2013-05-26 - Delphic Sybil Sistine Chapel Michelangelo

Evidence of the Eyes: An Interview with Alexander Eliot

Einav Zamir

In the landmark 1967/8 documentary, The  Secret  of  Michelangelo,  Every  Man’s  Dream, Alexander Eliot, painter and former art critic and editor for Time magazine states that “almost everything we saw on the barrel  vault  came  clearly  from  Michelangelo’s  own  inspired  hand.  There  are  passages  of  the  finest,  the   most  delicately  incisive  draughtsmanship  imaginable.”  The film, produced by Capital Cities Broadcasting Corporation, directed by Milton Fruchtman, written by Alexander Eliot and narrated by Christopher Plummer and Zoe Caldwell, provided a brief, one hour tour of the expansive Sistine ceiling. Through the use of close-ups, audiences were presented with details of the fresco never seen before, details that were impossible to grasp at great distance:

At the time, the film was both groundbreaking and immensely popular. Now however, it serves as a testimony to what has been stolen, through subsequent cleaning and restoration efforts, from the fresco’s  original  glory.  Barely  obtainable  (there’s just one copy at the Central Michigan University Library in Mount Pleasant), and no longer broadcast on national television, The Secret of Michelangelo has become quite secret indeed.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Alexander Eliot about the film, the chapel, and his fight against the cleaning, which began in 1981.

How are you connected to ArtWatch?

I’m all for ArtWatch. I was there at the beginning of it with Frank  Mason  and Jim Beck, and I think you’re really onto something very important.

What sort of evidence made you believe that the restoration was damaging the ceiling? How did you come to that conclusion?

It’s really the evidence of the eyes. Jane and I were up there on a tower that  was built for us to research and write a one hour documentary on the ceiling years before the cleaning. The tower could be moved to bring us within touching distance of each section, over a six-week period.

That must have been an incredible experience. What kind of condition would you say the fresco was in while you were examining it?

Fabulous condition. There were some craquelures – it had cracks here and there, which happens naturally over the course of centuries, but the painting itself was all there. It was extremely subtle, rich, fresh, and pure – it was Michelangelo, and absolutely unbelievable. Jane [Jane  Winslow  Eliot,  Alexander’s  wife] first realized and pointed it out to me that the surface had mostly been done a secco (in the dry) because Roman fresco plaster goes porcelain hard within hours. So Michelangelo spent almost two years embellishing his quickly sketched under-painting.

And after the restoration?

They used a cleaning agent developed to wash stone exteriors. It took away all the a secco. What you see now is the under-painting. The conservators  said  “No, he just painted in the Florentine style, and on top is just a lot of glue-varnish, unknown hands, and dirt, and we need to remove it.”

How did you react? Was there an initial impulse to object?

Frank Mason said “We’ve got to protest and stop the cleaning” to which I  responded “You can’t buck city hall, let alone the Vatican.” Then Frank said,  “Yes, but think of how awful you’ll feel if you don’t try,” and so he recruited  me. I then wrote a piece for Harvard Magazine on the subject, which Jim Beck told me helped persuade him to join us. At that point, the Vatican became noticeably upset.

Upset? In what way, and why?

Beck was such a prestigious figure, being a professor of Italian Renaissance art at Columbia University, so they hired a PR firm, a Madison Avenue outfit, to promote their ceiling scrub and make the three of us appear like childish, publicity seeking nut-cases. And they succeeded in that mission by inviting a number of VIPs – art critics, art historians, and museum directors – to come free of charge and take a look for themselves. They took them up on their comfortable scaffold with all their so-called “scientific equipment,” and even gave some a cloth to personally wipe off the accumulated “filth,” as they called it, from the painting. Instant experts were made that way, and simultaneously hooked.

So there was support from the academic community for the cleaning – who were some of its advocates?

Thomas Hoving was one; A previous director of the Metropolitan Museum and then editor of Connoisseur Magazine. Robert Hughes, Art Editor of Time Magazine, as I had been for fifteen years, was another. He wrote in his last book before he died that seeing Michelangelo’s cleaned work ‘the way he painted it’ from the restorers scaffold was the most vivid experiences of his whole 50 years as an art critic. It’s really too bad. The cleaning went on for years and years and they destroyed the thing.

And what about the film you produced? Is it still available to those who wish to view the ceiling as it was before the cleaning?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the rights to the film, so in that sense, it’s not  available. For years it was rebroadcast on holidays by ABC. It was a TV success at the time.

And now, after so much time, with the evidence supporting your position so abundant, are there influential people out there that still applaud the cleaning?

People don’t  like to admit that they were mistaken, but by now everybody in the art community knows that we, Jane and I, Jim Beck, Frank Mason, and Michael Daley, were right.

Do you think the  Vatican  should  restrict  tourism  in  order  to  preserve  what’s  left  of  the  fresco?

They would never restrict visitation – they make too much money from it. It was all about money to begin with. They wanted to make a big publicity stunt in the first place, make it more “accessible to the public,” and beef up  tourism. As long as they’re making money off of it, they’re never going to restrict  access.

What do you think can or should be done to prevent further degradation?

It doesn’t matter what I think or believe. They’ve lost the picture already.  The under-painting, the concept, is still there, but the painting is gone. It’s  been scrubbed away with chemicals. They can’t do anything significant to  save what’s left, either. Maybe they’ll apply some pseudo-scientific hocus-pocus, but they won’t reduce the influx of tourists.

At the conclusion of our conversation, while coming to grips with the grim reality of the circumstances, I asked Eliot if he believed the Vatican would ever admit its guilt in this crime against our cultural heritage, to which he responded with a memory. He spoke of a time when Fabrizio Mancinelli, Curator of Painting at the Vatican, spoke to him regarding the highly debated restoration:

“I respect your opinion Mr. Eliot, and I trust that you’ll respect mine.”

To which Alexander Eliot, the man who once stood mere feet below the magnificent fresco, responded:

“You and I don’t matter, but the Holy Father will go down in history as the  destroyer of the world’s greatest painting.”


For more on Alexander Eliot and his writings, please visit:

Eliot, Alexander. “Save Sistine From the ‘Restorers'” Los Angeles Times 20 Sept. 1987: 5.



2012-11-10 - Uriel Landeros Picasso Woman in Red Armchair vandalism

The Menil’s Picasso: A Victim of Vandalism or Adaptive Reuse?

Einav Zamir
2012-11-10 - Uriel Landeros Picasso Woman in Red Armchair vandalism

Left: Uriel Landeros vandalizing a Picasso painting, Right: Picasso’s work after Landeros’s alterations.

The recent “tagging” of Picasso’s Woman in a Red Armchair in Houston raises questions of ownership, as parties weigh in on the implications of vandalism.

This past June, 22-year old Uriel Landeros entered the Menil Collection with a can of spray paint and a stencil. As seen in a video taken by a witness, Landeros quickly defaces the painting, rips the stencil roughly from the surface, and exits through a side door. He is currently in hiding, and faces several felony charges that could result in up to 10 years of prison and a $10,000 fine.

Perhaps riding on the public outcry against the young Houston artist in recent months, the Cueto James Art Gallery chose to stage a show of a dozen original Landeros pieces – essentially treating the act of vandalism as a work of art in itself by rewarding the perpetrator. The sardonically titled exhibition, “Houston, We Have a Problem,” opened in late October to much fanfare and spectacle. It seems somewhat akin to Tate Modern’s proposed exhibition, “Art Under Attack,” set to begin in October of next year. This show will examine recent acts of vandalism – such as that carried out on Mark Rothko’s painting, Black on Maroon – as something of cultural curiosity rather than criminal behavior. Both shows have gained a fair amount of media coverage thus far, however James Perez, owner of the Cueto James Art Gallery, has denied that the showcase is meant to stir up publicity, stating “I’m already popular. This is for Uriel.”

Still, one wonders whether the attack on the Picasso was aimed at gaining attention for the artist’s cause, rather than for creating something of artistic value, as was certainly the case for Polish artist Vladimir Umanets, who vandalized the aforementioned Rothko painting in support of “Yellowism.” Further, Perez believes that the process of tagging another’s work is like “taking something and making it your own,” which begs the age-old question of who, if anyone, can actually own a work of art. Should an individual have the right to tamper with something that belongs to society as a whole? This question is complicated further by the fact that the painting itself is considered private, rather than public, property, forming the very basis for the charges held against him. Cultural value does not come into play, in this regard.

In either case, restoration efforts are expected to result in a “full recovery,” though the overall lack of concern for the painting and for the Menil Collection on the part of both Landeros and Perez is disconcerting, to say the least. In a video posted by Landeros on YouTube this past August, he claims that he never intended to “destroy Pablo’s painting or to insult the Menil,” yet goes on to say that the spray paint could simply be removed with “a little bit of Windex.” Likely, the restoration will be more complicated than that, and as Uriel Landeros continues to receive attention from the public, Picasso’s Woman in a Red Armchair slowly returns to its former state. If such acts of vandalism occur in the future, as they certainly will,  the question remains whether it is fair to hold our artistic heritage hostage for the sake of individual beliefs.

2004-09-07 Edvard Munch Vampire Munch Museum

Issues of Custodianship

Issues relating to the custodianship of art have recently emerged in the popular press. In addition to the ongoing debate about restoration and conservation, it has become increasingly apparent that museums and other guardians of cultural property must determine how best to protect those objects with which they have been entrusted. In the last few years, there have been numerous highly publicized cases not only of theft of prominent artistic treasures, but also of acts of vandalism.

The most obvious case in point is the recent theft of two paintings by Edvard Munch from the Munch Museum in Norway, in which two armed robbers tore The Scream and Madonna from the walls of the museum while the staff and visitors watched. The director of the City of Oslo’s art collections has noted — though this comes as no surprise — that the security of the museum was inadequate. Following the theft, it was noted that the surveillance equipment was outdated and that the camera at the entrance was disconnected, even though in January they received government funds to improve security conditions. All of this despite a “warning shot” that had been fired in February of 1994, when another version of the same painting was stolen from the National Art Museum in Oslo. There, even with better security — including functioning cameras and the police quickly responding to the alarm — the two men involved made off with the painting in under one minute. The systems in place to guard the masterpiece were questioned, since the work had been moved from the more secure first floor to a special ground-floor exhibition installed to coincide with the Olympics. The thieves even found the time to leave a note to the museum, “Thanks for the poor security.” The paintings was discovered, undamaged, around three months later. Of course, in the case of Munch, there was an earlier “warning shot” still: Paal Enger, who was jailed for the 1994 theft, had previously stolen another Munch painting, Vampire, from the Munch Museum in 1988. (Referring to himself as a gentleman, he denies any involvement in the recent crime).

2004-09-07 Munch Museum

Munch Museum in Norway

Such events are not at all uncommon, as exemplified by the recent thefts of works by other masters, such as Benvenuto Cellini’s Saltcellar stolen in May of 2003 from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Duke of Buccleuch’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder, attributed by some to Leonardo da Vinci, stolen from Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfriesshire, Scotland in August of the same year.

Unlike the Munch paintings, Cellini’s Saltcellar was stolen after hours, with the perpetrators scaling external scaffolding to reach a window, break it, then shatter the glass case in which the object was housed, despite motion and heat sensors. Alarms appeared to have gone off, but were reset by a guard without physically inspecting the room. A ransom request was sent to the insurance company for 5 million Euro.

While there are certainly better security systems available, the question has been raised as to whether or not implementing such measures would be prudent. It has been noted, in the case of the recent Munch theft, that automatic gates that would effectively lock down the museum if an alarm was tripped would be a safety hazard, possibly endangering the lives of museum-goers. Had the painting been more securely attached to the wall rather than by steel wires, the argument goes, it might have suffered even greater damage during the robbery. And arming guards is an equally harrowing prospect, given that a determined thief would resort to greater violence. In any case, “high-tech” systems have often been defeated with the simplest of implements, as in the case of the removal of two Van Gogh paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where the perpetrators thwarted the alarms and surveillance systems including cameras, motion detectors and round-the-clock guards using a ladder to climb onto a roof, a cloth to muffle the sound of the breaking window, and a rope to make their getaway.

The theft of works of art is not even the most insidious of the threats facing art objects. They are also frequently vandalized by people usually classified as “deranged,” both within museums and in public locations. There are many famous examples, with the most notorious perpetrator, Piero Cannata, attacking Michelangelo’s David in 1991 with a hammer, defacing Filippo Lippi’s Funeral of St. Stephen in Prato Cathedral in 1993 with an indelible black marker, and scribbling on a Jackson Pollock in 1999. Although he has been intermittently hospitalized, he has recently appeared in the press as a tour guide working in Florence as part of a day release program from a psychiatric institution. Michelangelo’s Pietá was likewise attacked in 1972 by Laszlo Toth, who subsequently spent two years in an asylum. Rembrandt has perhaps faired the worst, with a 1985 slashing and acid attack on Danae in the Hermitage by a Lithuanian national declared insane by the courts. In addition, a 41-year-old psychiatric patient sprayed Rembrandt’s Nightwatch in the Rijksmuseum with acid in 1990, marking the third incident in the history of a work that had previously been slashed in 1911 and 1975.

2004-09-07 Rembrandt Nightwatch Rijksmuseum AmsterdamHowever, in recent years there has been a tremendous amount of damage done to art objects that are even more difficult to protect, either from thieves, mentally-ill vandals, or just rowdy individuals. Public monuments, both architectural and sculptural, that are outside of the considerably safer museum environment, are more difficult to safeguard, even with the increasing presence of security cameras. Italy’s fountains are seemingly impossible to protect. In 1997, the Neptune fountain by Ammannati was vandalized twice, with the second incident resulting in the breaking off of one of the horses’ hooves. The city had recently installed eight remote control television cameras, though their view was obstructed by scaffolding. That same year, Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain in Rome’s Piazza Navona was damaged when three men climbed onto the statue and broke the tail of a sea-serpent. (One of the perpetrators vowed to sue the city over damage to his foot incurred during the incident).

More recent events have brought the issue again to the fore, with a string of attacks in both Rome and Venice in June and July of 2004. In Venice, a statue of St. Francis and another of St. Mark the Evangelist at the Redentore church on the Giudecca were broken, and a capital on the Doge’s Palace in Piazza San Marco was attacked with a hammer as well, shattering a carving of Moses with the Tablets of the Law into 17 pieces. In Rome, statues were damaged in the area around Piazza del Popolo, and Bernini’s Fontana delle Api was another target, with one of the bees being defaced.

But what to do? Responses are invariably similar. Giorgio Rossini, the superintendent of Venice’s environmental and architectural heritage responded to recent events saying, “We can’t cordon off the entire city.” Following the 1997 Bernini incident, the mayor of Rome expressed a certain amount of defeatism as well, remarking “we cannot militarize the city”. Nonetheless, just that has been suggested. While fines have been raised and alarms and security cameras are multiplying, others have demanded more drastic measures. Art historian Federico Zeri has called for round-the-clock guards posted at the most important monuments, even employing the army for such purposes, and civilian “anti-vandalism squads” have also been considered. But as with the cases of theft, the issue of balancing accessibility and security remains the main consideration. Attempting to truly ensure the safety of these objects — particularly those to which the public has enjoyed regular access — might upset that balance. Certainly, every technological device that might improve security should be employed, and yet, ultimately, no work is safe from determined vandals and thieves. We must make particularly hard choices to decide how much we are willing to lose in our attempt to safeguard the objects with which history has entrusted us.

At Risk: Buddhist Art in Afghanistan

Ancient statues of the Buddha in the war-torn country of Afghanistan are under threat.

Reports hit the international media on Saturday that prior threats by the Taliban authorities of Afghanistan to destroy all of the statues within that nation were being summarily carried out. Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban supreme leader, first initiated the order on February 26th, claiming that statues were tantamount to idols, and thus were against the tenants of Islam. The edict proclaimed, “Because God is one God and these statues are there to be worshipped, and that is wrong, they should be destroyed so that they are not worshiped now or in the future.”

In addition to some 6,000 works of art held in the Kabul museum, attention has focused primarily on two monumental statues of Buddha carved into a mountainside in Bamiyan. The statues, dating from the fifth century, are 120 feet and 175 feet, the latter believed to be the tallest statue of a standing Buddha. Reports were issued on March 3rd that the destruction of these two works was already underway, as explosives were used to demolish the heads and legs of the figures. While no images showing their present condition can be obtained due to an outlaw of photography by the ruling government, the Taliban’s Information Minister Quadratullah Jamal has stated, “Our soldiers were working hard to demolish their remaining parts. They will come down soon.”

This hardline stance has led to a wave of international reaction. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has begun an international petition and has founded a special bank account for the cultural heritage of Afghanistan, which will be used for emergent funding of actions to protect these cultural objects. While many Buddhist nations have been relatively quiet on the issue, claiming that criticizing the action would be against Buddha’s teachings, other nations have voiced their opinions. Iran, which is also ruled by an Islamic government, came out against the Taliban’s order, along with Pakistan, Russia, and Germany. And while United Nations’ Secretary General Kofi Annan also requested that the Afghan government spare these statues, the larger international community is diplomatically powerless to impact Taliban’s decisions. The authority of Taliban, which controls more than 90 percent of Afhanistan, is not recognized as legitimate by the UN, which instead upholds the ousted government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Sanctions against Taliban, issued because of their refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden, have increased the hardships suffered by the people of this war-torn nation. With the country entrenched in civil strife and facing a humanitarian crisis, many suspect that the timing of this edict may have as much to do with politics as religion.

The museum community has also spoken out against the destruction of these statues. The Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has been at the forefront of this movement, issuing a statement on March 1st that they would fund the rescue and preservation of transportable works of art. Officials from other institutions such as the Harvard University Art Museums and the J. Paul Getty Museum have expressed their support for this action, as have the Association of Art Museum Directors. ArtWatch International has similarly lauded the Metropolitan Museum’s efforts to salvage any remaining statues.