 at 3:25 p.m.
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