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12th November 2012

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.

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: The girl, Elsa, in Tim Burton’s teenage horror story, Frankenweenie.
Above, Fig. 2: The head of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, before restoration and when showing Michelangelo’s systematic and consistent modelling of forms via a transition from light to dark from the top of the head to the neck and shoulder, as it had survived from 1512 until 1980. (For the grave disruption of these pictorial values during restoration, see Fig. 8.)
Above, fig. 3: The dramatically lit adults in Frankenweenie.
Above, Fig. 4: The shadow of Vincent Price (a hero of the maker of Frankenweenie) frightens Phyllis Kirk in Warner’s 1953 House of Wax.
Above, Fig. 5: The famous and massively influential shadow of Max Schreck in the 1922 film Nosferatu. Denis Gifford, in his 1973 “A Pictorial history of Horror Movies”, points out that the Germans were so fond of shadows that, just a year after Schreck had crept across cinema screens, they made a film…about shadows – Warning Shadows.
Above, Fig. 6: Ingrid Bergman, c. 1941, as photographed by Laszlo Willinger and discussed in the 2000 book “Hollywood Portraits” by Roger Hicks and Christopher Nisperos. The authors comment: “The use of shadows in the background is a Hollywood cliché, in some cases as much because of technical incompetence as because of the photographer’s vision. But such an accusation could never be levelled at Willinger. The almost cubist use of light and shadow here is the work of a master.”
The reference to painting with this photographer seems well appropriate. Willinger, the son of a photographer mother and a news agency owning father, produced a body of work that “shows clear influences of the artistic ferment in which he grew up in Europe in the 1920s and of the highly intellectualized and formalized Berlin (and Soviet) school.”
Above, Fig. 7: Lana Turner (detail), as photographed by Eric Carpenter in 1942 and discussed in “Hollywood Portraits”. The authors comment: “The chiaroscuro is striking, but there is much retouching in this picture. Most of what we see between the actress and the statue looks like airbrushing, particularly the shadow next to her cheek, but the keyline on the chin is genuine and beautifully executed – a reflection from the background…the profile is masterful, and the canting of the camera – a popular device at the time – is all but essential: it places the main subject’s face at a more attractive angle and greatly reduces the apparent mass of the statue, which otherwise might dominate the composition. The principal tricks in re-creating this picture , first the very careful control of the chiaroscuro; second, the angled camera; and third, diligent and extensive retouching…”
Hicks and Nisperos on Retouching:
Although some Hollywood portraits are not retouched at all, many more are – very heavily. This was done on the negative: comparatively easy on an 8 x 10 in. negative for contact printing and not too difficult on a 4 x 5 in. negative for enlargement, but next to impossible on roll film. Not just minor flaws in the complexion were taken out; complexions were completely remodelled with a soft pencil, backgrounds were cheerfully ‘blown out’ with the airbrush, and ‘hammer and chisel’ corrective retouching was applied to faults on the negative…
Retouching on 8 x 10 in. negatives is actually easier than one might expect, though there are a few tricks worth knowing. Use a soft pencil. Don’t press too hard or you will end up with shiny areas that won’t take any more retouching. Work with tiny ticks, scribbles or figures of eight: don’t try to follow lines too clearly. Fix the retouching with steam from a kettle, but remember to let the negative dry fully afterwards.”
Above, Fig. 8: The head of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, before restoration (left), and after restoration (right) showing the catastrophic loss of modelling on the head and neck; the losses of volume in the hair; and, even, the changes to the design of the hair and neck. Destruction is found in the tiniest details: note the weakening of the collar and its partial break-up on the right; see Figs. 31-33 below.
In terms of Hollywood photographic lighting practice, Michelangelo’s head (before restoration) might be said to have been modelled by a single dominant (“Key”) light source which established highlights at the temple and the subsequent tones and shadows which ran across and down the head and neck. In reality, Michelangelo devised his own implicit light source so as to produce the greatest force of modelling in his figures, combined with the greatest possible legibilty when viewed, as the figures were, from not less than sixty feet away.
Above, Fig. 9: A page from “Michelangelo Models”, 1972, by Paul James Le Brooy, showing a terra cotta arm (left) next to paintings of “Slaves” on the Sistine Chapel ceiling – before restoration.
Above, Fig. 10: Tim Burton holding the model for “Sparky”, the dog in Frankenweenie.
Above, Fig. 11: Tim Burton’s drawing (of 1982) for the chief protagonists in Frankenweenie: “Victor Frankenstein”, the boy, and “Sparky”, his beloved dog (after resurrection).
It is remarkable how the initially envisaged principal characters established here have informed and survived all the technical proccesses involved in the film – see Fig. 14. The drawing is a wonderful invention and characterisation. Graphically speaking, it might be thought to combine the delightfully light and playful touch of, say, a Quentin Blake, with something rather darker than a Maurice Sendak. But appraisals of style do not quite touch what is happening here. Confronting our worst nightmares and terrors, Burton shows them vanquished and transcended by a Love made palpable. Note the thinness and frailty of the boy’s arms against the weighty corporeal mass of the devoted dog, enhanced and underlined as it already is, in cinematic anticipation, by shadows.
Above, Fig. 12: “Sparky” before his (temporarily) fatal accident. In interviews, Burton has spoken much of his own childhood relationship with a dog: “A dog can be your first love, and I was that way. Unconditional. You don’t get it often with people. You don’t get it with all animals. But my dog had that soulful quality and it got distemper, which meant it was not going to live for long…” On the portrayal aimed for in the film, Burton said that an attempt was made to “capture the behaviour and the mannerisms and characteristics of a dog, the way when you leave they don’t want you to leave, and you walk out and then forget your keys and you walk back in and [it's like] they haven’t seen you for a week. That pure emotion and a love that’s not questioned…You don’t get that with people – that was the goal.”
Above, Fig. 13: One of the film’s spookier girls (left), and “Sparky” sporting his “Frankenstein” bolt (right).
Above, Fig. 14: “Victor”, the Frankenweenie boy, with his resurrected dog, “Sparky”.
Above, Fig. 15: Martin Scorcese’s appreciation of Jack Cardiff, as reproduced in the programme to the 2001 ArtWatch UK lecture “Light for Art’s Sake”, given by Jack Cardiff. (See Figs. 16 and 17 below.)
Above, Fig. 16: A page from the “Light for Art’s Sake” lecture programme, showing (detail, top) the life class at the Vienna Academy, 1790, in a mezzotint by Johann Jacobe, after Martin Ferdinand Quadal; and (bottom) Jack Cardiff shooting the “exteriors” on the set of Scott of the Antarctic at the Ealing Studios.
Above, Fig. 17: The cover of the “Light for Art’s Sake” lecture programme, showing “L’Origine de la Peinture, ou les Portraits a la mode, in a 1767 engraving after Scheneau by Jean Ouvrier.
Above, Fig. 18: This striking 1940 Laszlo Wallinger “photograph” of Fred Astaire appears in “Hollywood Portraits” in a section on shadows. The authors write in general terms that: “In most varieties of portraiture, double or ‘crossed’ shadows are anathema: any student on a craft-oriented photographic course would fail the basic examination if he or she turned in portraits with such a defect.
In Hollywood portraiture, this convention does not seem to apply, perhaps because shadows don’t normally matter in a movie: when the subject is moving we expect shadows to move, while in a still portrait we expect a more ‘painterly’ and natural use of light…”
Of this portrait, the authors comment: “Things are not always what they seem. When you look at this picture closely, you realize that the ‘shadow’ [in the spotlight] does not quite match the pose and that there are no corresponding shadows between Fred Astaire’s right foot and the somewhat truncated shadow which appears to be a cardboard cutout.”
Of interest to us, in connection with Fig. 19 below, is the shadow cast from Astaire’s right foot. It seems to be the product of a light behind and slightly to the right of the dancer but its straightness must also arouse suspicion of retouching trickery.
Above, Fig. 19: The left foot of Michelangelo’s Jonah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, as it was before restoration (left), and after restoration (right), in the course of which the shadow cast by the foot was removed. Note the loss of other shadows and the changes that occurred to the design of the draperies.
Above, Fig. 20: The wash drawing of Jonah made before 1534 by Giulio Clovio showing (left) the shadow cast by the left foot, and, below it, heavily shaded figures painted before 1512 by Michelangelo and destroyed by him in 1535. A copy (right) of Jonah made in 1886 by Piccinni.
Above, Fig. 21: An enraving (left) of Jonah made in 1805-10 by Rado. A drawing (right) made by Conca in 1823-29.
Above, Fig. 22: The wash drawing of Jonah made before 1534 by Giulio Clovio. Note the emphatic shading on the Michelangelo figures seen at the bottom of the drawing, and the shadow cast by the bearded man on the left on to a subsidiary figure seen standing behind his left arm.
Above, Fig. 23: The girl, Elsa, in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie.
Above, Fig. 24: Constantin Brancusi’s 1912 white marble portrait, Mlle Pogany, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Above, Fig. 25: Brancusi’s 1911 white marble Prometheus, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Above, Fig. 26: Honoré Daumier’s portrait of the banker Lefèvre in bronze (left) from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture garden, Washington, and as a lithograph (right) published in Le Charivari in 1833. Lefèvre who was a director of the Banque de France and a member of the General trade Council had been described as having a face “as sharp as a knife blade” and was considered to be one of the most conservative deputies (he served for Seine region) of Louis-Philippe’s reign.
Above, Fig. 27: The controlled use of shading in this head is a tour de force. The shape of the complete face (a distinct heart shape) is rendered with the absolute clarity of an unbroken outline drawing. The face generally is light within its boundaries, so as to stand in relief against the dark and shadowy background. Within that generally light tonality, however, there is a full and effective range of modelled relief. This can be seen to have been established by two primary light sources: a dominant light to the (viewer’s) right of the head, with a secondary source to the left of the head which highlights the edge of the cheek and the jaw. Reflections of these two sources of light can be seen in the white of the eye on the left. There is a full and plastically descriptive range of tones, even, in the small form that is the boy’s ear. As mentioned left, the treatment of the mouth in terms of its delicacy and precision of expression is quite astonishingly sophisticated and psychologically eloquent.
Above, Fig. 28: A polemical ink drawing (detail) by Michael Daley on the relationship between classical and modern treatments of the female figure.
Above, Fig. 29: Pablo Picasso’s oil on canvas Bust of a Woman, Arms Raised (Buste de femme, les bras levés) painted in 1922. This privately owned work is currently showing (until January 23rd 2013) at the Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in an exhibition “Picasso Black and White”. In the catalogue, the Guggenheim’s director, Richard Armstrong, and the director of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Gary Tinterow, write:
Though many exhibitions and publications have examined manifold aspects of Pablo Picasso’s art, this presentation is the first to focus on a striking feature that continued to occupy the great Spanish artist throughout his prolific career: the use of black and white. Indeed, by means of his persistent return to a black and white palette, which highlights the structure of his compositions, Picasso created artworks of particular strength and visual richness. His Cubist paintings and those from the period of the Spanish Civil War and World War II have often been associated with monochromy and a severe palette, but this exhibition reveals that early in his career Picasso was already purging color from many of his works – a reflex that continued until well into the last years of his life. It is no exageration to say that these evocative black-and-white paintings and sculptures held a special place in Picasso’s opus. That many of them remained in his own collection until his death suggests his emotional attachment to them, and their particular importance to his art…”
Armstrong and Tinterow add: “The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is grateful to Bank of America for its generous contribution in support of the presentation of Picasso Black and White in New York. Bank of America has recognized the significance of this project not only by sponsoring the exhibition, but also by funding a separate research and conservation study of Picasso’s masterpiece Woman Ironing (La repasseuse, 1904), an iconic work from the Guggenheim’s Thannhauser Collection that is featured in this exhibition.”
Above, Fig. 30: Pablo Picasso’s oil on canvas Bust of a Woman, Arms Raised (detail).
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Above, Fig. 31: A detail of the head of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, before cleaning (left), and after cleaning (right). We often show such greyscale comparisons of details before and after restorations, whereas restorers hardly ever do so. This is a pity: such comparisons are more easily comprehended and evaluated than are large scale and fully coloured comparisons. If we consider here the striking differences between the before and after states, pertinent questions may be asked. For example, defenders of this restoration might be asked if they believe the post-cleaning state on the right to have been the original condition of the painting when new. If so, they might then be asked to say how they believe the painting then came to acquire the radically different and, arguably, superior values seen in the pre-cleaning state on the left.
Above, Fig. 32: Following the comments at caption 31, we would ask the viewer to note particularly the tonal dispositions in this pre-restoration section of the head, and the nature of the brushwork (in the treatment of the ear lobe, and the individually drawn strands of hair, for example), and then to compare these with the values found below in the post cleaning state.
Above, Fig. 33: Here, too, we would ask the viewer here to consider how (if this state is taken to be original and as left by Michelangelo in 1512) the features and brushwork which are absent here but present above, came into being. As described left, two artists and writers (Charles Heath Wilson and Alexander Eliot) who examined the frescoes of Michelangelo at touching distance on scaffolds in the 19th and 20th cenuries respectively, testified that Michelangelo had finished details as well as broad areas with dark pigments bound in glue or size. If we examine here the ear lobe, it is apparent that in the post-cleaning state there is much less “modelling” than was previously seen. The edge of the ear was underscored by a black line which has disappeared. The folds of the ear were previously modelled with a greater variety of tones. Before the cleaning one saw on the neck evidence of the cross hatched finishing off of figures that Armenino had described in his treatise of 1587. We would thus contend, for the reasons already given, that the now missing features on the frescoes were not late and accidental accretions but original work made by Michelangelo himself in the finishing stages of his painting.
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