The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part II – CODA: The Remarkable Responses to Our Evidence of Injuries; and Thomas Hoving’s Rant of Denial
Before considering the third and concluding part of our examination of the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration, it might be helpful to note the responses made to the first two posts (“Setting the Scene, Packing Them In” and “How to Take a Michelangelo Sibyl Apart, from Top to Toes”). Without exception, these have comprised outright expressions of support and/or of indignation and distress at the fate of the frescoes. Such phases as “I had no idea”, “I was horrified to see” and “that things were so bad” abound. Serious and intelligent websites have reported our accounts in similar terms. As is discussed below, no one has challenged our evidence of injuries and everyone who has responded has been shocked and alarmed by it.
Bob Duggan on the Big Think site expressed this concern with precision: “When I learned that my very breath and perspiration could contribute to the slow destruction of the frescoes, I felt sad. However, when I read Art Watch UK’s accusation that the Vatican undertook a 20-year restoration project of the frescoes ‘in full knowledge that the stripped-down bare fresco surfaces would thereafter be attacked by atmospheric pollution unless given some other protective covering’ (which has not yet happened), I felt rage over the local mismanagement of a global cultural treasure…” Duggan added that he was “reminded of a similar, more recent restoration fiasco involving Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic. Years after the artist’s death, overzealous conservators stripped away darkening varnishes applied by Eakins to reveal the brighter colors beneath that were more in line with the Impressionism then en vogue.”
Ikono, an organisation dedicated to democratizing art through the production and broadcasting of short films that present art to the wider public sphere, reported that “ ‘The Vatican authorities are in conservation crisis today because they stripped the Sistine Chapel frescoes bare in the 1980s and 1990s. They did so against material and historical evidence that Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based a secco painting,’ writes Artwatch in an excellent two-part article on the Sistine Chapel Restorations…”
Our case was re-presented in the pithiest form imaginable on the Left Bank Blog: “OY! According to ArtWatchUK: ‘The Vatican authorities are in conservation crisis today because they stripped the Sistine Chapel frescoes bare in the 1980s and 1990s. They did so against material and historical evidence that Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based a secco painting. That original, autograph material was removed in full knowledge that the stripped-down bare fresco surfaces would thereafter be attacked by atmospheric pollution unless given some other protective covering. An attempt to coat the frescoes with synthetic resin (Paraloid B72) was abandoned leaving some surfaces clogged and the rest unprotected. The authorities then promised to install hi-tech paraphernalia that would somehow prevent the polluting atmosphere from making contact with the Chapel’s painted walls and ceiling. As was shown in our previous post, that cockamamie promise was not delivered. Today, in a chapel increasingly over-crowded with paying visitors, these stripped-down frescoes stand in greater peril than ever.’”
A number of questions arise. If the import of the evidence we have assembled over the past 23 years is so clear to so many, why does it have so little traction with the authorities who sanctioned the affronting restorations? Does the absence of any challenge to our evidence mean that everyone is now (privately if not openly) persuaded that – quite aside from the present and ongoing environmental assaults within the chapel – Michelangelo’s painting has indeed been gravely and irreversibly injured artistically, in terms both of its individual component parts and its general orchestration of effects? Or does it show that the authorities, in pursuit of their own interests, are now impervious to and politically insulated against any criticism?
When we first began making this case over two decades ago in the dark pre-digital era, the ink was scarcely ever dry on our criticisms before someone or other claimed that our comparative photographs were misleading; that old painted, drawn, or engraved copies of the ceiling were not to be trusted and had no force as testimony; that we were technically ignorant, or victims of “culture shock”, or agents of mischief – or worse. Could it really be, as it still sometimes seems, that no matter how grave and persuasive the evidence of injuries might be, there exists a wider disabling public resignation and conviction that nothing might today impede the lavishly funded, sponsorship-attracting, Conservation Juggernaut?
To be institutionally specific and somewhat blunt: could it be that the Vatican authorities today think it better to continue sheltering behind a fantastical fairy story of the transforming powers of Wicked Soot and Imperceptibly Darkening Varnishes, than to concede a professional misjudgement made by a small group of in-house experts over a third of a century ago?
Our colleague in France, the painter and the President of ARIPA (The Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique), Michel Favre-Felix, adds weight and urgency to these considerations with a two-fold reaction. In the first instance, he too was startled by our further evidence of “this incredible statement by the chemist: ‘Ammonium carbonate alone tends to tone down colours…sodium carbonate livens them up’”, and the little-noticed admission of the ferocity of the cleaning agent AB 57 by the chief restorer and co-director of the restoration, Gianluigi Colalucci: “Here’s a tiny patch where I left it on too long. In this little experimental patch you see completely solid violet paint, but around it you can see the gradations of dark and light, which are the shadings of Michelangelo’s own work”. As Favre-Felix notes, whenever a given chemical is known to have even the slightest effect on the original colours, it is rightly forbidden to use it.
His second and generous reaction was to offer further visual corroborations in the form of evidence produced for ARIPA’s journal Nuances of other damages made on the monumental figures of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The injuries to one of these, the Cumaean Sibyl, are of great strategic significance in our joint battles. That is, we have just shown in our two previous posts the gross damages inflicted on two of the greatest figures that came at the end of Michelangelo’s cycle when he was at the height of his conceptual, painterly and figurally inventive powers – his Libyan Sibyl and his Prophet Daniel (see Figs. 2 and 3). To that catalogue of injuries, the further evidence of this third case must surely now establish an indisputable and irresistible critical mass? Of the ceiling’s twelve alternating Prophets and Sibyls that constituted Michelangelo’s most heroic monumental and spiritually expressive achievement, we can now demonstrate how three in a row of these painted colossi suffered grievously. Statistically, a sample of a quarter might be considered sufficient to make a general case? We could, God willing, pursue the evidence further if necessary, but is it not now time sufficient for the Vatican to confront and address past heritage preservation errors and desist from what would otherwise constitute an effective falsification of scholarship and art history?
The Portuguese online newspaper Publico reported our criticisms of the Sistine Chapel’s restorations on the second of March. Professor Charles Hope, a former director of the Warburg Institute, was quoted in further criticism of the restoration. The present director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, conceded a pressing need for ameliorative environmental measures which he said would shortly be announced. Unfortunately, he nonetheless and bullishly defended the restoration itself as one which will last for centuries – even before any measures have been announced. (We understand that since those comments were made, the promised announcement has retreated from this April to “the end of the year”.)
If we might at least now be sure that the Vatican is aware of our criticisms and evidence, we recognise that for its part, the Vatican will also appreciate the potential material and political risks of abandoning defences of the restoration. Visitors to the chapel greatly swell attendances to the Vatican Museums. In 1976, about 1.3 million people visited the museums. By 2007 the number had reached nearly 4.3 million, netting some $65 million and providing the Vatican City with its most significant source of income. An admission of error would also embarrass the many major players within the international art world who proclaimed a Revolutionary Restoration in the 1980s. To what degree of embarrassment might be sensed in an ill-tempered and defensive outburst by (the late) Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in a filmed interview for a portrait of the late painter Frank Mason, an early critic of the restoration and a founding member of ArtWatch International.
Thomas Hoving and selected dialogue from an interview in the film A Light In The Dark:
00:53:02 – Thomas Hoving:
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about (Frank Mason). There’s a guy at Columbia, some professor who’s been screeching about this for years. (pause) Turns out that he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. (pause) Do you think Michelangelo was honestly going to deliver it to the Pope something that looked dirty?! (laughs) His marble was going to look gray, his marble was going to look blackened out?! You think that he really mixed his fresco to look like that?!”
01:07:01 – Alexander Eliot:
“I wouldn’t say that the Sistine ceiling had been destroyed myself. I wouldn’t use that word. I would say that it had been desecrated.”
01:07:24 – Thomas Hoving:
“I was part of the desecration personally, if this idiot is right. I am part of it so he ought to put my name on it. (pause) I was invited by the man who cleaned it, Paolucci – whoever, (pause) [Gianluigi Colalucci was the chief restorer and co-director of the restorations, which ran from 1980 to 1994. Antonio Paolucci became the Director of The Vatican Museums in December 2007. – Ed.] to come up in the rickety elevator (makes sound effect of elevator) all the way to the top, and he gave me a beautiful fresh sponge, dipped it in the solution and (he) said OK clean. And they were finally doing the Separation of Earth, (uh) Separation of Light and Darkness, the last one. They started with the Flood and worked backwards. I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Ya, try it.’ I went (reaches up) ‘shooo!’ (wiping motion) And this thin film of black just disappeared.
“It was just built up soot over hundreds of years from the stoves that they used to drag in there when the Cardinals all had to meet. That’s what they all did. They had little cubby holes, their servants had cubby holes, they had tents, they had bunks, full service catering, and stoves.
“And fresco is impervious to anything other than being blasted by (uh) laser beams you know (does sound effect) out of Star Wars. Not only did they not desecrate or ruin it, they didn’t do anything to it that wasn’t there. So the guy is full of shit (!) if he said that they damaged the Sistine ceiling in any way, they didn’t! I know it. I was there. I cleaned about eight inches of the Sistine ceiling – personally!”
01:10:11 – Thomas Hoving:
“It’s not a controversy, the guy is full of it (Alex Eliot) He’s never been there, he’s never seen it. Did he clean a part of it?”
Interviewer Sonny Quinn: – “He made a film…”
Thomas Hoving: “Big deal.”
SQ: “He was close enough so he…”
TH: “Close enough? It’s about 55 feet, give me a break!”
SQ: “…they built scaffolding for him and he was there for six weeks…”
TH: “During the cleaning?”
SQ: “No, before the cleaning…”
TH: “Ya, so?”
SQ: “Well, he wanted everybody to examine his film and…”
TH: “Ah the guy is just full of it…”
For the record (once again), in 1967 the art critic and writer Alexander Eliot and his wife Jane Winslow Eliot spent over 500 hours making a close-up documentary film of the ceiling, The Secret of Michelangelo, Every Man’s Dream. Eliot was up there on the scaffold, every bit as close to the ceiling as Hoving was to be – and for much longer. On 20 May 1985 Eliot had pleaded with the Vatican’s Secretary of State for him to view the Vatican’s own copy of the Eliots’ film and to “have it stopped at the images of the Ancestors [on the lunettes]. Compare what it proves was there against what’s left today”. That precious record of the unrestored ceiling awaits a re-showing. One can only wonder why the Vatican never pressed the testimony of that filmed footage of the pre-restoration ceiling in support of the later cleaning.
For footage of the cleaning itself in progress, see the Ikono site mentioned above which links to three short films. The narrations of all are unspeakably hagiographic and tendentious: critics of the restoration are said to have been “divided”, while the restorers displayed a “passion for their task that recalls that of Michelangelo himself”. The restoration’s outcome is said to “speak for itself” and to have answered “all but the most severe critic”. Most brazenly of all, an outing for that old canard: this restoration had provided “rich opportunities for study”.
We should perhaps resign ourselves to the possibilty that the Eliots’ film may never be aired again – but it will never be possible to expunge all the photographs of the unrestored frescoes that permit the kind of directly comparative visual analysis routinely conducted on this site. Such comparisons truly do “speak for themselves” because they permit like fairly to compare itself with like. For those with eyes to see, such photo-comparisons will forever tell the same heart-breaking story: a misconceived, technically aggressive restoration inflicted grievous injuries on Michelangelo’s art.
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“Pick Up A Pencil”
The theme of the new ArtWatch UK members’ Journal (see right) is “The Primacy of the Visual”. Failures to acknowledge, address, or even recognise visual evidence are examined. The text of Charles Hope’s 2011 James Beck Memorial Lecture is carried in full. Professor Hope cites failures of the National Gallery’s curators and restorers to address opponents’ arguments or to recognise the import of key historical documents on artistic practice. When Professor James Beck, the late founder of ArtWatch International, lent support to artist-critics of the Sistine Chapel restoration he came under vicious attacks from some scholarly peers – for all the world as if he had betrayed a priesthood of the visually ignorant. Prof Hope cites a letter of that kind. If artists do sometimes discomfort scholars, it is no presumption: knowing how art is made they are precisely the best qualified to detect its un-making. Here, the painter (and photographer) Gareth Hawker discusses both fundamental differences between painting and photography and the widespread failures to recognise these differences. His demonstration is timely. If (as we have argued elsewhere), art schools have given up the ghost with regard to teaching the traditional skills that formerly equipped artists to recognise restoration blunders, in the wider world of commercial film-making there are signs – notwithstanding giant leaps in the powers of digitalised image-making – of a renaissance in traditional art practices. We discussed this paradoxical relationship in connection with the extraordinary accomplishment of the hand-crafted animated film Frankenweenie. Another such heartening case is discussed opposite. [M. D.]
A Photograph is a Copy, not a Creation, Gareth Hawker writes:
“…we have realised that we should give more attention to photography”. So wrote the Director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, in his introduction to the current exhibition, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present . Several reviewers seem to agree. Tabish Khan wrote that, “…photography is a contemporary art form that can be just as inspiring and impressive as painting” . But photographs do not incorporate the high-level thinking that paintings do. It would be misleading to put them in the same category.
The difference between painting and photography is frequently glossed over. For example, many people suggest that the camera is a tool just like brushes and pencils. At first sight, this may appear to make sense. The photographer decides what to include in the picture, in the same way that a painter often does. He chooses where to place the camera; in which direction to point it; how far to zoom in on a subject; and when to press the shutter. He may select models, costumes, and arrange lighting. All these factors contribute to what is called the ‘scene’ – the image in the viewfinder. The ‘scene’ may be recorded by a photographer just as well as by a painter, so the argument goes: they just use different tools in order to complete the same task. However this is to ignore what the tools are used for. The camera is used to record the scene, while the brushes and pencils are used to analyse it. The importance of this analysis is often overlooked.
Photographers who have wanted to claim equal status with painters have made various approaches, all ignoring this analytical element. At first they blurred and smudged photographs in order to make them look like paintings. Then photographers claimed that theirs was a totally separate art form, a pure record of the scene. Some argued against this, saying that if a photograph were pure, it could not be artistic. Before this issue could be resolved, some writers swept it aside. They suggested that what mattered was, “conceiving an image in the brain and finding some way of expressing it” . What counted was the viewer’s response – whether a work, “spoke” to the viewer . This disregarded a significant factor: people do not respond to paintings in the same way as they do to photographs, especially if they can see that a painting provides evidence of thinking, in a way that a photograph does not.
Paintings look different from photographs because they are made differently. A painting is constructed from brushstrokes; each stroke the result of a decision. A painting may represent a scene, or it may represent nothing at all. A painting is an independent creation, whereas a photograph is dependant on the scene. A photograph can be made only if there is a scene to be copied.
A representational painting may be compared to the summary at the beginning of a scientific paper – the paragraph which is entitled, “Abstract”. Its writer makes a personal judgment about which are the most important topics dealt with in the paper, and writes a brief account of his own. The “Abstract” is a new and independent piece of writing, just as a representational painting is a new and independent analysis of the scene. In contrast, a photograph is like a photocopy of the whole scientific paper. The photocopy shows no analysis, and no judgment.
Brushstrokes are only the most basic way in which a painter’s analysis or abstraction may be seen. Another is in the simplification of the human figure – in its reconstruction in terms of geometrical solids, such as eggs and cylinders. Even a simple tracing – the lowest form of analysis – shows which lines the painter has considered to be more important than others.
To give a computing analogy: a photograph is like a bitmap image (which records only pixels – spots of colour), but a painting is like a vector image (which records instructions about where lines are to go). A tracing programme can convert a bitmap file into a vector file. The computer makes a simplification which looks similar to a paint-by-numbers drawing. This computer drawing may be thought of as the beginning of an attempt to imitate human analysis – a type of artificial intelligence – though the computer has a long way to go before it catches up with the human brain in this respect (Fig. 1). If anything may be thought of as being a tool comparable with brushes and pencils, it is a tracing programme (which helps to analyse), not a camera (which does not).
To express the difference in another way:
Scene = Photograph
(Scene = Photograph) × Analysis = Painting
Analysis is an essential part of what makes a representational painting interesting to look at; whereas what makes a photograph interesting to look at is the scene, not its treatment.
Analysis demands abstract thinking – whether it is done well or done badly. What distinguishes the great painter from the mediocrity is the quality of this thinking, not any manual skill. Anyone who can sign his name, already has enough manual skill to make a great drawing. (This includes drawing in its wider sense: deciding where to place marks made by the pencil or the brush, even when no outlines may be involved).
The modern digital camera provides the most effective means for recording the scene that has ever been devised. Strangely, many photographers want to use it for a different purpose, to express an interpretation – a purpose for which it is singularly unsuited. Some photographers deliberately introduce all sorts of inaccuracies which mean that the result is neither a pure substitute for the scene, nor an independent creation.
The classical case for photography’s status as an equal to painting was put forward by the man who was perhaps, “the most important figure in the history of the visual arts in America” – Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) . In his usage, the word ‘artist’ meant someone who, “got the spirit of the truth” . He held that only 0.1% of painters were artists, and only 0.1% of photographers were artists. But not everyone takes such an exalted view. For example, a tax inspector wants to know whether a painter is a house-painter or an artist, not whether he has, “got the spirit of the truth”. So when a painter says that he is an artist, he is simply describing his activity. He is not claiming to be either good or bad at his job: that is for others to decide. But when a photographer says that he is an artist he is claiming to be in the top 0.1% of his profession: he is pushing others to accept the valuation he has placed on his own work.
By using the word ‘artist’ in this way, Stieglitz moved attention away from a vital distinction; that between creating something new (a painting) and making a copy (a photograph). He persuaded many viewers to ignore analysis, and to concentrate on the selection and arrangement of a scene – on pointing and shooting.
Stieglitz’s advocacy, along with that of other theorists, seems to have desensitised many viewers. They see only the subject which has been represented. They fail to notice that a painting exhibits the working of a mind – not just in the choice of subject, but in every single stroke. One consequence of this desensitisation became apparent when the Sistine ceiling was treated by restorers, and much of the best painting ever produced was wiped off. The picture of a man looks like a man, whether it is drawn well or drawn badly. Most historians were satisfied with what remained after the paint-stripping because they could still identify the subjects which had been depicted. Very few noticed how drastically the quality of the drawing had been reduced.
Many people were better informed about these issues in the days when Michelangelo painted his great work. Contemporaries who saw it for the for the first time commented at least as much on the power of its drawing, as on its subject matter . The way in which influential men looked at nudes in those days may be compared with the way in which they look at motor cars now: with an appreciation of the beauty of engineering and construction – an appreciation which derives in part from an understanding of how all the parts connect together.
The paint-stripping made nonsense of some of the connections in Michelangelo’s nudes. His contemporaries would have been appalled, but most of today’s historians and television presenters do not even notice. They focus on the imagery and the iconography, not on the drawing. It is as if they were waiting for the work to ‘speak’ to them – for the artistic content to make itself felt. But, being sensitive only to subject-matter, that is all that they are able to see. Such narrowly prepared minds will respond only to the crudest visual stimulus (the colours looking brighter after the top layer of paint has been removed, for example).
Just as the critical response to painting has become limited, so the meaning of the word Art has expanded – to such a degree that almost anything seems to be embraced by it, including photography. However painting remains distinct: it is a creation which is independent, and which can embody the kind of analysis described above. This is why painting may be categorised with the higher expressions of the human mind, along with poetry and philosophy. Photography does not fit into this category because it cannot display abstract thinking.
But painting is now so little appreciated that, to many people, it seems comparable with photography. This has allowed photography to be called Art, and so to enter the National Gallery. Arguably this is the same lack of discrimination that has allowed paint-stripping to take place, not only on the Sistine ceiling, but on almost all the great works of painting in the Western World, including those in the National Gallery.
“Giving more attention to photography”, seems to be one more example of this downward trend, but perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. When a great artist’s paint has been removed from a picture, the decline in its artistic quality is irreversible; but a decline in critical awareness is different: it can be reversed. At present, many people are only distantly aware that, in every brushstroke, a representational painting gives evidence of analytical thinking. Perhaps the exhibition at the National Gallery will help to promote this awareness. If so, it will have served a very useful purpose.
1 The National Gallery, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, Yale University Press (9 Oct 2012), ISBN-10: 1857095456, ISBN-13: 978-1857095456
The exhibition runs from 31 October 2012 to 20 January 2013
2 londonist. Art-review-seduced-by-art-photography-national-gallery. Retrieved 8 November 2012
3 Gerry Badger. Collecting Photography. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003. ISBN 1-84000-726-5 p23
4 Gerry Badger. Collecting Photography. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003. ISBN 1-84000-726-5 p24
5 Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography, Aperture, 2000, p ix
6 Alfred Stieglitz, Is Photography a Failure?, The Sun, New York, March 14, 1922 – reprinted in, Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography, Aperture, 2000, p 229
7 http://artwatchuk.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/12th-november-2012/ Retrieved 12 November 2012
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Coming to Life: Frankenweenie – A Black and White Michelangelo for Our Times
As an organisation with an essentially critical raison d’etre we get few opportunities to celebrate bona fide creative achievements. This post, in part, is an exception. Longer than usual, it is a tale of two separate but cross-linking events. One is the case of a dog that has not barked, the other is a story of a dog that has been brought back from the dead. To a surprising degree, the latter throws light on the former, which case we consider first.
The 500th anniversary of the completion in 1512 of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings has gone almost entirely un-celebrated. On October 31st, in a small “in-house” service marking the 500th anniversary of Pope Julius II’s service celebrating the completion of the ceiling, Pope Benedict XVI asked a group of cardinals, Vatican employees and guests to imagine what it must have been like 500 years ago, adding that contemplating the frescoes renders them “more beautiful still, more authentic. They reveal all of their beauty. It is as if during the liturgy, all of this symphony of figures come to life, certainly in a spiritual sense, but inseparably also aesthetically.”
Apologists for the transforming 1980-90 restoration of the ceiling are nonplussed by the missed opportunity for a mega-beano half-millennium art celebration. In truth, it is not hard to see why this opportunity should have been foregone by the Vatican. Just two decades after completion of the most intensely controversial restoration of modern times, the state-of-the-art air-conditioning system installed to protect the chemically stripped-down plaster ceiling is failing to cope with the “unimaginable amounts of dirt” and massive atmospheric fluctuations caused by the Sistine Chapel’s throngs of paying visitors whose disrespectful raucous behaviour is a source of shame and censure within Italy. On November 1st it was reported that the Vatican has “no plans to try to limit tourists”. There is not a lot to celebrate here.
This latest failure of an “ultimate restoration” to anticipate and meet future conservation needs carries an implicit call for further urgent conservation but, with it, an indication of art restoration’s specious philosophy and too-frequently destructive consequences. When Art begets art there is pure gain, a life-giving gift. The old art remains to exert its own powers; the new brings fresh experiences and perspectives; running in tandem, each enriches the other as traditions are extended and invigorated (see Figs. 29 and 30). Restoration begetting restoration is another matter altogether.
Art restoration is not a bona fide life-conferring process. Because Art is self-renewing and self-extending, it does not follow that its historically rooted artefacts may be renewed endlessly, routinely, by technicians. To the contrary, in order to read Art’s trajectories it is imperative that its works remain unadulterated. Restorers, with their ever-more ambitious and presumptuous attempts to undo and redo earlier restorations and to reverse all evidence of age, leave old works of art as increasingly spurious impostors. It cannot be otherwise. This is not a question of finding the right “Professional Ethics”. Restorers cannot act outside of their own heads and times, which is why the most authentic old works of art remain those that are least restored. Nor can restorers submit to criticism and evaluation, as all bona fide creators must do. Their professional mystique must be preserved at all times. It rests on impenetrable screeds of pseudo-science and systems of technical “analysis” that preclude evaluation of the optical consequences of interventions on works of visual art.
In this depressing art cultural milieu it was startling and refreshing to encounter the recent stunningly brilliant black and white photographic stills promoting Tim Burton’s new animated film Frankenweenie (Figs. 1, 3, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 23 and 27). The wit and force of these images rewards examination. The technical key to what might otherwise seem an improbable (if not blasphemous) artistic connection between the unique theologically-charged high art enterprise of Michelanglo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and an animated horror film for children in which one reviewer detected an anti-creationism polemic, can be found in the film’s eschewing of colour, and in Michelangelo’s superimposition of black painting over his own frescoes.
A more general connection is that, for all the marketing hullabaloo of expensively made films, Frankenweenie proves to have been a remarkably art-driven and shaped enterprise (see Figs. 10 to 14). That the full-blown cinematic realisation of this film’s essentially personal and idiosyncratic vision required the specialised contributions of an enormous range of talents and expertises, links it organisationally to the ambitious artistic productions of the great Renaissance art studios.
In part, the power of Burton’s images stems from the simple optical fact that the contrast between a pure solid black and a clean white is the most potent tool in the visual box. But even more, it stems from the fact that between those graphic poles an effectively infinite but individually discernible continuum of values (tints and tones) can be run. An examination of the highly disciplined, imaginatively constructive deployment of such tone/values in Frankenweenie helps pinpoint the nature and the scale of the artistic losses suffered through the “restoration” of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings (see Figs. 2, 8, 9, 19, 20, 21, 22, 31, 32, and 33).
Burton’s vivid black and white photographic imagery truly participates in one of modern Western art’s most distinguishing traits. From Alberti to Ruskin, artists have appreciated and explained how tonal gradations can magically conjure three-dimensional structures (form) on flat pictorial surfaces. Until the 1960s every art student learnt to manipulate tonal values in this fashion. Tragically, such conventions have been discarded in (most) fine art education and in much of today’s fine art practice. Fortunately, Cinema and Photography generally have sought (however awkwardly) to absorb those ancient empowering lessons, and in Burton’s hands they find singularly powerful expression.
To take Michelangelo first: he did not want the job of painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He wished to work on a massive carved marble tomb of sculpted figures. When compelled by the Pope (Julius II) to paint the ceiling as a novice frescoist, he attempted to get out of the job as soon as he encountered technical difficulties. He was made to continue after being instructed on avoiding future errors (by mixing plaster properly) and concealing existing ones (by applying transparent washes of glue/size). The onerous duty turned into a labour of love and on completion of his hurried, direct painting into the wet plaster of the ceiling, Michelangelo continued working on the dried fresco surface with dark pigments bound with glue or size – to the fury of an impatient Julius II. With those additional (or “auxilliary”) paints he added details and generally strengthened and revised his designs so as to make his pictorial effects more dramatically and unprecedentedly sculptural.
Between 1980 and 1990 the frescoes were transformed in a filmed restoration sponsored by NTV, the Nippon Television Corporation. The restorers contended that the paint applied on the dried frescoes’ surface was not Michelangelo’s and they removed it to artistically adverse and violently controversial effect (for a full account of which, see “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, by James Beck and Michael Daley, chapters III and IV). With the work left less sculptural and more stridently coloured, the restorers pronounced the “discovery” of a New and True Michelanglo – an artist who, contrary to all previous understanding, was a brilliant colourist who had abandoned “traditional chiaroscuro modelling” in favour of vibrating “electic contrasts of hue and much irridescence”. This post hoc rationale defied both historical testimony and technical evidence.
It is a matter of record both that Michelangelo made sculptural models of the ceiling figures to study the shadows that their forms would cast (see Fig. 9), and that the shadows he had painted onto the dry ceiling were copied countless times from within his own lifetime until the time of the last restoration (see Figs. 19 to 22). When Michelangelo was compelled to stop painting, the world was astonished by his sculptural – not chromatic – effects. He had revolutionised mural painting by imposing upon the chapel’s curved ceiling the (inverted and paraphrased) monumental architectural tomb peopled by carved figures that he would have preferred to be executing. The restorers, having injured the material realisation of Michelangelo’s revolutionary pictorial conception, demanded a re-writing of art history. That so many scholars were intitially compliant might testify to a profession that writes more than it looks and that uses images as illustrations to theories or texts, rather than as records of the most primary of all sources – the works of art themselves.
Thus, the restorers and their art historical supporters jointly insisted, against hard evidence, that what had been taken for centuries to be carefully studied sculptural effects were deceiving byproducts of “candle smoke and still more of glues” applied by previous restorers. Their suggestion that such phenomena were responsible for “the kind of suggestive painting by shadows for which Michelangelo was admired until a few years ago” was patently absurd: how could gradual arbitrary accumulations have arranged themselves along Michelangelo’s designs so as to enhance his sculptural effects? Conversely, if those effects really had been products of gradual accidental accretions over the centuries, what might have deceived Michelangelo’s own contemporaries, biographers and copyists into believing that they already existed?
Consider further the very weight of the historical evidence. One of Michelangelo’s biographers, Giorgio Vasari, marvelled at his ability to conjure seemingly palpable bodies that had somehow wrested themselves from the surfaces on which they had been painted, into the (seemingly) real space of the artist’s invention:
“Then who is not filled with admiration and amazement at the awesome sight of Jonah…The vaulting [of the ceiling] naturally springs forward, following the curve of the masonry; but through the force of art it is apparently straightened out by the figure of Jonah, which bends in the opposite direction; and thus vanquished by the art of design with its lights and shades, the ceiling even appears to recede.”
Vasari’s testimony on Michelangelo’s deployment of “lights and shades” to sculptural effect was echoed in the short biography written by Ascanio Condivi, a student and assistant through whom Michelangelo is believed to have spoken by proxy. For Condivi, too, the figure of Jonah was:
“…most admirable of all…because contrary to the curve of the vault and owing to the play of light and shadow, the torso which is foreshortened backward is in the part nearest the eye, and the legs which project forward are in the part which is farthest.”
As a single instance of evidence, consider the copy of Jonah shown at Fig. 22. This ink and wash record was made by Giulio Clovio who was known as “the Michelangelo of small works” and recognised by Vasari as a most “excellent illuminator or painter of small things…who has far surpassed all others in this exercise”. His copy happens also to record a group of figures below Jonah. These figures had been painted by Michelangelo beteween 1508 and 1512 but were destroyed by him in 1535 when he prepared the altar wall to receive his single massive Last Judgement mural. Thus, we can see through Clovio’s copy of those long lost passages of Michelangelo painting that strong and cast shadows were decisively present when the painting was brand new. A nude youth then held the tablet bearing Jonah’s name. That figure and the tablet both cast shadows onto the very wall on which they were painted. Michelanglo had thus employed a trompe l’oeil pictorial device to deceive the eye into believing that the figure stood in front of the surface to which it adheres. On this testimony alone claims that Michelangelo’s “suggestive painting by shadows” was a product of “candle smoke and still more of glues” should never have been uttered.
Where the Vatican’s restorers cavalierly discarded Michelangelo’s shadows, in Frankenweenie, Tim Burton has laboured lovingly to produce his shadows. It is remarkable to how great an extent photography and film-making today have been informed and nourished by fine art conventions and the lessons of painting (see Fig. 16). On the influence of painting on the great cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, for example, see the tribute paid to him by Martin Scorcese in Fig. 15. On the early cinematic influences on Burton, see Figs. 4 and 5. It is also remarkable to how great an extent film-making has taken possession of the traditional humanly engaging story-telling and symbolic functions of art that contemporary museum and gallery “fine artists” have abandoned. With animated films, where the characters and their settings are drawn or modelled, distinctions between artistic and photographic media lose almost all force.
Burton’s own film – a remake of his earlier (1984) half-hour, live-action film of a boy who resurrects his pet dog after a fatal accident – was made on an acknowledged artistic impulse: “I’d look at the drawings I did originally, and there was a simplicity to them I wanted to get” (see Fig. 11). Where Michelangelo had completed his vast cycle of painting with hundreds of figures – and probably thousands of preparatory studies – in just four years, thirty modellers (led by puppet makers Ian Mackinnon and Pete Saunders and the animation director, Trey Thomas) each spent over a year working on Burton’s 86 minutes long film. Technically speaking, the film is a 3D black and white stop-motion animation. That is, models of characters are placed in model sets to be moved in tiny increments each of which is separately recorded in a process that is notoriously slow and laborious – a skilled animator might produce five seconds of footage in a week. Burton, a former Disney animator, opted for this method in preference to digital animation for a variety of reasons but, perhaps, primarily because “There’s an amazing amount of artistry in it”, as he told Mark Salisbury in the Daily Telegraph.
This is certainly the case. In the first instance the models for every character and prop are made by hand (see Fig. 10). Then they are then painted. Then they are arranged on sets. Then they are then lit. Finally they are animated and photographed. The models themselves exert great appeal to Burton who loves their handcrafted tactile feel. He loves the challenge of embedding characters in inanimate objects and then “bringing them to life” through motion and changing expressions and relationships. The tactility of the models is deliberately enhanced by showing the film in 3D: “…it’s the closest thing to walking on the set of stop-motion animated film, seeing what the artists have done, feeling those textures and feeling the dimensional quality you get when you are there.” (A delicious glimpse of the artistry evident in the sets by Rick Heinrichs can be found in the online animation magazine Skwigly.)
Capturing individual characters in the models was preceded by immense thought and study. For “Sparky”, Burton required the animators to visit dog shows, and to study and film dogs in the studio. This is very much in the Disney tradition: in Katherine and Richard Greene’s 1991 “The Man Behind the Magic”, a photograph shows no fewer than eighteen draughtsmen and an instructor, surrounding and drawing a live deer from every angle as preparation for the film Bambi. Disney is quoted as holding that “We cannot do fantastic things…unless we first know the real”. (Modern art schools notwithstanding, the Renaissance and its studio practices are not yet extinct.)
The beauty of Burton’s enterprise is that everything in it is given a value and every value serves an express purpose in terms of physical structure, characterisation, emotional force, and/or narrative development. When made, the models were painted in monochrome, in shades of black, white and grey (apart from grass, flowers, drapes and certain other items) because, for Burton “The black and white is very much part of the story, the character and the emotion of it. There’s something very pleasing about it, seeing this kind of animation this way, a certain depth, and the way things go in and out of shadows…” On which, let us further consider Michelangelo’s “suggestive painting by shadows”.
In Fig. 18 we see an apparently brilliant (but in truth deceivingly) “cinematic” photographic exploitation of cast shadows. In Fig. 19 we see (on the left) that before restoration Jonah’s left foot cast a strong shadow across the floor, which shadow merged with another dark shadow under the seat. The shadow under the seat “drew” a sharp, tonally contrasting vertical boundary between the lighter front-facing plane of the upright block that supports the seat and the receding (shaded) side face of that block. To the right of that block (and Jonah’s left leg) another, albeit less strong, shadowed zone threw the block’s right-hand edge into relief. After the restorers removed what they took to be dirt and disfigurement, the shadow cast by the foot disappeared (as seen on the right) – as also did much of the shadow under the bench, thereby exposing the previously hidden side of the upright block. The shadow to the right of the block was also weakened.
Mere dirt settling on a painting would weaken and blur outlines and edges. It would lighten dark sufaces and darken light ones, thereby compressing the range of values present. It is technically inconceivable that it might sharpen edges by intensifying contrasts. There is no dirt (or discoloured varnish) that is simultaneously capable of lightening already light surfaces while darkening dark ones. Had the shadows really been applied, as is claimed, by later restorers, the paint would have run into cracks in the plaster ceiling. And yet we know that it had not. We know that it had in fact cracked as the plaster had cracked. The paint was therefore applied when the plaster was smooth and new – because we also know that the plaster had cracked before any restorers went near it. Besides all of which, as we have seen, the shadows were recorded before 1535. The inescapable truth is that restorers removed painting that could only have been Michelangelo’s own.
Burton’s handcrafted models have an immediate engaging presence but the means of their humorous psychologically charged personalities are complex and artistically sophisticated. They display distinctly sculptural qualities and the satisfyingly palpable presences of diminutive figures in a real space that is continuous with our own. We are drawn into their world much as Michelangelo brought living old testament figures into ours. For force of cartoon-like effect and clarity, Burton’s heads are highly stylised and plastically simplified. Of Sparky, Burton explains: “Obviously he looks like a cartoon. It’s not like he’s an anatomically correct dog” (see Figs. 10 to 14).
Formally speaking, these sculptural simplifications might be related to the abstractions of 20th sculptors such as Brancusi who were in pursuit of “pure” or “significant” form (see Figs. 23, 24 and 25). However, plastic simplification is only part of the artistic/expressive equation with Burton’s Gothic characters who must be sentient engaged actors in intense psychologically-charged emotional dramas.
The chief expressive features of a face are the eyes and the mouth. Making the eyes large and the jaws small enhances childhood traits and vulnerabilities (see Figs. 1, 3, 14 and 27). The placement of the black pupils in the large wide-open eyes permits acute laser-like precision of gaze, as is seen to masterful effect at Fig. 14 in the affectionate twin-engagement of the boy and his beloved and devoted dog. The mouth is the most emotionally expressive feature of all, and although childhood-small in these characters, it becomes a vehicle of astonishingly subtle expressions (see Figs. 1, 3 and, especially, 27).
The antithesis of Brancusi’s plastic self-compression is Daumier’s cartoon-like sculptures where the imperatives of caricature pull the head this way and that with scant regard for any residual internal self-composure (Fig. 26). If the subject in Daumier has a bird-like personna, the nose may become a beak and the forehead may recede at an alarming rate. Burton’s compactly eloquent pebble-smooth but animated heads are a remarkably successful synthesis of these disparate sculptural traditions.
In terms of connections with Michelangelo’s painting, particular consideration should be given to the brilliantly combined effects of modelling and lighting in Frankenweenie. The boy’s head shown at Fig. 27 is articulated with seamless lucidity. It also happens to be exquisitely lit. Everyone knows the Impressionists to be painters of light but, then, light is fair game for painters who may produce their own (artistically, not literally). For the apprehension of form sculptors depend on actual light in the world. (Sculptors can, however, create an implicit light in their own graphic renderings of form, and may even depict forms that are lit as if from within, as seen at Fig. 28.) Cinematic model-making animators are advantaged: they make their own forms and may then provide their own expressively optimal actual light. The lessons of cinema, in this regard, are the more valuable because the relationship between sculptors’ forms and light may be insufficiently appreciated – certainly sculptures suffer terribly at the hands of exhibition designers. Rodin famously described sculpture as the art of the bump and the hollow – or, perhaps more accurately, as an art of hollows and projections: “de creux et de bosses”. He demonstrated this claim to Paul Gsell (“Art, by Auguste Rodin”, Paul Gsell, 1912) in the following manner:
“One late afternoon, when I was with Rodin in his atelier, darkness set in while we talked… He lighted a lamp as he spoke, took it in his hand, and led me towards a marble statue which stood upon a pedestal in a corner of the atelier. It was a delightful little antique copy of the Venus di Medici. Rodin kept it there to stimulate his own inspiration while he worked.
‘Come nearer,’ he said. ‘What do you notice?’ he asked. At the first glance I was extraordinarily struck by what was suddenly revealed to me. The light so directed, indeed, disclosed numbers of slight projections and depressions upon the surface of the marble which I should never have suspected…At the same time he slowly turned the moving stand which supported the Venus. As he turned, I still noticed in the general form of the body a multitude of almost imperceptible roughnesses. What had at first seemed simple was really of astonishing complexity. Rodin threw up his head smiling.
‘Is it not marvellous?’ he cried. ‘Confess that you did not expect to discover so much detail. Just look at the numberless undulations of the hollow which unites the body to the thigh…notice all the voluptuous curvings of the hip…And, now, here, the adorable dimples along the loins…You almost expect, when you touch this body, to find it warm…’”
Unfortunately, Rodin’s demonstrations were not recorded on film (as far as we know) – although a short film does exist of Henry Moore and Kenneth Clark making a nocturnal visit with a lamp to the British Museum’s Greek and Roman collection in order to re-enact Rodin’s lesson. In any event, in the case of Burton’s boy’s head, at Fig. 27, every depression and prominence finds beautiful expression in subtle tonal transitions that would have warmed Rodin’s heart. There is pictorial/plastic alchemy here, as there once was in Michelangelo’s frescoes. The softly continuous undulations of the head are gently disclosed within a dramatic over-arching artificiality of illumination that sets the relatively bright head off against a Great Gothic Darkness. Within the stridency of these clashing lights and darks, the subtlest emotional expression of the mouth is perfectly captured.
The expression of a mouth is controlled by the interplay of many facial muscles and it is notoriously difficult to capture, as even so great a portraitist as John Singer Sargent ruefully noted (“A portrait is a picture in which there is something not quite right about the mouth”). In this model the play of facial muscles at the mouth has given rise to a subtle but distinctive mini-topography of light-catching bosses and light-evading depressions that perfectly express the boy’s finely balanced state of delight and trepidation/wonderment. The artistry here is consumate – this is a mouth to rival Ingres’s or Holbein’s in the precision of its forms and its delicacy of expression. We see another living expression evoked in a painting at Figs. 29 and 30 where Picasso, in one of his greatest neo-classical inventions, has not modelled actual forms but evoked them by simulating an optimal play of light and shade on his imagined forms with a myriad of mosaic-like deftly placed and adjusted patches of tone.
In the Michelangelo head seen in Fig. 2, we see how (before restoration) the artist had expressed sculptural forms by drawing and by tonal manipulation. The tones disclose a three-dimensional head held in very specific and sculpturally revealing lighting. Long before cinema, in his painting, Michelangelo was simultaneously his own model-maker, lighting specialist and recording “camera man”. (This is not to claim that he, in any sense, invented or anticipated photography. Rather, it is to note the extent to which photography was a mechanically aided outgrowth of pre-existing artistic preoccupations.) Before discussing the specific lighting scheme Michelangelo deployed, it might be helpful to consider something of the great variety of lighting options that cinema and photography show to be available. Brilliant examples of lighting made for the purpose of specific and self-consciously artistic effects from the 1920s to the 1950s in the Kobal collection (see Figs. 6, 7 and 18) are illustrated and technically explained in the marvellously instructive book “Hollywood Portraits ~ Classic Shots and How to Take them” by Roger Hicks, a writer on photography, and Christopher Nisperos, a studio portrait photographer who specialises in Hollywood-style photographs (which subject he has studied for nearly thirty years).
In their examination of the photographs, the authors deduce from personal knowledge and the evidence of the images themselves, how many sources of light (lamps) were employed and where they were positioned in relation to the subject. With each photograph a diagram shows the likely positioning of the light sources. In the course of this highly instructive exercise, photography is seen to acknowledge great indebtedness to painting. Such technical analysis of photographic means has, we believe, direct application to the analysis of changes made by restorers to the artistic values of painters, as is discussed at Figs. 8, 19, 27 and 31-33.
In figs. 6 and 7 we see two heads of two beautiful women that have been expertly lit to very different expressive purposes. In the portrait of Ingrid Bergman (Fig. 6) the lighting is soft and greatly emphasises the invitingly tactile values of the wool clothing, the hair, and, above all, of the face itself, which is a perfect essay in the soft plastic undulations that Rodin so cherished in the “radiant appearance of living flesh” found in the finest sculptures of late antiquity. In the portrait of Lana Turner (Fig. 7), a more self-consciously sculptural purpose is evident as the beauty of the subject’s head is directly juxtaposed and equated with both a classical bust and a bouquet of flowers. This portrait is more intensely lit so as to contrast the planar divisions between the front face of the head and its shadowed sides, and to isolate the features of the eyes and mouth. The lights and the darks generally are placed with the utmost calculation, but to the end of a more chilling, marbled perfection – here, the groomed perfection of the coiffure extends no invitation to touch. Every part of the subject’s head and shoulders is drawn with the utmost Bronzino-like clarity by means of carefully adjusted tonal contrast: where the face is brightest there is a dark shadow. Where the blonde hair sinks into dark shadows there is a lighter background. However, these seeming photographically recorded artful placements of value have, the authors disclose, been achieved with the assistance of considerable photographic retouching, which practice was extensively prevalent in the portraits under examination (see comments at Fig. 7).
In Michelangelo’s (unrestored) head at Fig. 2 we see a treatment of background lighting that is, like that of the Lana Turner portrait, subservient to the clear plastic expression of form. Within the head, however, Michelangelo deployed a much wider range of half-tones. His head runs progressively from its brightly lit profile of the face to a very darkly shaded neck and shoulder. The bright profile is emphasised and thrown into relief by a shaded background, while the very dark back of the neck is set off against a light background. We see in Fig. 8, however, that after “restoration” the logic and the dispositions of the tones have been massively weakened and subverted: the dark ground at the face’s contour has been largely removed; the consistent form-disclosing tonal progression within the shading of the head (from brightest light on the upper right to the strongest darks on the left) has been horrendously undermined. This head now looks as if lit by a multiplicity of form-flattening lamps
But that is not all the damage. If one looks carefully at the left contour at the back of the head, it is evident that the very design of Michelanglo’s head has been changed. The forms have been reduced. The space, for example, between the body of the hair and the little plaited “pony tail” has grown larger. This feature of the coiffure has grown smaller and smoother. We have seen recently how a restorer at the National Galleries of Scotland promised to “improve Titian’s contours” with the assistance of his director. Who might have authorised this redrawing of Michelangelo’s contours? Or was the change simply not noticed? Whichever, the more closely one looks into the details of this restored work the more evident the losses of Michelangelo’s work become.
In Fig. 31 we see how, before restoration, the aperture of the nostril was larger. We see how shading that had made the corner of the mouth tuck more covincingly into the forms of the cheek has been sacrificed. We see how the background had been darkened by systematic parallel vertical strokes of black. The restorers deny that such work was Michelangelo’s own. Once again, they defy historical testimony. Giovanni Battista Armenino went to Rome in 1550 and stayed for seven years copying the “best Pictures”, including Michelangelo’s very recently painted Last Judgement (which was made between between 1536 and 1541). In 1587 Armenino produced a treatise on fresco painting in which he noted that, as frescoes begin to dry and no longer absorb pigments with same effectiveness, the painter must:
“…then finish it of with moist and dark shade tints…the muscles of the naked figures as being of greater difficulty, are painted by hatching them in different directions with very liquid shade tints, so that they appear of a texture like granite; and there are very brilliant examples of this painted by the hand of Michelangelo…they can be perfectly harmonized by retouching them in secco…in retouching the dark parts in this manner, there are some painters who make a watercolour tint of black and fine lake mixed together, with which they retouch the naked figures and produce a most beautiful effect, because they make the hatchings upon the painting, as is usual to do while drawing upon paper with black lead…Some persons temper these dark tints with gum, some with thin glue…this I affirm from what I have both seen and done and also what I have been told by the best painters.”
When the ceiling was examined in the 19th century by the painter and fresco expert, Charles Heath Wilson, he found that not only had Michelangelo’s ancient size painting cracked originally as the plaster had cracked but that it now melted readily to the touch of a wet finger. In accordance with Armenino, Wilson saw that the surface painting consisted of:
“…a finely ground black, mixed with size…The shadows of the draperies have been boldy and solidly reouched with this size colour, as well as the shadows on the backgrounds…other parts are glazed with same material, and even portions of the fresco are passed over with size, without any admixture of colour, precisely as the force of water colour drawings is increased with washes of gum. ..These retouchings, as usual with all the masters of the art at the time, constituted the finishing process or as Condivi expresses it, alluding to to it in the history of these frescoes, ‘l’ultima mano’. They were evidently done all at the same time and therefore when the scaffold was in place.”
All of that retouching has gone but record of it survives. In 1967/8 the writer, painter and former art critic of Time, Alexander Eliot and his film-maker wife, (now the late) Jane Winslow Eliot, spent over 500 hours on the scaffold making The Secret of Michelangelo, Every Man’s Dream, in the course of which film they noted that:
“With the exception of the previously restored Prophet Zachariah, 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.”
Someday, the Eliots’ film (made for ABC Television) might be re-shown, but meanwhile, Alexander Eliot’s testimony is now on the record in a new full-length film/DVD biography, A Light in the Dark: The Art and Life of Frank Mason, in which he and other early campaigners against the restoration (including the late painter, Frank Mason, and the late Professor James Beck) are given voice on the Sistine Chapel restoration. Not least of the delights among this film’s precious and historical footage, are Tom Wolfe’s account of his lessons in Frank Mason’s painting classes at the Art Students League, New York, and the sight of the former Metropolitan Museum of Art director, the late Thomas Hoving, belligerently boasting that he himself had helped sponge from the ceiling the “filth” that was in truth the last stages of Michelangelo’s painting.
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