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ArtWatch Founder James Beck Discusses Restoration of 'David'; Participates in Film that Screens Feb. 4

By Kristin Sterling

Art history's James Beck

As Michelangelo's sculpture David, approaches his 500 th birthday this spring, art historians around the world, including Columbia's art history professor James Beck, have entered a fray over how best to prepare David for the occasion.

The debate on how to clean David began in the fall when the lead restorer, Agnese Parronchi, resigned after reaching an impasse with the Galleria dell'Accademia, the gallery in Florence where David has resided since 1873, over the specific restoration methods. The director of the Accademia preferred a more aggressive method using compresses of distilled water, but the restorer recommended a more conservative "dry cleaning," using soft brushes, cotton swabs and an eraser.

But Beck, in numerous media interviews, has loudly opposed doing any significant restoration work at all. "The work was taken indoors from the Piazza della Signoria in Florence after a major cleaning in the 19 th century," Beck said. "There's surface dust, that's all, no new pigeon dirt. Normal maintenance has been neglected for decades, but all the statue needs is a good dusting.

"The reason for this and for most cleanings is aesthetic," Beck continued. "The idea is to make David look 'nicer.' I oppose such interventions in principle and in fact, because not only does the aesthetic vary from person to person, but also from one historical moment to another. So the aesthetic of the 1980s, when the Sistine Chapel ceiling was restored, is different from that of the 1960s, and will be different again from the aesthetic of the 2010s. I am opposed to the alteration of the image unless it can be proved that the work is in imminent danger. David, even according to local officials [who promote the cleaning], is not in danger."

Beck argues that the debate over this, and most, restorations is about money. While he estimates that the restoration of David will cost nearly $1 million, according to Beck the increase in the number of admission tickets, books, videos and toys purchased at the museum store combined with the reproduction rights would range into the billions. In season, the Accademia currently has approximately 7,000 visitors a day.

Michelangelo's 'David'

Not one to sit back idly, Beck mobilized ArtWatch, a group that he founded in 1992 to monitor the condition of major works worldwide and evaluate proposals for their renewal. More than 50 specialists around the world came forward and objected to the more aggressive cleaning methods being recommended.

The intervention was successful. Restoration work on David has recently begun, and Beck, who is currently in Italy working on a new book on Leonardo daVinci, saw the restoration for himself. "In the end they decided on a mild treatment, it is the least obnoxious of the alternatives," he said.

Beck, a Columbia professor for four decades and author of 11 books, including works on Michelangelo and Raphael, considered himself an "ordinary art historian" until about 15 years ago. After seeing restorations of Sistine Chapel ceiling and the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna, he became alarmed and realized that the objects that he loved and had studied for years were changing before his eyes.

"The fashion for the treatment of art was to clean hard and heavy," he said. "As with any facelift, the treatments were changing the look of the original forever, and I objected to it."

Realizing that the restoration debate evoked strong emotions and that the voice of a group is more powerful than that of an individual, he founded ArtWatch in 1992. While the group is best-known today for its advocacy on restoration issues, it actually concentrates on preserving the dignity of art. ArtWatch is also active in opposing the shipping of art around the world, as it is injurious to the pieces, as well as the commercialization of musuems.

ArtWatch itself is the subject of a new documentary by James Aviles Martin, which explores the contentious world of art restoration and demonstrates how original works are often distorted or altered in the process. The film, shot on location in New York and throughout Europe, includes interviews with Beck; Frank Mason, painter and critic; Michael Daley, British journalist; Alexander Eliot, former art editor of Time magazine; Ken Shulman, journalist and author; and Arthur Danto, art critic, philosopher and Columbia professor emeritus.

A free screening of the film will be held for the Columbia community on Wednesday, Feb. 4, at 7:00 p.m. in 501 Schermerhorn Hall. An additional screening will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 3, at 8:00 p.m. at the Anthology Film Archives, 32 2 nd Avenue (at 2 nd Street). The screening at Anthology is $5 for students with ID, $8 for the general public. For more information about the Anthology screening, call 212-505-5181.

 

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Published: Jan 30, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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